Range finder: Exploring Spain’s Sierra Nevada
For Jeremy Laurance, a week-long hiking holiday in Andalucia's Sierra Nevada meant travelling light and relishing the epic scenery – with the added bonus of a night of wild camping
Saturday 30 July 2011
Wild camping is the only sort that has ever reall y appealed to me. Deep silence, wide spaces, stupendous views. The "wilderness experience" loses its edge when you wake up next to a toilet block and a cafeteria; if you are going to go back to nature, you have to do it properly.
But there is a downside to spending a night in remote country, far from the nearest tap or corner shop. As there is nothing where you are going, everything has to be carried in. By you. Usually uphill. Could there be another way of doing it? Supported wild camping? Wild camping with wine?
There could. A "night under the stars" high in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada is part of this week-long walking holiday. The Sierra Nevada is Spain's loftiest mountain range – higher even than the Pyrenees – and rises behind Almeria on the Costa del Sol, running west for 100 miles to the outskirts of Granada. My wife and I were to camp at Siete Lagunas, a group of seven jewel-like lakes nestled in a hanging valley at a height of 10,000ft.
Happily, this was one of those holidays where your bags are transported from hotel to hotel, leaving you to carry nothing more than sun cream, water and tasty items for a picnic lunch. So you can enjoy the stunning landscape unencumbered by a backpack the size of a small house. The trip to Siete Lagunas was to be no exception.
A horseman (whose name we never learned) would deliver tent, sleeping bags, mats, stove, food and everything we would need – including some of our extra clothing for the chilly night – to a pre-arranged spot up the mountain. We would, we were told, find it easily under its DayGlo orange sheet. All we had to do was get ourselves there.
We had arrived in Las Alpujarras, the region of valleys on the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada three nights earlier, driving east on the coastal motorway from Malaga – near empty on a Tuesday afternoon in high summer – before turning northwards. The hills at first appeared barren and featureless, a jumble of rocks and rubble spotted with irregular patches of oak scrub and dry thistle stalks. The writer and explorer Gerald Brennan wrote a riveting account of his life in the village of Yegen in the 1920s and 1930s in South from Granada. In it, he describes arriving to find a land "yellow and grey and devoid of interest", and almost turned round to go home.
So might we have done – until the beauty of the Sierra Nevada was revealed. As we rounded a bend and got our first glimpse of Berchules, the village where we were due to start our walk, the landscape was transformed. Instead of desiccated hillsides, we were confronted by an oasis of green – trees, terraced fields, gardens, watered by fast flowing streams – and in their midst a jumble of white cube-shaped houses running down the hill, fused into one another. Beyond was an immense view to the sea.
The magic of this region lies in the contrast between the high arid hills – a "gigantic mass of slovenly rock" in Brennan's phrase – and the green oases that surround the villages, fed by the snow-melt from the peaks. Wherever you are on these lower slopes you are never far from the sound of tinkling streams or the rush of water tumbling down an acequia – the channels built by the Moors to irrigate the pastures and gardens, lined with poplars and every sort of fruit tree.
Then there is the charm of the villages. They are little changed in decades and so far removed from the tourist developments on the coast they could be on another planet. There's a degree of anarchy here, reflected in the confusion of houses clinging to these mountain slopes, separated by narrow, twisting streets and precipitous inclines more suitable for the mule and the horse than the car.
Wendy Gibson, the gravel-voiced English owner of the Hotel Berchules, welcomed us. She showed us to a simple room with a stupendous view from its balcony. Her son, Alejandro, is an accomplished cook. Downstairs, he produced hearty Alpujarran dishes, including empedrao, a soup with pork ribs, white beans and saffron, and cocido, chicken stew with pork belly, chick peas and green beans. The feast was accompanied by robust local wines that we judged delicious.
Our first day's walk followed a route up the Rio Grande. We climbed first across a bleak hillside of dried grasses and scrub. Then we plunged down through a forest into the gorge, past rocky outcrops with spectacular views, the air filled with the scent of thyme, rosemary and pine. Returning to the village, we saw fields of cherry tomatoes and streams lined with stately sweet chestnuts, and we stopped to pick mulberries – big fat black ones that burst in the mouth to release a pulse of intense flavour.
The next morning, under a clear blue sky, we said goodbye to Wendy and Alejandro, and set out on a 12-mile hike. This involved more than 3,000ft of ascent and descent. We were perversely grateful when clouds gathered early to blot out the heat of the sun. One thousand feet above the village, at the level of the main acequia, the trees abruptly stopped and a wilderness of grey rock and pincushion plants began.
No other walkers were to be seen as we traversed the ridge, a highway of broken slate, with clouds obscuring what would otherwise have been a sensational view. As we began the descent, the route went off piste, with no visible path. But the meticulous notes we had been supplied with took us unerringly from one landmark to the next: a fence, a ruined building, a stand of trees. The notes led us eventually down the terraced hillside to Trevélez, a pile of sugar cubes gleaming in the evening sun.
