Dora Carrington, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf:all passed through the tiny village of Yegen in southern Spain. Its mountain walks and village life are as alluring today
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WE hardly need to imagine the open-mouthed local shepherd. By any standards it was a bizarre convoy, straggling up the side of an Andalusian mountain late one evening in the spring of 1920. In front strode a short man with weaselly features, like a genteel tramp in his old patched corduroy suit and rope sandals. On his heels was a blond Adonis in white shorts, fresh from the playing fields of Oxford. Some way behind, riding side- saddle on a pair of donkeys and accompanied by two local muleteers, came a young woman with blue eyes and a page-boy bob, and an older man, the oddest of the lot: "a darkly bearded he-goat" piping out complaints (the saddle was playing havoc with his piles) in the high-pitched voice of a true aesthete.

This strange company was making slow and (in one case at least) painful progress towards Yegen, a village high up on the northern flank of the Alpujarras valley, south-east of Granada. A few months earlier, an impoverished Englishman, Gerald Brenan, had come out here with 2,000 books and an urge for self-improvement. He was desperate to get out of England - a country "petrified by class feeling and rigid conventions" - and a friend had told him it was possible to rent a house in Spain for as little as pounds 5 a year. After tramping for weeks through the 30 or so isolated villages of the Alpujarras, he found a house that suited him in this poor settlement, with its "grey box-shaped houses of a battered Corbusier-style" perched high above the valley at a height of 1,000m. The asking price was 120 pesetas for the year - then about pounds 6, just within Brenan's tight budget.

Brenan was the gentleman tramp leading the procession that evening. The others were his first visitors since he had left England six months earlier. The Adonis was Ralph Partridge, a wartime friend who had come dragging reluctantly in his wake his fiancee, the painter Dora Carrington - known on her own insistence by her surname alone - and the man she lived to serve, Lytton Strachey. The triangle of love and dependence that held the three together was recently described in Christopher Hampton's film, Carrington. But Brenan - briefly Carrington's lover, and more lengthily her faithful corespondent - enjoyed a life beyond Bloomsbury that is not even hinted at in the film, and was closely bound up with his adopted country where he died in 1987.

I had read that Brenan enjoyed near-saintly status in Spain, but it took the bureau de change at Malaga airport to bring this home. Seeing my copy of Brenan's book, South from Granada, the cashier launched into a eulogy of the man and his works. His reputation here rests not just on travelogues but on serious works of scholarship, such as a life of St John of the Cross. An earlier religious project had to be abandoned after Brenan's revelatory encounter with a local schoolgirl. As Michael Jacobs writes in his Guide to Andalusia, "making love several times a day wreaked havoc on his biography of St Teresa". Most of all, Brenan's firm refusal to turn a blind eye to Franco - unlike most of the expatriates - earned him the country's respect.

The Spanish cult of Brenan is not immediately obvious in Yegen itself - the subject of South from Granada - where the author lived on and off between 1920 and 1932. There is a plaque, of course, on the house Brenan rented - commemorating "the British Hispanist who immortalised the name of Yegen" - but the building looks resolutely closed. The only windows have new aluminium frames and shutters: no dwelling on the past here. Just along the access road, a new "characteristic" hotel, the Rincon de Yegen, offers a dessert called "torticas de higos al licor Brenan". And that's about it.

But I tracked down an old woman who said she had known el ingles: "A nice man with lots of friends," she remembered. As a young girl (not that schoolgirl, surely?) she witnessed the string of unlikely visitors. Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Augustus John, Roger Fry, Bertrand Russell: all passed by - at a time when the journey from Granada took two days. Brenan mixed with the locals, too: giving dances, attending church, even going so far as to court a local girl in time-honoured fashion through the reja, or window grille, only dropping her when he discovered she was almost a midget who had been standing on a box to make herself look taller.

Yegen has changed only superficially since the 1920s. True, there are cars, fridges, phones and TV sets. But the first thing I saw when I dropped down from the main road above the village was a mule being watered at the village fountain - the same three-spouted fountain that passing muleteers, up from the coast with their loads of fish, used to praise for the purity of its water. The faith still holds; if you ask for mineral water in the fonda next to the fountain, the owner goes outside with a jug and fills it up.

