Red poppies and seaside towns rushed by the bus, which hauled us along the Mediterranean coast of Spain for a few hours before turning north into the Sierra Nevada foothills. The rolling hills became sharper and steeper the farther we drove from the coast, its thick saline air giving way to the lighter atmosphere of the mountains, sweetened by deciduous woods and wild lavender in equal measure. The bus pulled off the road onto a gravel embankment. "Lanjarón," the driver said. We stepped off the bus and hoisted our backpacks over our shoulders when a small man with a drunken face wobbled towards us.
"Senderistas?" he slurred — "Hikers?"
He laughed, which transformed into a phlegmy cough, and asked for a cigarette. We apologized to the man that we didn't smoke. "Hasta el cuarenta de mayo no te quites el sayo," he muttered and stumbled away.
"Um. What just happened?" my wife asked.
"Town drunk probably."
"I got that. But what was he saying?"
"He wanted a cigarette. And then he said something like, 'Don't take off your raincoat until the 40th of May.'"
"What does that even mean?"
"It is an old Spanish expression, I think. That the weather is unpredictable until the summer months."
Sarah turned to me.
"Don't give me that look," I said. "That's why we brought raincoats. Just in case."
I changed the subject to the more pressing issue of finding a place to sleep, but I must admit that I was a bit worried. It was mid-May and our mission was to hike some 50 alpine miles on the GR7 trail from Lanjarón to Válor, visiting the white villages of the Alpujarra along the way. It was our first true holiday in nearly a year and though we had light raincoats, we were ill prepared—mentally and physically— to deal with any rain. And, most importantly, I'd read too many books to ignore forewarnings of any kind, especially those spoken by fevered oracles in the mountains.
The Alpujarra is a mountainous region in southern Spain that sits between the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean. To the northwest lies Granada and the highest peak in the Iberian Peninsula, Mulhacén. To the south, the city of Motril and the sea. Some 80 small villages, famous for their whitewashed and rectilinear architecture, dot the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
The GR7 hiking trail runs through the well-known white villages of the Alpujarra that appear along the route "lying like constellations in the vague immensity" of the mountainscape, noted the British expat and Hispanist Gerald Brenan. Small and white, they seem to glow against the drab hills, only to disappear under the rare camouflage of snow. Hikers can occasionally see the lofty peaks of Mulhacén and Veleta appearing and disappearing behind the lesser mountains. Other times, when hikers peer farther afield, the mountains of Africa across the Mediterranean take shape between the closer Spanish peaks.
"GR7" stands for Gran Recorrido 7, or Long-Distance Route 7, and is part of an extensive network of walking paths throughout Europe. The GR7 runs from Tarifa to the Pyrenees, where it connects to the European hiking trail network and runs through southern France, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary before bending south and eventually ending in Greece. Even without factoring in the European extensions, the Spanish GR7 alone is more than twice as long as the most popular route of the well-trodden Camino de Santiago.
And portions of the GR7 are probably just as old, too. While the GR7 did not exist in its present form until the 1970s, sections of the trail correspond with medieval paths mentioned in historical sources from the period. Trail guides and hikers often note that the Moors and Berbers who invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century and took residence in the mountains walked upon some of these trails.
Lanjarón, the popular spa town and the so-called "Gateway of the Alpujarra," was our starting place. "Popular" is a relative term. Despite us arriving at the start of the hiking season, the streets were free from the constant flow of tourists one can easily find in nearby Málaga or Granada. We were mostly alone in the tiny squares, where clay pots holding geraniums stood in contrast against the chalky walls. Tiled fountains bubbled with mountain-fed water next to grandmothers sitting on benches, the town gossip flowing just as freely as the water.
We set off on our hike the next morning under clear skies, stopping at a local bar at the edge of the village for coffee and provisions. There we spotted the village drunk who, nearing the end of his bender, recognized us, and unsuccessfully asked for another cigarette.
At around 2,000 ft. in elevation, Lanjarón was one of the lowest-lying cities on our route. Our next stop, Soportújar, wasn't too much higher at around 3,000 ft. Nor was it far away. But with regular elevation gains and losses on its 10 miles of trails, the hike would take a full day, especially for lowlanders carrying upwards of 40 pounds of gear on their backs.
"How far is our hike today?" Sarah asked some 10 minutes into our hike leaving Lanjarón.
"About 16 kilometers in total."
"Is it like this the whole way?" She planted a hand on a small boulder and pushed herself onto it.
"No," I said copying her move and unsure if I was telling the truth.
At that moment we heard rustling below us. An old man carrying grocery bags walked up the path, his dog not far behind. We watched them pass, their lungs and legs seemingly hardened by years of mountain living.
"If they can do it, so can we," I reassured Sarah, and we pressed on.
The path took us to a rumbling acequia (irrigation canal)—perhaps as old as the middle ages—where a few dogs greeted us and led us into the mountains with wagging tails. Our canine guides left us to scuffle with a much larger dog as the path leveled off and opened into an immense meadow. In that vast space, the only reminders of civilization were the trails that cut through the flowers, the far-off clangs of livestock bells, and the white villages hanging in the mountains like ghostly apparitions.
Soon though, reminders of danger and a few deadly tests disrupted the serenity. The first came on the trail with the village of Cañar visible across the ravine. The footpath had crumbled away, revealing a precipitous drop into a rocky gorge. With Cañar so close and our cortijo (literally "farmhouse," but in this context a rural accommodation) in Soportújar already booked, turning back was not an option. We threw our packs across the collapsed path and, aware that one false step would result in our deaths, we scrambled to a point above the path, traversed across the exposed section, and slid down onto the path on the opposite side. There the skull of an animal, possibly a sheep or goat, greeted us.
