Monday, July 12, 2021

Walking (A Bit of) The Alpujarras

In early March of last year, with the business sale behind us and having flown to Spain for an initial four week break at the apartment in Mar de Cristal, I thought I would indulge myself and start a blog about aspects of real Spain which might appeal to your typical Brit. Hence El Real Thing was created with a view to Mrs C and I exploring the country in a quest for real football and real beer and then my spouting words of wisdom about our findings. But no sooner had I set up the blog then someone in Wuhan left the bloody fridge door open and nothing’s been the same since. Whilst we got to spend plenty of time in Spain during 2020 we obviously didn’t get to travel very far so no real opportunity to blog about much else other than my newly found dislike for politicians, a view which various “lockdowns” since our return to the UK in October has only served to reinforce. But anyway, after very nearly eight months away and without a PCR test in sight we’re back in Spain.

During the intervening months Mrs C and I have done a lot of walking, partly because there has been bugger all else we have been allowed to do for much of the time anyway, but also because last year - during the initial lockdown in Spain - we read several books about El Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St James. And we quite fancy doing it.  It’s only five hundred miles after all and we’ve got to find something to do now that we’ve sold the business. So we’ve been getting lots of practice in - in and around the beautiful countryside surrounding our UK home town of Burnley and now that we are back in Spain we have Calblanque Regional Park pretty much on our doorstep so we can do the heat training.

La Alpujarra is a natural and historic region in Andalucia, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range where the whitewashed villages and towns are collectively known as Las Alpujarras. British writers Gerald Brenan and Chris Stewart can both lay legitimate claim to having brought Las Alpujarras to the attention of their fellow countrymen. Brenan moved to the area in 1920 and from where he wrote The Spanish Labrynth, a historical work on the background to the Spanish Civil War and, later, South from Granada: Seven Years in an Andalusian Village. Chris Stewart is the author of Driving Over Lemons, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, all three autobiographical about life in Las Alpujarras to where he and his wife moved in the late 1980’s. If you suffer from insomnia and have a propensity for retaining complex information then I would recommend Brenan’s Labrynth but for all normal people the Chris Stewart books I found to be hugely enjoyable. Whitewashed villages in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as recommended by Gerald Brenan and Chris Stewart. And it’s only 350 km south. Mrs C?

Mary Poppins incoming?
Mary Poppins incoming? The town of Lanjaron hosts the world's biggest  
water fight 
every year on the 23rd of June to celebrate its water heritage.
They obviously need lots of umbrellas. And we found a few!
So that’s how we found ourselves, on Monday morning, heading in our Fiat 500 hire car to the town of Lanjaron, one of the many towns on the GR7 (Gran Recorrido - Long Journey) walking route. And I mean many towns. The GR7 is the path through Andalucia forming part of the European E4 route from Tarifa (southernmost town in Spain) to Greece. Yes, I said Greece. But as we don’t have the next year and a half to spare we’re just going to concentrate on that part of the route between Lanjaron and Trevelez. A 2.00 p.m. check-in at the rather splendid Alcadima Hotel Rural in Lanjaron gave us the rest of the day to relax, plan for walking day no.1 and explore the home of the eponymous bottled water company. In truth not a lot was open in the town, a factor we became accustomed to during the week as the absence of tourists to the area - all down to that bloody fridge door - has hit the area and it’s businesses hard. Having said that my beer nose did manage to track down two splendid little bars and we finished the evening with an excellent meal back at the hotel restaurant, washed down by a glass of Tempranillo. Lovely.

Looking back down to Lanjaron and we have only
just located the official GR7 route!

