Grand tours: On a clear day, you can see for ever

Chris Stewart wakes on a Spanish mountain

The former Genesis drummer Chris Stewart fled to the Iberian hills to write his first book, 'Driving Over Lemons', which promptly won him the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year title. His second novel, 'A Parrot in the Pepper Tree', similarly charts the misadventures of his new life in Spain

The former Genesis drummer Chris Stewart fled to the Iberian hills to write his first book, 'Driving Over Lemons', which promptly won him the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year title. His second novel, 'A Parrot in the Pepper Tree', similarly charts the misadventures of his new life in Spain, including a night spent in search of the elusive wild gentian of the Sierra Nevada.

* * *

The final valley, where the new-born Poqueira river tumbled among the rocks and the grass, was as steep and difficult as the first hill of the morning, only now there was not much energy left in us. However, at long last we crawled up and over into the lowest of the meadows. It was almost dark and the few gentians that were in this meadow had gone to sleep, with their petals tightly wrapped against the cold of the coming night.

Ana and I slumped on a rock, warm still from the hot sunshine of the day, and there we lay until the icy cold of the night air moved us. Then we found a soft bed for the sleeping bags and laid our aching limbs down to get what rest we could. An hour or maybe two hours later, after endless rollings over and wriggling and other attempts to get comfortable, the full moon rose over the black rocks to the east. Our little valley flooded with the cold silver light. I rolled over again and looked at Ana.

"Are you asleep?"

"No, of course not."

We got up and peered over the rim of the meadow. Below us lay the Alpujarras, bathed in moonlight. There was a mist that swirled in the valleys like a sea of milk, and the hills like dark islands, the Isles of the Blessed, so it seemed. The scene was cloaked in deep silence, until a dog, somewhere in the vastness of the night, started to bark. The call was taken up by a dozen other distant dogs, and for a little while the valleys rang with the sound; then the silence stole back over the night.

Ana shivered a little. "God, to think that we live down there, in that." I grunted. When you've known one another a long time, sometimes a grunt is all you need. "It's amazing, a privilege," she continued as we pulled our sleeping bags around us.

I grunted again and re-arranged an arm that was losing circulation across her shoulder.

The valleys of the Alpujarras were immediately beneath us, then to the south, rearing dark from the mists, lay the great mass of the Contraviesa and the Sierra de Lujar. If we raised our eyes above the coastal hills, we could see the moonlight on the distant Mediterranean.

However beautiful it is, you don't sleep too well in a sleeping bag in a mountain meadow. We rolled and wriggled and tossed and turned and shivered, and tried not to be dazzled by the moonlight, but it was only when the sun rose that we finally got to sleep. There we remained, until the sun climbed high enough to start heating up the bags.

We crawled out, blinking at the sunshine. All around us, the gentians had opened, and all the grass was hidden beneath a haze of deepest blue. The sky was clear blue, then there were the dark rocks and the deep blue carpet of the meadow with its clear lake in the middle. It seemed that we had woken up in a quite different world.

As we sat enjoying the warmth of the day, we heard a rustling, a slithering of rocks, and then a sheep's bell. It caught sight of us and stopped, squatted and peed, looking at us blankly. It was joined by another, which did exactly the same thing. Soon there were several hundred. They spread out. They drank deep from the lake, and then set about eating the gentians. It took them about half an hour, and when they had finished there wasn't a single flower left; the meadow had returned to its green.

'Parrot in a Pepper Tree' is available to 'Independent on Sunday' readers for £6.75 (including postage and packing within the UK). To order, call 0870 0112525, quoting ref BSP034. This offer subject to availability. Please allow 28 days for delivery.

Follow in the footsteps

Village life

Las Alpujarras is the collection of mountain villages on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada. There are about 50 hamlets in the area, with fine examples of Berber architecture. They offer a great base for holidays centred on walking, climbing, mountain biking and, in the winter, skiing.

The villages of Las Alpujarras were the last stronghold of the Moors, who fled there to avoid converting to Christianity when the Castilians sacked Granada in 1492. But, following the Morisco rebellion of 1568, a royal decree was made, ruling that people of Arab descent be removed. This led to around 12,000 Christian families settling in the area under the rule of Philip II.

Getting there

Malaga is the most convenient airport for this area as the drive to Las Alpujarras is less than two hours. British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) offers return flights in October from £170.50.

Alternatively, you can buy a package with Travellers Way (01527 573700; www.travellersway. co.uk). Seven nights' self-catering in October costs £309 per person, based on four sharing, including flights and car hire. Visit www.therucksack.net for information about hiking in the region. The Spanish Tourist Office is on 020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.es.

Angela Smith

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