Progress has brought whitewash, too. "As in all Alpujarran pueblos that keep to the tradition," wrote Brenan, "no whitewash was employed on the outside." It was a village of "primitive Berber architecture," with houses that suggested something "made out of the earth by insects". Nowadays, the cool green gullies and exposed red ridges of the valley are dotted with clusters of white: postcard architecture, perhaps, but no less attractive for that - especially to a tired walker homing in on a distant target. But prettification apart, Yegen's main feature is unchanging: the view. The village perches above a jumble of dry valleys, eroded red bluffs and walled splashes of green, where tomatoes, peppers and haricot beans are grown.

Despite the parched surroundings, there is water here in abundance, coming down off the snowfields of the Sierra Nevada. A complex system of channels and sluice gates directs it to the plots of greenery, a legacy of the Moorish occupation which here had its final stand. Even after the final expulsion of the Moors in 1568, two families stayed on in each village to hand on their knowledge of irrigation. The Arabic influence lingers: a torn poster advertises a disco in the village of Mecina-Alfahar, featuring a singer called Aben Humeya "and three Go-Gos".

The best way to see the Alpujarras is on foot. The views are breathtaking, especially from the high sierras above the village where Brenan's landlord, the lugbrious Don Fadrique, owned a mountain farm. Brenan used to head up to the pass of El Horcajo underneath the peak of Mulhacen, and stay in a cave for a couple of weeks "in that mixture of boredom and exhilaration which camping out alone on mountains gives". Once, he claimed, he marched from Granada to Yegen in a day - a distance of 60 miles over Spain's highest mountain range.

More leisurely treks can be enjoyed along the old mule tracks connecting the Alpujarran villages, though these tend to peter out, making a good, recent map essential. The ironically named Camino Real (Royal Way) used to provide the only access to the high villages: today those sections not taken over by the road still make good walking (except during the blazing summer months), and there is a fonda in most villages, offering basic accommodation and food. In the steeper and more enclosed western part of the valley, the section between Bubion and Busquistar makes for a good day's trek: another fine walk in rugged country joins Berchules, near Yegen, with Trevelez, at 1,500 metres the highest inhabited villages in Spain.

Another walk from Yegen leads straight down. This is the route the Strachey party took that night; after a glance at the gradient, I decided to retrace it in the opposite direction. After passing through Mecina Bombaron - completely different in character to Yegen, on the side of a steep valley planted with poplar and chestnut trees - the path detaches itself from the road and plunges 1,000ft to Cadial. Halfway down, the red cliffs are stained silver-grey by patches of graphite, and here I stumbled on a field that looked suspiciously like a meta-phor: nothing but ploughed rock, with a couple of shrivelled almond trees growing in it.

When I finally reached Cadiar, it was in the throes of its autumn wine fair. I noticed that the aluminium feeding-trough seller had the largest cluster of interested customers. In the main square, the town fountain had two spouts; one gushed water, the other wine. The amber montilla that came out of it was both free and delicious. After a few glasses, I turned round to see a small elephant lumbering through the streets, unaccompanied. It seemed a good time to shoulder my rucksack and stagger off.


GETTING THERE: Yegen and the eastern Alpujarras are best reached from Almeria Airport, about an hour and a half's drive away. Iberia (0171- 830 0011) offers return flights from London via Madrid for pounds 215. The journey from Malaga, with its cheap charter flights and car hire, takes about three hours.

STAYING THERE: The Rincon de Yegen (00 34 958 851270) offers double rooms at 5,000 pesetas (pounds 27) a day, and three self-contained apartments (8,500-11,500pts, pounds 45-pounds 60), plus a good restaurant. Pension Nuevo La Fuente (00 34 958 851067), next to the village fountain, has decent food and accommodation at risible prices: b&b and an evening meal for a family of three came to 6,500 pesetas (pounds 35).

FURTHER READING: Gerald Brenan's account of his years in Yegen, South from Granada, is published by Penguin at pounds 6.99. The best map for walking in the Alpujarras is the 1:50,000 Sierra Nevada sheet available from Stanfords (0171-836 1321), Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9LP.

INFORMATION: Spanish Tourist Office, 57 St James's St, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901).