Oncoming Vehicles in Middle of Road. Is to me an example of a ridiculous road sign. To my logical mind why warn others of possible oncoming traffic in the middle of the road when, instead, you should put up a sign on the other side of the road saying Don’t Drive in the Middle of the Bloody Road (!) But in this respect the Spanish are no better. They like to mix it up a bit on the GR routes by sometimes putting a way-marker on the path you’re not to take rather than marking the one you should take. Yes, admittedly the red and white stripes on these markers form a cross instead of the parallel positioning of their correct-path cousins but surely, surely it’s just easier to mark the correct route, not the incorrect one? Anyway, that’s my excuse. That and the fact that at least 50% of the way-markers like to play hide-and-seek. Long story short, we missed (what should have been) the first important GR7 way-marker just outside of Lanjaron which cost us 4km. Accordingly, the cross-country route to the beautiful village of Canar, offering first opportunity to top up our water supplies, was achieved not in 8.4km but in 12.4km. All villages and towns along the route have ample drinking water fountains but an 8.4km gap between towns means that you have to ration your resources accordingly. Add 4km to the equation and an initial supply of 1.5 litres between you is clearly inadequate in 30 degrees of heat. Whilst we had originally planned to get to Soportujar that day, the appeal of Piki’s Bar in Canar was too great for two dehydrated mortals to resist and the fifth “copa” of the draught Cerveza Alhambra was just as sweet and satisfying as the first one had been, all of which were accompanied by complimentary tapas. The bar closed at 4.00 p.m. and we decided to miss out on Soportujar completely and head straight for the larger town of Capileira. The nice lady ordered us a taxi and it was worth every cent of the forty euro fare. Whilst at Piki’s, we booked the Finca Los Llanos Hotel Rural for the night and looked forward to soaking up the atmosphere of an excited Spanish public at the prospect of tonight’s Euro semi-final between Spain and Italy.

The Finca Los Llanos hotel was another little gem and the receptionist was lovely. Indeed a feature of our few days in La Alpujarra was how friendly and helpful all the locals were in their dealings with us. She advised me that the hotel pool bar had erected a big screen for Spain’s quarter final match the previous Friday and whilst she couldn’t be certain they were going to do so again tonight - why wouldn’t they? So we took a stroll around town. Again, all very quiet with not much open and a worrying theme emerging of most bars/ restaurants typically closing at 4.00 p.m. and not opening again until 8.00 p.m. I say worrying because that’s the time I usually like to start. Anyway, a couple of nondescript bars were open for drinks during this twilight zone, not that there was any great (or even modest) apparent football-related excitement and we determined to return to the hotel for our meal and then the footie. Hmm. The hotel pool bar not only doesn’t have a big screen erected, it isn’t even open. Bloody hell. We better have more luck tomorrow when England are playing. Anyway, a very nice steak at the hotel restaurant and we ended up watching the match on the small TV in the hotel room, albeit with several “resting my eyes” moments by the time penalties had decided the match in Italy’s favour. The Spanish may have their footie fanatics but they certainly don’t live in La Alpujarra.

Walking day no.2 and we leave Capileira at around 9.30 a.m. after a very nice hotel breakfast and with full chilly bottles of water, still only 1.5 litres but safe in the knowledge that the proposed route has plenty of villages en route in which to top up. This time we do manage to pick up the GR7 route albeit my “it’s downhill all day today” statement to Mrs C proves immediately to be wishful thinking as we head uphill out of town. However, what goes up must come down and the gentle uphill eventually turns to gentle downhill offering stunning views of Capileira behind us with the village of Bubion below it. Then a more or less level terrain of dirt track provides alternative stunning views as we make progress towards our first village of Capilerilla. We are surprised to see a 4x4 heading towards us at the dirt track junction where we are picking up the GR7 route. With map in hand we must look lost because the 4x4 stops, the drivers window winds down and an English voice asks “are you lost”? The English voice and his wife retired to nearby Pitres - where we should be heading to after Capilerilla - five years ago. The usual “where are you from” questions follow and it transpires that the English voice and myself were both born in Colchester, Essex. Anyway, unlike yesterday we are not lost and we part company in this small world of ours and proceed to Capilerilla where there is not much more than a collection of whitewashed houses and a drinking water fountain where we duly top up our supplies. Then a short and occasionally steep footpath down into Pitres which, whilst small, has a bit more to it than most of the villages with three bars, all open, in and around the town square. It is only just coming up noon but it’s been a nice walk so far, we’ve not got lost yet and we’re well watered. Time for a beer. The small bottled Alhambra lager is cold and sweet and it comes with a complimentary pork tapa. The second one comes with some cheese. I like Pitres. No wonder the English voice and his wife retired here. From Pitres we do some cross country down to Atalbeitar where there is not much except the drinking water fountain and a long uphill path into Portugos. The wrong uphill path as it turns out which brings us eventually on to the road between Portugos and our end destination Busquistar, albeit closer to the latter. No matter, we head back up the road to check out Portugos where we enjoy a large beer in the one and only bar/ restaurant apparently open in the place. We then head back down the road to Busquistar where, when earlier in Pitres, we had decided upon and booked Casa Sonia as our shelter for the night. As with many of the villages we were encountering, the steep paths and streets of Busquistar were at times every bit as challenging as the GR7 mountain tracks but we found Casa Sonia easily enough at the base of the village. Unlike yesterday, we had done as planned and reached our destination with only the slightest of deviations from the GR7 route and completed the 12.6 km without mishap. And Casa Sonia was delightful as was the hostess herself. We sat in the late afternoon sun on the property’s roof terrace, taking in the spectacular views of the lower River Trevelex valley whilst our washing dried on the line behind us. It was in many ways the highlight of the three days of walking.

