Sueños Andaluces

Those who have read my book will realise and those have read my blogs will have an inkling and those who haven't may not realise exactly how diverse Spain really is. Take the North; wet, comparatively cold and windy, mountainous and full of mountains and lakes and rivers. Take the East; plains of rice and dry land give way to beaches and cheap resort development while traditional Spain buzzes around it. Take the West; barren but immensely fertile lands of forgotten and unknown towns and cities and natural zones where many of the famous ingredients that make Spain so famous come from. Take the South; the most Spanish of Spains.

It was to the South that my last adventure took me. Me and my friend James from UK. Me and James and our little hired car, Peggy Sue. A trip that took us from Madrid, through La Mancha to Granada via Jaen, then down to the sea at Nerja and finally through the twisty turny roads of the Alpujarras. 

One - Cities

After passing through the immediately attractive but finally monotonous slab of flat that comprises La Mancha south of Madrid - speeding through Valdepeñas for wine and Ciudad Real because it's there - you fly through the dramatic Despeñaperros gorge and burst into the first of Andalucia's provinces, Jaen. It's an alien land where thick forests of moody green and laden olive trees coat the thirteen thousand square kilometre region. It's a fairly, or unfairly, unknown province. Understandable if you're not keen on olives or have already visited its two pearls Ubeda and Baeza. I had. Jaen city waited though, sitting pert and confident and surrounded by the aggressive Santa Catalina peaks. As a city Jaen is mostly unappealing but does sport two outstanding monuments. After James heroically pulled Peggy Sue through Jaen's minimalist narrow streets - only incurring one scraping along a wall during which I directed like a father and invited bemused locals to come out and watch in their doorways - we drove uphill to the Santa Catalina Castle. As a building it is grand. As a viewpoint in the area it is insurmountable. The carpet of olive groves, the bouncy and jagged mountains around which Jaen curls like a white cat and the city's gargantuan cathedral taking up all the skyline, was quite something.

Granada is...Spain. Granada is...basically perfect. The city is drowning in history, monuments and areas to visit; from the Alhambra to the old quarter. The city is backed by the highest mountains in the country, the Sierra Nevada. The azure waters of the Mediterranean sea are but an hour away. Drinks come with free food; tapas of the order of paninis with rice and olives. In the evening you have the choice to drink and eat Spanish or to wallow in the Arabic quarter, sip tea and puff cachimbas - James and I did both. The women are spectacular and dark. The people are happy and relaxed. I shall not say much more on the place as I have previously done so in another post. If you haven't visited you must. If not Madrid or Barcelona, Granada - tied with San Sebastian - is the most necessary of Spanish cities to see.

Two - Coast

After skirting the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and almost crashing due to preferring the view of lofty heights to that of the road and due to seeing the 120kmph speed limit and open roads as permission for 140/150kmph, you slide along the south coast through Almuñecar and Salobreña before arriving at Nerja. It rests, hanging over low cliffs and looking out over the sea, a jumble of villas and white pedestrian streets, sparkling between the blue of the water and the set back Sierra.

Nerja's 'atmosphere' is odd. It is both very Spanish but also inescapably touristy. On the one hand we were swimming in the sea, watching serious Easter processions, eating boquerones fritos (fried anchovies) and drinking glasses of manzanilla with free tapas, but on the other hand 60% of the voices we heard were foreign, the shops and menus all wielded the English language with pride and retailers were bursting with colourful tat. At least it was the middle-class bought ourselves a villa on the costa tourist and not the beach and booze Benidorm variety.

Three - Mountains

The famous high-rises of the south of Spain, and of Granada province, are the Sierra Nevada mountains. Big, white and covered in skiers they are easy to visit and are a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The 'foothills' of the Sierra Nevada - still higher than anything in the UK - are the Alpujarras hills. Long an area of comparative poverty and remoteness, the range is becoming more well known thanks to an influx of alternative lifestyle foreigners setting up shop there and also through the popular writings of both Gerald Brenan in 'South from Granada' and Chris Stewart's 'Driving Over Lemons'.

The alternativitiy can be seen at O Sel Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery up a heart-in-mouth shoddy dirt track. A place of windy, serene beauty where the only sound are the bells and squeak from the prayer wheel. Apparently this was the place where the next in line for Lama-dom stopped and felt the enlightenment in the air.

The driving through the hills is both gratifying long - as there are but a couple of roads that wind round the hillside - and absurdly scenic. The 'high Alpujarras' road that we chose skirts one side of the valley wall, providing near constant vistas down to the dappled green and gold fields and opposing mountain range. Little whitewashed villages, cut off from the rest of the country, are dotted around the valley. Some nestle in the valley floor, but most cling precariously to the slopes, with their Berber village-style boxey houses and flat roofs. The names were fantastic: Soportujar, Pampaneira, Bubion, Capileira, Busquistar, Valor, Laroles, Yegen, Bayareales...

After a plato alpujarreño - a carnivorous plate of chorizo, morcilla, jamon, some other chunk of meat, fried egg and papas a lo pobre (potatoes sliced and fried up with peppers) - we burst out of the north of the range and down into the grandest view imaginable towards plains and the two towns of La Calahorra, which sports 800 people but a vast hilltop castle backed by mountains, and Guadix, an odd place with an overblown church, a fort, and a district where people live in modern cave houses.

Spain isn't Andalucia, but Andalucia is Spain. Go.