Our destination – Capileira
In October 2018, Ted and I took a three-day trip from our home in Benalmádena to Las Alpujarras, an area in the mountains southeast of Granada. Two friends, Steve and Stu were with us. The journey of less than two hours from Málaga to Granada is by express coach. The Alsa Supra coach is excellent – very comfortable large seats, an entertainment system and wifi. It is a familiar journey for Ted and I – along the motorway, through the mountains, over the pass to Riofrio with its trout farm, past the town of Loja, Granada Airport, which looks as quiet as ever and through Santa Fe, with its apartment blocks within feet of the main road. There are glimpses of the new Antequera – Granada high speed railway line which surely must open soon.
Granada bus station
Next is a local service bus for the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Capileira. Though it is also a comfortable coach, the difference from the inter-city journey is noticeable –many passengers have been into Granada for the morning shopping, medical appointments, or dealing with bureaucracy in one form or another – and people meet others they know on the bus. The first part of the journey seems to take ages as we make our way through the suburbs. A whole new district has appeared on the outskirts including the Nevada shopping centre and a hospital complex. Neighbouring towns such as Armilla and Alhendín have become suburbs which blend into one another. Finally, we escape the city, join the motorway to Motril and the Costa Tropical and climb to the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (the Pass of the Sigh of the Moor) and the journey becomes much more enjoyable as the scenery improves.
We leave the autovía at the turnoff for Lanjarón, the gateway to the Alpujarras, and cross an impressive new bridge – the old bridge and winding road is well below. We pass close to some enormous wind turbines. I have mixed feelings about these examples. Renewable energy is essential and Spain aims to produce 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050 (see note 1). Turbines can look graceful from a distance, but here the network of access tracks and electricity pylons scar the dry landscape. The town of Lanjarón (above) is known for its mineral water and we pass the bottling plant on the road into town. It is also a spa town, and a group of elderly people alight, arriving for a week to take the waters. The main road bypasses the centre of town so we don’t see much, though it is reputed to be attractive. From there it is downhill to the valley below and Órgiva, the main market town of the western Alpujarras. The town has a large expat community and a slightly alternative feel due to the hippies and new age travellers who settled here.
Heading into the village of Soportújar
We’re now properly in the Alpujarras, so it is time for some background. The area (which is called either La Alpujarra or Las Alpujarras) is a series of valleys (2). They lie between the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada to the north and lower, though still significant, ranges to the south which cut the area off from the coast – the Sierra de Lújar and Sierra de la Contraviesa. We are heading for the western High Alpujarras, beneath the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The area has been settled in turn by Ibero-Celts, Romans, Visigoths and, most notably, by the Moors – Berbers from North Africa – who developed the systems of terracing and irrigation to its fullest extent. After Granada fell to the armies of the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 the Alpujarras were the final area of Spain under Moorish control, until 1568 when they were expelled. They were replaced by immigrants from Galicia and Leon, though two Moorish families had to remain in each village to show the newcomers how to work the irrigation systems. More recently, the area was fought over during the Spanish Civil War, guerrilla action continuing until 1942. Though the land is fertile the area remained remote and poor. As better roads arrived many emigrated to seek work elsewhere. In the 1980s the area had the lowest incomes and level of literacy in Spain. While agriculture remains important, the focus today is on sustainable tourism and extending the tourist season.
Ted, Steve, Stu and I are staying in Capileira. From Órgiva the road is tortuous with plenty of hairpin bends and steep drops, though it is kept in good condition. We’re in a full-size coach – not the easiest thing to drive but the driver has done it many times before. We divert into a couple of villages, Carataunas and Soportújar. Somehow the bus manages to climb the narrow streets and reverse with millimetres to spare. In Soportújar the bus coincides with the weekly visit of a fruit and veg van-cum-shop, and the two vehicles fill the village square.
The bus arrives at Capileira and the fourth reversal of its journey (so far).
Capileira is the highest of a trio of villages – Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira – in the Barranco del Poqueira (the gorge of the River Poqueira), a side valley. It sits at the foot of walking routes through the Sierra Nevada, including the highest mountain in Spain, Mulhacén (3483m). The villages are within the Sierra Nevada National Park which protects them from overdevelopment. Capileira village is 1436m above sea level and we notice the thin air as soon as we get off the bus – it takes Steve some time to adjust, though he is fine once he is used to it. After a break for a drink of lunch, we take our time walking to the hotel – it is at the top of the village at 1500m, though the walk is not as long or as steep as I feared.
We stayed in Capileira two nights and the bus times meant that we had plenty of time to explore on the arrival and departure days. We all enjoyed Capileira and plan to return. Our hotel, the Finca Los Llanos (above) was excellent. The room and beds were fine, there is a pool (no, we didn’t try it in October), a bar (we did try it), the staff are friendly, and the buffet breakfast was generous. We had a triple room which was inexpensive – the bear sneaked in for free as usual. The balcony provided great views over the village, and we could watch the clouds roll in and out, sometimes below us.
Ted and I on the hotel balcony
More views from the balcony.
