Footloose in SPAIN - Alpujarras & Barcelona

Trip Start Sep 01, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

Flag of Spain  , Andalusia,
Monday, May 1, 2006

Typically our ideas for a Spanish holiday are something different from the beach, although Barcelona does have an extremely good one. Low cost flights to the fabulous capital of Catalunya make a do-it-yourself city break simple. Getting to the Alpujarras, however, involves a 2-hour bus trip from Granada or hiring a car... but it's worth the trouble. Although only 30 miles or so from the busy coastal resorts in Andalucia, it is another world.. one of goat-herding, medieval water courses, wild flowers and rural charm.

ALPUJARRAS- the unspoilt mountain villages of Bubion, Capileira and Pampaneira form the basis of an enchanting and peaceful holiday... to walk the flower bedecked trails or relax in the charming rustic bars and restaurants. Bus trip to Mulhacien, Spain's highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada.

BARCELONA- A Gothic City, a Roman City, a planned City ..all rolled into one, connected by a simple and efficient tube train network. Gaudi's exotic modernist buildings are a must to see. "The Ramblas" main street is a riot of street performers and shops. Cable cars will take you up the mountain for spectacular views, or to the glitzy harbourfront. See the illuminated fountains at night.The city seems to have everything... including a beach!  WATCH THE VIDEO.

