Spain: Treasure of Sierra Nevada

By Colin Moore

No one agonises over a colour chart when repainting a home in Las Alpujarras, one of the oddest, most picturesque crannies of Spain's province of Andalucia. The solid adobe villages, wedged spectacularly into the dry southern foothills of the Sierra Nevadas are a uniform brilliant white. No other colour is allowed.

Set by bubbling streams and surrounded by vegetable gardens, orchards and woodlands, the Berber-style villages are an oasis-like slash across the 70km-long, east-west jumble of arid hillsides and deep ravines of Las Alpujarras.

When the indigenous Spanish got around to sending the Moors back to North Africa after their 800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, the retreating Arabs paused in the dry Sierra Nevada, an imposing line of snow-topped mountains visible from the Alhambra in Granada - and the new rulers in the sultan's palace didn't worry too much because they thought the land was useless.

But the Moors drew on their Moroccan heritage and built houses of stone and clay that were cool in the searing Mediterranean sun and easily warmed in the bitter cold of a Sierra Nevada winter.

And they also built kilometre after kilometre of irrigation canals to carry water from high mountain streams to small fields terraced into the hillsides which grew bountiful crops of grain, fruit and vegetables.

There they prospered, just a tad too well, and, when in the 16th century the region crowned its own king in defiance of the rulers of Granada, the tamers of the Alpujarra hillsides were on short notice.

Legend has it that when the Moors were booted out, they buried all their treasures in the land, ready for their return.

And it's true, because those who invaded their villages of Alpujarra kept them pretty much as the Moors had left them, and the villages are treasure, indeed. The cubic architecture is distinctive with flat rooves built with packed earth and impermeable shale, covered by slate and crowned by a chimney pot with four openings. In truth, the usurpers did add one legacy of their own - the white lime wash.

Hills can be tamed for agriculture, but these are made for walking. Las Alpujarras is riddled with walking trails, connecting farmers to their fields, one village to another and marking trade routes to the coast.

Not surprisingly, some of the major trans-European trails such as the GR7, pass through Alpujarra. In my hotel in Bubion, there are middle-aged walkers from Holland, Germany and Britain. They come for a week or so and leave the hotel each morning on any number of day walks. One British company keeps a resident guide at Bubion and he's recently spent a season as a sea kayak guide in our own Abel Tasman National Park.

I choose to explore the Poqueira Valley on a 7km circular route, taking in the three villages of Pamaneira, Bubion and Capileira, each with its own square-sided church, built by the Arabs as a mosque and watch tower.

Leaving each village, the trail winds around the ancient terraced hillsides with bench tracks supported by stone walls. It's steep up and down, and the 7km soon feels like 27km - the old-time villagers must have been mighty fit.

In some places, the hot and bothered are rescued by communal drinking troughs called "fuente". There are other troughs with water for animals and some with mineral water.

One fuente has six outlets, each bringing water from a different spring and each with a distinctly different mineral taste.

The next day I catch a shuttle from Capileira into the 862 sq km Sierra Nevada National Park. The shuttles are the only vehicles allowed into the shrine, which has been carved into the rock at the summit.

Returning by a different route, I meet a party of Austrian cycle tourists carrying their mountain bikes to the top.

They will find the path down has been deliberately strewn with large boulders to ensure they travel slowly and not damage the fragile alpine terrain with heavy braking and skidding.

In the valley, more than 1100m below, the shuttle stop is at Trevelez, the highest village and considered by some to be the most beautiful. Each year they run a 42.2km marathon from Trevelez to the summit of Mulhacen and back.

Trevelez-born-and-bred guide Jesus has a compact stature, suggesting he could run to the top of Mt Everest and back without breaking a sweat. We ride his mountain bikes from Capileira around hillside trails and down to his village for lunch.

Alpujarras is famous for its smoked and dried hams, and those dried in the mountain air of Trevelez have the finest reputation of all.

Ham, cheese, tomatoes, cold beer.

This is civilised mountain biking and trekking and the only negative stirring the high air is the distinct lack of incentive to move on.

Time for siesta, perhaps.

- Detours, HoS

- NZ Herald

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