Slow Travel in La Alpujarra, Andalusia
March 14, 2019
by Nancy Laforest
Let’s make the detour, we thought, so we forked right off Southern Spain’s A-44 motorway towards La Alpujarra. A friend’s mother lived in a tiny village called Atalbeitar, and we made plans to visit her for lunch. We stopped on the A-4132 just past Orgiva to buy a bag of oranges, and as promised rang Eve to let her know we were en route. She gave us approximate directions over bad phone reception, and we continued our sinuous journey up into the mountains.
Cañar, Bayacas, Carataunas, Soportujar. These exotic-sounding names represent the white villages hanging off the mountains above and below the main road. I started to feel queasy amidst all the beauty, with my husband, the driver, admiring the ancient ruins and terraces dotted with palm trees, paying no heed to the narrow road’s edge.
We took a breather at a sweet little chapel at Padre Eterno, and soon after curved around a big bend to the journey’s most postcard perfect view: the Poqueira Valley. Three sprawling white villages lay beyond the gorge before us, climbing up in succession towards the Sierra Nevada’s snow-covered peaks. Pampaneira, Bubion, Capileira, we soon discovered, were a tourist favourite, boasting labels like “Los Pueblos Más Bonito de España”, some of Spain’s most beautiful villages. Small café tables lined pedestrian streets and colourful hand-woven rugs hung off balconies. We promised ourselves we’d be back.
It was an early afternoon in late April when we veered off the main road and arrived to Atalbeitar. Lost somewhere between Granada and Malaga, Eve’s tiny village exists down a steep, dead end road, about 40 kilometres and nearly an hour off the motorway. I was grateful to finally arrive, to have survived the journey. At first I thought I’d never want to come back here again, but as my car sickness slowly passed, it turns out I’d never want to leave. There was just the right combination of hazy sunshine and breeze carrying the scent of warm thyme from the fields, the surrealism only enhanced by the jingle of goat bells in the distance.
History of La Alpujarra
Eve’s village is part of La Alpujarra, a region of outstanding beauty at the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains and a true definition of slow travel. It’s part of a protected Parque Natural, meaning that construction is regulated and controlled. Unlike the popular Costa Tropical just over an hour away, we’ll never see high-rises and awful tourist complexes here.
Over lunch, Eve told us that the area was first developed by the Moors, the people of North African Berber and Muslim European descent who ruled Al-Andalus some one thousand years ago. In the 1500s, the Moorish leaders reigning over Granada were expelled by the Spanish Catholic armies and flocked here, to the mountains. Using ancestral knowledge, they built homes, agricultural terraces and an irrigation system that is still used today.
Most of the building foundations in the area are original, and according to some, Atalbeitar remains one of the best-preserved villages in La Alpujarra. It is also one of the few with a name of Arab origin, Harat al Beitar, meaning ‘the veterinarian’s neighbourhood’. Back then, travellers heading to Granada with fish and supplies from the coast would stop here to let their animals rest after their arduous trek over rugged mountains.
Why Visit La Alpujarra
Today, the arduous treks are made by adventurers who choose to hike these hills – though there are also easier circuits to follow. Part of a natural park, La Alpujarra is criss-crossed with old Medieval tracks that are signposted and well-kept, including the GR7, which runs from Andorra to the Strait of Gibraltar.
Year-round sunshine and blue skies
The weather here is divine, and clement enough to eat lunch outside year-round, except in July and August, when temperatures often reach the high 30s. Some, like me, find it too hot to accomplish anything during summer days, which is why the siesta is so ingrained in local custom. I recommend visiting La Alpujarra anytime except summer.
Spaniards are some of the happiest, liveliest folks around, and according to a recent Bloomberg study, one of the healthiest nations in the world too! The Mediterranean diet certainly plays a part, as does the fact that Spaniards take the time to socialize, laugh and dance. La Alpujarra is a vibrant mix of local Spaniards and foreigners, mostly creative Northern Europeans who have moved here for the slow way of life.
Tropical fruits and vegetables grow abundantly, and the area is especially known for its oranges, olives and almonds. There are several Iberian ham curers around (Trevelez and Portugos are well-known for their jamon de calidad), as well as wine-makers of all sorts.
Must-see Sites in La Alpujarra
The Mezquita, Roman bridge and fizzy water fountain around Atalbeitar
Follow a circuit from the village up to the Neolithic rock formations of the Mezquita, for a spectacular 360-degree view. Head back down to Ferreirola, filling up your water bottle at the naturally carbonated iron-rich la gaseosa, then make your way to Fondales to explore around its Roman-built bridge, still standing strong over the Trevelez River.
The snow-covered peaks above the Poqueira Valley
The village of Capileira itself is a charm, with an abundance of local products and unique artisan shops. There are some excellent restaurants here (El Corral del Castaño, Bodega la Alacena, Antonio’s Pizzeria), not to mention picture-perfect views of the mountains above, the valley and villages below, and the Med Sea in the distance.
O Sel Ling
This Buddhist retreat centre above Padre Eterno offers courses and private retreats. Its grounds are open to visitors in the afternoon, so climb your way up to the top to admire the statue of Tara. Stay for sunset if you can, as the view is otherworldly from here – you can even see Africa on a clear day.
Thursday market in Orgiva
La Alpujarra’s administrative centre hosts a lively market on Thursday mornings, with the city’s colourful locals creating a cosmopolitan breeding ground for ideas and social movements. Have lunch at Baraka’s before heading back out.
Getting to La Alpujarra
The area is quite remote, so driving is your best option. There is, however, a regular bus service from Granada, which makes stops in most of the villages. Visit www.alsa.es for schedules and prices.