Serenity reigns in Andalusia hill towns

Nestled in the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains an hour’s drive southeast of the Spanish city of Granada is the exquisite palace of the Moorish caliphs, the Alhambra.

Surrounded by the splendour of this masterpiece, the visitor is quickly captivated by this beautiful architectural monument to eight centuries of one of the greatest civilizations Europe has ever known.

Spanish culture icon
The journey to this icon of Spanish culture takes the traveller through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.

Along the way are magnificent views of the great south-facing, sun-drenched slopes of the Sierra, of secluded pueblos blancos (white towns) embedded into the mountainsides and of rugged terrain that has been skillfully irrigated and cultivated for centuries.

Often called Alpujarras, in the plural, because the region has distinct geographic areas and lies among three separate mountain ranges, this is a land of Alps (high places) overseen by Ujar, the goddess of clear light.

Declared UNESCO biosphere
The Alpujarra is a naturalist’s dreamscape and a primary resource for amateur historians. This unique ecogical system, the nature park of the Sierra Nevada, has been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.

It is a region of primary resources: forest, flora and fauna, constantly nurtured from above by the melting snow.
In the midst of Spain’s highest mountain ranges are fertile valleys with groves of almonds, olives, oranges and lemons, as well as the largest number of unique botanical species in Europe.

Sheltered from the north wind by the high peaks (the most elevated is the Mulhácen at 3,481 metres), the Alpujarra today is a sequestered but easily accessible region in which you’ll see species as diverse as mountain goats, wild boar, eagles and goshawks.

Here, you will also find traces of the Moorish heritage that honour the Islamic culture that graced the south of Spain while the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages.

Maintain Berber culture
As early as the 11th century, however, the Castilian monarchs began a campaign to expel the Moors from the Iberian peninsula and, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella were successful in conquering the strategic and sumptuous city of Granada. The city’s Moors were forced to convert to Christianity.

Those who refused escaped into the hills of the Alpujarra. These Moors of mixed Berber and Arab descent who had once inhabited northwest Africa were a people used to harsh climates and adept at maximizing the resources of their environs.

Today, the 50-odd villages found throughout the hills of the Alpujarra retain the traditional Berber architecture of white box-like houses arranged ingeniously on top of one other in cohesive communities that celebrate the creative use of space.

Equally important is their use of water. The Moors, as the Romans before them, built an elaborate canal system, which still provides irrigation for the villages and high terraced pastures.

Next page: Timeless, tranquil lifestyle

Timeless, tranquil lifestyle
The Alpujarra is an immense natural waterworks and filtration system. Moisture-laden clouds from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are captured by the Sierra Nevada and release snow in the winter and rain in the summer.

Over the centuries, the people of the Alpujarra have diverted this water with a system of fountains, pools, communal wash houses and irrigation devices that allow water to flow in and around each village.

As you explore one of these villages on foot, pausing to admire the vivid flowers adorning the homes, a well-fed house cat or another magnificent panoramic view, you hear in the stillness of the pure mountain air the splashing of water. 

Practical village design
Strolling through the intricate and intimate streets and passageways of Bubión, we discover a typical Alpujarran village, a village of tinaos (porticos) and terraos (roof terraces).

These communities have a unity of design that is aesthetically pleasing and, at the same time, practical given the restrictions of the terrain. Dwellings, shops and other buildings are connected by porticos, supported by the walls of adjoining habitations, so that access is possible to upper or lower “neighbourhoods.”  

The flat roofs provide additional outdoor living spaces. Constructed of wood, the roof terraces are traditionally covered with slate and are especially noteworthy for their round slate chimneys and the inventive coverings that deflect the winds sweeping down the valleys.

The walls are covered in a paste of magnesium clay made waterproof by exposure to the sun. The whiteness reflects the intense rays of the sun and, given the many vertical and horizontal surfaces of the village, there is a constant play of light and shadow, especially beautiful when the red setting sun gives the village a soft glow.

Village lifestyle, crafts
The Alpujarra villages are also a treasure trove of unique gastronomic delights, folklore, crafts, music, dance and distinctive wines.

Especially noteworthy are the colourful handwoven Alpujarra rugs displayed effectively against the white walls by local craftspeople.

Walking through the streets during siesta, we catch glimpses of quiet, private lives through geranium-trimmed windows and on laundry-strewn balconies. From somewhere within, we hear the plaintive and enchanting notes of a guitar.

Integrates nature, habitation
The Alpujarra is also known for festivals that have significant ethnological and historical meaning.

Somewhat discordant with the peaceful mood of the region is the re-enactment in various villages of Moros y Cristianos, street theatre dramatizing the territorial struggles between Moors and Christians. Although an incongruous note in the peacefulness of the Alpujarra, this custom is a reminder that this is a land that was greatly prized by many for a long period of time.

Today, the Alpujarra is a model of the integration of nature and human habitation and, if the lessons of history—both modern and ancient—are learned well, it will remain a geographical and cultural oasis.