The terrace at Casa Sonia, Busquistar enjoys stunning views over  
 the lower River Trevelex valley. And in the meantime our smalls are
now drying on the roof top terrace upstairs. All very efficient.
Busquistar is a small village community with a population of less than three hundred. It has one bar and it was closed. Not just between 4.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. but closed. Not permanently I suspect but it may as well have been from our viewpoint. Ooh ‘eck. England are playing Denmark tonight. I can’t miss that. Can I? We had no TV in our room. Sonia, bless her, said she could bring a small TV into the communal lounge and if we could find the appropriate channel (the footie was on something like channel no. 60 the previous night on the hotel TV in Capileira) then we were welcome. We trudged to the local supermarket - which was open - and spent 15 euros on beers and crisps then back to Sonia’s. “You did try Paco’s Bar?” Sonia enquired upon our return. No. Bar Vargas in the village I replied. Paco’s Bar. On the main road just outside the village. Doh! Back up the steep paved streets out of the village and just a couple of hundred yards West along the main road was, indeed, Paco’s Bar. And didn’t they treat us well. Every round was accompanied by a complimentary tapa. On round no. 5 I had to ask them for no more tapas. We were stuffed. They stayed open for extra time even though, by then, we were the only two in the bar and round no.7 consisted of a final celebratory liquor and a big fat tip to top up the ridiculous total of 22 euros they were attempting to charge us. What a result. It’s coming home. 

Walking day no.3 got off to a dull-headed start. It must have been a dirty glass or something. Our supermarket purchases of the previous night remained in Sonia’s fridge. 

Looking back at Busquistar as we walk along part of the Ruta Medieval
towards Ferreirola, close to Chris Stewart's El Valero homestead. 
Back in the UK we know that we can (relatively) easily do twelve miles a day on foot. Indeed we have been gearing up for fifteen miles a day with El Camino de Santiago in mind and have managed same both here in Spain and the UK but two days in the July heat of La Alpujarra and we’re peaking at twelve kilometres, let alone twelve miles. A bit of circumspection is called for and after consulting the GR7 route map with a particular eye on the proximity of villages en route, we decide to miss out on the sparse route between Busquistar and Travelex and instead to head back in the same general direction from whence we came. The alternative GR142 route takes in the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada and whilst there is a similarly long drag were we to follow the route in its local entirety to Lanjeron, a small part of it runs literally from the doorstep of Casa Sonia, forming part of the local Ruta Medieval between Busquistar and Portugos. We decide to follow the first 2.3km of the route to Ferreirola which just happens to be the nearest thing to civilisation to where Chris Stewart’s El Valero homestead is situated. I think I am correct in saying that. Not that there is much to Ferreirola, a few properties and a church and that seemed to be about it other than Casa Ana which specialises in creative pursuits including painting, writing and walking, the latter in conjunction with our esteemed author friend so he must live pretty close. From Ferreirola we walked the road to the next larger - but nonetheless still small - village of Mecina and then up the world’s steepest uphill 1km footpath to Pitres. Walking uphill is hard work. This was purgatory. Bugger me we needed that coffee when we got to the bar in Pitres. I was way too knackered to think about a repeat of yesterday’s bottled Alhambra lagers. After recovering our breath, composure and with a quick visit to the local chemist for some Imodium tablets (needs must) it was off again to return along a 2.5km stretch of yesterday’s GR7 route to the place where we met English voice and wife yesterday, then to remain on the official GR7 route down into Bubion.

