Stepping back in time
Mairena, in the La Alpujarras, foothills to Spain’s highest mountain range the 3479m Sierra Nevadas, is one of the hundreds of famed Spanish ‘white villages’ visited by hoards of hikers and tourists across the summer months. However, Mairena, situated high in the eastern end of the Alpujarras, is still unspoiled, pretty, and a jewel in the crown of food and culture.
We rise above the coast, drive through a gap in the hills and arrive in Mairena through the winding narrow roads, small ravines and marvel at the high white villages dotting the picturesque Alpujarran landscape where olives, almonds, and grapes are cultivated.
Our accommodation in Mairena
We have three nights booked at ‘Las Chimeneas’ in Mairena, a village of 300 inhabitants. Back home in New Zealand, Manfred had searched to find a special place and we were delighted when we found this more remote settlement among a handful of other white villages; time appears to stand still.
We drive into a small square and immediately spot the ‘Las Chimeneas Restaurant’. We find Soledad, one of the local chefs from the restaurant who lives just off the square. Soledad speaks only Spanish and Manfred is delighted to practice his budding Spanish as Soledad shows us to our suite in the 800-year-old renovated house overlooking the narrow main road, the deep ravines, and the trees covering the valley stretched out below.
Towns in the local area
At this end of the long narrow Alpurrjan valley, the region’s main town of Ugijar (pronounced ook-e-har) sits in a bowl just 6ks down the winding road to the south-east. Historical, and like many of these pretty Alpujarran towns, Ugijar provides the necessary provisions for the villages of this rural area. We plan to visit here in the next days for a more in-depth look at the culture of the area via the museum and of course sampling the food, coffee, and shopping!
Exploring the village of Mairena
We settle into our accommodation and then sit under a tall poplar tree for some local olives, cheese and Jamon with coffee for lunch before setting off to explore the small village. We find the 15 C church, which in all of these villages is the centerpiece of architecture and religious practice. In some cases, the churches can be thousands of years old as David, our host, explained when he gave the guests a historical tour of the 12th-century church in Jubar 2ks away
We find the local supermarket, tiny and cute, which provides fresh fruit, vegetables, toiletries and tools, and a good array of wine. On our further wanderings, we find the old wash station where for hundreds of years the women of the village would wash the families clothes.
We enjoy the colourful potted geraniums and small vegetable garden of another resident and the steep cobbled streets that lead us back ‘home’ to Las Chimeneas.
A pretty garden with the church and houses in Mairena
Dining at Las Chimeneas restaurant
Over the following three evenings, we eat what I call ‘the best food ever’ at the Las Chimeneas restaurant a few steps from our casa. Emma and David Illsley have lived in Mairena for the past 20 years. Initially they took a year out after teaching in the Canary Islands; however, loved the life in Mairena so much they stayed. They developed accommodation and the restaurant whilst bringing up their two boys. They have become part of the life of this tiny peaceful village below the snow line of the Sierra Nevada.
The menu is different each night using fresh local ingredients, sourced by the season and cooked and served by a team of local chefs. The wait staff who are only too happy to stop and chat as they deliver food and wine, advise on menu choices and talk the history of this beautiful area. Soledad, Conchi and a French man (whom we didn’t meet) are the main chefs whilst Andrew and Fernanda help out with deserts and waiting tables. Emma and David pop in each night to check on the happiness and comfort of their guests, chat and advise about the current seasons’ weather, crops, and walks in the local hills.
A walk in the hills
Passing by the ancient church in Jubar we walk the trail to visit the 1,000-year-old chestnut trees. Enjoying the slow pace of walking among the almond, olive and fruit trees we locate the chestnut grove.
Las Chimeneas also provides a healthy breakfast and picnic lunch for those venturing further on their walks. Many white cortijos (farmhouses) dot the landscape and it is lovely to be in this quiet, calm, peaceful but fully working environment, listening to the trickle of the water races, far away from the hustle and bustle of the coast and the cities. This is bliss!
A visit to Ugijar
In Ugijar we walk the length of the town where we come a cross a church which was built on the site where, fact or fiction, Ulysses was said to have visited.
We lunch at a little tapas bar with vines and greenery over the outdoor tables where the owner Juan tells us how he prepares his own olives with salt, garlic, and fennel – they were delicious!
At the museum a local artist is in residence with his sculptures of local wood and paintings on display. Manfred enjoys a chat with him about his work while I wander upstairs to look at the historical informative displays about how they carried out their craft and farming work in times gone by.
In a small square adorned with roses and bench seats, a monument in the form of a ship and plaque mark the 500th anniversary; 1492-1992. Ugijar’s settlement predates the Moors who ruled from the 8th-15th century. Data indicate that the region was occupied in the pre-Roman neolithic period when people lived in caves. The Moors left a legacy of food, art, and architecture that is now inextricably interwoven into the whole fabric of Spanish culture. The Alpujarras was largely a forgotten area where crops were raised in a traditional manner right up until the 19th century when slowly, modern techniques of tilling the soil and harvesting the bounty of the area were introduced. The area has not lost its fine traditions of a slow lifestyle which makes it a perfect restful getaway.
Some local village history
That night David gives us a well informed and researched talk on the ancient cultural history, the little church in Jubar and conquests old and new. The little church has a small and interesting graveyard, overgrown and now not used.
During restoration, about 1 metre under the current floor, they found a Roman tiled floor. Frescoes behind the altar were partially restored after being found behind a six-inch plaster wall which demonstrate the Roman Christian era.
The ceiling beams demonstrate further multicultural use of the church with decoration using the Star of David representing Judiasim, shell carved cornices representing the Moors from Africa and its women’s nave set high up near the bell tower demonstrating the Muslim rule. David tells us that much of this worship occurred in similar or the same timeframes.
The position of the church was noted to be where the sunrise and sunset are seen in the groove of two sets of hills – one in the west, one in the east – and Africa could be seen over the Mediterranean Sea through a gap in the hills to the front. Further historical artifacts and excavations have shown that this strategic point was possibly used for religious and spiritual purposes as far back as 4000-3000BC. David alluded to the age of artfiacts found in the region and some DNA dating on ‘findings’ in an area ‘over the hill’ has shown that settlement was most likely hundreds of thousands of years ago.
A fond farewell
That night at dinner we bid farewell to some of our fellow guests who are staying on to enjoy the walking trails in the area and Manfred engages in a chat with Fernanda about some flamenco greats that they both enjoy. Unfortunately, we are not there at the right time to catch a flamenco performance and realise this is now a more rare occurrence in the remote regions of Spain.
After a nice breakfast the next morning, we leave Mairena with our expectations having been blown out of the water with the amazing food and hospitality of our hosts at Las Chimeneas; as well as the local townsfolk and the culture of this beautiful semi-remote area of Andalusia. The Alpujarras left a great impression on us when we visited the more developed western end 10 years ago. As we leave this amazing region with its particular culture, microclimate, and scenery, we know that it has captured a special place in our hearts as we take many fond memories home.