Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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Mi casa Alpujarrana

The ins and outs of renting a vacation home in Spain's high sierra

British author Gerald Brenan claimed that he went to live in Spain in the 1920s to get away from the strictures of English middle-class life. His biographer, on the other hand, said that he went for the cheap wine and cigarettes. Whatever the reason for Brenan's self-imposed exile, he loaded two pack-mules with a folding bed, a table, two chairs and kitchen utensils and set off for the village of Yegan, in the rugged Alpujarra region of Andalusia. Two thousand books followed later by wagon.

High on the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada south of Granada, the remoteness of the Alpujarra villages in the 1920s was astonishing. Some of Brenan's new neighbours still believed in witchcraft and thought all Protestants had tails. Who knows what they thought of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and other eccentric Brenan guests. The Alpujarra is no longer remote but is still largely ignored by visitors and was an ideal place for our own brief respite after a period of intensive travel in southern Spain. We rented an apartment for a week in the small village of Bubión in the highest part of the Alpujarra and about 50 kilometres west of Yegan.

Settled in the 12th century by Berber refugees, the Alpujarra was the last Moorish stronghold in Spain. In 1492 when Boabdil, the last Moorish king, fled from Ferdinand and Isabella's troops to the Alpujarra, the Christian re-conquest of Spain was complete. The summit of the road south from Granada still bears the evocative name of Puerto del Suspiro del Moro: the Pass of the Moor's Sigh. As Boabdil looked wistfully back at Granada and the magnificent Alhambra palace from this point, his mother is said to have scolded him: "You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man." The luckless Boabdil was exiled from his Alpujarra fiefdom to Africa a year later.

The remaining Moors transformed the valleys of the Alpujarra into rich agricultural land. Even after their final exile in 1568, two Moorish families were required to stay in each village to explain their complex irrigation systems to the Christian peasants brought in to settle the valleys. Spain's Moorish legacy is today more visible in the Alpujarra than anywhere else in the country. Coming to town

On a sunny spring morning we drive south from Granada and after 40 kilometres head east towards the ancient spa town of Lanjaron. Here we stop to buy groceries. From past experience, we find it cheaper to stock up on basic food provisions in a larger town -- we aren't optimistic about what supplies we may find as we climb higher and the villages became smaller. Just before Orjiva we turn onto a narrower road leading to Capileira in the high Alpujarra. Climbing steadily, signs point off the road to tiny villages that aren't even on our map.

High above the broad valley of the Rio Guadalfeo, we catch our first sight of the ravine of the Rio Poqueira, the most dramatic valley of the Alpujarra. In the distance, white-painted villages cling to the steep sides of the ravine and we wonder which one is ours. Crumbling farmhouses dot ancient terraces and thick vegetation crowds the banks of the river. Above the terraces, snow glistens on some of Spain's highest mountains. As the road twists and turns, the villages of Pampaneira, Bubiùn and Capileira vanish from sight only to reappear moments later showing us a new perspective. With their flat roofs and strange circular chimneys, these compact villages of box-like houses are similar to those in the Atlas mountains of North Africa but quite unlike those in other parts of Andalusia. Architecture as a way of life

Evolving over centuries and reflecting the Spanish tradition of everyday communal living, these high villages have adapted to the climate and landscape in simple and practical ways. Dwellings form a continuous facade along twisting streets and alleys, their walls softened by countless layers of whitewash. Often too narrow and crooked for cars, the roughly textured, cobbled alleys complement the walls.

Every twist and turn brings the unexpected: narrow passages, simple arches, flights of steps, perhaps a small plaza in front of the church, a tiny outdoor cafe opening up at the end of a narrow alley, or a glimpse of the distant countryside where a street ends abruptly at the edge of the valley. In an imaginative private use of public space, the roofs of dwellings are often extended as flower-filled terraces over streets and alleys, creating small shady areas underneath. The astonishing natural harmony created instinctively by generations of indigenous builders in these villages is enough to make a trained architect weep with envy.

Traditionally, houses of the Alpujarra were not whitewashed as they are now. Heavy timbers laid across thick walls of uncut stone supported a flat roof of stone slats. The roof was then covered with launa, a clay compound made from slate. In South From Granada, Gerald Brenan's account of his Yegan years, he writes about being on the roof of his house one night during a heavy rainstorm. Holding a torch of esparto grass, he begins stamping clay into holes where water had been pouring through. Looking around in the downpour, he sees people with torches on other roofs in the village doing exactly the same thing.

Our own apartment in Bubiùn is compact but it has all we need -- including a magnificent view. There's a small kitchenette attached to the living room and a separate bedroom and bathroom with shower. We hadn't planned on any serious cooking, but it's handy to be able to make our own breakfast and linger over a second cup of coffee when we feel like it. We had chosen the convenience of being in the village so that we could walk to the local store and restaurants, but we could just have easily arranged a cortijo (farmhouse) in the countryside. Having a home away from home lets us forget about schedules and gives us a base from which to explore the surrounding area at leisure.

That first evening we take glasses of wine onto our veranda and look out over the village as chirruping swallows dip and dive around us. Below us, a compact pattern of flat, grey roofs (now built of concrete to keep out the rain) cluster around a simple white-washed church perched on the edge of the valley. To the south stretches the coastal plain and on a clear day we are told it's possible to see the mountains of Morocco across the Mediterranean.

Just outside the village a woman gathers firewood and a small boy guides his family's few sheep homeward. Smoke rises from chimney pots in the still air and a woman, dressed in black and almost motionless, stands on a roof gazing out over the valley. For several evenings she stands there as the sun sets, adding a sense of mystery to a scene that has changed little in 100 years.

As daylight fades, tinkling sheep bells and calling voices carry to us clearly from the next village of Capileira and in the stillness we feel like we are on the edge of a vast, empty space. Evening shadow slowly creeps over the village and twinkling lights begin to appear on the opposite side of the valley. Into the mountains

From Capileira a rough summer-only road crosses the Sierra Nevada to Granada. It's tempting to take it in order to get close to MulhacÄn, the highest peak in Spain, but we want to do some walking. Paths between the Alpujarra villages offer some of the finest hiking and horseback riding in Spain -- for both day trips and longer journeys. We sometimes walk out from a village for half an hour only to find a trail impassable. At other times we find centuries-old paths, such as the one from Ferreirola to Busquistar, where we walk among ancient terraces with spectacular views above the rushing Trevelez River and past the crumbling stones of long-deserted farmhouses.

After walking through Busquistar, we head for Trevelez, the highest village in Spain. Famous for its hams dried in the mountain winds, Trevelez was once known for its witches. Some say the distinctive taste of the local ham comes from a spell cast long ago by a witch. After all, there is an old Spanish belief that the higher a place is above sea level, the more witches it has. On that basis, Trevelez must be well supplied. We see plenty of hams in Trevelez and the exciting finish of a bicycle race from Granada. The witches, however, must have been out of town.

We make our way back over the winding road to our own familiar village. Armed with glasses of gutsy Rioja wine, we sit on our veranda for what has become an evening ritual. We never did make it to Yegan, but I had scribbled a few quotes from Brenan's South from Granada before leaving Canada and find the one that described his own sunset watch: "There was an isolation, a silence, broken only by the noises of the village and by the burble of running water -- a feeling of air surrounding one, of fields of air washing over one that I have never come across anywhere else." Hard to improve on that. Somehow I don't think Gerald Brenan went to the Alpujarra just for the cheap wine -- or even the cigarettes.


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