After a city stretch we thought we’d be ready for some mountains, countryside and hiking. Like Boabdil, I gave a last sigh, and tore myself away from Granada. He had negotiated a settlement with the Catholic Monarchs, agreeing to surrender the city in return for the Alpujarras valleys, 30,000 gold coins, and political and religious freedom for his subjects. We were following in his footsteps to the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe.
Las Alpujarras, the lower ranges of the more dramatic Sierra Nevada, are dotted with thumbnail-sized villages tumbling down hillsides in a ribbon of white, like shaken table-cloths thrown to the floor. Flecks of colour in an otherwise arid, sparse green, landscape; ravines and crags cutting gashes into the earth – unwelcoming and inhospitable.
We stayed in Capileira, the highest and largest of the villages, in an old Berber cottage called the Black Cat. And from there we walked – ridges and valleys, old mule paths, and irrigation ditches – from village to village. Bubión, Pampaneira, La Cebadilla. And into the wild, up Mulhacén, the highest mountain on the Spanish mainland.
The villages were pretty. A feel of their Moorish roots evident in narrow back-streets, flat-roofed houses, sombrero-hatted chimneys, and gutters running through the middle of steep, cobbled streets. We walked past terraced fields, cherry orchards, scarecrows, and a man tending the ground with a short-handled hoe, like a scene from a Millet painting. The sound of running water a permanent back-track. And flowers, flowers, flowers. Wild ones in hedgerows. Cultivated ones on window-ledges and balconies. But it was hot. Every step sapped my energy. I couldn’t hack it.
So we went up, in the hope of coolth. We never thought we’d make it to the top of Mulhacén. The intention was to stroll – see how far we got in the alloted time, and then turn back. A hint of green gave way to barren slate as we climbed ever higher – a narrow, zig-zag path, marked by cairns taking us over false summits, into a featureless, never-ending expanse of grey shingle. The air was thin. Jim found it hard to breathe. But we were exhilerated. Somewhere, somehow, we realised we were going to make it. And then, there was a little shrine to the Virgin and we’d done it. We were above the snow-line. We sat to eat our sandwiches, overlooking a tarn. An ibex peered down at us from a rock above. There’s always someone to go one better!