Originally created 12/14/03

Mountain villages offer glimpse of Moorish past



PITRES, Spain - We arrived in this Andalusian village on the last day of Spain's 12-day Christmas celebration to find a band and costumed marchers celebrating Three Kings' Day in the main square.

A man launched a skyrocket from his hand as the kings themselves - actually, a trio of local farmers - emerged from the church. Two wore wigs of flowing curls, the third was in black face. Each mounted a wooden trailer towed behind a tractor, and the procession waltzed through the center of Pitres, with the kings tossing candy to children. Like everyone else in town, we followed along and were welcomed with smiles and a shower of confetti.

This was our introduction to the Alpujarras, a friendly region of tiny whitewashed villages that has enchanted travelers for centuries. After a frenetic week spent touring some of Andalusia's great cities, our group of four travelers had come here seeking the quiet of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

On its way from the Sierra to the Mediterranean, the trickle of melting snow has chiseled deep gorges into the southern flanks of Spain's highest mountains. It's a place of broad vistas and country hospitality, of villages rising improbably from the near-vertical landscape, and well-trodden footpaths winding through pastures, olive groves and orchards.

The high places offer views of the sparkling Mediterranean 30 miles away. Beyond is the shadowy skyline of Morocco's Rif Mountains.

This glimpse from Europe into Africa isn't unique in Andalusia. But perhaps nowhere else is the connection with the Islamic past more evident. Four centuries ago, this was the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe, and many of the high, quiet villages still feel exotic.

We had arranged a house rental in Mecinilla, which, along with Pitres and five other villages, is part of La Taha, a district dating to Moorish times.

Mecinilla is connected to its larger neighbor, Mecina, with which it shares a church near a grove of almond trees. The flat, white houses piled atop each other spill down the mountainside like patches of old snow.

Steep, narrow lanes wind through the village. Flowering vines billow from balconies and climb the whitewashed buildings. The streets are too narrow for cars, so we parked on the outskirts of town and walked to our home for the week, Casa Berenjena. Its owner, Simon Wix, an affable Englishman, and his wife vacationed in the Alpujarras for years before settling here.

Casa Berenjena is a maze, with three bedrooms, a living room, dining room and study, each with a low-hanging ceiling constructed of rough-hewn beams and slate. Its spacious country kitchen was once used as a cooking school by a French chef. The wood stoves and fireplaces are the only reliable source of heat. The back door opens onto a stone patio perched a thousand feet above the valley. All this for $60 a night.

Using a homemade guidebook from the owners, we explored paths along old stone walls, through the mottled sunlight of orchards and olive groves, and past fields lying fallow for winter. Here and there we heard goats bleating, their bells jingling.

Every village offered a communal fountain - many decorated with cheerfully painted tiles - spouting pure mountain spring water for our water bottles. One fountain tapped a naturally carbonated spring, its water gently fizzed.

Everyone, from farmers in fields to women filling pitchers in the village square, greeted us. And the views were stunning - down the long funnel of the valley toward the sea and uphill toward the snowcapped Mulhacen, Spain's highest peak.

One day, we went down to an ancient Roman bridge spanning the Trevelez River on the valley floor, then back up the other side. This is no place for acrophobes: On one side was a sheer drop of several hundred feet, straight down to the raging river. From the top, sharply serrated ridges rise in endless succession, the shadowy rifts between them concealing dozens more valleys just like this one. From here, it was easy to see why the retreating Moors fled to this secluded place to make their final stand.

After seven centuries of Islamic rule, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reclaimed Granada for Christendom in 1492. As part of the terms of surrender, the conquered Muslim ruler, Boabdil, was given the Alpujarras valleys.

Soon after, all Moors were ordered to be baptized as Christians or face expulsion from Spain. Many who refused to convert sought refuge in the Alpujarras, the epicenter of a bloody Moorish revolt in 1568. After the rebellion was suppressed, survivors were expelled and the villages were repopulated with settlers from northern Spain.

The Moors' legacy can be seen in the bright, woolen blankets and scarves for sale in the villages and in the Arabic flavors of the local cuisine. The architecture of the flat-roofed houses and domed chimneys is said to mirror that of the Berbers' mountain villages on the far side of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Almonds, figs, olives and apples are grown here, and the milk of local goats and sheep is used in cheese. The hams of prized Iberian pigs are brought from around the country to Trevelez, which claims to be the highest village in Spain, to cure in the dry mountain air.

Angel, the proprietor of Bar Aljibe, the central dining spot in Mecinilla, pours several vintages of local red wine directly from the barrel for about $2 a liter. The new wine is light and sweet. As it ages, it becomes darker and more complex.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Buses are available from Granada, about an hour away, but consider renting a car to reach the more out-of-the-way villages. Either way, be prepared for a hair-raising ride along precipitous mountain roads. Follow the N323 south from Granada (toward Motril). After about 21 miles (34 kilometers), exit on the A348. Follow this road east through Lanjaron and Orgiva, where you will turn left onto GR421. This road climbs steeply through Capileira and Bubion. To reach the villages of Mecina, Mecinilla and Fondales, turn right on the road that diverges right about 23 miles later, after the 38-kilometer marker.

WEATHER: Though the upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada are blanketed in snow for much of the year, it rarely snows in the Alpujarras. The highest villages, Trevelez and Pampaneira, are the exception. Winter temperatures can reach the upper 60s. At night, it dips into the 40s. Still, the villages of La Taha are near 5,000 feet elevation and conditions can change quickly. If you plan to hike, pack a fleece jacket and wool hat.

RENTALS: Casa Berenjena, along with other house rentals in the Alpujarras, can be found on the Web at www.inicia.es/de/berenjena/. Casa Berenjena is in Mecinilla, a village of 500-year-old Berber houses. Other Alpujarras rentals can be found at www.alpujarras.co.uk/.

THREE KINGS DAY: Dia de los Reyes, celebrated throughout Spain on Jan. 6, commemorates the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem.

TIPS: The smaller villages have only one or two places to eat, but you can drive to Pampaneira, Pitres and the other larger villages if you want more restaurants to choose from. Bar Aljibe, in Mecinilla, serves good home-cooked food and local wine along with a chance to soak up local culture. As is customary in Spain, dinner is served late.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.tourspain.es or call the U.S. offices for Spain's tourism bureaus in New York (212-265-8822), Chicago (312-642-1992), Los Angeles (323-658-7195) and Miami (305-358-1992).