Jeremy Rabjohns was waiting for us. He is a Yorkshireman who has lived in Las Alpujarras for 17 years and is now a local guide. He was here to brief us on where to find the camping gear the horseman would leave for us the following day. It was he who conceived the idea of sending wine – and, yes, wine glasses – up the mountain so that people like us could wild camp in style.
Armed with a giant picnic from the Hotel Fragula, the next day we set out to climb the terraces above Trevélez, picking mulberries as we went. We took the ascent slowly, arriving at Lake Hondura, first of the seven lakes, at 5pm. Enclosed by a cirque of grey rock 1,000ft high, and with the lowering sun in front, it gleamed a translucent blue. Groups of ibex wandered by and birds hopped about, hoping for a crumb. As a camping spot, it was as magnificent as any I have seen.
Our gear – an embarrassingly large pile – was where we had been told to find it, beside a flat rock that made a natural table. The bag contained an enormous polythene box of food – rice, pasta, tortilla, date cake, ham, rye bread, muesli, milk and meat balls. The ingredients may have been ordinary but to two ravenous walkers half way up a mountain it was pure joy. Another box contained two giant pears, bananas, peppers and tomatoes. We could look forward to a feast.
Having made camp, we cooked and ate. The wine (a bottle of Rioja) was taped between two litre cartons of milk, and the wine glasses were plastic, but we filled them eagerly. Then we drank deeply as the sun set over the lip of the hanging valley, layering the sky orange, lavender and milky blue.
As darkness fell, we donned hats, gloves and scarves and waited for the stars to come out – initially in vain, because of the moon. We slept fitfully – the ground was hard and the sleeping mats thin – but at least that meant that, at 4am, we saw the Milky Way streaked across the sky.
Finally, we were woken properly by a fox apparently playing football with the polythene food box that it had found under the fly sheet. We retrieved the container and took it into the tent. Having breakfasted handsomely, we packed up, leaving the gear to be collected. Then we filled our water bottles from a spring and set off to explore.
Siete Lagunas is a special place for the Spanish and draws numbers of visitors at weekends. Yet few venture beyond Lake Hondura. The topmost lakes, only half a mile distant from the first, are each fed by a small glacier – compacted snow still clinging to the mountainside in late August. It glowed aquamarine where it was submerged beneath the clean, clear, icy water. The dark encircling scree, the blinding snow and the translucent water made a breathtaking spectacle – and we had it to ourselves.
Or so we thought. As we sat gazing at the vista, an ibex appeared on an overhanging ridge. Then another from behind a rock, gently rotating its antlers to gaze back at us. We slithered across the snow, wondering vaguely if there might be crevasses, dipped our hands in the icy water, tasted it and then turned them to the warming sun.
The Christians called these hills the "mountains of the snow". The Arabs called them the "mountains of the sun". The combination – snow on the mountain tops melted by the blazing sun to irrigate the slopes below – makes Las Alpujarras what they are.
After our week of hard walking, we lingered in the area, wandering from village to village and snoozing in the hot afternoons. One day, having spent time climbing in the hills, we arrived in the tiny village of Picena in the eastern Alpujarras, where a fiesta was in full swing.
Five frisky horses stood in the square, two for the Moors in their long flowing robes and three for the Christians in their Napoleonic hats. The brass band struck up and a squad of a dozen soldiers – young boys in fatigues led by their frowning, heavy-booted commander – set off behind the villagers carrying the statue of the Virgin on a two-hour peroration around the precipitous streets. Meanwhile, in the square, a fire was built, a giant pan produced and an enormous tortilla prepared, a ritual repeated for decades in this unvisited corner of a much-visited land.
Our last night was spent in the neighbouring village of Mairena, suspended high above the valley. Below us the mountain lay splayed out in a surge of pale red hills falling in cones and waves to the sea. There was, as Brennan put it, "a feeling of air surrounding one, fields of air washing over one, that I have never come across anywhere else".
Travel essentials: Sierra Nevada
* The writer travelled with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk), which offers a week's self-guided walking tour "Across the Sierra Nevada & Under the Stars" from £718 per person. The price includes seven nights' B&B accommodation, five dinners, three picnics, luggage transfers, walking maps, notes and camping equipment. Travel to Spain is not included.
* The nearest airport is Malaga, which is served by a wide range of airlines from around the UK, including easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com) Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com).
* You can take the train from London St Pancras, Ashford or Ebbsfleet to Granada via Paris and Madrid Atocha (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk; and 020-3137 4464; spanish-rail.co.uk).
* Hotel Los Berchules, Berchules, Granada (00 34 958 85 25 30; hotelberchules.com).
* Spanish Tourist Office: 00800 1010 5050; spain.info/uk
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