We made it across, but no sooner had the effects of the adrenaline started to dissipate than we faced another challenge. We knew that we would soon arrive at a levee, but we hadn't expected that the melting snow from the mountains would form a confluence at the dike. A river flowed down from the mountains, felled trees evidence of its power, and over the levee some 30 meters into the ravine. We walked upstream and saw an opportunity to cross at a point where a few trees had logjammed. We tied our shoes to our packs and, with our ankles submerged in its cool waters, walked across the river on slippery logs.
After a brief refuel at Cañar, we arrived at our cortijo in Soportújar battered, both mentally and physically. The next day arrived with another surprise, this time in the form of steady rain. The steward of the cortijo expressed concern that we would hike in such conditions. He cautioned us that the rain and muddy trail would be hazardous, and offered to drive us directly to Pitres, bypassing Bubión, Pampaneira, Capileira and the other villages of the Poquiera Valley. With the memory of nearly dying still fresh, we readily agreed.
Gerald Brenan had no choice but to walk everywhere when he lived in the Alpujarra for seven years beginning in 1919. He didn't have the luxury of being driven to nearby villages when conditions were poor. In the early twentieth century, most Alpujarreños walked or rode horses to their destinations as motor vehicles, and the roads to drive them on, hadn't yet arrived in the Alpujarra.
In his famous book South from Granada, Brenan once conveyed a sense of shame that, after being struck with dysentery, he was in such a "poor condition" that he could only walk 130 miles in 5 days. This feat must not only be impressive to contemporary Americans who walk somewhere between 2.5 and 3 miles each day on average even without diarrhea, but also to anyone unaccustomed to steep elevation gains and mountain life.
Brenan was okay with hiking, as part of his motivation for moving to the Alpujarra in the disillusioned years following the Great War was to get lost. He wanted to escape his dissatisfaction with the "formless society" and "routine professions" of middle-class life. With the discontent went the comforts; he also left behind good roads and modern forms of transport. Life in England was "stifling," he said, with its "rigid conventions" that poisoned the soul. Instead, the climate south of the Pyrenees was one that "nourishes" the creative impulse and offers an existence that is the purifying and redemptive antithesis to a modern, consumption-driven life. But Brenan also moved to the Alpujarra to have the space to study, read, meditate, and lose himself in undistracted thought. In a word, he wanted to be free in an environment that modernity, industry, and all their trappings had yet to ruin.
The wish to escape a modern, consumption-driven life for the Alpujarra is one that still resonates. Without much else to do in Pitres on a cold and rainy day but drink, we cozied up to the owner of a bar who told us he moved to the village after "wasting my time as a banker in Barcelona." Between servings of his vinegary homemade wine, Antonio told us he preferred the slow pace of "real life" to the large paychecks of a fast and superficial city. To be sure, while tourism in the Alpujarra has been on the rise since the 1960s, market forces and promises of economic prosperity have driven many Alpujarreños from the villages to larger Spanish cities. But not Antonio who, with his lip piercing and angular haircut, is going in the opposite direction. And he wasn't the only one who preferred the country to the city.
The owner of a nearby restaurant, an elevated spot with décor reminiscent of Middle Earth and a large outdoor patio overlooking the Río Trevélez, invited us for some after-hours drinks in the restaurant and to show us a slideshow of his travels around the world. "I've traveled all over," the owner told us. "I took this photo in Egypt. And this one in Algeria. I've seen it all. But I prefer to live here. It is better here."
Suddenly, an old man wearing rubber knee-high boots and overalls entered the restaurant. The owner greeted the old man and locked the restaurant doors behind him. "And here I can do whatever I want," he said as he pulled a joint out of his pocket and lit it. The smoke of marijuana and tobacco filled the small restaurant. Later, I helped them search for large snails in the restaurant's outside patio. "For dinner," the old man told me as he tossed some snails into a plastic grocery bag.
We awoke the next morning to heavy rain drumming on the flat roof of our room. And the forecast for nonstop rain for the rest of the week dampened our enthusiasm to continue hiking to Válor. The rain meant that we would have to continue by bus, and that we'd be confined to the depopulated villages themselves. The mountains, the mountainscapes, the remoteness, and the escape in the wilderness—all these plans washed away.
Still, we continued by bus and made Trevélez our final stop. At 4,840 feet above sea level, Trevélez is one of the highest and remotest villages in Spain. Its proximity to the summit of Mulhacén and its access to a variety of trails means that Trevélez is a choice destination for mountaineers. But the rain kept us confined to the village with little to do but wander around, peek into the foggy windows of closed shops, and eat ham.
Yet somehow, that was okay. The deeper we went into the Alpujarra, the more we learned that the true natural order of things is that the world imposes a schedule on us, not the other way around, that we had no choice but take what the mountains had to give. Like Brenan, we went to the Alpujarra to get away from the predictable monotony of the modern world, to experience nature in all its glory as much its grit. And we got exactly what we asked for. Though, if there is a next time, we'll happily give an inebriated man what he asks for—a cigarette—lest we incur the curse of another drunken seer.
Jeremy Bassetti is a writer and the host of Travel Writing World, a podcast in which he interviews authors of travel books about their work and the business and craft of travel writing. He is also the editor of Adventures in Ideas. You can learn more about Jeremy and his work at www.jeremybassetti.com.
How to Lose Friends and Mortify People While Hiking in Peru - Marco Ferrarese
Bowling with Giants on Saint Michael's Way in Cornwall - Beebe Bahrami
A Place to Not Think in Central Serbia - Jonathan Arlan
Quiet for Pigeon, Loud for Boar, Shoulder-High for Rabbit - Beebe Bahrami
See other Europe travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: