The first shock of Granada province is the colour. Orange. The road out of the city cuts a pencil grey line through walls of orange rock and folds of orange fields. As you get higher and the cliffs jut and rear up to engulf the road it seems as if even the sky itself turns to yellow ochre. The second shock is the rigidity of the planting rows, the poka-dot almond and olive trees forming blocks of black-green blot patterns against the amber earth. The over-all effect is a little like looking at a giant and rather tasteless hand knitted cardigan.
This strange effect is caused by the chemicals which Andalusian farmers feel compelled to blast their crops with. This allows only the growth of the desired crop, and strangles the development of any other species, to the extent that each tree stands proud in its own little circle of barren orange dust. Even the tough mountain grass cannot find purchase here. Hence the ground of the orchards is completely bare, and provides the shocking orange backdrop to all those dark green blobs.
As you come further into the mountains the green begins to win out over the dust. Compared to the lowlands, it seems almost impossibly verdant up here, and in the dry heat of the day it is very difficult to imagine the cool of night, or the ferocious storms and torrential downpours of winter, which make the land so fertile.
We were driving from Granada to Orgiva, a town that has become so trendy in recent years among British ex-pats, that it is now getting a bit untrendy. The old school Brits living in the area now complain of over anglicising: their paradise has been discovered and is now being invaded by those they left behind. Occasionally you hear one whisper with dread: ‘heaven forbid it becomes another benidorm…’ Of course, spending any length of time here, one soon realises that there is really very little chance of that happening. This is no tourist centre. This is something else. I am sure many of us are well aware of the phenomenon which is occurring here in the Alpujarras (if you are not, may I direct you for a start to Chris Stewart’s charming books Driving over Lemons, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society. )
However, it is not the English that I want to talk about, but the Spaniards. And one Spaniard in particular: Emilio. We met Emilio in his hotel bar on the outskirts of Orgiva, when we arrived there in a state of desperation on our first night. We had trudged the mile and a half to get there after travelling all day, having found ourselves in a villa in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to eat. The hotel seemed haloed with a glistening light, it was the first sign of friendly life we had come to. We shyly walked in and saw Emilio at the bar. “¿Tienes comida?” we asked uncertainly. Emilio grinned and turned to the regulars. “Tengo comida?” he asked them, laughing, “Do I have food?” I still don’t know if it was the poor quality of our Spanish that amused him, or rather, as I am more inclined to think, the very ridiculousness of the question. In any case we soon found ourselves ensconced at a comfortable table with a pile of locally produced jamon y queso in front of us, and an ice bin at my side containing a bottle of delicious Spanish wine. The raciones were followed up with chicken, fresh cut chips, pasta, goat’s cheese, pine nuts and more wine, and we decided we had come to the right place. So relieved and happy were we that after our meal we returned to the bar, and ended up drunkenly trying to make conversation with the regulars in broken Spanish.
The outcome of that first night was that we became firm friends with our accommodating host, and he coloured the remainder of our stay so indelibly that we could never forget him. So this is written for him, Emilio. Jefe.
We did not find out for a while but Emilio is an empresario. We know this because when we looked up the Spanish translation for entrepreneur, and when for a joke tried it out on him, he smiled shyly, and admitted that it might be an apt description.
On the third day of our acquaintance, on hearing that we had no car and could not see the mountains for ourselves, he insisted on driving us up to the neighbouring village of Bubion himself. He had a house up there, and he wanted us to see the beautiful views. I am very glad he did, as Bubion and all the surrounding area is indeed breathtakingly beautiful, and I would not have wanted to miss out on the treat. However, the means of travel could have been improved on. I am sure that many readers will have had personal experience of that holiday terror – being driven at speed along mountain roads by the locals of various destinations. You are all no doubt familiar with the stomach churning, the nail biting, the accidental swallowing of the tongue on sharp bends…
We prepared ourselves and managed to grit our teeth and bear it quite well, even during those moments when Emilio took both hands off the steering wheel to use his mobile phone (into which he spoke animatedly for almost all of the journey). That was until we left the road with a sudden jerk and Emilio, in a u-turn that defied belief, dragged the screaming car (‘No es mi coche!’, he shrugged happily) off the paved road and onto a dirt track that was quite literally narrower than the width of the car. As the odd tire jutted over the edge, and deafening bangs and crunches were emitted from the underbelly of the sorely punished car I looked with dread at the sheer drop below us. The track sometimes seemed to disappear under us as Emilio expertly used the momentum of the car to fly over areas of thin air where parts of the track were missing. I cast about me for the seatbelt that I knew was not there. (Spaniards do not need seatbelts in the backs of cars. They are for wimps and English people. We debated later on whether or not this might in fact be an advantage, up here in the mountains, as that way if the worst did happen one would have a better chance of leaping unhindered from the moving vehicle before it plummeted.)
When we arrived at his cottage, barely breathing, we discovered that the ordeal had been entirely worthwhile. From the safety of solid ground the views, which from the car we had rather cravenly not appreciated (as we were busy praying not to fall into them) revealed all their glory. Though still speckled with the orange of the lowlands, the mountains are covered with so much foliage that the dark green turns almost blue in places. The sky, breathtakingly clear, complimented the whole, and there below us at the bottom of this bowl of green and blue confection nestled the imperial-mint-white blocks of Bubion. ‘Es Bueno, ¿no?’ asked Emilio, with understatement. He had taken to simplifying his Spanish for our benefit, but really even if we could have conversed freely, I am sure I would have found it difficult to find words to express the perfection of the place. Our feeble cries of ‘¡Estupendo!’ couldn’t come close. But I think Emilio understood.
