The Camino de Santiago is not the only walk in Spain. And, while online and printed travel blogs and journalism can suggest otherwise, kilometres of walking trails across the country lead to places other than Santiago de Compostela.
The following is an article I wrote about walking in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, almost as far from the well-trodden pilgrims’ route as you can get.
Buying 3kg of Spanish weaving is a foolish final preparation for a two-day walk in the Sierra Nevada. But the blanket, worked in green, red, yellow, white and black, will perfectly cover our cat-shredded settee at home, so my new husband chivalrously offers to carry the souvenir in his backpack over the 26.5 kilometres ahead.
Simon and I have come to Las Alpujarras, the valleys and ravines on the Sierra Nevada’s southern flank, at the end of our honeymoon, for a taste of rural Spain after overindulging in cities. And the mountain town of Pampaneira, where we disembark the Granada bus, could not be more different from the Andalucian city that wears the Alhambra as its crown. Pampaneira’s modest landmark is the steeple of the whitewashed 16th century Iglesia de Santa Cruz.
A prosperous silk-producing region during Muslim times and the last Moorish stronghold after Granada fell to the Reconquista in 1492, Las Alpujarras was repopulated by Christians from northern Spain, yet its white towns retain their Berber look. Facing south, away from the worst weather, two-storey houses with flat roofs and chimneypots are wedged shoulder-to-shoulder along twisting alleys. And a few steps from the shops and cafes around Pampaneira’s Plaza de la Libertad, villagers still live in first-floor rooms above their animals and manure smears cobbles outside wooden ground-floor doors.
Pampaneira was almost blindingly white in the sun shining on our arrival but it’s raining now so I hug my paper-wrapped blanket protectively and splash back to our iron bed on terra cotta tiles in Hostal Pampaneira (www.hostalpampaneira.com/en/). In the hotel restaurant, through a door off the busier bar, we tuck into croquettas, rabbit casserole and honeyed eggplant under the glassy stare of a wall-mounted boar’s head.
Ours is the gentler, and lower altitude, of two Alpujarras walks in Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Spain” guide, a walk on village trails and way-marked long-distance footpaths through towns, farms and national park. With hiking poles, guidebook pages and maps bought in Madrid, we set off after breakfast, climbing from Pampaneira (1055m) to Bubion (1300m), the second of three towns stepped up Poqueira Ravine. Above us are only Capileria and the Sierra’s autumn snow.
Having taken a last look at the three white towns from a ridgetop (1809m) – and caught our breaths – we enter pine and oak forest, emerging from trees above a broader valley, all green leaves and golden poplars beneath blue sky and wisps of white cloud. Pumpkin patches and leafy corn stalks and trees thick with mulberries and almonds line our way. Dogs bark. Roosters crow. Simon yelps when he turns his ankle on a hard, green walnut hidden under softly spiked fallen chestnuts. (We should have worn boots rather than walking sandals and runners.)
Red geraniums and strings of drying peppers festoon the houses in tiny Capilerilla and Pitres, where it’s market day. We buy oranges in front of the village church before refuelling with cheese-and-tomato bocadillos (sandwiches) at the nearby bar.
Fifteen minutes further on foot is Mecina, the largest of three clustered villages. Leaving Simon to rest his ankle in Hotel de Mecina Fondales (http://hoteldemecina.com/), I continue, down through Mecinilla and Fondales, and more steeply down a muddy track to an Islamic-era stone bridge over Rio Trevelez.
Daydreaming about the bridge builders, the men who worked the adjoining ruined mill, and the people and animals that have crossed it since, I am nearly skittled by five mountain bikers careering through history.
We have booked dinner at L’Atelier (https://www.facebook.com/lateliervegrestaurant/), a vegetarian guesthouse and cooking school on Mecina’s edge. Then-chef/owner Jean-Claude Juston greets our marginally early arrival with stereotypical French censure, “This a guesthouse, not a hotel!” But between seating us and retrieving menus from his kitchen, he becomes a charmer. He soon proves his culinary prowess, too, with chestnut soup (“I gathered them this morning,”); parcels of spinach, pinenuts, onion, raisins, rosewater and cinnamon; and a vegetable paella as delicious as the seafood one in Madrid’s Plaza Major was disappointing.
A stroll to the town of Busquistar first thing on day two warms us up for the zigzag cobbled walk down to the river and up the far side in the footsteps of silk traders and pack animals, like the handsome donkey at the road junction up top.
With Simon choosing the ankle-kinder bitumen route to the next town, I solo down to Notaez, a hamlet below a red bluff from which a mountain goat with don’t-mess-with-me horns observes my descent: through aromatic wild thyme, fennel, and rosemary, past olive groves, grape vines and vegetable beds. I walk to the rhythm of irrigation waters and sheep bells.
The track beyond Notaez is poorly marked and I briefly lose my way but a prickly uphill scramble to rejoin the track is rewarded with a walker’s-only view of the town of Castaras, sat on a rocky outcrop ringed with poplars. I rejoin Simon outside the lone bar, behind the church, and watch a dog move grudgingly from the middle of the road four times to let cars pass during a lunch of crusty bocadillos.
A woman patiently waits for me to photograph the age-old village spring in Nieles before collecting the water she needs for her kitchen, and from there we start up and down. The air is ripe with quinces and sheep. We pick a pomegranate and eat its juicy seeds. Then we are wading across Rio Guadalfeo and starting our last climb.
I am relieved to reach Alqueria de Morayma (www.alqueriamorayma.com/en/) but equally sad, for foolishly we have booked only one night in this renovated farm complex before an early bus.
Our timber-beamed room is too small to swing a jamon and the only barrier between sleeping area and bathroom is an Alpujarras woven curtain much like my recent purchase, but we need nothing more except a shower followed by refreshment in the main house.
The barman easily persuades us to toast our walk with the property’s organic syrah and as we drink, four people behind us chat over a shared plate of fish and an older couple reads beside the crackling fire. Worn farm implements hang on the walls and long-life eco bulbs illuminate old lanterns.
Dinner starts with jamon, olives and cheese. Pumpkin and yabby soup follows. And the chicken cooked with fig, quince and prunes is, Simon declares between mouthfuls, “As good a plate of food as I’ve ever had.”
Twenty four hours after spooning the last crème caramel and boozy sultanas from a terra cotta pot in the old farmhouse, we are in Cordoba’s Parador hotel, drinking Pedro Ximenez and watching satellite television, both of us wishing we were back in the mountains.
Alsina Graells/ALSA (www.alsa.es/en/) operates buses to the Alpujarras; Granada to Pampaneira takes 2h and the return trip, from Cadiar to Granada (passengers can board at Alqueria de Morayma’s front gate) takes 3h.
WANT SOMEONE ELSE TO DO THE PLANNING:
If finding your own maps and plotting your own route sounds too much like hard work, you can join a wonderful self-guided walking tour of the Alpujarras with Outdoor Travel: