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High Sun and Sweet Almonds

We take a Spring walk in the Alpujarras and encounter new-age communities.

As he travelled in the Alpujarras, Laurie Lee wrote in A Rose for Winter, ‘The sun fell on us like treasure, and the daylight moved over the sea in great, slow transpositions of colour, dying each night in purple dusks. The cliffs and mountains soaked up the sunsets like red sponges and the distant ragged edges of the sierras shone blue as a blunted saw’.

We had been staying on the coast near the Alpujarras mountains (foothills to the Sierra Nevada) for a few days and now it was time to make forays into this area of Andalucia, full of history and romance. There are many walks to choose from in our guidebooks and so we plump for walk number 1, from Lanjarón to Cañar, two villages high above Ôrgiva - the town made famous by Chris Stewart’s writings.

At Lanjarón we drive through the town and park by the information panel with some handy notes about the town and the local flora and fauna. The panel illustrates the key animals we can expect to see, griffon vultures, peregrines and ibex. On this walk I particularly want to observe and photograph the flora.

We spend the first hour trail finding. We have two maps and a written description. The way is not easy to find. We walk up a hill unnecessarily only to be faced with the sign COTO. This sign is seen everywhere in Spain and means no access or hunting area or private. Whatever it means we know we should not be there. The neat terraces of olive groves are out of bounds too, although it is tempting to take a short cut across the soil so diligently and recently turned. The sun is high and we start to sweat. Dogs bark and chase us, thankfully on the other side of a fence. They carry on barking for a long time.

The path takes us up an ancient track that must have been laid hundreds of years ago with neat coloured stones and proper edging, such as we might have drawn in our history books at school. Sadly, this road has been almost destroyed by the combination of water run off and bikes.

It twists and turns and we scramble up. Eventually we find ourselves on a fire road but then have to cut down through thick, spiny bushes to find the correct path. Avoiding the olive grove we find ourselves in amongst crumbling rocks where the path has been completely washed away. The orange, sandy gorge before us is impassable and we turn back to skirt the new-age traveller site we can see ahead. We see beehives hiding amongst the tall esparto grasses, the top of each lid bearing a large stone. In the deep vegetation peaks of tents are visible along with huts constructed entirely of plastic sheeting. Old white vans perch like cairns on almost every hill top. Later we discover this area has been given by a local landowner for people to live alternative lifestyles here.

We pass olive trees full of black shining fruit. These are abandoned or wild and are outside the carefully kept groves. Wild olives only produce a tiny drop of oil per fruit but the trees sparkle with the black olives against the pale silvery green of the leaves. The trunks are gnarled, twisted and almost black with age. There is plenty of pale lilac-pink almond blossom too. Sometimes the scent is all around with a homely gentle sweetness.

We encounter a sea of sage, individual plants rising up the hills as far as I can see, their furred green oval leaves the only living plant in this part of the rocky hillside. I have seen this plant growing elsewhere but not in as much abundance as here, and the scent of the leaves is strong. There are less thymes here but as much rosemary as anywhere.

At the top of the hills is a flat area where several hills meet. Here there is an old white Mercedes minibus, its sides spotted with rust. This area was once, or possibly still is, a goat farm. At certain times of day this plateau would be filled with many goats with the goat herder waiting to move them on to new grazing.

We sit and eat while studying the path that ascends out of the ravine and rises up towards the village of Cañar. it looks impassable as it clings vertically to the side of rock. Once we are in the gorge the character of the land changes. We are in shade and there is a good-sized stream. A bridge has been constructed and it takes us across to climb the other side. Now on the path that looked so tortuous before, we find it is easy and broad, but almost washed away in one place.

We soon find ourselves moving through the last tracks, wider now as we approach the village. In amongst a group of lush ivy-clad trees we hear the sound of a hundred birds singing. Surrounded by the sound we cannot see where they are roosting, but gradually they fall silent and we must move on before they will start singing again. At the entrance to the village of Cañar, the church we expect to see is blocked by a half-built house. The upper part in occupation and finished but the lower part without walls.

At the top of the village, a few people are hurrying indoors for the siesta, but for us it’s the chance to take a beer and sit in the sun and linger. There is no outward sign of the bar being open, but in the dark interior several men are watching football. We sit outside with a beer and watch a vulture making slow lazy turns on the thermals above the village and then another faster and more powerful bird, a peregrine.

We don’t do this for long as the hills of the high sierra are visible to our right and whilst we sit in sunlight the clouds are grey over there. Cloud also falls into the valley where we have just been walking. We hurry on our way putting on the layers as we head back to Lanjarón.

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