I’ve always had a thing about mountains. As a child, we spent a week in the Highlands of Scotland every summer. Idyllic memories of rambling over heather-covered moors, clambering up massive grey lichen-kissed boulders, splashing about in ice-cold burns (streams), exploring ruined stone houses. And that sky… endless. Gloriously wild and empty spaces. Last summer (damp, being Scotland) I spent a week there with my kids and my mum. I’m not sure if the next generation quite got my passion for those landscapes.
Then, 15 years ago, I lived in Quito for a year. The capital of Ecuador is high up in the Andes, at 2850m (9350 feet). Weekends were spent exploring extinct volcanoes next to beautiful lakes. From the farmhouse where I lived, it was easy to reach the lush slopes of Pichincha.
Andalucia, where I’ve lived since my South American adventure, has some spectacular mountain ranges, including the Sierras de Huelva and Ronda and also Grazalema. I had long hankered after the Alpujarra, the mountains between the Sierra Nevada, Europe’s most southerly ski area, and the Mediterranean coast. This area is known for its hilltop villages, ham, spring water and stunning scenery.
An offer to use a campervan for a weekend, a long-held dream of my daughter’s, along with a starting point of Málaga, meant that a joint aim could be realized in one weekend. The motorway sweeps you speedily along the coast from Malaga across into Granada province.
As we left Orgiva, the gateway for the High Alpujarras, the road climbed further and further up into the turquoise sky, and the town got smaller and smaller below us, its church spire shrinking with each snaky curve. All around were verdant green meadows and clumps of trees spread across slopes.
I could feel that high-altitude thrill kick in. Rounding hairpin bends, we passed helicopter pads, stone houses, and all with a backdrop of that wide, open expanse of sky. I find that such dramatic, natural landscapes have quite an emotional effect on me. Is it weird to feel moved by mountains?
In May when we went, the spring flowers were astonishing – blood-red poppies, canary-yellow gorse, exquisite roses, as well as orange, lemon, almond, chestnut trees (depending on the altitude and terrain), vineyards. The majestic mountains with slopes creased into folds into valleys.
The highest peak of the Alpujarra is Mulhacen, in the Sierra Nevada – at 3482m, also the tallest mountain in Spain. The children were thrilled to spot little patches of snow on its upper slopes, and expressed an interested in scaling up to play, which was mercilessly quashed. (We still have a winter season Sierra Nevada visit pending.)
There is something awe-inspiring about nature on such a phenomenal scale. The ethereal size but also the simplicity – few houses, cars or people; just spectacular nature: the soaring peaks, granite glinting in the sunlight, the flowers, and the trees.
After the famous trio of villages – the curiously Brazilian-sounding Pampaneira, Bubilon and Capileira with their nazari-era church minaret-towers, we camped first at Balcón de Pitres campsite.
Apart from the prettiest loo and washing block I’ve ever seen, draped in wisteria, this had spectacular views, a bubbling stream and an efficient if charmless restaurant (it was blowing a gale, and I didn’t fancy cooking dinner in the campervan micro-kitchenette while the children hurled themselves around – boiling water, scalds etc). We had the campsite mostly to ourselves, apart from the odd tent and a long-term caravanner.
One of the most delightful aspects of driving through these mountains, is that every time you round another curve, a village awaits. They’re all different, and all extremely photogenic, though sadly stopping on a narrow mountain road to photograph them isn’t always feasible.
The campervan was a massive hit with my children, who would climb up to the top bed as soon as we stopped anywhere, to pop their heads out of the skylight window. Obviously being able to use outside space too is ideal – eating behind or next to the van, although you do have the interior option of a pop-up table next to the sofa seat, while the driver’s and passenger’s seats both turn 180 degrees to face the sofa, offering space for five (realistically, two adults and three children).
The next day we headed off past Trevelez, famous for its hams (competition for Jabugo in Huelva), to the furthest eastern part of the High Alpujarras – the last group of villages is Nevada, and our destination was Laroles. After Trevelez, the landscape becomes less green and more barren.
However I couldn’t resist a stop in Yegen, as this was home to Gerald Brenan, the English writer of South From Granada. Brenan lived here in the 1920s and 1930s before the Civil War, in a quiet, rural village connected by road to local town Ugijar, where women fetched water from the village well in earthenware jars. As Brenan says: “The lives of these people were so entirely bound up with their village that nothing that happened outside it or that could not be interpreted in its terms had any meaning for them.” Not much has changed, then.
