It was barely 8am, yet the sun was already hot when we set off on our first walk in Las Alpujarras, on the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia. The Sierra Nevada National Park boasts more than 20 peaks over 3,000 meters; thankfully, we wouldn’t be tackling such great heights on our circular walk between Órgiva to Lanjarón.
The Alpujarra was originally settled by Spanish Moors (Moriscos) fleeing Granada after the Castillians took the city in 1492, although they were expelled from their homes by Felipe II after the rebellion of 1569 and dispersed to other parts of Spain.
Thankfully, this beautiful region is now better known for its tranquillity and whitewashed villages. The plan was to do a 15km out and back to nearby Lanjarón, first following the waymarked GR142 and then joining the GR7 (Gran Recorrido) which forms part of the European Route No. 4 and covers about 1,250km.
Harri’s route planning was aided by Walk! the Alpufarras by Charles Davis, a book loaned to us and likely to become our bible for the next two months.
After little more than five minutes of road walking, we turned left onto a wide stony track gently heading uphill. Alongside us, the Río Sucio splashed and gurgled on its journey in the opposite direction. So far, so good. I tried to blank out the towering ridge ahead and breathed a sigh of relief when, after crossing a shallow ford, we came to a fork in the road and veered left again.
My relief was short-lived. As the valley narrowed, the gradient increased. Now rocky sections of path were interspersed with loose rock and soil making our progress painfully slow and often more of a scramble than a walk. More than once, Harri extended his arm to propel me upwards. In the airless valley, our pace became painfully slow. Focus on the scenery, I kept telling myself, for it was indeed quite spectacular.
While Harri was having less difficulty with the actual climbing, the heat was sapping his energy levels too. We cursed ourselves for not being more organised and packing our running buffs (a brilliant bit of kit for stopping the sweat streaming down your forehead into your eyes).
It’s hard to believe these are just the foothills of the Sierra Nevada … that serious hikers venture much farther inland to tackle those towering 3,000 metre plus peaks (though perhaps not at this time of year).
Up and up we clambered, past a series of small brick dams and in the direction of a large rocky outcrop known as the Rabiete. As we neared it, we could hear a strange buzzing noise, just like the buzzing of a live electricity wire … except there weren’t any up here. We determined it must be crickets, or even frogs? We must ask when we get chance to talk to other local walkers.
The undulating path meandered pleasantly around the Rabiete. Harri pointed to a derelict farmstead below, accessible only from Lanjarón despite its proximity to Órgiva. When it was built, the property was known locally as Cortijo de Tejas (house of tiles) because the owner was wealthy enough to use tiles on his roof rather than the traditional roofing material launa.
An hour into our hike and I was shocked to see that we’d only covered one and a half miles. We’d hoped to be home before the hottest part of the day, but that now seemed unlikely.
As the terrain became less steep, the vegetation changed. Now we were in a landscape of lilac gorse and butterflies. Onwards we trekked, until we reached the point where the GR142 crossed the GR7, and a stony track disappeared tantalisingly into the higher slopes. Harri suspected the approximate timings on the waymarks were incorrect. One hour’s walking back to Órgiva and two hours to reach Lanjarón. It was the other way around, surely?
We’d climbed over 400 metres and were now approximately 890 metres above sea level (for reference, Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales, is 886 metres). It was still hot; however, a refreshing breeze provided much more pleasant walking conditions.To our right, a high ridge blocked everything beyond it from view, while our immediate surroundings were not unlike an African savanna with the occasional tree dotted around.
Now we were on a relatively level track, our walking speed picked up and we were able to focus on the landscape rather than where to place our feet. It was too hazy to actually see the coastline, but its general direction was obvious.
With magnificent views of Lanjarón far below, we came off the mountain on a good quality zigzagging path, constructed to provide access to a tiny white chapel perched high on the hillside, but now providing hikers with convenient access to the mountains around the town.
We passed through Lanjarón on our way to Órgiva last week, but hadn’t been able to see much from the car because the traffic is directed around the main thoroughfare. Unlike the Portuguese, the Spanish still consider Sunday as a day of rest so the supermarkets, banks and many other shops were closed. Fortunately, this pretty mountain town being firmly on the tourist route, a few cafes and eateries had opened their doors.
The first thing that struck me was the high-level canopy that stretched from one end of the main street to the other and which serves to provide shade at the hottest part of the day. Even the pretty square with its fountain and statues was similarly covered, giving the whole town centre a strange twilight feel despite it being the middle of the day. Fresh from the Silver Coast, the round-the-clock Andalusian sunshine is still a novelty for us; however, I guess it must be difficult to go about your everyday business in soaring temperatures.
After a while, we turned off the main street and found ourselves meandering through a labyrinth of narrow back streets, filled with tall historic buildings (I counted five floors for one) and impossibly lush plants sprouting from too-small pots lined up against the properties. Some of the older houses were reached via steps leading into a sunken alleyway with several doors leading off. Of course, there was the odd dilapidated building too, but the general feeling was that people here cared about their environment.
Having successfully nailed the hiking market, Lanjarón is turning its attention to mountain bikers. A prominent information board proclaimed (in Spanish and English) that the town ‘welcomes the most extreme mountain bikers’. Early on, Harri noted tyre tracks on the GR142 and said it seemed the route was being used by mountain bikers … it would appear he was right.
It was nearing midday and our thirst was getting the better of us, so we headed back to a bar we’d noticed earlier and paid the tourist price of two euros per glass (not pint).
Our original plan had been to retrace our steps and follow the GR142 back to Órgiva; however, the initial terrain had been so difficult in places that I was concerned about the risk of falling should we attempt to do it in reverse. Harri is braver but he admitted the route had been tougher than he’d envisaged.
Instead – and with some reluctance – we decided to stick to the road. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable but at least we arrived home with all four legs intact. And somehow, we managed to clock up 17km!
For more about the villages and towns of the Alpujarras, click here.