The White Villages of the Alpujarras
Taking a break from the apparently endless procession of jobs getting the house ready for rental this summer I decided to take a break from the hard work, take my camera and get to know some of the local villages. The white villages of the southern Alpujarras have an interesting story to tell. There are three villages in a cluster, north of Orgiva on the Rio Poqueira gorge almost a mile above sea level. The lowest village is Pampaneira and the highest, Capileira. The middle village which is where I spent most of Saturday afternoon is Bubion, which has a population of about 700 people.
Bubion dates from Roman times, but there is not much visible evidence of this. It was occupied by the Moors in the seventh century and held until 1568 when it fell to the Catholic Spanish. The Moors were partially banished at this stage, forcibly replaced by Christian settlers from elsewhere in Spain, but two Morisco families were allowed to stay in each village in order to pass on the knowledge of the sophisticated irrigation systems (acequias) which they had extended from the original Roman system to make the mountainsides easier to cultivate. These acequias are still in use today over most of the Alpujarras and in particular in our garden. We’re totally dependant on the water to maintain the lush green look that characterises this valley.
The other legacy of the Moors which remains highly visible in Andalusia is the architecture. The distinctive flat roofs and white plaster coating that protects the buildings have lasted for centuries and in these three villages almost all of the houses retain at least the external shell.
The next major upheaval in the area was the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 when the white villages remained under General Franco’s nationalist control despite republican success in the surrounding areas. It’s difficult these days to find out more detail about this period, but I’ll be following it up as it seems essential in achieving an understanding of the unique culture of this region. One legacy of this period is the practice of “Menu del dia”, where a proper meal is served in restaurants between certain hours of the afternoon at a fixed, bargain price. This was brought in by General Franco in order to ensure that the ordinary working people were able to afford one decent meal a day. A practice our own supposedly conservative government might learn from!
These days, the white villages boast a thriving tourist trade, the region is a designated Conjunto Histórico Artístico – a protected region of artistic and historical significance and it is possible to find people crafting the distinctive Alpujarran textiles used for rugs, wall hangings etc using the traditional methods – wooden looms that create a much superior product to the mass produced fakes that can be bought cheaply elsewhere.
The 28th February marks the end of winter in the Alpujarras and there is a festival which I suspect does not date back to Roman times involving the consumption of the traditional Alpujarran breakfast – the closest thing to a full English that I’ve encountered in all of my travels – Egg, Sausage, Bacon, Meat and Black pudding. Absolutely artery thickeningly delicious!
The mountain roads this weekend have been taken over by a procession of Mercedes, Audi, BMW vehicles largely owned by a class that appears to be completely oblivious to the recession, pouring into the villages to eat, drink and be merry. How much of this wealth trickles down to the occupants of the villages is not clear, certainly the restauranteurs were thriving, but the vertiginous alleys and backstreets behind the main road are all but deserted. Weirdly, this reminded me of nothing more than Hampstead village on a Sunday afternoon, but unlike Hampstead the atmosphere was friendly and inclusive. Even the watching police seemed disinclined to investigate the fitness of the post dining drivers to navigate safely home!
The white villages are easily accessible from our house just outside Orgiva and the quality of the restaurants easily exceeds the somewhat basic fare on offer in town. For food with a view, the white village experience is unbeatable.
(originally published by Chris Wright at Electrical Image on March 1st)