Revealed: The allure of Andalucia
After years of travelling, Chris Stewart found the place he felt most at home - in the remote mountains of Andalucia. Two best-sellers (and one bad-tempered parrot) later, he reveals in his new book the allure of the land of the Moors
Saturday 08 July 2006
El Valero, the farm that I have made my home, lies in the remotest of spots, reachable only by a mountainous, stony track, and then by fording the river. However, it wasn't always such a backwater, for it lies astride the old camino real - the royal road - between the eastern and western Alpujarras. Sometimes, as I consider the diverse pleasures of living on a camino , I muse to myself upon the fact that, among others, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey have trodden this same dust. This is the route they would have taken on their way to visit Gerald Brenan in Yegen, an episode that he described in his classic book about the Alpujarras, South from Granada.
Our camino is today a rough mule path that winds from the Guadalfeo river up to the heights above Campuzano, bringing a curious cross section of people to our door. When we first came to Andalucia there were still trains of mules as well as solitary travellers on their way to the market in distant Orgiva. Today, with the decline of mountain agriculture, the passers-by tend to be hikers, mountain bikers and odd eccentrics from across Europe. I take pleasure in feeding these wanderers, and they are welcome to drink at my spring and fill their saddlebags with the oranges, almonds, pomegranates and figs that grow in such profusion on the farm. After all, the Arabs would have it that even if your worst enemy should get up early in the morning to come round to your house and kill you, you must first offer him a good breakfast.
In return, I get to hear their stories and peculiar ideas. There was, for example, Jan, a wild-looking young Swede who had lived for years among the Tuareg. "Is this the way to Africa?" he asked me. "Well in a sense, it is," I said. Or Jim, a lean Englishman who had walked from the Massif Central to Marrakech - barefoot. "It keeps you off the roads," he told me. Or my favourites, Uliseo and Giorgione and their party of 10 Italians, a donkey, two dogs and a goat. They had waited a week in Mecina Fondales, the next village upriver, while the goat gave birth to two kids, before resuming their walk from Milan to Lisbon. Uliseo explained to me how to use a mix of salt, ash and horseshit to improve the insulation on our outdoor pizza oven.
As these visitors walk away, I watch them wistfully awhile, reminded of the travelling days of my youth, when I would hitchhike across Europe with no clear idea of where I was going. I was one of thousands of young Britons inspired by Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
Where I was going, as it turned out, was this point on the camino real - El Valero - and that was the end of travelling for me. I was content to inhabit this particular piece of landscape, and the years of travelling seemed to have been nothing so much as a quest for a place to settle. Also I was living a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence as a small farmer; and commitments to my wife, Ana, my young daughter, Chloë, a flock of 70 Segurena sheep and a growing menagerie of dependent creatures - cats, dogs and a foul-tempered parrot. All of which allowed little chance to continue my travels, apart from trips to make money to supplement our rather modest farm income.
Each autumn I would go to Morocco to collect seeds for a friend's business (which was fun), and each winter to Sweden to shear sheep (which was not). I took my pleasure instead from travellers' tales, and also from being able to repay the hospitality that had been shown me in my youth - invariably by those who could least afford it.
And then, unexpectedly, everything changed, when one day I was cajoled and wheedled by that most unlikely of phenomena, a passing publisher, into writing a book about my experiences. I wrote about the farm and its animals, about my family and neighbours, about the bungling and misadventure that seemed to have characterised our daily life in Spain. And to my ceaseless amazement, delight and relief, people bought the book - Driving Over Lemons - and I found that I had stumbled into a new career as a writer.
Although my books appear on the travel shelves of bookshops, from my perspective they are more about staying at home. I use them to try and make sense of this odd slice of the world, distilling anecdotes from those who live in the valley and the nearby village, and occasionally working in the tales of those who pass on our camino. It is as much fun as a thing can be to write down all your most cherished ideas and experiences, and to make a living out of it. But I'm not the kind of writer who can clock in each morning and emerge with typed pages of fresh anecdotes. I need to live things, which takes time; need an impetus to get my nose down to the grindstone, some idea to give the book sense and worth. And that does not necessarily turn up when you want it, which explains why my books don't trouble booksellers on a yearly basis: three in seven years, to be precise.
For my latest book, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, it was the arrival of four Moroccan lads at our farm that gave me the push I needed. These boys were destitute: they had no water, no food, no tobacco, and little idea of the route to the plastic greenhouse country of El Ejido, where questions are not asked about work permits and employment conditions are horrendous.
None of the Moroccans could speak Spanish and only one had any French, so we communicated with much effort. But their predicament was all too obvious: they had landed on a boat near Algeciras and had been walking by the back routes through the mountains - a desperate undertaking in summer - to avoid the Guardia Civil patrols. Anyway, we took them in, fed and watered them and gave them cigarettes. I showed them somewhere to rest until nightfall, when I had promised to drive them to their destination - safer at night because offering assistance to illegal immigrants is an offence that can land you in jail and have your car seized.
