Greentraveller's Guide to Las Alpujarras, Spain
Words by Paul Bloomfield, photos by Diana Jarvis.
Artwork for Greentraveller's Guides by Tina Smith and Mark Edwards
Foreword by James Keane
Inntravel Product Manager for Spain and Portugal
Nestling in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, mainland Spain’s highest mountain range, Las Alpujarras is a region seemingly untouched by the passage of time. The melting snow from the highest peaks is channelled along acequias – water channels dating from Moorish times – to water the fertile lower slopes, while farmers send their sheep to pasture on higher ground.
This is an area completely in tune with the seasons: spring is heralded by the appearance of almond blossom, autumn brings sweet chestnuts, and the onset of winter wrestles olives from their branches, soon to be turned into the region’s prized olive oil.
Well-waymarked footpaths – including the long-distance GR7 – connect traditional whitewashed villages, strung out along the steep-sided river valleys and affording fabulous views of the surrounding area. One such village is Trevélez, the highest in Spain and home to the delicious jamón serrano, which is dry-cured in the clean mountain air.
The region has provided literary inspiration, too, from Gerald Brenan’s reflections on the time he spent here in the 1920s and 1930s, South from Granada, to the more recent series of light-hearted memoirs by local resident Chris Stewart, a former Genesis drummer, that began with Driving Over Lemons in 1999.
In this Greentraveller's Guide to Las Alpujarras, we’ve sought out a range of accommodation, highlighting the best things to do and our favourite places to enjoy local food. We hope you enjoy discovering all that this much-overlooked corner of Spain has to offer.
What our writers discovered in Las Alpujarras
There’s no denying the ‘Chris Stewart Effect’ in Las Alpujarras – the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucia’s Granada and Almería provinces. Before the former Genesis drummer penned Driving Over Lemons, his paean to farm life in a rural Alpujarran community, few of us could pinpoint the region on a map. Today, Las Alpujarras is a byword for rustic Spanish idyll.
Wine-tasting in the Sierra Nevada, Las Alpujarras
Andrea and Jack Montgomery head to a wine-growing region in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Las Alpujarras to visit Juan Palomar's vineyards and sample his award-winning wine
A natural high: walking & wildlife in Las Alpujarras
Paul Bloomfield goes on a guided nature walk in this glorious mountainous region in southern Spain, where the dual overlapping protected areas of Sierra Nevada Natural Park and National Park host countless bird, plant and insect species.
A question of taste: local flavours in Las Alpujarras,
Paul Bloomfield heads to the region to get a taste for ham-drying and home-cooking around Mairena and discovers that the flavours of Las Alpujarras reflect the ingredients, lifestyles and history of its people. v
Stay, Eat, See & Do
Our pick of places across Pelion
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- The small town of Laujar, 15 kms from Mairena, is the last single European capital of the great Moorish kingdom of Al–Andalus. In its heyday this vast Islamic empire stretched from the shores of the mediterranean to the Pyrenees, and the centuries-long decline effectively finished in 1492 with the surrender of Granada, leaving the last Caliph, Boabdil, in possession of just those territories south of the massif of the Sierra Nevada, that is to say, the alpujarra.
- The province of Granada is one of the few which still maintains the true traditions of the tapas bar, in other words a tapa that is provided free of charge to those who order either wine or beer. (Or top tip – a mosto, which is an alcohol free grape juice.) Curiously, you don’t get a tapa if you order anything else, even though a coke, say, or gin and tonic might cost more. However, it’s not the done thing to actually ask for a tapa, it’s more a question of accepting gladly whatever it is you are offered. You can of course order a small portion, a so-called racion, or media–racion, but these are significantly larger, and you will be charged accordingly for these.
- Many of what we now take for granted as the classic fruits of the Mediterranean—oranges, lemons, apricots, peaches, pomegranates—were all introduced by the Moors, brought from as far away as China and Persia along trade routes through Arabic Islamic dynasties further south and east.
- Las Alpujarras is criss-crossed with acequias (water channels) which guide water to the lower fertile slopes. Most of these date from the time of the Moorish occupation and today make for great, easy to follow walking routes.
- Las Alpujarras is famous throughout Spain for its unique ecology, melting snow on higher ground a sharp contrast to the arid land below.
- The southern flank of the Sierra Nevada is made up of two parks, the National Park, with a stricter conservation policy, covering the higher slopes, and the Natural Park, encompassing the lower slopes and Alpujarran villages.
- The Natural Park covers approximately 86,000 hectares of land, extending both to the south and north of the mountain ridge whose 14 peaks rising above 3,000m make this Europe’s second highest range after the Alps.
- Just to the East of the alpujarra lies the Tabernas desert, or sub-desert to be precise. This is as dry as it is interesting, if that’s not too much of a contradiction, and many of you will have seen it before because of its splendid Hollywood connections. Literally hundreds of films have been made here, and if you need to add colour to your mental picture of the place, just think of Indiana Jones, El Cid, A fistful of Dollars, Lawrence of Arabia or Ridley Scott’s 2015 Exodus and you should get a fairly good idea. It’s dry because it’s sunny all the time, more winter sun than the Canary Islands even, but just next door in the alpujarra it’s wonderously green and fertile, the terracing and irrigation systems testament to man’s endeavour and ingenuity, and proof of what we’re capable when we’re desperate… and have enough shovels and slaves.
- The Sierra Nevada is home to the two highest mountains in mainland Spain - the Mulhacén and the Veleta. The village Trevélez (famous for its mountain hams) is one of the highest villages in Europe.
- More than three-quarters of all European plant species are said to be found within the boundaries of the Sierra Nevada National park. Such diversity is really only possible due to the elemental temperature changes through the year, this in turn inspired by an altitude change of more than 11,000 feet from shoreline to the peaks of Mulhacen. Although climate change has meant that we might need to re-think the references in the poems to the eternal summer snows, which are now perhaps a bit less eternal than had been expected, there is still a good covering on the Northern slopes well into July, and it always(!) snows in October.