Travel: A walk on the wild side in the Alpujarras

There are dozens of pretty white villages in the Alpujarras region of southern Spain.

There are dozens of pretty white villages in the Alpujarras region of southern Spain.

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Holidaying in major resorts like Marbella or Nerja doesn’t really tell you much about life in Andalucia and by flying into Málaga’s modern Costa-del-Sol Airport, most people expect you to visit Granada, Cordoba or Seville.

But to get a real taste of the Andalucian lifestyle, my wife and I headed inland to stay in one of the pretty whitewashed Alpujarran villages scattered throughout the mountains and valleys between the coastal resorts and the high Sierra Nevadas where time seems to stand still.

Although the village of Mairena is around 25 kilometres from the Mediterranean coastline as the crow flies, it was a different proposition in reaching our accommodation on Alpujarra’s southern slopes at the delightful but quirky Casa Las Chimeneas. It was once suggested in a British Airway’s survey that it was among the world’s best Top Ten places to stay when going trekking.

Having arranged our holiday with relaxed walking specialists Adagio – www.adagio.co.uk – we flew into Málaga from London Gatwick aboard a British Airways Airbus before facing a three hour, 250 kilometre transfer to Mairena.

Meeting up with knowledgeable Adagio tour specialist Barry Southwell and his wife Christine – plus ten fellow guests – we made good time as our transfer minibus raced along the newly-opened Autovía del Mediterráneo, the views forcing me to dub the area ‘The Polythene Coast’.

The motorway winds its way between countless polythene covered tunnels in which local farmers grow vegetables and salad, chillies and peppers. However once you turn off the motorway you are faced with a series of tight hairpin bends and steep climbs to over 3,500 feet above sea level and our final destination. In fact Mairena is virtually at the same level as Mount Snowden at 3,560 feet!

With an average elevation of 4,000 feet, the Alpujurra region, which borders the Parque Nacional de Sierra Nevada, extends eastwards for over 80 kilometre through the provinces of Granada and Almeria. The name Alpujurra is from the Arabic and derives from al-bugsharra, meaning ‘a sierra of pastures’.

Mairena itself has around 200 inhabitants and is just one of dozens of unspoiled whitewashed Spanish villages perched high on the mountainous Alpujurras where mules and donkeys are said to outnumber cars by two to one!

Many older Alpujurran residents are unable to read or write while organic agriculture on the fertile land is their only means of support. They tend terraces on the steep slopes but ensuring their crops get enough water is often a problem so they try to catch as much rainwater or snow melt as possible in polythene-lined tanks.

Some are lucky enough to have natural springs although water distribution is well monitored and is diverted along a series of pipes and gulleys to try and keep everyone happy.

Many of the region’s houses have sun dried corn, peppers and chillies hanging from their balconies while many householders also keep rabbits, chickens and quails for the table in a downstairs room.

Meanwhile Casa Las Chimeneas comprises four separate traditional buildings which have been restored by current British owners David and Emma Illsley who both speak fluent Spanish having previously worked for the British Council.

They opened their guest house business back in 1998 in a bid to find a new life among the steep agricultural terraces and breathtaking scenery set again a backdrop of the high Sierras.

Close to the main building is the newly-restored Restaurant Las Chimeneas where breakfast and evening meals are served. All the dishes are traditionally cooked by two village ladies – Sole and Conchi – while the dining room itself allowed our group to enjoy a cosy meal after an active day’s walking in the glorious countryside.

With nine en-suite bedrooms, we stayed in the road-side cottage know as ‘The Corral’ with its grapevine covered entrance. However it soon became dubbed ‘The Hobbit House’ by our fellow guests as we emerged each morning for breakfast!

The rooms themselves are pretty basic but comfortable, many having authentic antique furniture and fittings although the bedrooms in the main block have no door locks. Emma was quick to point out that it has never been a problem in the past, but some guests decided to carry all their valuables and passports with them just in case!

The owners have a deep knowledge of the area and were anxious to share their enthusiasm for the region. Besides entertaining Adagio’s walking guests twice yearly – in June and October – they also offer other kinds of holidays; bird watching, mountain biking, horse riding, cookery and also yoga classes which take place under a reed covered terrace at their nearby five hectare Finca.

The Illsley’s Finca is really a small organic market garden producing olives, grapes, oranges, pomegranates, many types of soft fruit and almonds together with a thriving vegetable patch that supplies their restaurant’s kitchen.