We flew to Granada, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range, and experienced the very essence of Moorish culture, distilled in the magnificent Alhambra Palace. It's a stunning place, and you can spend all day there, but some of the tickets are timed entry, which wasn't immediately obvious.  Wandering around the old quarter was wonderful, and it seems that at every little cafe or bar they will give you tapas; even if you only buy a drink, out comes a little plate with something tasty (but not always recognizable) on it.  We headed for the bus station, intent on reaching our real destination - the Alpujarras-Valle de Lecrin - in good time, and like all bus stations around the globe, it was chaos.  Dave and I split up and walked up and down the bays looking for our bus, amidst the shouting and general hubbub of a busy terminus.  We found the right bus - the driver (already wearing his shades) was standing beside the door issuing tickets.  We got on, settled in our seats.  He checked his watch and got in and slammed the door shut - and like all bus stations, underneath the surface chaos was a well-oiled machine, and we set off dead on time.  He didn't hang about either - with the radio blaring, window and shirt open, we belted down the roads, putting the miles behind us as we started to climb into the mountains.  At the various stops there was no messing - he had a schedule to keep and by Jorge, he was going to keep it.  We swung around those bends as expertly as they come, although my eyes were so often shut I may have missed some of the stunning views.   We were set down at the roadside in Bubion, in the Poqueira valley, a straggling village of white-painted squat houses where our accommodation Villa Turistica sat on the hillside, and we trudged with the cases up the last part of the street to the entrance.  It was a miniature village, built in the local style, comprising of little apartments with separate entrances.  The local authority have a strict rule - new buildings have to be made in the old style - which is utilizing the local stone, chestnut beams for the flat roofs (terraos) which are covered with a grey clay called 'launa', that looks a bit like tar.  Then they are topped with the peculiar tower-like chimneys, vented at the tops and covered with a slate to prevent the rain coming in.  Not that they get a lot of rain up there.  The Sierra Nevadas are the next highest massif in Europe, after the Alps, and the first fall of snow is usually October, lying until May, and by August most of it will have melted.  The Alpujarras became the refuge of the Moors, driven out of Granada in the 12th century, and they settled in the high valleys, leaving their culture and their mark indelibly on the area.  The architecture is Moorish, and the terraces have smooth round platforms with upturned rims for threshing that dot the hillside everywhere you look.  The natural vegetation was replaced with crops and orchards  that were watered by a complex system of irrigation channels called acequias, which have been preserved and surprisingly are still used extensively today.Walking out from Bubion, up to Capileira, along the Poqueira gorge and returning on the other side to Pampaneira is one of the prettiest trails we have ever walked.  The dazzlingly white villages almost recline on the slopes of the valley, and it feels as if time has stood still here.  There is an abandoned village - La Cebadilla - on the way up to the hydroelectric station that has a slightly forlorn look, and the silence is enveloping.  The HE station is hidden, higher up - it doesn't spoil the landscape.  Wild flowers and birds are in abundance, and I don't think I've ever seen so many butterflies - it is gorgeous.  The villages are sleepy, with narrow cobbled streets and airy squares, usually in front of the church, which is still the heart of the community.  Bright Berber rugs are still made here and are hung on the walls with local jarapas (throws); a marvellous splash of colour, along with the pots of geraniums and bougainvillea that festoon any available window ledge or wall.  In Pampaneira there are still water channels running through the streets, built by the 'moriscos' before they were driven out again centuries ago. Tapas here is likely to be of the local ham, salt-cured and hung from the beams, and the heritage of the local gastronomy is a blend of Arab butcher and Christian cuisine. A couple of popular local dishes are 'Migas de pan' (fried breadcrumbs) and 'Plato Alpujarreno' (potatoes cooked in oil with local sausage) and different soups and stews, often featuring the very scrawny looking chickens that inhabit any nook or cranny. They also have a very good local wine called 'costas'. Pampaneira is the larger of the three villages, and has a tourism office with a working loom upstairs with local artifacts.  It is also where our interviewee, Epifania works; she runs a guiding company called Nevadensis with her husband, and she's a mine of local information.  Being originally a Swede, she speaks perfect English.People are friendly but there is not much English spoken up here.  Orchards of apples, cherry, pears and peaches surround isolated cortijos, and many of them are fenced with old iron bedsteads and spring mattresses - waste not, want not, I suppose.  We were walking in early June, and the sun was hot - we got through a lot of water. Climbing up out of Bubion (and it is a climb, however, with enormous horse flies about, I shot up that rocky vertical trail with a personal best record), there is a terrific panorama of the valleys and the National Park (a UNESCO biosphere reserve), with the peak of Mulhacen (3,483m) looming. The National Park is well worth a visit - guided tours by minibus start from Capileira.  It is a fascinating place to visit, cooler of course because it is so high up, but we found it a great side-trip and break from our walking trails.The Moors sub-divided the region into 'Tahas' based on logical geographical lines, and these persist today.  The paths are waymarked, but the Spanish as a nation are not walkers, and I still maintain that there is a distinct difference between unobtrusive and invisible for waymarkers. After walking along the top of the ridge for some time, we began to descend the slopes to Pitres (a sizable village with a school) then through three villages in La Taha - Mecina, Mecinilla and Fondales, which is near the bottom of the valley and the Rio Trevelez.  The villages retain their rural way of life - there are stone laundry troughs that were used until recently, and water fountains for anyone to use. The houses are still whitewashed, and we saw an older woman on the roof with a broom handle tied to a long-handled roller and a pot of whitewash, being directed by her husband who stood about on the ground. It was hotter and drier down here, and the waymarkers were hard to find.  After getting directions from an old gentleman who earnestly and with great determination and attendant hand-gestures explained - I only managed to understand one word in ten - we found our route up through Ferreirola towards Busquistar, which meant 'hidden garden' in the old tongue.  It was much rockier on this part, walking on paths cut into the gorge above the river.  You can still see abandoned terraces and threshing platforms, and wonder at the tenacity of these isolated people. At the very top of the valley is Trevelez, where the famous jamones come from - in 1962, Queen Elizabeth II granted the town the 'royal seal' for hams produced in the region.We sat in the shade of a chestnut tree and waited for the bus to take us back to Bubion. It didn't come. We sat a bit longer, and eventually the next one arrived and took us back. There is so much to see here, so much history, that one visit is just not long enough to take it all in. No wonder walking holidays; walking and painting; walking and photography; and other combinations prosper here - it's a jewel of a destination.  We took a train to Almeria airport, through amazing countryside with walled hill towns in the distance, and wide open arid plains.  It reminded us that there is so much more to Spain than just the coast and the major cities.  The train was modern and comfortable, with the worst piped 'elevator muzak' I have ever heard.


