For many visitors to Andalusia, the high point both aesthetically and emotionally is Granada’s Alhambra, the exquisite palace of the Moorish caliphs.
Surrounded by the splendour of this architectural masterpiece, the visitor is quickly captivated by its transcendent beauty, a monument to eight centuries of one of the greatest civilizations Europe has ever known. The Alhambra’s brilliance is not so much dazzling as hypnotic; the acute awareness you acquire here of an essential part of Spanish culture can have a stunning effect on the mind and the heart.
To process the sensory effect, the thoughts, and the feelings, you are well-advised to find a quiet spot in which to reflect and remember. However, as can happen in the wake of intense aesthetic experiences, withdrawal symptoms may ensue if you “come down” too quickly. It is best to allow yourself some additional time and space, some further elevation.
In the white-peaked Sierra Nevada mountains about an hour south-east of Granada, there is a journey of ease that takes the traveller through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Spain, and also through the last stronghold of the Moorish kings on the Iberian peninsula.
Here in the Alpujarra, the traditional route at the time of al-Andalus (from Granada to Almería on the Mediterranean coast) still meanders through valleys, gullies, narrow mountain passes, and deep ravines. Along the way are magnificent views of the great south-facing and sun-drenched slopes of the Sierra, of secluded pueblos blancos (white towns) embedded in the mountain sides, and of rugged terrain that for centuries has been skillfully and carefully irrigated and cultivated.
Often called Alpujarras in the plural because it has distinct regions and is nestled among three separate mountain ranges, this is a land of Alps (high places) overseen by Ujar, the goddess of clear light. And this ancient and sublime route is nourished by pure air, light, and water.
The Alpujarra is a naturalist’s dreamscape, a unique ecological system — the nature park of the Sierra Nevada has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO — and a primary resource for amateur historians, ethnologists, and anyone who enjoys the rarefied experience that such prodigious environments permit. It is a region of primary resources: forest, flora, and fauna, constantly nurtured from above by the melting snow.
Here amid Spain’s highest mountain ranges, you will find fertile valleys replete with groves of almonds, olives, oranges, and lemons; as well as the largest number of unique botanical species in Europe. Sheltered from the north wind by the high peaks — the most elevated being the Mulhácen at 3481 metres — the Alpujarra today is a sequestered but easily accessible region in which species as diverse as mountain goats, wild boar, eagles, and goshawks live. Here you will also find traces of the Moorish heritage and an infrastructure that to this day honours the contributions of the Islamic culture that graced the south of Spain while the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages.
As early as the 11th century, however, the Castilian monarchs, began a campaign to expel the Muslims from the Iberian peninsula and in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella eventually conquered the strategic and sumptuous city of Granada. The city’s Moors were forced to convert to Christianity; those who refused escaped into the hills of the Alpujarra. Of mixed Berber and Arab descent, the Moors of Spain had once inhabited north-west Africa before conquering the Iberian peninsula in the eight century. They were a people used to harsh climates and adept at maximizing the resources of their environs.
When the royal decree of Ferdinand and Isabelle eventually expelled all those of Arab descent from the Kingdom of Granada, they were replaced in the Alpujarra by Christians who inherited not only the land but an ancestral wisdom that still makes this area an unsullied refuge from urban realities.
Today, the fifty-odd white villages that are found throughout the Alpujarra retain the traditional Berber architecture of white, box-like houses arranged ingeniously on top of each other in cohesive communities that know the importance of the creative use of space. Equally important, is their ancestral use of water.
The Moors, like the Romans before them, built an elaborate canalization system through which the villages and the high terraced pasture and farming lands continue to be irrigated. The Alpujarra is an immense natural waterworks and filtration system. Moisture-laden clouds from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are interrupted by the Sierra Nevada which in turn creates snow in the winter and slowly releases it in the summer. Over the centuries the people of the Alpujarra have captured and directed this water to their own purposes and to the benefit of the land. Standing almost anywhere in one of the white villages, you quickly become aware of a system of fountains, pools, communal wash houses, and irrigation devices of all kinds that allow water to flow in and around each village. As you explore one of these villages on foot, pausing to admire the colourful flowers that adorn the houses, a well-fed house cat, or another magnificent panoramic view, you may hear in the stillness of the pure mountain air the splashing of water.