On our way to the Finca we met a shepherd with his herd of goats which are milked daily to supply some of the local villages. It’s sometimes possible to spot wild boar (we only saw their tracks) although the local farmers attempt to keep them from their crops by erecting wire fences. It was also disappointing not to to see an Ibex but we did see several birds of prey circling high above the valleys.

David Illsley is an historian and poet and he often came out with us to explain the region’s past while Emma is a writer, having published ‘Bee-eaters and other Migrants’. She is also passionate about the region’s food and culture. The couple have two boys – Dan, 14, and Tom, 9 – who both attend local schools.

The village of Mairena is rather special, unique and quiet. Built on a steep hillside with a vast vista overlooking a deep valley, at night lights twinkle from similar villages up on the hillsides while in daylight we could just make out the Mediterranean coast through a V-shaped gap in the mountains.

A light overnight dusting of snow has settled on the highest Sierra Nevada peaks ahead of our first walk which took us from Mairena along part of a rock strewn footpath know as the ‘GR7’. It’s an historic long-distance path know as the Senderos de Gran Recorrido (or the Grand Route), which runs from southern Spain and up through Andorra and along the south coast of France.

“I like to use this first walk to see how capable everyone is,” said Barry. Adagio always pride themselves on holidays for walkers of reasonable fitness, but without too much of a challenge. However as this was an Adagio ‘Plus’ holiday, it meant that a few steeper climbs would be involved… and this was definitely one of them!

With the brochure suggesting that it would be around four miles, we actually climbed from the village to over 4,500 feet on what turned out to be a 6.9-mile trek along the ancient footpath which is also know as the ‘Walk of the Chestnuts’ before we reached the larger village of Laroles.

Along the way we passed thousands of heavily laden chestnut trees whose nuts lay strewn and untouched across the pathway. There were also many ancient olive trees but it was those views across the valley to the distant mountains that were absolutely stunning.

En route we stopped at the former Roman village of Jubar where we learned of its Moorish past from David as we sat outside its 1,000-year-old church which had once been both a mosque and synagog and is easily the oldest religious building in the area.

Jubar’s Jews were expelled by Spain’s King Roderick in 698AD but as they were main merchant traders, the surrounding towns and cities began to run short of food after their demise. Then almost 1000 years later it was the Muslim’s turn to go, thanks to the Catholic stance and the Spanish Inquisition.

It was during a recent renovation of the church by a team of Moroccan workmen that several historic frescos, dated between 1580 and 1620, were discovered. They are now on displays on either side of the main alter, having originally been concealed by six inches of thick plaster.

Walking into a steep gully to cross a bubbling stream, we climbed up again to the tree line before finally arriving in Laroles for a well-deserved drink at a local bar. We then returned to Mairena thanks to Emma and David who drove us back to Las Chimeneas in their two Toyota 4x4s.

Each evening Adagio specialist Barry would gather us all together to discuss the day’s activities and to ask if changes could (or should) be made to the programme. Almost all the walks can be adapted, either being shortened or lengthened to meet guest’s requirements. Flexibility is naturally the name of the game as the weather sometimes threatens to disrupt plans but Barry always kept us well informed.

A minibus trip to the town of Yegen resulted in a 4.4-mile walk along with a visit to Jamones Munoz, the local Andalucian ham producers. I’ve certainly never seen so much meat in one place for there were simply thousands of legs of delicious Serrano ham that had been left hanging for months after first being cured by covering them in salt.

We passed by writer Gerald Brenan’s house and a small dedicated museum in the heart of the village – he wrote ‘South from Granada’ while during the First World War as an Army Captain, he was awarded the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre for gallantry.

A member of the famous ‘Bloomsbury Set’ – which included the likes of Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E M Forster – Brenan fathered an illegitimate child while living in Yegen, although he later married Elizabeth Gamel Woolsey who agreed to adopt the youngster, but only as long as the real mother didn’t contact or see the child again.

Another author who still lives in the area is Chris Stewart. His book ‘Driving Over Lemons’ tells the hilarious story of his purchasing of an old rundown farmhouse (along with its sitting tenant farmer) and setting up a sheep farm. Chris has often visited Casa Las Chimeneas and has given talks to the guests … but not on this occasion!

We also visited the pretty village of Valor while things went slightly wrong the next day. A heavy overnight thunderstorm left several guest bedrooms with rainwater creeping in under the doors as a nearby drain appeared to be blocked. It also meant that instead of walking downhill the three kilometres to Ugíjar, the largest town in the region, we jumped back in the minibus to make the steep decent.

After a quick trip around the small local market and a visit to a cultural museum – Centre de Patrimonio Cultural de la Alpujurra – we enjoyed a superb and somewhat lengthy tapas lunch.

