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Weekender: Granada

A road trip in the Southern Spanish province of Granada reveals all its Moorish glory

Weekender: Granada
Tourists at Plaza de San Nicolas. Image: Getty

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Day 1: View from Granada

Granada’s evening glow makes everyone look good. Sitting out in its plazas, cradling cañas of beer or picking our way through the tumbledown Albaicín quarter, the honey-coloured reflection of sunset and sandstone makes us all seem 10 years younger. And when you look that way, you feel it too.

Granada is my springboard for a driving tour of the pueblos blancos of Spain’s Sierra Nevada Mountains — the white villages known as Las Alpujarras. The trip works as a short break in itself, or as an excursion from the Costa del Sol, whisking you from a galaxy of package resorts into a Moorish-tinged mountain landscape that looks like it’s been transported from Algeria or Morocco.

‘If by the grace of God I become famous,’ the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca once said, ‘half of that fame will belong to Granada, which formed me and made me what I am: a poet from birth and unable to help it.’ Lorca’s Huerta de San Vincente, where he wrote several famous works and which still contains his ink-stained desk, is open to visitors in a small park south of the city. In the Capilla Real, I descend beneath the marble floor to see the leaden tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who conquered the Moorish city. Gypsies woo tourists in caves along the Camino del Sacromonte, but the real heart of Granada is the Albaicín.

As the sun sets, I step into the cobblestoned laneways of the city’s old Moorish quarter, passing shops strewn with lanterns and leather goods. There are colourful doors and pretty gardens, but almost everything else is white as ivory. At the top of the hill, a crowd has gathered at the Mirador de San Nicolás to watch the sun go down on the Alhambra, which overlooks Granada from its perch above the River Darro. Sketchbooks are out. Cameras are on tripods. There’s a smell of weed. A flamenco dancer strikes up on a wooden board.

All roads, of course, lead to the Alhambra. More people visit this sprawling UNESCO World Heritage Site than Madrid’s Prado, so be sure to book ahead online. The palace-cum-fortress of the Nasrid sultans sits like a chandelier above the city. Breaks are required. Views should be absorbed. Orange trees and singing nightingales must be marvelled at. I score a night-visit ticket to the Nasrid Palace, a mix of Andalucía and Arabian Nights that offers up one electrifying space after another. Bats flit over the reflecting pools. In the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada loom.

Day 2: Into the Sierra Nevada

I strike out early from Granada, taking the A-44 motorway about 30 miles south east before branching off into a bloom of mountain roads. The hairpin bends and pinching bridges come on surprisingly quickly — my speed slows to an average of about 25mph as I try to take in the gorges and slopes dropping off the roadside without actually driving into them. Southern Spain is splashed with toothpaste-white villages — Ronda, splayed across the El Tajo gorge in Malaga province, is probably best known, but Las Alpujarras, the pueblos blancos spotting the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada, are comparatively overlooked. The spa town of Lanjarón is the first to come into view.

This leafy town is one of Las Alpujarras’ largest, a staging post for deeper dives into the Sierra Nevada. Shops are crammed with ceramics, baskets, hams and jarapas (hand-woven rugs). When I walk into the old quarter, Barrio Hondillo, however, the streets slim down, tourist traffic slows to a trickle, and I soak up hanging baskets and drinking fountains embellished with lines from Lorca, before coming to rest in a little plaza where old couples chat next to a sculpture of old couples chatting. A pair of hikers stride by. Summer is the time for walking here, when you can follow old mule paths between villages.

The Sierra Nevada sprawl over Granada and Almería, boasting both Europe’s most southerly ski resort and Spain’s largest national park. Dozens of plant species are unique to the area, and buzzing about them you’ll find “the most important insect on Earth,” as the attendant at Lanjarón’s surprising little Museo de la Miel tells me. Bees visit up to a million flowers to make just one kilo of honey, she reveals, and local flavours range from chestnut to rosemary and mil de flores (‘a thousand flowers’). The displays are in Spanish, but I come away with enough astonishing bee facts to keep me buzzing for a week.