The earlier 1km of purgatory into Pitres had taken its toll and whilst we stopped to draw breath on several occasions between Capilerilla and here the landscape, whilst spectacular, was not conducive to a restful break. But one hundred yards from where we had met English voice and wife twenty four hours earlier, the GR7 produced. I strayed not ten yards from the official path to witness the view down to Bubion - below it Pampaneira and above it Capileira - when the dusty, gritty path gave way to smooth rocks offering the view of the trip and a comfortable, warm seat from which to enjoy. We made good use of it booking a room at the Villa Touristica de Bubion, approximately 2km south of our vantage point, whilst indulging in our recently re-charged water supplies. 

This panorama shot doesn't really do justice to the magnificence of the view looking down towards Bubion.
Capileira can just about be made out, further up the mountain from Bubion whilst the village of Pampaneira 
lies south of Bubion, just out of shot. The rocks on the left hand side provided a very comfortable resting place.

The 1.5km trail into Bubion cut a steep downhill zig zag path into the village. It would have been hard work in the opposite direction. Arriving at the bottom end of the village we walked up to the top end to find our hotel, check-in and take a breather before walking back in to town to explore. As before, very little was open and with 4.00 p.m. upon us only a couple of bars remained open although their kitchens did not. All the villages we encountered had a church and the churches would typically stand high and proud when viewing the villages from a distance. Try finding it though when you’re actually in the village itself. Such are the gradients in some of these villages that the tallest church tower will be obscured from view by just about anything and everything that might stand between you and said tower. So it took us twenty minutes to locate the church in Bubion, even though we could have walked the length of the place twice in similar time. But find it we did because where there’s a church there is usually a bar and thus it proved to be in Bubion. Restaurant Plaza 6 to be precise where, despite the fact that the kitchen was closed, the lovely lady rustled up some jamon and quesa and croquettes for good measure. Truth be told we were both still pretty knackered - last night hadn’t helped - and following our church-inspired mini feast we retired back to the hotel where a very quiet night was had by all.

The next morning we were up early, bright eyed and bushy tailed having decided the night before that we would catch the early bus back to Lanjaron where we had abandoned the hire car. Whilst we both felt fully recovered from yesterday’s lethargy, all walking routes back towards Lanjeron involved greater distances between villages and their drinking water fountains and there were weather warnings out for “extreme temperatures” and these certainly didn’t involve the prospect of snow. We booked the bus ride on-line at the princely cost of two euros each and the 07.55 bus duly turned up, albeit a few minutes late, for the one hour journey back and during which we passed through Pampaneira, Soportujar and Orgiva, the first two of which we had missed out on when abandoning our original plans, two days ago, in favour of the taxi.

Soportujar. Always handy to know an
LGBT-friendly Alpujarran village.
Soportujar looked to be particularly interesting. Not only does it afford great views of the lower Alpujarra but also of the Mediterranean beyond. The village also has a bit of a thing for witches. Local legend has it that any children of the village who strayed, unaccompanied, beyond its limits would be snatched by the local witches’ coven, duly despatched and their fat sold to the local dairyman to be turned into milk and cream. The village purports to be LGBT friendly. Less so child friendly it would appear.

Life needs a plan. The great thing about a plan is that it gives you a starting point and an initial direction of travel (in the case of a walking holiday both literally and metaphorically). Thereafter you adapt the plan if and as necessary and see where it takes you. At long last it was great to be able to get out and explore a bit of real Spain, to plan it, execute it, learn from it and (for me at least) write about it. So what did we learn from our three days walking in La Alpujarra?

First, don’t do it in July! In the normal scheme of things we wouldn’t have considered doing anything like this in July or August but frankly we were gagging to get going on our hitherto stalled retirement adventure so we did it anyway and we don’t regret it - we enjoyed it - but it was too hot. Also, make sure that you are aware of typical opening and closing times for local facilities. And learn how to read a map properly! If you have kids with you then don’t let them wander off on their own anywhere near or around Soportujar.

We arrived home, back in Mar de Cristal, safe and sound. We now know that the football didn’t quite make it home last night. Nearly but not quite. Ultimately, three of England's millionaire footballers failed to hit the back of the net from the penalty spot. Millionaires. Is it real football any more? I don't know. But there’s still plenty of real football to be found and now that we are out on parole at last, Mrs C and I are hoping to get searching for some of it here in sunny Spain.

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