Here we are, living in the Algarve, within an easy day’s drive of one of the most uniquely interesting places in Europe, yet very few of us have ever heard of it, let alone know where it is or how to find it.
On the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, not very far south of Granada, is a wildly beautiful, mountainous region called Las Alpujárras. The average elevation is 1,200 metres above sea level but in the region are Spain’s two highest mountains – the Mulhacén (3,483 m) and the Veleta (3,394 m).
A group of eight of us recently drove over to explore this new corner of “our world”. The drive is 550km, all but the last 50km on autoroutes. Once in the Alpujárride, however, the easy driving is history, as the roads (which, by the way, are all in excellent condition) become very twisty and hilly.
The Berbers inhabited this area after the Moorish invasion of 711 AD, and the many small hillside villages today still feature narrow, winding streets and small, flat-roofed, brilliantly white houses. After Granada fell in the Catholic “Reconquista” in 1492, the only Moslem space left was the Alpujárride and it wasn’t until the death of the last Moorish leader in 1571 that Spain finally gained control over this wild, remote area. It remained isolated until well into the 20th century, when the construction of good roads opened it up.
The Spanish Civil War, however, was disastrous for the region and, even after the Nationalist victory in April 1939, guerrillas held out in the mountains until 1942.
Today the region remains remote, isolated and sparsely populated, and because of that it is a fantastic place to visit, especially if you are drawn to the outdoors, mountains, some of the clearest air and finest views in Europe and interesting walking, mountain biking and horseback riding trails.
Our group was particularly interested to find that there are 24 wineries in the Western (Granadian) Alpujárride, and that they are producing some excellent wines. One winery, the Bodega Dominio Buenavista in Ugíjar, was chosen best winery of Spain at the San Francisco International Wine Competition of 2015. While that may be an exaggeration, we tasted their Veleta wines and found them very drinkable indeed. Another, the Bodega Nestares Rincón, which is located in a very modern Centro Temático del Vino Alpujárride, claims to be the highest vineyard in Europe, with the vines on steep, south facing slopes at about 1,400 metres.
Almost all of the wineries are very small, family operations producing less than 100,000 bottles a year, but we were very impressed by their ambition and knowledge – and the fact that most of them are producing organically and some very biodynamically indeed!
The local grape is Vigiriega, a white wine grape unique to Las Alpujárras that is prized for making sparkling wine, but the predominant reds use the familiar Tempranillo, Garnacha, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals.
When not tasting the local wines we were enthralled by the sublime beauty of the white villages that dot the mountainsides. Three in particular caught our attention – Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira, located close to each other in the Poqueira Valley, are just outstanding examples of simple, all white mountainside architecture and are a real paradise for photographers.
In the next valley is Trevélez, another small village that is home to a large number of “secadoras de jamon”. The pig haunches are imported from four other regions in Spain for drying and curing in the pure, clear mountain air. The process is more complicated than one thinks, and takes years, but the end result is delicious (although not, in our opinion, quite as good as “jamon pata negra” from Jabugo).
As might be expected in an area just waking up to tourism, good restaurants are not common. However, we did find a few, and certainly can recommend Pepe Aguardo in Ugíjar and Ruta del Mulhacén in Pampaneira (where we sat out on the balcony overlooking the village, the 17th century Iglesia de Santa Cruz and the Plaza de la Libertad). However, some of our best dinners were in our Casa Rural “El Paraje” hotel, cooked by Brenda Markey, our hostess. This small (five bedrooms) old farmhouse is located near Bérchules, high up a mountainside, and features some incredibly beautiful views.
If you are looking for a long weekend with a difference, or a short break from your Algarve routine, why not take a few days and explore Las Alpujárras? It would be time well spent.