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Monday, 5 November 2012

In the High Alpujarras

Atalbeitar - August 2012

The road to Atalbeitar is a single track of tarmac, four thousand feet up in the High Alpujarras of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It zigzags steeply down through terraces of olive and almond trees, before narrowing into a scatter of parked cars.  They can't get much further into this tiny whitewashed village of alleyways and even if they could there is  no road on the other side. Thick walled houses, squint through deep set windows, their flat roofs sprouting chimneys topped with little white witches hats or Moorish arches and the whole place feels to have kept the modern world at bay for a thousand years. 

The village and those around it - the Taha villages they are called - are remnants of the Berber's rule over the region and on a clear day from the right ridges, you can see the North African hills they left behind.  They built the villages in their traditional style, linked by a network of paths which is still in use today. They established mosques and used their skills with irrigation to cultivate the region. It would never last of course. After being forced to convert to Christianity they rose up and were crushed. The Taha (Arabic for "obedience") was their last bastion before they were expelled from Spain in the sixteenth century. Then, Christians were brought south from from the wet Atlantic coast in Galicia and Asturias to live in these houses and farm the arid land. In each village, two Moorish families were forced to stay on to maintain the sophisticated system of water courses they had built and the water still flows through them today, running through ancient stone-lined channels past fields, into cool stone reservoirs, under houses and into drinking troughs and wash houses. The fortified watchtowers built by the Moors have been absorbed into churches and the people that smile and watch from plastic chairs grouped in the tiny village squares are white, not brown. There are no veils here any more, but this still feels closer to Marrakesh than Malaga. 

Like all of these "white villages" Atalbeitar grips the hillside on the south-facing flank of Poqueira gorge, baking in the sunshine. From each village you can usually see one or two others, a startling splash of white, off in the distance. Each has a church with a square bell tower and some villages are bigger than others but they follow much the same pattern - a tight jumble of squat houses built against the slope, threaded by alleyways which go between and sometimes under them. All the stonework is white though the doorways are often covered with cloth woven in bright stripes. Occasionally there is a vine trellis laden with grapes , or an explosion of purple bougainvilleas . The sound of running water is never far away and every village has at least one open cistern fed by a spout of clear clean water, usually decorated with bright tiling and religious inscriptions. Some of it is naturally fizzy. 

Atalbeitar has a year round population of 12 although a few more people stay in their family's  houses over the summer. There is no shop, and no bar though the woman who owns this house says there is a "village club" which sells cheap beer. You get the sense that this is not entirely official.  In the evening the entire adult population bring lawn chairs to the central square and sits in a circle on what is the main route through Atalbeitar. On our first evening we arrived in the square, puzzled as to how to keep going on the path though the village and they beckoned us through their circle, smiling, through an archway beneath one of the houses which took us out into terraced fields. 

The house we are staying in is at the top edge of the village, built into the bottom of a small cliff. The jagged brown stone forms the back wall of the ground floor. The flat roof is made in the traditional way with chestnut beams supporting flat stones which are then packed on top with mud. Looking up at the roof from inside is briefly alarming, as if there has been a landslide and the house has been buried under tons of rubble. The steep walk to the house from the road takes us past the church and through almond and fig trees and prickly pear cacti. The prickly pears are getting ripe, the green giving way to an apricot coloured blush. When one fell off the other day I split it open and dug out the brilliant orange flesh with a spoon. They taste like passion fruit though you have to be careful handling them as the little hairs on the outside dig into your skin and take an age to pull out. 

The church bell clanked for a while on Sunday but otherwise the building is silent and locked. The bell though is the only mechanical sound in this village. There are no cars, no buzz of a moped, no sirens, no dogs barking, no squeal of metal shutters being raised, no trucks, no buses. Early mornings are quiet as a hillside.  We open the shuttered windows when our brains tell us that we are more awake than asleep. Cool air pours in and the sun stretches across the other side of the valley, reaching across shadowed ridges and over dry brown slopes. Below us, it picks out the chimney tops, lighting them like beacons over the village. Unfamiliar birds peep and whoople outside. Its a bit like waking up in a campsite in that, eventually, you hear other people doing the same. Quiet murmours, the chink of a plate, a cough over a cigarette, soft laughter. The sounds drift  up to our house. No-one gets up early here and everything is muted until perhaps 9.30 or 10 when there is a change of tone to mark daytime. Neighbours greet one another "Bon dia!  Bon dia!". Then the first children's voices; shouts, laughter, tears and eventually there is a low buzz of conversation floating over the flat roofs. On Wednesday mornings the quiet is rudely shattered by the blast of a car horn for twenty or thirty seconds. I went down to see what it was and found a blue van, it's back doors open with a cluster of women around it. Inside were white plastic trays full of fish and the fishman was in an animated conversation with the village ladies as he showed them what he had. These women become strangely identikit as they age, they become stocky in their print dresses with faded colours, hair cut short. Its as if at a certain point they suddenly become figures of the 1950s. Gathered at the fish van, one or two glanced in my direction and then looked away. I had the slight feeling of intruding in something and walked on, into a one of the alleys I hadn't been into before. It narrowed to a dead end between grey-white houses with rough brown doors, ancient and ill-fitting. Behind them in the gloom visible between the doors and their frames, I could hear a rumble of conversation. 

