Harri and I couldn’t decide where to head for our last hike in the beautiful Alpujarra region. Harri fancied another trip to Lanjarón, which has been our preferred walking area, but I thought I had a better idea
We’ve both just finished reading Driving over Lemons, by Chris Stewart. This highly entertaining book tells of Chris and his wife Ana ‘seeking a life with a little more adventure than was to be found at the time on the edge of a dual carriageway near Gatwick Airport’. They bought an abandoned farm called El Valero east of Órgiva for 30,000 euros in 1988 and have lived there ever since.
Driving over Lemons has sold over a million copies and Chris became a world famous author and local celebrity. We had a fair idea where El Valero was situated but had only previously ventured to the point where the main valley bends and narrows.
It seemed a shame to be living so close and not view for ourselves the landscape so vividly portrayed in the book. And if we were going to do it, it needed to be this weekend. Harri warned me it was going to be our longest walk of our Andalusian trip, with a steep climb and very little reprieve from the sun. It sounded tough going; however, my mind was made up.
We set off just before nine on a lovely peaceful Sunday morning, relieved it didn’t feel quite as hot now August was drawing to an end. We followed the same road out of town that we returned along a few weeks ago, which meant again passing the ‘free’ book shop. I couldn’t resist stopping for a quick browse and picked up what looked to be an intriguing novel, One Moment, One Morning by Sarah Rayner.
We hadn’t been walking long before we thought we’d solved a mystery of our own. Late evenings, when we’re sitting on the terrace, we often see lights moving high on the opposite mountain. We’d assumed it must be hikers or cyclists, though why anyone would wander along treacherous mountain footpaths in the dark was beyond me. From this different perspective, however, we could see several properties tucked high into the hillside. The lights we saw regularly must be people making their way to, from and between them.
As we walked, the valley floor opened out to offer an incredible vista. In mid-summer, the wide pebble bed of the Guadalfeo river is rust-coloured and almost dry and yet it flows rapidly during late spring when the snow melts in the Serra Nevada. The rest of the year the arable fields are irrigated by a tightly regulated network of acequias (what we call ‘levadas’ in Portugal). The system means every land owner gets their fair share of water over a 24-hour period and is able to grow fruit and vegetables throughout the long, dry Andalusian summer. One of the things which has most surprised us here is just how much water is gushing around everywhere, on mountains and though urban areas.
As we left Órgiva behind, the road gradually became quieter and the cortijos more and more beautiful. One of the bonuses of a bountiful supply of mountain water is the abundance of brightly coloured flowers; this is an area where people clearly take pride in their gardens.
Eventually, we left the main road to head steeply uphill. Though tough going at first, the footpath was actually a short cut and meant we were avoiding a lengthy section of road and track. Fortunately, we were able to do most of the climbing under the shade of trees. We crossed a wide acequia on a slate bridge and continued uphill, eventually emerging onto the mountain side where the footpath levelled off. Soon, we joined the vehicle track that is a continuation of the road through the valley.
Soon we were gazing down into the valley made famous by Driving over Lemons. Gazing around at the incredible landscape we understood what had compelled Chris Stewart to buy his abandoned farmhouse all those years ago.
Our original plan had been to walk to the ‘end’ of the valley, cross the river on the makeshift bridge Chris has built time and time again and return to Órgiva along the river bed. There was only one problem: we couldn’t work out if we would be able to pass the small dam built across a narrower part of the valley. Harri thought it unlikely the dam would completely obstruct the way ahead to those on foot, but it was hard to tell. When you look down at a landscape from a great height, it tends to flatten out, which means it’s impossible to assess the terrain below accurately. Did we chance it or not? If we walked to the dam and had to turn back it would mean a long steep walk back up to the track.
After a few minutes’ deliberation, we decided to risk it. I wanted to get as close to El Valero as possible and to do that we needed to get down into the valley. I first made Harri promise to turn back if our onward route looked too dangerous or vertiginous … just in case!!