The town of Ugíjar in the province of Almeria is actually named after Ulysees, the hero from Ancient Greece mythology whose men were supposedly turned into hogs by a sorceress named Circe. Then in later years, the town’s square became a scene of bloody slaughter as the enraged local menfolk took on the Moors who were finally driven out.

A visit to Adolfo’s ancient Olive Mill back in Mairena – and a cheery ‘Olé’ from his 93-year-old mother – proved interesting. The village’s olive oil is extremely rich and is exclusively used commercially at Resturant Las Chimeneas and at a popular London restaurant.

The following day with the weather having much improved, we first journeyed east and then northwards through the Sierra Nevada mountains and out onto a much flatter landscape to village of La Calahorra.

And looming over the small village on the Marquesadi plateau on the edge of the northern foothill of the mountains, we visited the magnificent Castillo de la Calahorra.

Although built in the traditional Moorish-style for Cardinal Mendoza, it was inherited by his illegitimate womanising son Don Rodrigo Diaz while the biggest surprise is that once inside, the castle is straight out of the Italian Renaissance period.

Constructed between 1509 and 1512 using Italian marble for many of its support pillars, the castle is only open to the public on Wednesdays between 10am and 1pm and 4pm to 6pm.

The magnificent four-turreted edifice has been used in films like David Lean’s ‘Dr Zhivago’ and David Essex’s ‘Stardust’ while the Spice Girls also shot a music video there. Even today a new children’s television series is being filmed at the location while it involves a secret door which is actually made of polystyrene!

After a visit to nearby Guadix – which is on the edge of Spain’s natural desert – we visited the city’s impressive cathedral and fish market before making the short trip out to the wonderful troglodyte dwellings on the outskirts of the city.

With chimneys and television aerials sprouting from the hillside, there is a superb viewing platform high above the underground houses from where you also get a good view of the city’s own crumbling Moorish castle.

Driving back through the mountains, we stopped at the famous lookout point of Puerto de la Ragua but sadly heavy cloud began to descend although typically it cleared again just after we had walked back through the dense pine forest to our waiting transport!

What followed was a demonstration of traditional paella making back at Las Chimeneas by cooks Sole and Conchi… so it was obvious what we would be eating for dinner that particular evening!

Meanwhile the most enjoyable walk of the week came on our penultimate day as we headed to the wine growing area and the village of Laujer. From close to our planned picnic spot at 3,123 feet, we climbed another 1,000 feet to reach the disused lavada-like hydroelectric water channel which runs around the mountainside.

Although it was a walk of just 3.55 miles, it was tough going as we also had to negotiate two dark tunnels and a steep, slippery downhill section through the pine trees.

On the return journey we stopped off for a wine tasting session at Bodega Domino Buenavista on the outskirts of Ugíja. Comically its owner is a renowned Spanish surgeon whose speciality is urology… and its said that he has a lucrative sideline in carrying out vasectomies!

The doctor’s beautiful bodega produces various Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons along with a rather tasty Rose… not that I’m an expert!

Meanwhile his award-winning wines are mostly named Veleta after the region’s second highest mountain which can just be seen from the gardens. Pico del Veleta stands at 3,393 metres (11,135 feet) while the highest in the Andelucia region is Mulhacén at 3,482 metres – and that’s only topped by Mount Teide in the Canary Islands at 3,718 metres!

Overall it was an excellent holiday and Adagio’s philosophy of enjoying life at a slower pace seem to suit all the guests.

Adagio, and its parent company Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, are a not-for-profit organisation, with charitable trust status. It means all profits are channelled back into a variety of outdoor, walking-related or environmental conservation projects both in the UK and aboard, its trustees keen to help people gain a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside.

ALPUJARRAS FACT FILE

Alan Wooding travelled to the Alpujarras region of southern Spain with Adagio (www.adagio.co.uk) on a full board basis with midday picnic lunches being provided. He stayed at Casa Las Chimeneas – www.laschimeneas.com – in the village of Mairena while the holiday cost was £1,015 which included all transfers and entrance fees.

Many thanks to Adagio tour specialist Barry Southwell for the experience and to the company’s marketing manager Tony Maniscalco for arranging the holiday.

For more information, log onto www.adagio.co.uk or you can contact them at Adagio, Lemsford Mill, Lemsford Village, Welwyn Garden City, AL8 7TR or call 01707 386700 or email info@adagio.co.uk for a 2016 brochure.

Adagio has several new additional holidays in its 2016 guided walking brochure and you can check it out online at www.adagio.co.uk