Barcelona is a wonderful city, it really is.  The moment you get there, you just heave a sigh of relaxation - the air is fresh, the sunshine is warm and dry, the sea is aqua and the streets are wide and airy. I loved the city; and the feel of it. It has a real personality, and combines such startling contrasts, perhaps more so than any other European city. The atmosphere is vibrant, it's an emotional city. I saw more lovers - young and old - there than I ever saw in Paris. We stayed in a great hotel built over the railway station - not a bit noisy -  soooo handy for the Metro, and open-top tour buses stopped just outside.  It is essentially a maritime capital of a nation of sailors and merchants - a Mediterranean city. We met Maria Albacar, a mature tourism official who exuded warmth and hospitality, and a genuine love for her home city.  She reminded me forcibly of my best friend Margarita, who will hate me because she's Castilian.  Everywhere was in dual language - Catalan and Spanish. I don't think I had quite realised just how separate the two states really are - and then you begin to think back to the different historical kingdoms that now make up a unified Spain - an uneasy alliance, in my opinion.  Their Civil War is still within living memory.  But in Barcelona, it is impossible to think of anything other than enjoying yourself.  We decided to follow the Modernisme trail which, although being a fairly obvious one, did take us through the parts of the city that we most wanted to see.  You can't visit Barcelona without featuring Gaudi - it just can't be done, however hackneyed it is.  Guell Park (pronounced Shway, which really floored me) is spectacularly strange yet curiously compelling.  Amazing structures and pathways, with some truly lovely ceramic work - I particularly liked the dragon (which looked more like a lizard to me) guarding a staircase. There is a great straggle of craft stalls there, near to the Serpentine benches, which you have to sit on.  It's a photographer's dream - so many different angles that give an entirely different twist to the picture, if you'll pardon the pun. As gaudy (sorry) as it is, you love it, but finding a quiet spot to do a piece to camera link is almost impossible - it's so popular.  Then you walk out of the park, following the trail down towards the Sagrada Familia, at the northernmost stretch of the wide boulevard called Diagonal, at the end of Avinguda de Gaudi. There isn't that much to see on the way,  and you could actually take a bus, but we didn't know that until we had walked it.  It's true; we really do have to walk every step to find out there isn't much to show, so you don't have to!  The Sagrada is stunning, but I have to wonder just what Gaudi was 'on' when he conceived it.  The facades are amazing - I'm not sure I can say 'beautiful' because they don't fit my idea of beautiful.  To me, some of them look as though they are melting, but the detail is extraordinary.  The interior is interesting but unfinished, so you navigate between huge blocks of cornices, mouldings and scaffolding that are waiting to be used.  I like my architecture to be traditional, but Gaudi just knocks you sideways - and you don't mind.  Dave went up the spiral staircase inside one of the soaring spires, with a fantastic view of all the weird and wonderful features that adorn the outside of the cathedral. At the other end of the Avinguda is the Hospital de Sant Pau, conceived by another Modernist, Domenech i Montaner.  It is not as showy, but is decorated with ceramics and surrounded by gardens, and made it onto the UNESCO world heritage site list.Strolling through the Eixample district (pronounced 'shamplay'), following the little red modernisme seals in the pavement, you can readily see why Barcelona wasn't devastated by plague like other European cities.  The wide streets were planned with the idea of purifying sea breezes freshening the city, and although built in a grid system, the corners of the buildings are cut off.  In Eixample, you can see on the facades of buildings, and also in doorways and entrances to apartment blocks and shops, lavish Modernist ornamentation which seems an exercise in Brinkmanship.  Along the Passeig de Gracia the pavement slabs are decorated with swirly patterns, and the ornate lamp posts were designed by You Know Who.  I loved Casa Mila - La Pedrera. It is unique and to me beautiful - the curves (representing the sea waves) are totally pleasing to the eye, and the intricately wrought balconies are supposed to be sea weed. On the roof are the most fantastic 'witch scarers'; fantasy shapes encrusted with ceramics and other materials that are lit at night. You can go up to the roof to view these close up, but be warned - the queue is long.  The Passeig runs into Placa de Catalunya, a lovely green space with fountains and flowers.  And across this, you enter the Ramblas.  