In Bubión, the door of the inn where we stop for lunch gives onto the main street which undulates gracefully downhill. On the other side of the bar is a small, unpretentious patio that looks over the stepped roofs of the village and onto a deep, wide ravine that by my calculations is at least five kilometres across.
It is late October — the shoulder seasons of spring or fall are an ideal time to visit the Alpujarra — and the sun as usual is brilliant. The air in contrast is cool; a soft, whispering breeze tempers the sun’s rays. The sky is a shimmering blue, contrasting and complimenting the deep greens of the valley and the pure white of the village which rambles below, around, and above us.
The view is extraordinary and seems limitless. Like the birds soaring and swooping on the thermals from the valley, our eyes slowly take in the scene. Behind us the tree-clad Sierra rises steeply. Below and to the left the valley descends to the Guadalfeo river, one of the principal agents that through erosion has fashioned this stupendous terrain over the ages.
To our right, the valley widens and rises. Somewhat above us is the sister village of Capileira. Distance, space, and time to linger give us a full perspective. Like the other pueblos blancos of the region, Capileira resembles a neatly arranged set of geometric cubes carefully inter-linked on the hillside; forming a gracefully terraced and self-contained community. And crowning the vista at the top of the valley with breath-taking visual coherence is the snowy Mulhácen peak.
This is one of those magnificent scenes that gives a different dimension to time and space. These mountains, the highest in Spain, look south to Africa and the Atlas mountains only 200 kilometres away as the eagle flies.
This is also a part of Spain whose heritage underscores proximity to the southern shores of the Mediterranean. And for centuries, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived here in al-Andalus in close proximity and in harmony.
Strolling through the intricate and intimate streets and passageways of Bubión, we discover a typical Alpujarran village, a village of tinaos (porticos) and terraos (roof terraces). These communities have a unity of design that is aesthetically pleasing and at the same time practical given the height and lateral restrictions of the terrain. The dwellings, shops, and other buildings are inter-connected by porticos that are supported by the walls of adjoining habitations so that access is possible to upper or lower “neighbourhoods.”
The flat terraced roofs provide additional outdoor living spaces and it is they principally that give the towns their graded profile. Constructed of wood, the roof-terraces are traditionally covered with slate and are especially noteworthy for their round slate chimneys and the inventive coverings that deflect the winds sweeping down the valleys.
The walls of the town’s structures are covered in launa, a paste of magnesium clay that exposure to the sun makes waterproof. As is the case in Mediterranean design elsewhere, the whiteness reflects the intense rays of the sun. And given the many vertical and horizontal surfaces of the village, it is also the backdrop for a constant play of light and shadow, especially beautiful when the red setting sun causes the village to glow.
The Alpujarra villages are also a treasure house of unique gastronomic delights, folklore, crafts, music and dance, and distinctive wines. Especially noteworthy are the exuberant handwoven Alpujarra rugs created and sold by local craftspeople, and which they display effectively against the white walls. Walking through the streets during siesta time, we catch glimpses of quiet, private lives through geranium-trimmed windows and on laundry-strewn balconies, and somewhere within we hear the plaintive and enchanting notes of a guitar.
The Alpujarra is also known for festivals that have significant ethnological and historical meaning. Somewhat discordant with the peaceful mood of the region is the re-enactment in various villages of Moros y Cristianos, street theatre dramatizing the territorial struggles between Moors and Christians that ended with the expulsion of the Muslims in 1492.
Curiously, we had come across the same ritual being played out on Christmas Day in a hill village in Guatemala a number of years ago.
Although an incongruous note in the peacefulness of the Alpujarra, this custom is a reminder that this is a land that was prized by many for a long period of time.
Today, the Alpujarra is a model of the integration of nature and human habitation, and if the lessons of history — both modern and ancient — are learned well, it will remain a geographical and cultural oasis.
The official Web site for Andalusia contains a page devoted to the Alpujarra and a wealth of other information on the general site. It can be accessed at www.andalucia.org.
Our recent Andalusian “circle tour” began and ended in Seville. Iberia, the national airline of Spain, in conjunction with its North American partner American Airlines, has direct flights to Seville or Granada from its hubs in Chicago or New York through Madrid or Barcelona.