Driving on from Lanjarón, I wind past Órgiva, taking the A-4132 towards Pampaneira, my base for the night. It’s an hour’s drive, according to Google Maps, but I take far longer, pulling in for photos of villages stacked up like Berber Lego, with slopes irrigated and farmed since Moorish times, when the first settlers fled here following the conquest of Granada in 1492. Outside a tiny white chapel, a cat nestles up against my camera lens. As the crow flies, I’m just 25 miles from the Med, but it feels like a different time zone.

Day 3: Lost in Las Alpujarras

Pampaneira is the first of three towns dropped like berries along the Poqueria Gorge. Here, I hook up with Consuelo Castillo Castillo, a local guide with activity company Nevadensis. Consuelo was born and bred in the gorge and although still young remembers a time when no vehicles could access her village. She fills her bottle from a fountain spurting mountain water, musing: “When I was small there was no road to Trevélez. They came with the mules.”

The pueblos blancos are “totally adapted to the silhouette” of the mountainside, Consuelo says, pointing out the chestnut beams of the houses, the flat rooftops and layers of straw and mud and slate. Brightly coloured rugs are draped over balconies, as they are in the towns of Capileira and Bubion. For all the honey and ham and olive oil, it never manages to feel tatty — perhaps because there are no inflatable dolphins and beach towels stacked among them.

Leaving the Poqueria Gorge, we drive towards Trevélez, twisting and turning into the mountains until the road runs out. This village, at an altitude of 4,843ft, is famous for its jamón — legs curing in warehouses leave a sweet scent in the air. We taste some during a delicious lunch of baked aubergines, slow-cooked lamb and other treats at La Fragua, a little restaurant at the top of the village. Antonio, the owner, cuts petal-thin slices from a leg clasped behind the counter.

That evening, back in Pampaneira, I sit out in the small square and watch a few locals doing laps of the church on an evening walk. The sting slips quickly from the heat, and I buy a couple of souvenirs to take back to the real world before stopping in at Casa Julia, a tavern, for some cheese, olives and a caña. Driving back towards the airport the next day, the road feels like a river, snaking along the mountainsides. I’m reminded of Consuela’s words.

“There is nothing flat here. Only up or down.”

Hacienda Senorio de Nevada

Hacienda Senorio de Nevada

The winemaker

Mountains and Mediterranean combine to create a magical microclimate for Hacienda Señorio de Nevada, a boutique bodega 16 miles south of Granada. “First with eyes, then the nose, then the mouth,” says Fernando Rebelles, kicking off a wine tasting that takes me from slatey soil to stonking grand reservas. The restaurant overlooks vineyards and snowy peaks — take a seat and let the afternoon slide by.

Need to know

Secret chocolate store
Pampaniera (population: 355) lies deep within the Poqueria Gorge. And deep within Pampaniera, in the basement shop off Liberty Square, you’ll find three young women whipping up a Wonka-esque range of chocolate bars. Flavours range from honey to goats’ cheese and coconut; finished products are wrapped in parcels of three, tied with a bow, and sold for €5 (£3.90).

Skip it: Sacromonte
Granada’s Sacromonte district sounds like the ideal stumble-upon for your travels. A main street lined with caves? Check. A Roma community dating back to the 15th century? Check. In reality, it’s a cunning tourist trap, where hosts clamour for your custom, the flamenco is variable, and you’re unlikely to get a good deal on anything. Go for an off-radar roam in the historic Realejo or Albaicín quarters instead.

Saddle up
Many of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns — including A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — were filmed near Almería. Oasys Park, Fort Bravo and Western Leone theme parks, in the Tabernas Desert, offer cowboy fun and film sets.

Essentials

British Airways flies direct from London City Airport to Granada four times a week. In Pampaneira, the three-star Estrella de las Nieves has rooms from €50 (£42).

More info
andalucia.com
turgranada.es
spain.info

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)