By Sheila Scraton:
We were staying at our cortijo in the Alpujarras that lie to the south of Granada on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. We had had a great family Christmas in Bad Saarow, Germany and were now enjoying unusually mild winter weather in Spain. Most people who know that we visit Spain seem to think that this means an escape from the cold weather of the UK and relaxation in warm Spanish sun. Whilst this can be the case, we have regularly experienced long icicles from our patio roof and deep snow making even access to the house a bit tricky.
However, this January we had two weeks of wonderful weather – blue sky and warm sunshine. The air temperature can be cool, we are at over 1500 m (above the height of our highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis, at 1344m) but this is more than compensated by the strong sun coming directly from the south and North Africa. Today we met up with our friend, Jeremy, who has lived and worked in the Alpujarras for 20 years as a walking guide. We were doing one of our favourite walks at this time of the year, along the Contraviesa, the mountain range between the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a favourite winter walk because its mild location means that it’s not possible, or at least comfortable, to walk here in the summer months. It is also the area that we look across to each day and evening from the patio of our cortijo, making it a nice change to reverse the view and look back to our village and the high mountains behind.
We enjoy the steep initial climb, getting up onto a minor ridge that makes walking easier so we can chat together. As the sun gets warmer we marvel at the clear views across to the Sierra Nevada and Mulhacen, the highest mountain in mainland Spain. Although there is snow on its summit, the snow is quite sparse this year, a major talking point for our neighbours who desperately need the snow to give them a water supply throughout the summer. As we talk about the lack of snow and the implications this has for the farming in the area, we look across the valley to our village, Bérchules, and the other villages, all at a similar height above the valley, that make up the Alpujarras. It is here that Gerard Brennan lived between 1920 and 1934 in Yegen, a village a few kilometres to the east of our cortijo. He entertained Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf (authors who were part of the Bloomsbury Set: authors, artists, philosophers based in London in the first half of the 20th century), amongst others, and wrote South from Granada which remains the most detailed account of life in this part of Spain during this period.
As we look across at the villages, it is the history of the area that captures our attention as well as the beauty of the mountains. This is an area heavily influenced by the Moors. The villages all have traditional Berber architecture of box- like, whitewashed houses with flat roofs and distinctive chimneys. The streets are very narrow and winding meaning that the houses are built almost on top of each other. Until relatively recently all the houses still had the animals on the ground floor with living quarters above. But it is not only the architecture that demonstrates the Moorish influence. Look closely and you will see the hillsides traversed by acequias, the intricate irrigation system, devised and built by the moors to transport water. This system remains crucial to the survival of the villages today and is still used in its original form to ensure the terraces of crops receive the water they need in the arid summer months. It is here, in these villages, that the Moors made their last stand against the Christian reconquistar in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Kingdom of Granada was the last Spanish area to fall to the Christians, the city of Granada finally being defeated in 1492. The Moors fled to the mountains and lived in the villages of the Alpujarras as the Christians drove them southwards. They lived and developed these villages until the final Moorish uprising against an enforced conversion to Christianity; this finally ending with the death of their leader, Aben Aboo, in 1571, supposedly in a cave above Bérchules.
Today there is a fascinating juxtaposition between the powerful Catholic church, at the heart of all the villages, and the continuing Moorish influence. The church dictates the calendar of fiestas and holidays, is the centre of community and appears to still hold a powerful influence over many of the villagers. Yet the rest of their lives, their homes and their land, are still defined by this Moorish legacy.
Reflecting on this history we continue our walk. The almond blossom, usually blooming in late January/February is already beginning to turn the hillsides white and pink. We walk past olive groves and the vines that provide the Contraviesa with one of its major products – local wine. As we drop down to walk back along the dry river bed, we enter a totally different landscape. The blossom, olives and vines are replaced by an almost desert -like landscape with high red cliffs that look as though the cowboys of those 1960 films will suddenly appear on horseback. Everywhere is quiet, there is no wind, no people along our track and even the birds, usually a constant source of interest, seem to be keeping out of sight.
We are lucky to be able to visit and experience this wonderful landscape. It is an area that has lived through a violent history, both distant and more recent with the Spanish Civil War. History is constantly around you, but it is the warmth, endurance and resilience of the people today that makes it so special.
Words: Sheila Scraton
Pictures: George McKinney
For information on walking visit Jeremy Rabjohns’ website www.walkalpujarra.com where you can also find information on the artwork of Jeni Rabjohns and details of her painting and art holidays
For further reading on the history of the area:
Brenan, G. (1963) South From Granada London, Penguin
Tremlett, Giles (2006) Ghosts of Spain: Travels through a country’s hidden past London, Faber & Faber