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Alpujarras: How green are their valleys

Do walking holidays make you think wet, windy and bleak? If so, the Alpujarras offer a rather more forgiving alternative, says Ben Crichton

If you need battering rain, double-lined Gore-Tex and nights spent shivering in tents to feel you're really enjoying your walking, then the Alpujarras probably aren't for you. The Alpujarras are made up of an extended valley running along the southern flanks of the most southerly mountain range in Europe, the Sierra Nevada. They enjoy cobalt blue skies and near year-round sunshine.

The name itself, "Alpujarras", sounding somewhere between a purr and growl, betrays the Moorish legacy of the region. The landscape itself is made up of soft, green valleys and barren, snow-capped heights. The pleasures of walking here are not only the generous climate and the spectacular views but also the lingering Moorish presence.

A North African influence appeared in the region when Berber farmers settled in the 12th century and was consolidated in 1492 when the dispossessed Moors of Granada were given the Alpujarras as the last Moorish autonomy in Spain. The Moorish chapter in Spanish history effectively ended in 1568 when a short-lived uprising against the Christian authorities led to the expulsion from the Alpujarras of all but two Moorish families from each village. Those that were left were charged with passing on their knowledge of the irrigation systems to the Asturian and Galician peasants who were moved on to the vacant land.

The Moors left behind them about 50 villages, perched on crags and huddled in gorges. The architecture of these owes far more to Moroccan and Algerian hill-tribes than any Castilian or Roman influence. Whereas the white-washed houses in other parts of Andalucia have red-tiled roofs, those in the Alpujarras are flat-roofed with distinct clay chimneys that match the style used in the Rif or Atlas Mountains. The irrigation channels that criss-cross the valleys were also the work of the Muslim settlers, as were many of the crops introduced then and still cultivated today.

Having had its brief moment in the historical spotlight, the Alpujarra drifted into obscurity and poverty, its way of life cocooned until the late 20th century. A plaque displayed proudly in the hamlet of Timar celebrates the completion of the road connecting the village to the outside world only as recently as the 1970s. Some houses in the village of Lobras still keep livestock in the ground-floor rooms.

When Chris Stewart published Driving over Lemons and A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, the word was out about the natural beauty and rustic charm of the region. The Alpujarras may not be as untrodden as a decade ago, but you can still walk for a day and meet no one but a shepherd.

Besides the odd, disgruntled first-generation expatriate, not many locals complain about the new income and development that has arrived. The western access roads into the Alpujarras, although paved, are winding and slow-going. Day-trippers from Malaga or Granada don't make it much further than Orgiva. The simple rule is that the further east you drive, the less developed it is and the fewer visitors there are. Trevelez seems to be a bit of a watershed.

East of here the landscape is increasingly arid, until you finally reach the near-untouched and near-desert of Almeria. Regardless of whether you jog up Munros before breakfast or do no more than explore the odd bridleway, the Alpujarras probably have something to suit your walking level. You can find routes that take a day to complete, others no more than a couple of hours. You also have a choice about how to go about it: a number of companies offer guided walking trips, with small groups of half-a-dozen or so people and a guide.

Accommodation and some meals are usually included. If you want a bit more independence some companies arrange "self-guided" trips; these provide you with detailed directions, the accommodation is still booked but you set your own wake-up call and take picnic breaks for as long as you like. Indeed there is no reason why you can't be completely independent. Almost all the villages have some form of basic but comfortable accommodation and except for the peak weekends there is no need to book more than one day ahead.

For the fit and more ambitious there is a chance to bag Mulhacen (at 3,482m, Spain's highest mainland peak) or one of the other 3,000m giants. Less arduous, but still challenging, is the GR7, one of the network of Gran Recorrida (long distance) paths that passes through the region. The GR7 starts in Tarifa and ends up, would you believe, in Athens. Alternatively, there is the GR142, another waymarked trail which winds through the lower reaches of the Alpujarras.

If you are arriving on your own, you should arm yourself with a map beforehand, planning either day walks returning to base each night, circular routes which involve staying in different accommodation or using a bus for linear routes (check times as services are infrequent; see www.alsinagraells.es for more details).

