Limping Back to the Alpujarras

Southeast of Granada lies the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the highest in Spain, providing the city with a (nearly) year-round snowy backdrop. The high peaks are best left to skiers at this time of year, but the steep, arid, terraced valleys along the southern flank—known as las Alpujarras—are a tourist/hiker destination at any time of year.

We first got a taste of this area on a day trip organized by our Spanish school. A few weeks later we came back to do a HelpExchange with a local family and hopefully see a bit more of the area. At that point, spring had begun and the hills were noticeably greener—almost enough that we could start to understand why the Moors from north Africa had considered this region a garden of paradise.

The hills are a dusty sage-green color, with outcroppings of gray or tan stone. This area has been an agricultural center for centuries, and many hillsides have been shaped over the years into a series of terraces. In many cases, the terraces, like the irrigation network, date to Moorish times. They’re planted mainly with olive, orange, and almond trees. The latter get lovely pink blossoms in the spring.

The Poqueira valley is home to three whitewashed villages beloved of hikers. This is the view from the middle village, our favorite, Bubion.

On our day off from working, we took a bus up into three small whitewashed villages that cling to the sides of the Poqueira Barranco (ravine)—Pampaneira, Bubion, and Capileira. They are base towns for hikers going up into the mountains. Melissa’s recovering ankle wasn’t up to serious walking, but with her crutch (a deal, like many Spanish medical products, at only 11 euros!), she was able to get around the steeply sloping cobbled streets.

These three villages are great places to explore: quiet and winding, with a view at every turn. Each village has a church, a small museum of local history or culture, a few restaurants and hostals, and some craft shops. The main local handicraft is woven wool rugs. They’re warm and sturdy (perfect for covering Spain’s omnipresent cold tile floors) and are sold at really good prices. There were a few that we would love to decorate a house with—if we had a house, that is.

Spring flowers were just starting to appear when we visited Bubion.

The houses in these Alpujarran villages are mostly small: a few stories of whitewashed stone with flat roofs, made of branches covered with flat stones and a local claylike mixture. Little round white chimneys with flat caps stick up from every roof. Windows are covered by iron grilles (as decorative as the inhabitants can afford), and the doorways are hung with blankets, which keep out the summer sun while letting in a bit of air. In earlier days, a family’s farm animals were stabled on the ground floor of a house, and the heat rising from them helped warm up the living quarters above.

Bubion, the middle village, was our favorite of the three, mainly because it is the smallest and least touristed. But Capileira is a close second because it has a fabulous restaurant: Corral de Castana. The chef (whoever he or she is) is a genius at creating flavor from the bland palate of traditional Andalucian ingredients. Our lunch there—red peppers stuffed with partridge in an almond and mint sauce; potatoes sauteed with garlic, onions, and peppers; and a warm salad of shredded carrots and onions in (of all things!) herbs—was by far the best meal we’ve had in Spain so far.

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