La Alpujarra

We left Aguadulce in the middle of yesterday morning and drove west along the motorway to Motril. The coastal plain on our left, between the mountains and the deep blue Mediterranean, is, quite literally, covered in plastic green houses as far as the eye can see up and down the coast, where much of Europe’s supermarket fruits and vegetables are grown. From a distance the uniform white plastic agri-tunnels might be mistaken for salt pans; up close, where the green houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the motorway, one can catch glimpses of neat rows of greenery inside. Speeding past in a car, it is difficult to tell what these plants are, but given their shape I would hazard a guess that some were tomatoes and peppers.

On the edges of the towns along the motorway, huge signs advertise companies producing plastic sheeting and miracle-grow bio-fertilisers. It feels eerily like a time just before Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It was Sunday, so with the exception of a mother and small child sitting on a crate in the wasteland outside one of these greenhouses, for 50 kilometres or more I saw no signs of human life. But I have been past these tunnels on weekdays and Saturdays, and they look just as devoid of life. I know they employ great numbers of African migrants. Yet where these workers live, or what they do when they are not working, I have no idea.

To the north, out the right hand side of the car, rose the mountains. In the foothills, more greenhouses perched on terraces cut into south-facing hillsides. But beyond the foothills, the rugged mountains are mostly barren, except for the occasional arresting patch of bright yellow spring flowers, and trees bearing pink blossoms. The joy of seeing these reminders of cyclical life was palpable. Beyond those mountains rose even higher snow covered peaks, and the girls and I squealed in delight every time we caught a new glimpse of snow in the distance.

Clifftop view of Calahonda

Clifftop view of Calahonda

We stopped to stretch our legs on the cliff top above the beach town of Calahonda, the water turquoise below us, and the wind on the cliff causing us to shiver after the heat of the car.

The girls and Grandad on the cliffs above Calahonda.

The girls and Grandad on the cliffs above Calahonda.

At Motril we left the motorway and turned north, up into La Alpujarra. Our destination was Órgiva, and we followed a winding route high above the Rio Guadalfeo, getting ever higher into the mountains. The dam and large reservoir mark the south western end of the Rio Guadalfeo, and up from the reservoir the river was a thin thread flowing through a wide dry river bed.

Up here there is more greenery. Gone are the barren mountainsides and in their place more verdant mountains, in places covered in pine woods, in others extensively cultivated with olive, orange and lemon trees and more of those trees with the lovely white and pink blossoms. What could they be?

The mystery trees....

The mystery trees….

Julian and I were keen to visit Órgiva as we are both huge fans of the memoir writer, Chris Stewart. Stewart, a founding member of the band Genesis, moved to this part of the world in the early 1990s with his wife. They bought a ruin of a house and a small hill farm, and they set about farming and settling into local life. Since 1999, he has produced four hilarious memoirs about his life in La Alpujarra. Julian and I have read the first three – Driving over lemons, A parrot in the pepper tree and The almond blossom appreciation society. The fourth instalment – Last days of the bus club – was published last year, and we are keen to read it soon. (He’s also written Three ways to capsize a boat – one of the funniest sailing books we’ve ever read)

At a tourist shop farther up the mountain.

At a tourist shop farther up the mountain.

We wanted to visit this place that had inspired Stewart to write so warmly and wittily, a place that we already felt we knew so well from reading the books quietly to ourselves and aloud to each other. Órgiva and the surrounding countryside were supposed to be beautiful – and they didn’t disappoint. As we neared the town the number of these blossom-covered trees increased and, almost as one, it suddenly struck Julian and I – of course, they’re almond blossoms, just like the title of Chris Stewart’s third book! There are orange and lemon trees everywhere, heavy with fruit. Every house, every garden, every farm is surrounded and hidden by lush citrus trees. The church in the centre of town has orange trees growing right outside the door, and in the town square we sat amidst orange trees as we ate lunch. There was even one cafe/bar set amidst an orange grove, and I was disappointed to discover that it doesn’t open until 8pm on Sundays. Any other day of the week and we could have had lunch there.

The town in nestled amongst the mountains and looking in almost any direction one can see mountains rising up – the massive Sierra Nevada to the north and the Sierras Lujar and Contraviesa to the south and south-east. The place took my breath away.