Be warned that the only signposted routes are for the GR tracks. The waymarking is haphazard, though, so you must expect to do some demanding map reading. Any other tracks and routes will require more advanced orientation and navigation. It may be worth considering the Discovery Walking Guides series of maps, which have GPS waymarks on route ( www.walking.demon.co.uk).

Generally, the best times to be in the Alpujarras are either from mid-September to early November, when temperatures are cooling and autumn colours are raging, or March through to the end of May when first the almond and cherry trees blossom, followed by the wild flowers. Compared to higher altitudes, the lower valleys are less affected by the climatic extremes that occur early and late in the walking year, making November or February walking possible. Conversely, the relentless heat of the summer months makes any activity in the valleys uncomfortable but attempts on the higher peaks are possible as temperatures are cooler. As with all mountains, respect should be shown. Snow can fall at almost any time of year and conditions change rapidly. Be prepared and take local advice.

Of course, sublime weather, stunning mountain scenery, an abundance of wildlife and engaging history all within three hours of the UK, are not for everyone. Each to their own...

The nearest airports to the Alpujarras are Malaga and Almeria. British Airways, operated by GB Airways, flies to Malaga from London Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester and to Almeria from London Gatwick. For more details visit ba.com

EASY HIKES FROM THE COSTA DEL SOL

Plenty of hiking trails are within easy reach of the Costa del Sol, although given the intense heat during the summer months, a more realistic time to tackle them is between October and April. Nearest to the coast are the paths through the Montes de Malaga, a gentle mountain range that runs parallel with the coast about 15km inshore. Most of the walks in this area are easy and relatively short; Contadoras, for example, which starts at the Hotel Humaina, just off the C-345 road near Chinchilla, can be completed in an hour.

A little further inland, the Valle del Genal follows the river Genal between the Sierra Bermeja and the road that connects the villages of Jimena and Ronda.

In the Sierra de las Nieves, a spectacular Natural Park east of Ronda, many paths are little more than tracks. One of the most popular walks here is the Pico Torrecilla, which goes through some beautiful scenery including the canyon-like Canada del Cuerno.

Camping in the park is not allowed, so most people choose a base for a series of daily walks, returning each night to the same place. Ronda is convenient for the Sierra de las Nieves as well as the Serrania de Ronda, the area around the town that is not part of the Natural Park. The easiest of the local walks are the Tajo del Abanico, which cuts through some dramatic rock formations, and the Virgen de la Cabeza, a trail through pleasant woodlands.

West of Ronda is the Sierra de Grazalema. Walkers here need a permit, and these are available free of charge from the Park Office, or Oficina del Parque Natural in El Bosque (00 34 956 716 063), but the numbers issued are limited in order to protect the park.

Tourist offices have maps of the different areas, but they aren't detailed enough for anyone to use on a hike. Booklets that explain the walks in more detail are available from the Department of the Environment (00 34 955 003 400; www.juntadeandalucia.es/medioambiente).

A number of companies organise guided walks. Pangea, based in Ronda at Calle Dolores Ibarruri 4 (00 34 952 873 496; www.pangeacentral.com) offers half-day walks from €38 (£27); the price includes maps, a compass and a supply of water.

Walkers wanting a real challenge might want to try one of the long-distance walking trails. The GR7 is the only one that passes through Andalucia, beginning in Tarifa. It then passes through a number of villages, continuing through the provinces of Valencia and Barcelona before hopping across the Med to Italy and eventually reaching Athens. The trail cuts through several of the Natural Parks, reflecting the route that was taken by bandits and pirates, who landed their contraband at Gibraltar and smuggled it through the mountains.

TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

TOUR OPERATORS

A range of specialists offer organised walking holidays in the Alpujarras. Headwater (01606 720 099; www.headwater.com) has trips from £699 for nine days including flights and transfers. Inntravel (01653 617 788; www.inntravel.co.uk) has September and October departures for eight-day guided walks; prices from £535, excluding flights. Mad About Treks (00 34 958 629 195; www.madabouttreks.com) is another Spanish specialist. It has departures in Sept-Nov starting at £450 for a week excluding flights; a four-night break is £237 excluding flights.

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