The area is now no stranger to tourism – it is popular with walking tours and we saw the occasional coach party. However, it hasn’t lost its character. The locals were friendly, didn’t automatically respond in English, to a foreign accent and took the time to chat and help with our Spanish. We soon got to recognise the bus drivers and of course the bar owners and staff.
Looking down from Capileira to Bubión (left) and Pampaneira (right)
Like most villages in the Alpujarras Capileira is built on a hillside – there is virtually no flat land. Round every corner there are views over the countryside, up to the Sierra Nevada or down the Poqueira gorge to Bubión and Pampaneira. From time to time there is the sound of goat bells from the fields. The road from Pampaneira (which peters out a few kilometres beyond Capileira, so there is no through traffic) arrives at the top of the village, where most of the facilities – the shops and bars, the bus stop and the town hall – are located. The village houses tumble down the hillside in more than a dozen rows.
Alpujarran architecture is unique in Spain and is similar to villages in the mountains of North Africa. The cubic houses jumble on top of one another and most street are stepped paths with runnels for water when it rains. The distinctive Alpujarran chimneys are everywhere and the houses have flat roofs waterproofed by launa, a type of clay. Many have balconies and tinaos which link houses on different levels across the narrow paths. There are old lavaderos and fountains which provided the water supply for drinking and washing.
When we explored the barrio bajo (lower village)(above) it was clear (not least from the strain it was putting on my old knees, and how breathless we became on the way back up) that the locals must be hardy. There are plenty of elderly people living there, who face a steep climb to shops and other facilities. Though there are a number of houses for holiday rentals, they don’t seem to predominate, and most houses are occupied. Stu walked round one evening as the goats were being brought back to the village. On my walk I passed a barn where a couple of goats shared the space with dogs and hens, and watched an elderly man head off to collect honey from his hives.
Capileira at night
When I checked, the population of Capileira was 559 in 2017. It has dropped from a high of 1680 in 1950 as modern roads made escape from subsistence agriculture to employment in the cities possible. It has been stable since the mid-1980s with the development of tourism and the arrival of modern public services. The lack of empty properties suggests that those who left for work have kept their village home and return regularly. Others will have retired to their pueblo. The village is kept in good condition – there is virtually no litter, most homes are freshly whitewashed, and the ayuntamiento (town hall) and AndalucÍan government appear to maintain the public services well.
A selection of chimneys
Tourism is essential to the local economy. It may be the case that the village is overrun by tourists in summer, but at this time of year most visitors are here for walking in the mountains in the cooler weather. The coach parties we saw didn’t stay for long and I expect that very few of the tourists penetrate the lowest levels of the village. There are shops selling tourist tat – some are goldmines of cheap rubbish. There are also plenty of locally made crafts such as basket ware and distinctive rugs for sale, together with local food, particularly honey.
Ted as usual has a beer or two (above) and tries the costa wine (below)
Needless to say we had a beer or two in the bars. On arrival we head for the terrace of the bar across the road from the bus stop – we never did find out its name though we visited several times. It’s a good place for watching the world go by – on one occasion we spent an hour or two watching the bloke who was watching the paint dry on the new white lines he had painted on the crossing outside the ayuntamiento – one Japanese tourist comes close to ruining his handiwork. Down the road a little is Café Bar Moraima, and across the road by the national park centre is Café-Bar Loma Púa. It has the feel of a club, is friendly and open all day (many places close between 4 and 7), and on good days the views across the Poqueira valley from the terrace are excellent. In Calle del Dr. Castillo is Bodega El Atraje, a fine old bar with outside tables across the street, where we watch local kids play in the street. Café Bar El Tilo, in Plaza Calvario near the church, became our favourite – friendly, pleasant inside, good food and a sunny terrace on the square – one evening we met Cristobal Hoare, an English artist who has lived in the village since 1976, and his wife Jackie (3).
This being Granada province, a tapa is served with every beer or glass of wine, often a good quality local chorizo or jamón and olives. We also tried raciones of several of the local cheeses. Provided you drink enough there is really no need to have full meals, though the menus in the bars and restaurants are tempting – most focus on local specialities. Grapes are grown on the southern slopes of the Alpujarras and produce the local costa wine, a deep pink dry rosé. It comes in boxes or plastic barrels and is served in bars from unmarked decanters. Steve, the vino rosado expert, is impressed and so is Ted. Steve (above) leaves Capileira with 1.5 litres of costa, in a Lanjarón water bottle, provided for next to nothing by Bar El Tilo.
In the middle day of our visit the weather in Capileira is misty and visibility is low, but there is less rain than forecast. In the afternoon we take the bus for forty-five minutes through a series of small villages to Trevélez. It is slightly higher than Capileira, at the head of the next side valley, but it is mist free, as is most of the journey. It is also built on a hillside, with three districts on different levels – barrios bajo, medio y alto (lower, middle and upper). We confine ourselves to the barrio bajo as there is a 200 metre height difference between it and the barrio alto. Trevélez’ claim to fame is Jamón de Trevélez, which has its own denominación de origen. The quality of the ham is known throughout Spain. The fresh mountain air is perfect for curing ham and the village is full of saladeros and secaderos, where the ham is dried and cured. We visit Meson Joaquin (below) for a beer, a restaurant owned by one of the jamón families. There are thousands of euros worth of hams hanging from the ceiling, and guess what the first tapa is.