Emilio is in the process of building his dream house. He had purchased the piece of land at the end of the roller coaster dirt track, and he had brought us up here to show it to us. It was good piece of land, ‘con mucho agua!’ – he pointed out the tiny stream which ran through it. The Alpujarras are covered with little man made streamlets. Built by the ancient inhabitants, they have been maintained to the present by local farmers and peasants. The channels are controlled by a system of timetables, each farmer owns a time of day when he might open his up, and allow the spring waters to flow down his channel and water his crops. I couldn’t tell whether Emilio’s streamlet was one of these channels, or a spring fed stream in its own right, but no doubt it is connected in some way. It runs right through the property, and the land is fertile and well watered. It was mostly grass when we visited, but part of it was given over to crops of some kind, invisible as yet below the tilled soil. His house he is building himself, slowly but surely, in the traditional style, by laying stones. The roof is flat, and made of layers of black slate, naturally broken. From within the house looking up at the ceiling, the edges of the slates formed snaking curling patterns one on top of the other, the whole very striking. The house has all modern amenities, as Emilio was keen to point out, and a view from the front to take the breath away. We were somewhat stunned by the simplicity and natural elegance of the whole affair. As we were leaving we indicated a large empty flat section of the garden, and inquired what plans he had for it. ‘La piscina!’ he laughed.
After seeing Emilio’s place we went to visit another mountain villa, which belonged to some friends of his. This was a better-established dwelling, as the couple had actually been living in the house, rather than going back and forth like Emilio from his place. The gardens were stunning, filled with fragrant flowers and fruiting trees. The most appealing aspect of the land was the cherry orchard, where we occupied ourselves for some time, picking and eating the bright little spots of fruit, still warm from the sun, and pert with sweet juice. I was thrilled to disturb a lizard, and quite a big one, as we walked past the slate rocks back up to the house.
It was a pleasure to meet the couple who owned the place, who kindly showed us round. The house was built in the same style as Emilio’s but with a few more modern considerations in the architecture, like double-glazing and insulation: our host was English. He explained that many new builds in the old style in the area don’t have these seemingly obvious advantages. It does get cold in the mountains in the winter – very cold – and modern house owners and builders here do want to keep warm, but for some reason the Spaniards tend to go for under floor heating rather than insulation. It was at this point that we discovered that it was Emilio who had built this house too. Apparently there was more to our barman friend than we had yet realised. Under questioning in the car on the way back to Orgiva Emilio admitted that yes, he owned a small construction company, as well as the hotel. He had a team, ‘Mis chicos!’ and he had built at least seven houses in the area.
Before we left, we took the opportunity to look around the mountain village of Bubion. Strolling around Bubion, you almost want to laugh at how ridiculously picturesque the place is. You feel as if you have wandered into a postcard. Round every bend is a scene that would sit happily on the front of a guidebook. You turn from the devastating mountain view to rest your eyes, only to be confronted with tottering cobble steps leading to a white stone built house, with a ham or a string of garlic hanging up just visible through the doorway. There is probably even a small white and orange cat washing itself on the doorstep. You turn again and see a planted field wedged in between the houses, in which men are working, stooping among the rows in worn grey shirts, using old fashioned tools and wearing straw hats. Straw hats! Haven’t they heard of baseball caps up here yet? Let’s hope they never do.
Emilio’s other passion, which he shares with most Spaniards, is good food and drink. Although we ate at a few places in Orgiva, we always ended up coming back to Emilio’s, knowing that we would receive only the best there. I have never enjoyed gespacho before, and the stuff we tried in town didn’t change my mind. But when I nervously confessed this to Emilio he insisted I try some of his, and when I did I finally understood the attraction. It was refreshing, head clearing, piquant and delicious. It was certainly not just cold soup. Among the many drinks we tried under Emilio’s supervision, one stands out in particular. We have all had sangria in one form or another, but I have never tasted anything like Emilio’s before or since. He was very proud of his concoction, and gladly revealed the secrets of its preparation. I am sorry to say my heady state at the time prevents me from recalling the recipe in perfect detail, but it seems the vital thing is that you allow the fruit to marinate in the alcohol for a number of days prior to serving. Also a mix of two or three spirits is insufficient, variety is required, as is that famous Spanish syrup: Cuarenta y Tres. When we drank it, the fruit pieces had taken on a very dark purple colour from the wine, and as they were thoroughly saturated, sank heavily to the bottom of the glass. The flavour was delicious; rich, not too sweet, with an apple sharpness. It was warm and embracing, and did not smack of the harsh spirits it contained.
I was also very pleased and surprised to discover that one of my most favourite Spanish dishes is kid-goat, stewed in garlic. The Spaniards hold it in higher regard than the best lamb (this is discernable by the difference in price) and it is delicious, with a softer and more delicate flavour than lamb, and the fat is rich and buttery. However, the best thing about eating and drinking out in this area of Spain is that unlike many places along the south coast, the bars have retained the tapas tradition. You do not have to order your tapas. If you buy a couple of drinks some will magically appear. For tourists such as we were, this is a wonderful thing, as you needn’t fumble over your menu and muddle through your Spanish trying to order something regional, only to be confronted by more soggy calamares. Instead, you need only be patient, and that local and hidden delicacy which you have been seeking will just appear politely beside your glass with a couple of helpful little forks. We enjoyed blood sausage, Spanish sausage, salchichon, chorizo, marinated anchovies, ensalada russo, succulent stewed pork and lamb, cheese, olives, caramelised nuts and endless, delicious, plump, sweaty slivers of local jamon, which came with the added joy of watching the bartender slice it from a cured leg joint propped up by the bar. I can think of no finer way to dine.
First published in Travelmag online magazine, October 2006. (Attribution as Natalie Gowans)