Driving Through La Alpujarra
The breathtaking foothills of southern Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, known as La Alpujarra (or sometimes the plural ‘Las Alpujarras’), are the setting for one of Spain’s most majestic road journeys. Though easily accessible from the airport cities of both Malaga and Almería – partly thanks to the completion of the new autovía del Mediterráneo (A-7) – the region still fosters a real sense of remoteness. Its timeless landscape fulfils our romantic images of rural Andalucía, while astounding with its dramatic beauty and rich history.
Anna is a London-based writer and editor, with nearly 15 years’ experience working in travel and lifestyle publishing. She has written and edited Time Out guidebooks to cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Madrid, Buenos Aires and Florence; landscape-based features on Cappadocia in Turkey and Chile’s Atacama Desert; style-focused articles for design publications such as Design Week; and travel apps for Google. www.annanorman.co.uk
La Alpujarra is best approached from its western side, in Granada province. As you head east, the roads start to become more deserted, while the hilltop settlements become ever more traditional and atmospheric. Having your own form of transport in La Alpujarra is essential; not only are buses few and far between, but the freedom of being able to easily explore the many different hilltop villages – and take in all the startlingly beautiful views – is what a trip here is all about.
Orgiva and the Low Alpujarra
Coming off the new autovía del Mediterráneo, towards the town of Orgiva, the A-346 (from the coast) or A-348 (from Granada) take you onto the first of the proper mountain roads of the Low Alpujarra. Orgiva itself is a community-focused town with a dramatic mountain backdrop. The large number of both Spanish and foreign hippies and rat-race escapees that make up its population give the place a slightly alternative edge. Plus its annual fiestas – and in particular its Easter ‘Semana Santa’ processions – help to maintain a sense of tradition.
This eclectic mix of residents is also apparent in some of the villages that lie directly north of the town, reached by tightly wound, sometimes hair-raising roads that slither like a restricted snake up towards the villages of Bayacas and Cañar. The latter has fabulous accommodation at the luxurious El Cielo de Cañar, while its whitewashed houses, with their Berber-style flat roofs, give a taste of what’s to come in the more remote villages of the High Alpujarra.
Western High Alpujarra
It’s in the higher part of La Alpujarra – where the altitude averages around 1,000 metres (3,500 feet) above sea level – that you really start to notice the terraced and irrigated hillsides. These are a legacy of the Moors, who ruled this region for some 800 years until as late as the 15th century. The name ‘Alpujarra’ derives from the Arabic ‘al-bugsharra’, meaning ‘land of pastures’. The deep valleys here are intersected by hilltop villages, each with its own character.
Bubión, Capileira and Pampaneira are especially pretty places to stop at, with Pampaneira, in particular, celebrated for its picturesque alleyways. These are lined with colourful flower pots, and tasteful souvenir shops selling pottery, olive oil and the local shaggy floor rugs known as jarapas.
The village’s central square has several cafés serving up generous tapas plates of local sheep’s cheese and serrano ham (with a negligible hit on the wallet). Be sure to wander the steep streets, or stop at the roadsides along the route, to take the requisite photos of drying chillies or corn cobs hanging from balconies. Orange and persimmon trees (known locally as caca, an old arabic name) also line the roads, their heavy fruits tempting passers by.
Eastern High Alpujarra
To get even more of a sense of escape, continue on the High Alpujarran mountain road towards the province of Almería. It’s here that you can really start to appreciate the ethereal beauty of the landscape, away from any signs of tourism. Beyond Cadiar, the hillsides, with their endless olive and almond trees, seem even more peaceful and proud, while the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada become ever closer. Visit during almond blossom season in February, and the blue skies, verdant hills and swathes of beautiful pale-pink blossom provide an expansive and paradisiacal backdrop to the dramatic mountain drive.
Some of the nicest villages on the eastern side include Yegen, Mairena and Júbar, and it’s at these settlements where the region’s sense of timelessness is most evident. Working oxen and mules are regular sights, along with the occasional goat herder, and you’ll share the tarmac with few other road users, save perhaps the odd stray dog (always appearing to be on some sort of mission) or dedicated lycra-clad cyclist. The only signs of modernity in these parts are the colourful, normally empty ‘outdoor gyms’ that appear on the roadsides at the outskirts of villages – an initiative by the regional authorities to keep the area’s many old folk strong and supple.
Yegen – on the tourist map as the former home of British ‘Bloomsbury Set’ writer Gerald Brennan – is a sleepy though still-alive place with a noteworthy food shop (‘Jamones Muñoz’) that should not be missed if you want to stock up on locally produced chorizo, dried figs or almond-flour biscuits. Mairena, 8 miles along, is quieter still, but makes a perfect stop-off if you want to stay overnight, at Las Chimeneas – a rustic-chic hotel-restaurant that forms the perfect base for walking holidays (the GR7 passes through the area) and for sampling the local cuisine. Júbar, further and higher still, is known for its ancient Iglesia del Cristo de la Columna that has been synagogue, mosque and church over the centuries. Other nearby villages, such as Mecina Bombarón and Mecina Alfajar, also remind you, by their names, of the area’s Moorish heritage.
Driving through this part of La Alpujarra is eye-wateringly beautiful, especially at dusk, when the steep whitewashed villages are often bathed in a golden light. If the snow-capped mountains are beckoning, continue the drive up to the Sierra Nevada National Park, reached from here via the A-337. Once up here, at one of continental Spain’s highest points, it’s hard to believe that it’s a little more than an hour’s drive to get back down to the coast.