THE HIGH AND THE SLOW LIFE
STRESS RELIEF IN THE ALPUJARRA – ANDALUCIA, SPAIN
“Between the snow and the sea”, the Alpujarra is the mountainous region to the south of the massive Sierra Nevada ranges. The latter loom even higher, still holding a little snow in this high summer season. During the greater part of the year when they are brightly draped in snow, they present a mesmerizing and dramatic backdrop.
Entering the Alpujarra region from either the popular and crowded southern Spanish coast around Motril, or the north from Granada, you quickly get the feeling of rural remoteness usually associated with far less populous countries. We are soon climbing amongst vast, rolling, knuckly mountains.
This whole region is only 2 or 3 hours drive from major cities North, South, East and West. But the steep, winding roads thankfully deter the less adventurous masses. During the summer period they mostly head for the crowded Mediterranean beaches. The more accessible, large villages like Lanjarón, famous for its spas and pure spring drinking water, are quite crowded how-ever, so we head further into the mountains to escape the bottleneck of traffic and people.
As we wind our way up into the more remote nether region, distant glimpses of ancient, high villages tantalize and intrigue. Scattered, solitary fincas (farm houses), some now in ruin, appear in inaccessible glades. They indicate the self sufficiency that we come to find is a hallmark of life in this wonderful high country. This apparent, more leisurely existence causes us to reflect upon our pressured, high stress lifestyle. We pull over to stretch our legs. We are high above an ancient river bed. In miniature, far below, we see a farmer and his dogs shepherding their flock in a timeless, unhurried ritual. The silence that dominates the region is punctuated by the clonking of goats bells.
The small size of the farms, largely dictated by the topography, is typical of this region. Vegetable gardens, in valleys and on terraced slopes, thrive throughout the Alpujarra like scattered emeralds.
Ancient groves of olive, fig and almond trees, heavy with fruit at this time of the year, cling to the mountain’s folds. Sunny, exposed vineyards provide for that other essential of the Spanish lifestyle.
Much of the region is stony and arid in all seasons. In summer it is extremely hot. The secret of these healthy groves and gardens, lies in the inexhaustible supply of sweet water held within the mountains. Each tiny village or hamlet has tapped its own spring. Cool, pure drinking water flows continually. The abundance of water accounts for the diverse scenic beauty we encounter: contrasting lush woodlands and fertile valleys.
The farmsteads and cottages, to this day, are built largely with materials that the mountains provide. Each small village is therefore indicative of its surrounding geology. Here is harmony with nature. The effect is very pleasing to the eye.
The mule is still commonly used as a pack animal (often 2 or 3 tethered in tandem), and the pannier bags are hand woven. It is also still used to till the fields, the yokes and ploughs rough fashioned. Selectively low tech. Low overheads. Life hereabouts is lived at a much more natural, slower pace. You wonder where we went wrong.
The seasons, and the production that mother nature dictates, motivate the villagers: grapes to be harvested – wine to be vinted; almonds, figs and chestnuts to be gathered and crafted into exquisite pastries and sweetmeats; animals to be slaughtered for meats to be prepared and cured; goats and sheep to be milked for cheese making; and so on.
The food in the villages is robust and hearty: full flavoured and wholesome, typical of small scale production. There is a strong emphasis on game food in the Alpujarras. We enjoyed pheasant and rabbit in a very popular restaurant at one village, while at a bar in another, we were given superb, small, savoury chorizos as a tapa. Lunching there later, we tasted the finest morcilla (black pudding) that I have yet encountered – full of herbs and spices; all local produce. At the same table we were served delicious fresh grilled sardines, freighted up from the nearby Costa del Sol. Good coffee too, is available in even the smallest village. We enjoy seeking out the small bodegas, for the wines of the region are simple and honest, many being of an excellent quality and incredibly cheap.
The Paseo, that peculiarly Spanish custom of walking out in ones finery late in the afternoon is also evident here. In the cities it often takes the form of a relaxed Tapeo: a wander from bar to bar, eating a tapa (snack) accompanied by wine or beer at each. Here, the locals stroll along the hilly roads and lanes to visit friends in the neighbouring village. The social intercourse along the way has deep cultural significance and the aerobic exercise can only do good.
There is evidence of the Roman occupation in the Alpujarra and the Moors have left their indelible stamp on the culture, as in most of southern Spain. It is possible to see Moorish as well as Christian festivals to this day and structures such as bridges, dating from both conquering races, are still in use.
Wonderfully scenic walking tracks are clearly defined. Comfortable accommodation, catering to all budgets, is available throughout the region.
Each of the many villages, some smaller, some larger, has its own cultural and regional flavour, yet all share that “lost in time” easy living atmosphere of “no hurry, no worry”. A week spent here can change your outlook on life. Longer, and you probably wouldn’t want to leave. Another visit, perhaps in a different season, is definitely on our agenda.
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009