My beloved Dad, who passed away earlier this year, was a huge fan of Brenan, as a fellow hispanophile. So in homage to him I had a walk around the village, saw Brenan’s house, and looked at the themed route you can follow. I also chatted to an elderly gentleman called Juan who had worked for Brenan, and was delighted in my interest.
Brenan was an important figure in 20th-century hispanophile literature, and a cultural centre named after him opened recently in Churriana near Malaga, where he also lived. But I’m not sure how many of today’s visitors to Yegen know about the man who brought the Alpujarras to world attention back in the 1950s.
There’s a film of South from Granada, and the script supervisor was a woman called Anna Kemp. Anna loved the area so much while filming, that she bought a house in Laroles. And then set about a major project – building an open-air theatre.
Our main purpose of the entire trip, if I’m honest, was to visit Laroles (alt: 1100m, pop: around 630), a village almost on the border with Almeria which dates back to Roman times (the name comes from Laureles). Using an era (old threshing circle), which all these villages had for making wheat into flour, as a stage, the theatre was built in 2014. Every summer, they put watch a short season of plays and performances – Me Vuelves Lorca – featuring well-known Spanish theatre companies and comedians with the most stunning backdrop.
The stage is on the edge of the village, so behind you can see miles of mountains, and to the right, a row of cypress trees. All around is fragrant rosemary – you’re basically sitting on a hillside. Lorca, who came from Granada city, had a theatre company called La Barraca which took plays to isolated villages around Spain, bringing culture to the remotest communities, and this feels true to his legacy.
Anna was inspired by the Minack in Cornwall to build this outdoor theatre. Through a nifty combination of EU and crowd-funding, her project has installed 250 stone seats, built by local masons, in six rows, each seat sponsored by a person or goup. These sponsors include Russell Crowe and Leonard Cohen, and Spanish actors Eduardo Noriega and Antonio de la Torre. More seating is planned for the future.
Local volunteers from the village act as stewards for the public during the theatre festival in July and August, manning the bar (a second era, above the seating rows), feeding the actors (some food supplies are donated by Spanish companies like Coviram, while Cruzcampo granted the project a Cultura Viva award), and putting up and taking down the stage lights. This needs to be done every night after each performance, as valuable equipment has a tendency to disappear in Spain.
Laroles has all the charm of Spanish mountain villages, as well as practicality – massive channels running under the houses to accommodate sudden downpours,small, beautifully kept streets, with some houses putting on impressive floral displays. You can also see a mosaic of a man plowing with his donkey – beasts of burden are still used in the fields around these parts – and a pretty park designed to make the most of the view.
Thanks to tips from Anna, we had hoped to visit three artisan alcohol producers in the village, however sadly that weekend the owners of both Cervezas Nazari craft brewery and Mil 300 winery were out of town, but we hit lucky with Bodega Cortijo Fuentezuelas.
Miguel and his scientist wife, who keeps him on toes as all partners should, showed us round their tiny winery. Having started in 2004, they have just five hectares, and produce 18,000 bottles of organic red, white and rose per year. We saw the pneumatic spinner, the metal tanks and finally the American oak wooden barrels where the wine is aged. Being environmentally minded, they use the oruja (pulp) to treat the land.
After trying the wines – young red, crianza, reserve and gran reserve; rose; and sweet white, I found the reds a little peleon – too strong for me; the sweet white, which is made using overripe native grapes, was smooth with a deliciously intense flavour.
After our wine tasting (I wasn’t driving, I hasten to add), we spent our second and final night on the Costa Tropical. We weren’t that taken with the beach, but the swimming pool was a big hit. Plus the weather was calmer, so we had a home-cooked dinner sitting by the campervan.
A few tips for travelling in this stunning part of Spain.
Take a good map, with plenty of detail, such as a Michelin. Without this, we would have ended up on some unnecessarily long routes, missing the short cuts – tiny roads unmarked on smaller-scale maps.
This may seem obvious, but the mobile coverage on mountain roads is patchy to say the least. Don’t rely on phone maps – use paper! (see above)
Space is at a premium in these campervans, so go for small luggage with travel-sized toiletries and compact towels. For the kitchen, those mini-olive oil bottles (25cl) are very handy.
Flamenco Campers can provide, for an extra charge, a variety of handy accessories, including table and chairs, bedding, and a chemical toilet (we went for the first two but eschewed the last).