It was a brief encounter, but one that moved me to thinking and writing about Morocco. Not that I needed much encouragement: the things that * * I love most about Andalucia are the things that came with the Moors. For 700 years the Moors - a loose affiliation of Berbers, Egyptians and Arabs - dominated Spain, bringing it into the fold of Islam and lavishing on the country some of the greatest riches of the Middle Ages. The architectural glories of the Moorish cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba - the Alhambra, the Giralda and the Mezquita - were a revelation to me as a young man. And one of the delights of my more advanced years has been to hear the sound of the muezzin waft once more over Granada - a discreet call to prayer as both of the city's new mosques have had the good taste not to install the usual rattletrap of an amplification system you hear in the Islamic world.
It is, however, at El Valero that I feel the Moorish legacy the most. In the Alpujarras, the villages and farms and the irrigation systems that give them life are exact replicas of the Berber villages of the High Atlas. And indeed, the very agriculture of Andalucia owes its origins to the Moors. It was they, after all, who brought us the orange and the olive, the almond and the aubergine. It's hard to imagine just what those poor Visigoths ate: they certainly weren't the originators of the Mediterranean diet. In fact, so close is the resemblance between our landscape and its farms and the High Atlas that Moroccan friends have been disorientated and a little dismayed by it. "But this is just like... home!" my friend Mohammed wailed when he arrived after a fraught and arduous journey to take up my offer of coming to visit us in Europe.
But in spite of - or rather because of - the inextricable closeness of the two cultures, the people of Andalucia show a strong antipathy to the Moroccans. In general, they won't hear a good word said about them, and indeed the word Moro is usually meant as an insult. It is not always so bad in the country areas, though. I've often heard of people on the remote farms of Andalucia taking pity on the poor immigrants and looking after them, having had experience themselves of migrating and finding themselves despised by their hosts, whether it be in Germany or Barcelona.
After my visit from the Moroccan lads, I wanted to do something useful, so I went to work as a volunteer at an immigrants' advice centre in Granada. But as with so many of my good intentions, my career there soon degenerated into farce. As a last resort the organisation suggested that I write something for their magazine. I would write about where these boys came from, drawing on my own experience of travel in Morocco.
I was a little unsure at first. I write "funny", you see; I'm not on safe territory with the more serious analytical stuff. Of course I wanted to be excoriating like John Pilger or George Monbiot; or a fiend of erudition like Michael Jacobs or Anthony Sattin. But no, be yourself, they told me: write funny and let the stories speak for themselves.
So that's how I came upon the core episodes of The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society. I wrote about the advice centre and my uselessness at office work. I retraced the steps that Moroccan immigrants take, along the back roads to El Ejido, which turned into a farce amid torrential rain and rather un-Islamic consumption of wine and jamon. And then I wrote of the time when Moroccans were very kind to me, when I had little money and sought to make a living seed-collecting in the Middle Atlas. It was a hand-to-mouth but privileged time, spending days in a cedar forest with a Moroccan Graham Greene enthusiast and his unemployed friends, and whiling away evenings in the cafés, watching the good people of Azrou on parade.
Sitting at my desk and looking out at the bleached hills of the contraviesa, with my babouche tucked under the desk and djellaba hanging from a peg on the door, I could sip a glass of mint tea, finger my cedar letter opener, and recall those months. If I thought hard enough, I could just hear the faint slitherings of snakes beneath the giant cedar trees, and the ministrations of the town snake charmer who tried to protect us with a charm.
And in the process, I found that I had the best part of a book in the bag: a theme that had arrived by itself on the road from Morocco. Perhaps, after all, I had become a travel writer.
The nearest airport to the Alpujarras is Granada, which is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Liverpool and Stansted and Monarch Airlines (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) from Gatwick. Malaga is served by Monarch, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) and GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).
Hotel Taray Botanico, Orgiva (00 34 958 784 525; www.hoteltaray.com). Doubles start at €76 (£54), including breakfast.
Hotel Catifalarga, Capileira (00 34 958 343 357; www.catifalarga.com). Doubles start at €58 (£41), room only.
The Alhambra, Granada (00 34 915 379 178; www.alhambra.org). Opens March to October daily from 8.30am-8pm and 10-11.30pm and 8.30am-6pm and 8-9.30pm between November and February; admission €10 (£7.10).
The Giralda, Seville Cathedral, Seville (00 34 915 379 178; www.catedralsevilla.org). Opens Monday-Saturday 11am-5pm, 2.30-6pm Sunday. In July and August it opens 9.30am-3.30pm and 2.30-6pm Sunday; admission €7 (£5), free on Sunday.
The Mezquita, Cordoba (00 34 957 47 05 12). Open Monday-Saturday 10am-6.30pm, Sunday 2-6.30pm; admission €8 (£5.70).
Spanish Tourist Office: 08459 400180; www.tourspain.co.uk.
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