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Destination: Spain : Clinging to the Past : In the whitewashed, mountain villages of Las Alpujarras, goats wander the hills-- and sometimes outnumber tourists : The mist swirled around the buildings like a potent witches' brew, fixing us in a spell.

April 30, 1995|JAMES DUNNISON | Dunnison is a Toronto-based writer and film director

CAPILEIRA, Spain — Desperate for sunshine after three gloomy, drizzly January days amid the Moorish towers and fortress walls of Granada, my girlfriend, Lisa, and I decided to head for Spain's Mediterranean coast, about 40 miles south.

As our car climbed through the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, the clouds suddenly parted to reveal a sharp blue sky and a string of several whitewashed villages in a remarkable alpine region called Las Alpujarras. What we'd planned as a quick, scenic detour turned into a three-day stopover--and left us with the most exhilarating and indelible memories of our trip.

Las Alpujarras is just 45 minutes from Granada by car. But shortly after the Alpujarras turnoff from the major southbound highway that leads to the coast, the road becomes narrow and, at times, hair-raising, winding steadily through a typical Mediterranean landscape of olive and fruit trees and terraced fields carved out of steep hillsides.

Thanks in part to that challenging drive, Las Alpujarras has remained relatively undiscovered by Spanish tourist standards.

It was one of the country's most isolated regions when British author Gerald Brenan moved to the tiny village of Yegen in the 1920s and later described his experiences in the popular book "South from Granada." Today, the region is a popular summer retreat for residents of Granada, who come to hike and shop for locally made pottery, carpets and colorful, striped blankets. (Though it was sunny and mild during our brief stay, in winter snowfall in the higher reaches may make travel difficult, and daytime temperatures typically fall between 40 and 65 degrees).

But its reputation barely extends beyond the Spanish border; even in midsummer, the words Las Alpujarras just don't have the same ring as Costa del Sol to your average German or Brit (the most common foreign visitors to the area).

The region encompasses about two dozen rustic settlements spread in a rough circle about 30 miles wide, as if the gods had draped a necklace over the mountains and each jewel was a village. Populations vary from about 100 to 5,000, and the primary occupation is farming.

Following Ferdinand and Isabella's defeat of the Moors in 1492, virtually every culture and people chased out of Granada in that infamous history of purges took refuge here--from Moors to Berbers to Jews to Gypsies.

The area's exotic past lives on: Moorish aqueducts still supply water to both villagers and citrus groves. And though the building style and street plans are hardly as elaborate as Granada's barrios and palaces, they nonetheless bear the distinct signature of Moorish architects.

*

Our first day, after we'd turned off the highway to the coast, we drove by groves of palm, olive and citrus trees; ripe black olives, oranges and lemons glowed in the sunshine like drops of pure color on a dark-green etching. We crossed ancient one-lane bridges. We passed a man on a Vespa with a bundle of wood in a wicker basket strapped to his back, a rabbit hunter with his dog and a shepherd with his sheep.

Our first stop was Lanjaron. One of the largest towns in Las Alpujarras, Lanjaron is built on a bluff overlooking a wide valley laced with olive trees and, to the south, a wall of sharp peaks dusted with snow. It's well known for its medicinal spa and spring water, which is bottled and sold throughout the country.

As we got out of the car to stretch our legs, I noticed what seemed to be a shop with strands of beads hanging in the door frame. We pushed through the beads and were immediately overwhelmed by a sweet, rich scent in what turned out to be a butcher shop. The source: hanging, briefcase-size cured hams from Trevelez, which at roughly 5,000 feet is the highest of the Alpujarras villages. I later read that Trevelez ham, called \o7 jamon serrano, \f7 is famous throughout Spain. After lunching on garlicky soup, thick bread and thin slices of that succulent ham in the cafe next to the butcher shop, I'm only surprised that \o7 jamon serrano \f7 isn't famous worldwide.

We hopped back into the car and continued to climb. The landscape grew even more dramatic, with sheer cacti-lined precipices and boulders the size of the car, and the towns became more quaint. While Lanjaron's main drag has the simple elegance of most small towns in this part of the world, the higher Alpujarras villages are clusters of rustic one- and two- story buildings with thatched roofs over their terraces. Roads become cobbled footpaths. Cathedrals become little white chapels.

About 1,000 feet below the snow line, cut into the shoulder of the deep Poqueira Gorge, we discovered Capileira, a town we didn't want to leave.

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