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Las Alpujarras

The fog cut visibility down to 15 feet and a thick silence surrounded us. A sound emerged; it was a faint tinkling from up the trail. Was it a cowbell? Was there some local shepherd who could tell us where we were? She heard it too. Good.

But the shepherd never showed up. And even worse; we were having a hard time staying on the trail. One thing we knew for sure: there was a huge canyon on the right—and it wasn’t quite clear just where it began. At one point, however, a gust of wind blew aside the fog to reveal the gaping chasm below us. I looked down and felt dizzy for a moment. Within seconds the fog whipped back and covered it all up again.

I was getting a little nervous. The day was coming to a close, and it was cold. How much longer it would take to get to the next village? Would we get stuck out on the trail overnight? Would we run out of food? Would we freeze out here and never be heard from again?

The Sierra Nevada is one of the most impressive mountain ranges in Spain. Its southern end is home to the Alpujarra, a network of ancient Moorish Villages that stretches out for 70km. When the weather’s good, you can see these village outcroppings cling to the mountainside, shimmering white in the sun.

The Alpujarra is tied together by the Gran Recorrida (GR-7), an international hiking trail that wends its way through gentle rocky slopes, green farmyards and up to breathtaking vistas that stretch out over the Mediterranean Sea. Look hard and you can make out the coast of Africa!

All this beauty, however, can vanish without warning. My friend and I lost almost all visibility as fog set in, and I was more than a little scared. Of course, I was also thrilled by the sense of adventure.

We’d started out the trip planning to head up above Trevelez, one of the highest villages in the Alpujarra and all of Spain. It was an ambitious plan, but we were thoroughly unprepared for the icy Sierra climate that met us there. So we quickly changed course and took a trail that dipped down into the “milder” Alpujarra.

Despite being greeted by a bit of unruly fog and wind, we found an excellent overall hiking experience. Steep climbs are very rare, and these trails often lend themselves to pleasant day hikes. If you want a more rugged journey, the Alpujarra is best enjoyed on a three or four day hiking trip.

The GR-7 is marked with red-white stripes and trailhead signs that indicate the time and distance for each hike. It should be mentioned, however, that these markings can be confusing at times, especially when the trail forks.

That’s where we found ourselves, lost in the fog and not sure if we had really gone the right way. Fortunately, we had. And soon we found ourselves zigzagging out of the fog cover, down through sheep farms and oak trees strangely illuminated by hazy yellow sunshine.

At the first sign of civilization we both knew what we wanted—the sweet Alpujarra wine we’d heard so much about. Within minutes a bartender was pouring us generous glasses of this sweet rosy drink. We gulped them down eagerly, realizing only then how thirsty we were.

Satisfied—and warm inside—we then set to befriending the locals and quickly found free lodging for the night.

At this point we decided to stock up on an extra bottle or two of wine. We went to the local grocery store and—what! No bottles for sale? The clerk nodded, but then told us to “wait a minute” before scurrying down to a large keg in the cellar. Soon she came back with a plastic Sunny Delite® container spilling over with cool, delicious wine.

That evening we stayed at a cozy vacation rental in Nieles, a town nestled just below Jubilez. Our hosts, the Moisands, a happy, expat French family, refused to charge us anything; the rental needed a few finishing touches, they said, so we weren’t to worry about it.

The room was warm, cozy and comfortable. It’s a perfect place to stay if you’re looking for value lodging in one of the more remote and incredible nooks in all of the Alpujarra. It features a dramatic view of green rolling foothills, and the night sky is so clear that the Milky Way pulses bright overhead.

According to Mr. Moisand, the name of this small region is the “Chocolate Land.” With a population of 80, he explained, Nieles is a very small town. Still, there are some who never leave to go out anywhere. Over dinner, I asked why this was so. “Oh,” Mr. Moisand said, “there’s a very good bar.”

The next day was hot and sunny. We hitchhiked over to a good GR-7 trailhead and started off for the outlying village of Yegen. The path bent over scenic ridges and dipped into cool valleys and dappled shade that gave us much-needed relief from the heat. When a little stream crossed our path we took a minute to splash our faces in the ice cold water. Ah.

In addition to the beautiful scenery, the flowery smell of spring thickly perfumed the trail. I often reached out to touch the bright red poppies that lined the hillside, and their smooth texture hearkened back to a history lesson: centuries ago, the bustling Moorish silk farms were innumerable across the Alpujarra.

Upon entering Yegen we received the distinct impression that our presence was noted…by everyone. Greetings were compulsory?Buenas tardes!?as was a toothy smile, and the friendly locals were more than willing to help us find our way. The town itself was enchanting, full of cobblestone alleys, white stucco walls, red tile roofs and vibrant flowers spilling over iron balconies.

Gerald Brenan, a British writer and friend of Virginia Woolfe, came to Yegen in the 1920’s. He then stayed for seven years. His book South from Granada was recently adapted to Spanish cinema as Al Sur de Granada and provides a fun read for anyone interested in the people, folklore and magic of this fascinating community.

On the way out of town we met an old woman whose late husband was once Brenan’s kid friend. She hadn’t bothered to read the book, but that didn’t seem to matter. “Listen,” she said, “I knew the guy.”

Thus brushed with fame, we left the Alpujarra thoroughly content that we’d spent the past few days in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The Alpujarra, indeed, comes highly recommended.


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