The Sierra Nevada rises majestically behind Granada. It’s fantastically beautiful, and so close to the fleshpots of the Costa del Sol you can see the blue of the Mediterranean from here. The name means “Snowy Range”, and it’s one of Spain’s most attractive national parks. There are twenty mountains over 3,000m, and hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails. More than it’s glorious snow-capped peaks though, this is an area with a fascinating history.
Visit the picturesque pueblos blancos that are scattered dramatically around the mountains and valleys of the Alpujarras region, and you can’t help but notice ancient irrigation systems that arrived in the region with the Moors in 711AD. The village houses have distinctive flat roofs and mushroom-like chimneys, imported from north Africa by Berbers who were part of the invading Arab forces.
This whole region, as remote as it was possible to get in 15th century Spain, was the final refuge of Spain’s Moors after the capitulation of the Emirate of Granada in 1492. The rugged mountains and deep valleys sheltered the remaining Muslim population and, for several decades, the communities that lived here maintained a unique Islamic culture that had thrived for nearly 800 years.
They also maintained a fierce independence from the rest of Spain, and resisted forced conversion to Christianity. On several occasions the people rebelled against Spanish rule and oppression, waging guerrilla warfare from their secure mountain hideout. The region was only pacified after the Morisco Rebellion of 1568 was ruthlessly crushed after three years of fighting.
The rebellion’s leader, Ben Humeya, was publicly executed in the square in Granada, and a royal decree was issued expelling anyone of Arab descent from the region. Taking no chances, the Spanish authorities then imported thousands of Christian settlers from as far away as Galicia and Asturias. Regions as remote and different from Andalusia as you can get in Spain.
Presumably the hope was that the new settlers would wipe out all traces of Islamic culture. I’m not sure they succeeded, the region feels different from other bits of Spain I’ve visited – although tourism may well succeed where religious fundamentalism failed. We’d been told that the most ‘authentic’ area of Las Alpujarras was to be found in the Poqueira Valley, a narrow gorge that is accessed by a steep and winding road.
Strung out high up the valley are three extraordinarily attractive and picturesque villages, the luminous white houses improbably clinging to the mountainside. The drive to the first village was an adventure in itself. The road to Pampaneira has numerous switchbacks and is very steep in places, but the nausea-inducing journey is worth it when you finally arrive.
Pampaneira was the busiest of the three villages, a fact underscored by the arrival of a tour bus as we sat drinking a coffee and eating pan con tomate in the fresh mountain air. There are cafes, restaurants, arts and crafts shops, and a very pleasant little church in the main square. If that was all you saw of the village, you wouldn’t be disappointed, but a walk through the narrow, steep streets gives you a real sense of the place.
Bubión, a little further up the mountain road, is smaller but equally picturesque. The top of the square church tower stands out against the mountain behind, and a walk through the village to reach the church square was fabulously atmospheric. Be warned though, the streets are steep and whenever you go down, you have to come back up again.
Although it was a hot sunny day, the tops of the mountains were covered in cloud, obscuring the fresh snow that had fallen. When we reached Capileira at the top of the valley, the cloud was descending and the sun disappeared. The temperature noticeably dropped the moment the sun went behind the cloud, but it didn’t spoil the magnificent views down the full length of the valley.
At 1,436m in altitude, Capileira is considered to be one of the most traditional villages in the Alpujarra. It certainly felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. We sat and had a drink while drinking in the spectacular views, and made plans to return when the weather was a little warmer, and the trails into the mountains fully open.