The village is quiet, though across the road a coach tour arrives to visit the secadero before heading to a neighbouring restaurant for lunch – my guess is that the standard day trip to the area involves a morning visit to Capileira followed by a visit to Trevélez. We hear what sounds like Swiss cow-bells but it is only a herd of goats by the stream. We visit another bar, El Chorillo and chat with one of the locals. He has travelled and is keen to practice his good English and we practice our mediocre Spanish. We have a pleasant afternoon before the same bus and driver picks us up and takes us back to Capileira.
Alpujarran rugs for sale in Pampaneira
Our final day is spent collecting souvenirs and making a final round of the Capileira bars. Steve gets his costa wine from Bar El Tilo, with much comment about it being special Lanjarón water and Stu has bought a Capileira t-shirt. I buy our cheap souvenirs for the tat shelf at home – an Alpujarran chimney for Ted (below) and a Capileira coaster. We have lunch in Bar El Tilo with salad, cheese, and Galician style octopus. The final drink is in Loma Púa, the bar closest to the bus stop, where we are so full that we have to say no to a tapa. We wait there until we see the afternoon bus climb up the mountain road from Pampaneira towards us, then travel back to Granada, Málaga and Benalmádena.
(1) ‘Spain plans switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050’, www.guardian.com, 13 November 2018.
(2) in the western Alpujarras the streams join the Rio Guadalféo which flows into the Mediterranean at Salobreña. In the central Alpujarras streams join the Rio Grande through a gap between the southern mountain ranges to reach the sea at Adra. To the east is the valley of the Rio Andarax, which flows into the sea at Almería.
Getting there – From Málaga there are regular express coach services to Granada taking 1.5 to 2 hours, operated by Alsa. Plenty of time should be allowed at Granada to change buses, in case of delays. Fares (October 2018) range from €11.57 (normal) to €13.86 (Supra). Tickets can be booked online at www.alsa.com , though this incurs a small extra charge. You can choose your seats online. They can also be bought in advance or just prior to departure at the Alsa ticket windows or machines at Málaga and Granada bus stations. The route is busy and last-minute bookers may not get on the first departure. The queues can be long and the machines take a little getting used to – they may ask for the purchaser’s NIE or passport number and postcode in Spain. I found the online booking useful for the outward journey to ensure we arrived in good time for the onward bus.
Alsa also operate the bus from Granada to Capileira. This is a local bus and, while the other options are available, there was no problem getting a ticket at Granada half an hour before departure. Apart from Granada bus station, at all other stops pay the driver. Buses depart Granada daily at 1000, 1200 and 1630 (the destination is Berchules, Alcutar or Trevélez). Buses depart Capileira for Granada at 0700, 1645 and 1815 daily. Journey time is about two hours and the fare is €6.20. For a visit to Trevélez buses leave Capileira at 1205 and 1425 and return from Trevélez at 1600 and 1730. The journey time is 45 minutes and the single fare is €1.87. In our experience buses are routinely about 15 minutes late at Capileira.
We didn’t have the opportunity, but the National Park Interpretation Centre run a minibus into the mountains above Capileira several times daily during the summer months. Enquire at their office which is next to the bus stop in Capileira
We stayed in Hotel Finca los Lllanos, which is the largest hotel in the village and popular with walking groups. We were impressed, as noted in the main text. The other hotel is Hotel Real de Poqueira by the church in the centre of the village. In both cases try to get a room with a balcony and view as the scenery is worth it. There are a range of other hostals and apartments in Capileira.
Sources and further information.
The sources for the factual information are Wikipedia in English, www.en.wikipedia.org , Wikipedia in Spanish, www.es.wikipedia.org (any mistakes in translation from Spanish are my own) and The Rough Guide to Andalucía, Geoff Harvey and Mark Ellingham, 9th edition, Rough Guides, 2018.
Anyone interested in the area should read South from Granada by Gerald Brennan (1957), an account of his life in the Alpujarran village of Yegen in the 1920s. Much is recognisable today. Chris Stewart has written a series of books describing his life since his family settled near Órgiva, beginning with Driving Over Lemons (1999). Last Days of the Bus Club (left), Sort Of Books (2014) is the most recent and fourth in the series.
Maps: The map (below) is from the Michelin Touring Atlas of Spain & Portugal, 2018 edn. 1:400,000 scale. A paper map at the same scale is available, No.578 España Sur. Michelin map 124 Costa del Sol, 1:200,000 scale includes the area. In all three maps the area is split by the atlas pages or the main horizontal fold in the map. Walking maps of the area, including the Spanish equivalent of Ordnance Survey are available locally.
Photos: All photos are by Steve Gillon except for the following: Granada Bus Station is credited to Teléfono Atención Cliente, Lanjarón to Caballo Blanco Trekking Centre, Bubión to andalucia rustica, and Alpujarran rugs to Trip Advisor. These were sourced via Google Images. The photographs of Capileira at night are by Stuart Hannaford.
Copyright © Steve Gillon 2018