You don't care that it is essentially a tourist trap. It's lively, full of stalls selling caged birds and bunnies to flowers and food, and halfway down is the Boqueria covered market - it has an array of colourful familiar and peculiar, apparently edible, wares that rivals the Rialto market in Venice for the vibrancy of colours.  There are a whole host of silent street entertainers - again, I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place - with a variety of performances for the inevitable coin(s) in the tin.  I particularly liked the 'Predator' character, whose long reptilian tongue shot out at unsuspecting tourists having their photo taken with it, and an elderly man dressed uncannily like Charlie Chaplin - I admired him for joining in.  We struck off here, through a square decorated with more of Gaudi's lamp posts into the old city that was Barcino to the Romans.  Parts of the Roman walls are still visible, part of the fortifications built in the late 3rd and 4th centuries.  Barcino was captured by the Moslems in the 8th century, and then by the Franks in 801 and became an outpost of Charlemagne's empire south of the Pyrenees.  The whole medieval city was surrounded by walls until the mid 19th century, and the central part is known as the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic). It's a fabulous place to wander.  I liked the gothic church of Santa Maria del Pi very much; it has a characteristic rose window and a bell tower. The Gothic Cathedral with a gaggle of geese in the centre courtyard, amused me.  We strolled through the narrow streets, and then spent a happy few hours underground - at the Casa Clariana-Padelias, which houses the City History Museum, that has the most impressive Roman and Medieval remains in the city. Nearby is the Palau Reial Major in Placa del Rei, which was the residency of the Counts of Barcelona - it was also the seat of the infamous Inquisition.  This quarter became the political centre of the city, and the counts created the infrastructure that would make Barcelona the capital of the Crown of Aragon.  We forget all this, bathed in the balmy sunlight, but Barcelona is 2,000 years old, as Maria reminds us. We rejoin the Ramblas, and wander on towards the last stretch before the port - Rambla de Santa Monica.  It begins at the Pla del Teatre, where the old principal theatre is situated.  There are still plenty of silent street entertainers as we pass the 17th century canon foundry to be greeted by the monument to Christopher Columbus, which marks the end of the promenade and the proximity of the sea. You can go up inside the column to the top, but we didn't. This stretch of seafront was not what I expected. There are some wildly modern glass and chrome buildings, with odd gigantic 'works of art' that didn't appeal to me, and a shopping centre which I didn't set foot in (gasp!).  Shopping centres I can find at home. The Drassanes are the former shipyards, which bear witness to the might of the Catalan Navy and merchant fleet of the Middle Ages.  Built in the 14th century, they are the largest and best preserved buildings of their kind in the world.  The vast Gothic halls now house the Maritime Museum, which is next to a stretch of wall and a gateway that are all that remains of the medieval fortifications.  Barcelona is one of the most important and busiest ports on the Med, and wharfs and shipyards occupy much of the sea front. A cable car takes you up to Miramar, affording stunning views of the marinas and fishing port.  We are heading towards Montjuic and the end of our trail.You can walk up the hill but it is quite a pull, and having come this far, we decided to take the ultramodern cable car to the top.  It's a funny place; it houses the Military Museum (naturally) and is a fortress and not very attractive and a bit weedy, but it has the most wonderful views of the city that can't be beat.  Of course, everyone knows this, so let's hope you don't get there at the same time as a coachload of snap-happy tourists, taking their group photos, all wearing the same shapeless hats.  You can see the outlines of the Olympic city built in 1992, which seems a bit deserted now. Below the slopes is the Place d'Espanya, with it's two large towers inspired by the Campanile in Venice, with an avenue flanked with exhibition halls that culminates at the magnificent 'magic fountain', before the stairs that lead up to the Palau Nacional. If you do nothing else, you have to see the son-et-lumiere show of the fountain, but it is not performed every night, and only at set times, so find out before you go.  It is a Wonder of the World in my opinion.  It truly is magical; water cascades down lighted mini waterfalls from the terrace of the Palau to the foot of the fountain, which erupts in lighted synchronised bursts to a varied musical soundtrack.  Just sit and slurp an ice-cream and get lost in it all.
For more free travel tips, ideas, videos, competitions and lots more -more travel information on these Spanish trails

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