The early part of the day is the only time you see any local people out walking. Old men with hats,  pressed trousers and long sleeved shirts walk slowly up and down the roads in the cool of the morning. Often they look at our rental car as if it is the most extraordinary thing they can imagine and will stop to watch us pass. You meet the women on the paths between the villages, often with a plastic shopping bag and a reserved Bon dia. The heat builds slowly through the morning, the birds quieten down and one by one the people retreat behind their doors again for lunch and then a siesta. In the mid afternoon the village bakes silently in the heat; the stone walls soaking up the sunshine.  A hot wind sends dry leaves skittering through the alleys. The ratchet of crickets and cicadas rises and falls with the temperature and Atalbeitar seems deserted, ready to come alive again when the heat begins to wane. 

We just missed the fiesta in Atalbeitar; two men were removing the rope of coloured lights across the street at the entrance to the village when we arrived. One standing precariously on the roof of a house held the undone string tight while the other undid the other end and they gently lowered the whole thing to the ground. But that night the fiesta spirit continued with great roars of laughter from the square and children laughing and squealing until the small hours. But for the fact that Tom was sleeping contentedly in his room we would have given up on sleep and gone to see what was going on. 

The second night, all was peaceful in Atalbeitar. Not so in the next village Ferreirola a couple of miles down the valley. It was their turn for a fiesta and at eleven pm, accompanied by firecrackers, the band started up. It sounded like a Mexican revolution. Eventually the trumpets and oompah and bass drum were joined by a singer for a vigorous rendition of what seemed to be roughly the same song, for the next five hours. The combination of instruments and tempo sounded to my foreign ear like the music played at the circus when the clowns come in. With the sound bouncing eerily across the valley, P and I gave up on sleep and read, grimly, until about four, when cheer and applause marked the end of the fiesta. T, again, slept through the whole thing.

One night we were treated to music of a different kind though. Every year a group of classical musicians goes from one village to the next over the course of a week or so, staging outdoor evening concerts. We came back from supper just after ten - still early by local standards - and struggled to find a place to park. Knots of people were heading into the village and with stars sparkling overhead and the alleys lit by creamy yellow street lights we made for the square. It was ringed by perhaps sixty people, all watching three musicians. A flautist, a pianist and a clarinetist played a beautiful selection of music, to warm applause. Dogs stopped on the edge of the crowd and watched, puzzled. Children ran through the square self-consciously and others brought their grandparents out to see. It felt more than ever as if this corner of Spain doesn't quite live in the same time as the rest of the modern world. 

Walking through the hills, the history of the region is all around you, in the spiders web of trails and the ruins of countless buildings.  On every flank of every hill there is a path; sometimes following the contour around, sometimes zigzagging steeply across it. They pass small stone crofts, most now empty, with a skeletal roof of grey chestnut beams. The  foot-thick walls were built to last and they have. There are at least four old mills within walking distance of Atalbeitar. All are now ruined but were all clearly substantial structures once, with several rooms and carefully engineered sluices to channel the streams over waterwheels. More than once we saw ridged grinding wheels lying half buried in the undergrowth. One old mill on a ridge overlooking Atalbeitar dates back perhaps a thousand years. Until we had walked to it we never noticed it from the village, so exactly does it blend  in with the landscape. It sits behind a large round threshing circle built with flat stones into the hillside. We came across these circles several times in places which are now empty of people and remote, but were clearly once in the heart of things. They look like ancient helicopter landing pads and were built in windy places to make it easier to separate wheat from chaff. You don't see too much wheat on the terraces now - it can't be economic as a cash crop on such a small scale and people buy the bread they once had to make. Other crops are still grown though and the irrigation systems support tremendous crops of apples and pears, apricots figs, olives, almonds, peppers and sweetcorn. There are plenty of goats too, tonkelling about the hillside. Catching my breath in the rubble of an abandoned cortijo after a steep climb I was startled by an elderly goatherd who appeared next to me out of nowhere with a thick walking stick. His skin was burnt almost black and a clear plastic jug of water swung from his belt. We smiled and Bon dia'd and agreed that it was nice that the sun hadn't yet reached the slope where we were both standing. Eventually I pressed on and up the ridge and twenty minutes later I looked down to the spot where we had been to see him directing a little black dog around the goats, which flowed down through the terraces like poured water.