where the writers are
#104 Walking in the Alpujarras

A guest blog on the Stanfords bookshop site

 When David Brawn at Discovery Walking Guides suggested I write a walking guide to the Alpujarras, I told him there were too many tourists there. In retrospect, I can see that for a publisher the distant prospect of potential clients wasn’t necessarily a major drawback to the project. When David heard my alternative idea for a guidebook, he said it sounded like clambering about the town rubbish dump. I then inadvertently insulted the place where he lived and he said something that peeved me, and I said and he said, and the correspondence continued in this vein, each dispatch coming complete with its own barbed aside.

 My prejudice against the Alpujarras was the product of pure snobbery, based on the fact that a few people had been there before me and more looked likely to go in the wake of Chris Stewart’s successful setting-up-home-abroad memoir, Driving Over Lemons. It’s a prejudice I have now wholeheartedly renounced. Blessed with high peaks, long ridges, deep valleys, clear mountain streams, lovely woods, eye-popping vistas, and a host of picturesque villages, the Alpujarras are the setting for some of the best hiking in Spain. And no, there aren’t too many tourists there!

 Most visitors head for the White Villages that lend an almost Berberesque aspect to the mountains. Pampaneira, Bubíon, and Capileira in the Poqueira valley are the most famous, and they are all good bases for walking holidays. However, it's also worth venturing off the beaten track. The hamlets of the Tahá de Pitres and the larger villages along its rim are all lovely, the sort of places to make you think, “Right, that’s it, I’ll be stopping here for the rest of my life.” Trevélez, often incorrectly identified as the highest municipality in Spain, is a great gateway to wild terrain. And for more domestic tastes, the horticultural and chestnut capitals of Bérchules and Mecina Bombarón are highly recommended. Wherever you go, though, the walking is the thing, and the walking is invariably good.

 At lower altitudes, there are lovely cobbled mule trails winding between terraced fields dotted with mulberry trees. Many of the fields have been abandoned due to the rigours of farming such steep terrain, but the chances are that you will still see pannier laden mules transporting feedstuff and crops between hamlets. Higher up come the great chestnut, oak, and pine forests, laced with logging tracks, royal ways, drove trails, and transhumance paths leading to the high pasture and the rocky wildness of the peak country, including Mulhacén, which at 3483 metres is the Iberian peninsula's highest summit. But by far the most distinctive features of the Alpujarran topography are the acequias.

 Who first developed these irrigation channels tapping the aquifers of the high mountain is disputed, some crediting the Moors, others the Romans. Either way, it had become a Moorish 'art' by the time Felipe II expelled the remaining Moslems after the rebellion of 1568, as he made one family in each village stay behind to show the Christian settlers how the system worked, a situation sufficiently fraught with potential as to inspire my first novel, Walk On, Bright Boy. Some acequias were hacked into cliff faces by masons suspended over vertiginous drops, but most follow gentler slopes and provide perfect pathways to pleasure for leisure walkers.

 I went back to the Alpujarras last spring to update Walk! The Alpujarras and it was like coming home, only home was even better than I remembered. Some trails have disappeared, some discretionary paths have been closed, but for the most part the hiking infrastructure has been expanded and improved, including the wayposting of itineraries like the Acequia Almiar above Soportújar or the Ruta Medieval below Juviles, stretches of which are so sublime that I was embarrassed to have missed them on my previous visits.

 As for the publisher and me, it’s ten years since our collaboration began and we’re still squabbling, good naturedly for the most part, but displaying an uncanny, almost comical knack for approaching issues from diametrically opposed points of view. To be honest, it has been the most productive bout of bickering I’ve ever engaged in, resulting in over a dozen books to date, plus an unrivalled collection of GPS data for foreign walking destinations. Where we go next, remains to be seen, but I don’t doubt for a moment that it will occasion minor discord and major delight.