La Alpujarra (whose name is often made plural) is a fascinating and stunningly beautiful system of valleys and ravines isolated between two mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada to the north, and the equally rugged Sierra de la Contraviesa to the south. In Nasrid times, it was an important agricultural region, supplying Granada with vegetables and silk; after the fall of Granada, the Moors, upset with the ever-tightening strictures imposed on by the Catholic Monarchs, rose in two major revolts, both bloodily suppressed. The region then declined into rural poverty and, when the Guadix writer Pedro de Alarcón explored the region in the late 19th century, it was almost unknown.
In 1919, the Englishman Gerald Brenan walked in, pack on back and made his home at tiny Yegen. His post-war publication of his experiences, South from Granada, awakened foreign interest in the Alpujarra, which has been further put in the spotlight by recent bestsellers Driving over Lemons, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society written by ex-Genesis drummer Chris Stewart, who has made his home on a farm in the area. While there are a lot of tourists, especially in summer, they come for two good reasons: the hiking through the valleys, hills, and mountains is some of Spain’s best, and the villages and hamlets, these days all sprucely whitewashed, are highly atmospheric and preserve some of the feel of the morisco culture that originally built them.
Lanjarón, the first town of the Alpujarra, is only 40 km south of Granada, a 30-minute drive. The region is well served by buses from Granada; five a day pass through Lanjarón and the next major town, Orgiva; these then continue to the smaller villages. The Alpujarra region runs due east from Lanjarón, extending into Almería province. The western zone is the most picturesque but also the most touristy. From Orgiva, a road runs along the northern edge of the Alpujarra, winding through some of the most attractive villages that cling to the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The quicker southern route heads east into the heart of the area towards the chief town of the eastern zone, Ugíjar. These parts are more barren and isolated. Another route could take you through the less-visited Sierra de la Contraviesa, further to the south.
Nearly every village in the region has some form of accommodation and at least one bar serving food. Several of the larger ones have a good choice of places to stay and eat but as yet none have been spoiled by tourism to an extent that they have lost their essential character. They are closely spaced in most parts, which means that walkers needn’t plan routes exactly, nor lug large quantities of food and water about.
If you’re planning to do some walking, by far the best times are spring, with a riot of wildflowers, and autumn, when temperatures have cooled and villagers are busy picking grapes, peppers and chestnuts. If you plan on walking into the Sierra Nevada, perhaps ascending mainland Spain’s highest peak, Mulhacén, be aware that this is a much more serious exercise after September, when the temperature drops sharply at the higher altitudes. Walking in summer is a possibility, but take it easy: the sun is fierce, particularly at altitude. Be warned that during Easter, summer and other major European holiday times, the Alpujarra gets very crowded with visitors.
Tourist offices in Granada, Lanjarón and Orgiva can provide information on the Alpujarra. It’s worth stocking up on maps and information in these places as in the smaller villages further into the region, information is sparser. In some places, private tour companies can help visitors with impartial advice. There are also information offices and kiosks in Pampaneira, Capileira, Ugíjar, and Laroles.
The Alpujarra is one of the country’s most popular destinations for walking. There are numerous short-distance routes in and around the valleys, as well as the GR-7 long-distance path that runs from Algeciras across Europe to Athens. Although paths claim to be waymarked, in reality this is sporadic. For any walking in the region, it is essential to have a proper map. The most detailed maps available of the area are the 1:25,000 series of the Instituto Geográfico Nacional but these only cover small areas. It is perhaps best to stick with the Instituto Geográfico Nacional 1:50,000 map (mapa or guía) Sierra Nevada. Alpina’s 1:40,000 map Sierra Nevada/La Alpujarra isn’t bad although some tracks are missing from the map. The best place to pick up maps and guidebooks is in the Pampaneira visitor centre where the excellent Nevadensis guides are based. Or buy Discovery Walking Guides Las Alpujarras 1:40,000 Tour & Trail Map, with detailed GPS information, before you go. You can purchase it from their website http://www.walking.demon.co.uk or download a digital edition from http://www.instant-books.org.
Walking in the Alpujarra is mostly easy. Although there’s a lot of up-and-down, the gradients aren’t that steep and villages are closely spaced. The sun, however, even in spring and autumn, is intense, and you should be properly prepared for it. If walking above village level up towards the Sierra Nevada or similar, be prepared for bad weather at any time of year; if doing longer walks, be ready to stay a night at a refugio.
One minor point to bear in mind: beekeeping is an important part of the Alpujarran economy, and bees frequent many of the walking paths. While you won’t often get stung, there are enough of them to mean that, if you’re seriously allergic to bee stings, consider walking in another part of Andalucía....
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