We stopped briefly to enjoy elevenses on a low-level wall with amazing views. A car trundled past at a snail’s pace and its occupants waved … it’s certainly not an easy option living somewhere as cut off as this.
We experienced a little thrill when we passed El Herradura, the farmhouse Chris originally coveted. Another house spilled down the hillside, its outside terraces and lush vegetation making it look like paradise on earth. The next name we recognised from the book was El Duque. What a pair of literary groupies!!
The track descended gradually into the valley and soon we were on the river bed gazing incredulously at the mountains which semi-circled the valley. The river is flowing downhill from the high mountains through the Poqueira gorge, where the traditional white-washed villages of Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira are situated, but there is no through-route for hikers.
One of Chris Stewart’s biggest headaches in his early years at El Valero was fording the river to reach his farm. Local people expected bridges to be washed away when the river flooded and made them as cheaply as possible with whatever materials were available in nature. The current bridge – the sixth? – seems to have withstood the test of time. There is a photograph of Chris standing on it in one online article. It was a little bit flimsy for my liking; the whole contraption bounced a bit when I walked across.
On the far side, we walked alongside the private acequia we’d been reading al about (Chris cleared and repaired it in order to restore running water to El Valero) and imagined what it must have been to live in this remote valley before the internet and mobile phones made communication with the outside world easier.
We had spotted El Valero from the high-level track; however, now we were in the valley it disappeared from sight. When we passed a ford, then a grassy meadow and immediately after a closed gate with a Spanish sign on it, we guessed this must be the access track to the farm we’d read so much about. Our suspicions were (almost) confirmed when we spotted some sheep grazing in an adjacent pen. It would have been perfect if Chris Stewart had appeared at the gate, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, we looked around us at the unspoilt landscape and understood a little better why he had been happy to remain here for three decades.
Harri had warned me we might have to cross the river; however, the nature of the landscape meant we crossed to and fro a total of five times. It’s actually quite liberating to walk through a river – you can only get wet feet once!
The farther we progressed down the river bed, the less inclined we were to turn back. As we approached the dam I mustered up all the courage I could. This was the moment of truth. Harri had gone ahead and when he appeared to be turning back my heart sank. Thankfully, he had just worked out that the route forward meant pushing through some high grasses to briefly follow a path alongside the acequia.
The dusty path down the side of the dam was a bit slippery in places but nothing like as vertiginous as some of the Alpujarras footpaths. I was feeling quite pleased with myself by the time I reached the concrete level, until I realised there was another descent. Harri scrambled down without too much difficulty and advised I came down backwards. Easier said than done with little legs; at one point was dangling with my left foot perched on an eye-level boulder while my right leg had nowhere to go.
Eventually I was down and we were congratulating ourselves for having conquered the dam. We joined another dusty track and followed the dry river bed to Los Tablones, a village which was rather less interesting close-up than it had looked from the far side of the valley. On the plus side, we found a bar and enjoyed some extra-nice ice-cold beer on our pavement table.
According to con jamón spain, the village feels out of place in the Alpujarras because its buildings are so young compared with the surrounding traditional villages. The village’s location meant it was sandwiched between the Nationalists and Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. During the war, around 700 residents left the village and many of its buildings were destroyed. The town hall, church and much of the current housing were built after the end of the war.
The final few kilometres after lunch were incredibly tough, being uphill and under direct sunshine. By the time we reached Órgiva, we were in serious need of another beer.
We’d covered 20.5 kilometres in about five and a half hours, our longest walk in Andalusia. Sadly, it was also our last as we’re heading back to Portugal in a few days’ time. In the past two months we have undoubtedly driven over lemons, but better still, we’ve walked over olives.
(UPDATE: our hosts Sarah and Chris have since informed us that feldspar is mined on the mountain opposite their home – those are not homes we could see but mining buildings. The mountain is also a popular hunting area so the lights we saw might well have been hunters’ torches.)