Granada (not the one down Quay Street) and some eco-tourism up in the Alpujarras mountains rekindle Neil Sowerby’s love affair with Southern Spain
PERHAPS only the Taj Mahal can trump the Alhambra at sunset in the contest for world’s most romantic view. The snow-capped Sierra Nevada is the Alhambra’s backdrop, the last rays of intense Spanish sun the stage lighting. they turn the stones of the Arab citadel into a glowing pink marvel. Then the natural light goes out... and man-made muted floodlights are switched on.
The ideal place to view the palace complex is high across the valley, from the Moorish quarter, the Albaicin, an evocative warren of shabby white houses and shadowy lanes in such contrast to the dour civility of Granada’s business quarter below.
The regulation viewing point is the Mirador of St Nicolas church with its buskers and food stalls. It can be reached by bus, but really you have to make the panoramic pilgrimage on foot. The initial hubbub of Arab tea-houses and carpet shops fades away as you wind your way up.
We left the Mirador scrum and sat cradling a beer on a bar terrace gouged out of the hillside. It had been a satisfying day, with a fish tapas supper to look forward to back in the city. Hake, gambas and percebes – those whelk-like goose barnacles gatherers risk their lives for – with a glass of chilled bone-dry manzanilla sherry just before midnight. Spain in excelsis.
Earlier we had similarly marched up the hill to the Alhambra complex. Our Rough Guide had warned us to book in advance or get their early, otherwise no way, Jose.
But we had lingered over our churros and coffee and it was midday before we made the ticket office. No sweat, straight in. Twenty years since we had stayed in the cat-haunted Hotel America with the kids. Nostalgia demanded we take a beer in its tiled courtyard, which thankfully had suffered no makeover. It offered the dank, penumbral shelter demanded by a summer climate that can hit the mid-40s.
After a saunter around the Generalife, the garden and summer palace of the Nasrid, 14th century rulers of Granada, beautiful but owing much to the tastes of later generations,
we tackled one of the world’s wonders – the Palacio Nazares.
You can understand why the sturdy stone Alcazaba fortress and that monolithic Catholic cuckoo in the Arab nest, the Carlos V Palace, have survived in the Alhambra complex, but the Nazares is a fragile construction of wood, brick, adobe and stucco, concerned more with the play of light on water and the delicate traceries of its decoration. Survival seems to be written into the contract of a site where awful cruelty and sublime culture rubbed shoulders seamlessly.
The experience of passing from chamber to courtyard to chamber is still totally enthralling, despite sections of the quintessential Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) being curtained off for renovation.
Elsewhere across Andalucia the heritage of the Arabs is everywhere evident. We next travelled south on the N323, stopping at the 850m high Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Sigh of the Moor), where Bobadil last Moorish king of Granada, turned and wept having handed over the city keys to the conquering Catholic Kings in return for the barren mountain fastness of Las Alpujarras.
We turned east near the spa town of Lanjaron towards Las Alpujarras, long a remote, primitive region, but now increasingly a magnet to independent tourists seeking fine mountain walking, alternative lifestyles and some of the best ham in Spain. Its pockets of intense fertility are courtesy of the Arabs’ irrigation expertise, but much has returned to nature. Recent extreme weather has not been kind either. Our hire car journey along the switchback A348 was repeatedly interrupted by landslide detours and stretches or road reduced to rubble.
It was all worth it when we reached our destination – the Alqueyria de Morayma, a couple of kilometres short of the market town of Cadiar.
It’s an award-winning hilltop ‘centro agriturístico’, a cluster of rustic local-style lodgings on varying levels, some self-catering with white walls and beamed ceilings but reassuringly modern bathrooms. The panorama from our little cottage was of mountains and distant vertiginous white villages.
The Alqueyria has an informal restaurant (daily set menus from 12 euros), with a terrific terrace, and an equally terrific wine list, featuring the farm’s own organic red and white wines. Guests are encouraged to get involved on the 40 hectare organic farm, which cultivates almonds, vines, figs, olives and various fruit trees... and to understand the Alpujarreño culture that generates all this. Friendly staff are happy to organise trekking and riding for guests and much more.There’s also a museum dedicated to the conservation of traditional methods.
We had our own sentimental reason for visiting the area. Yegen is 7km north east of Cadiar, though it seems much further as the road careers round mountainsides and through crevasses. In the 1920s it was reached only by mule tracks, which made it an ideal base for Gerald Brenan, a bookish bohemian escaping the straitjacket of British life after the Great War. His account of his years in this primitive Spanish village, South from Granada, is an enduring travel classic I highly recommend. The fact that pals from the Bloomsbury group such as Virginia Woolf came to stay proved he wasn’t entirely cut off.
Brenan’s house and vegetable garden is still there and the nearby Bar la Fuente has a few book and pictures of the author, who later became embroiled in a scandal involving a village girl, but as literary shrines go this is all very low-key.
Our own tribute took the form of taking the hard stony circuit of the village bearing his name. Like a sterner walk we took out of the high altitude specialist jamon serrano (mountain ham) town of Trevelez, it was a mixture of mud ruts, olive and orange trees, then wild, almost primitive landscapes.
It made you amazed even now at the energy and cunning of the exiled Arabs who tamed large tranches of it. Not as flamboyant a legacy as the Alhambra but another facet of their contribution to Spain and the world.
I met with Yvette Vaucher today who was the first woman to climb the north face of the Matterhorn.…Read more
I'd have preferred it if this article had fewer details about the Cote d'Azur and more about the…Read more
For God's sake, why put flights to Zurich, which is hours and hours away. The nearest airport is…Read more
Hi, I'm wondering if there was in fact some typo's with the breathing/pacing figures above...…Read more