Orgiva nestled amongst the mountains

Orgiva nestled amongst the mountains

There was a noticeable number of expats around – of the hemp and sandal-wearing variety, and I saw more dreadlocks that you might expect to see in Jamaica. I heard English spoken all around and the shops and bars catered to English speakers to a far greater extent than in Aguadulce or in any of the Galician towns we visited last summer. There were posters on railings and on walls advertising alternative therapies and healing, yoga and meditation, and I know from reading writing magazines and blogs that this part of the world offers expensive week- or more-long writing retreats and workshops, often with Chris Stewart as a guest speaker or tutor.

A large marquee had been erected in the town square and it was a hive of activity inside. Dreadlocked and hemp-wearing individuals of all ages were setting up a stage, putting up lighting, and laying out electrical cable. I stopped to talk to a couple of people. An English man told me it was a pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk, two showings this very night, at 7 and 9pm. He suggested we hang around for the show, but we had other things to do and places to see and, besides, we didn’t fancy negotiating those windy mountain roads after dark. An English woman I spoke to told me the pantomime was a community event, involving various youth groups and the local schools. We knew from reading Chris Stewert’s books that his daughter attended the local school, and this woman now told me that many of the local school children have parents from the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, and that English is spoken almost as widely in the town as Spanish.

Orange heaven

Orange heaven

We left Órgiva to travel farther up into the mountains. We wanted to see at least one of the famed white villages nestled at high altitude. A few miles downriver from Órgiva we had started to encounter orange sellers on the sides of the roads, and shortly after leaving Órgiva we pulled in to the side of the road to buy oranges from a man selling 6kg bags from the back of his car. We bought two bags – 12kg of oranges for €4. They are the sweetest juiciest oranges and from the moment we returned to Carina last night we have been eating them and juicing them. Orange heaven!

The road up the mountain was narrow but well maintained, and it wound round and round like a corkscrew, with views back down over Órgiva and the almond and orange tree covered slopes. We parked at the village of Pampaneira, whitewashed and shining in the sun. It took my breath away. Almond trees grew in profusion and the tiny narrow streets offered tantalising glimpses of the snow covered mountains beyond. We sat in the village square, in front of the church, drinking and eating yet more of the amazing tapas we’d been feasting on during all our stops.

Snow covered mountains and village above Pampaneira

Snow covered mountains and village above Pampaneira

It seems that almost every building in Pampaneira was devoted to tourism. Every shop (and there were many, for such a tiny place) sold colourful rugs called jarapas, pottery, rustic clothing, hams and herbs. There were many cafes, bars and restaurants, including an amazing chocolatier called Abuela Ili. It was a little chocolate museum, with the entire history of chocolate on the walls, together with various tools used to make chocolate over the millennia on display. I set aside my chocolate-free New Year’s Resolution to partake in some chocolate tasting. My favourites were a dark chilli chocolate and a white chocolate with black pepper.

Typical narrow street in Pampaneira.

Typical narrow street in Pampaneira.

As beautiful as the village was, I wondered who lives here. It is clear the village relies heavily on tourism and I wondered whether local people had diversified into tourism to make a living or, as happens in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere, if the locals have been priced out and the town is now populated by in-comers from Granada, Madrid, Barcelona or elsewhere. Certainly, the sizeable population of expats down in Órgiva would suggest the presence of a large in-comer population here.

We took a scenic route back to Aguadulce, returning to Órgiva and driving east along the road that runs above the Rio Guadalfeo and Rio Cadiar. The thin soils on the mountainsides were extensively cultivated with almond and olive trees, set out in widely separated neat rows. Julian commented on the great contrast between this form of agriculture and the intensive green house agriculture just the other side of the mountain, and as we emerged from the mountains near the town of Berja, the extensive almond growing abruptly gave way to the intensive green houses. We also thought about the different migration patterns involved with each type of agriculture. Chris Stewart is just one of many northern European, eco-warrior, back-to-nature types who has taken up extensive farming in these mountains; while the green houses, producing Europe’s cheap fruits and vegetables are populated by migrants from north, west and sub-Saharan Africa.

By the time we got back on the motorway, 50 kilometres from Aguadulce, the sun was setting behind us in the west, Katie was fast asleep, Lily was hungry (again) and I was desperate for a cup of tea.

The girls and I are going back to Ireland next week for a short visit. I think all my Chris Stewart books are at Mammy’s house. I fancy reading Driving over lemons again.

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