THIS past winter has been a winter like no other. The gaggles of old men, the reception committees at the entrance to every village, are still shaking their heads in disbelief.
For not even in 1976, when the rivers rose and washed much of the village of La Rabita and two hundred of its inhabitants into the sea, did the rains rain down on Andalucia as they have these last few months.
Everyone has some astronomical figure to bandy about… but few can compare with the thirteen hundred (yes 1,300) litres that fell on Capileira, in the High Alpujarras, in just one week this January.
The Alpujarras is one of the very driest spots in Spain. It may seem, even in the drought of summer, to be well watered and rushing with streams and springs, but this is a consequence of the high snowfields, and the miraculous aquifers deep in the bowels of the Sierra Nevada, rather than of abundant rainfall. In fact, the rainfall in an average year is scarcely greater than that of the Sahara desert.
In spite of what those old folks say about how much greater the rainfall was in the past – and the bitter truth is that these people and their questionable observations are not to be relied upon – it was not. It has always been dry in the Alpujarras. Look at the houses: they have, in common with the architecture of North Africa and the Middle East, flat roofs. The flat roof is a lot less technically demanding than a pitched roof, also cheaper… but it’s not a thing you’d want in a rainy climate.
The Alpujarras was, quite simply, not designed for rain: all the roofs leaked this last winter. My neighbour, Bernardo – and you won’t believe this, but it’s true – spent much of the winter sleeping on his back with a bucket clutched to his chest. Every hour or so it would fill up and he would have to get up to empty it. As it happens, we remained perfectly dry on our farm, a few miles outside Orgiva, as we made a “green roof” for our house last year.
The main reason for the green roof is to insulate the house against the summer heat, which it does very effectively by providing a dense cover of succulent plants to keep the sun off. It looks good, too, especially when the portalakia and mesembrianthemum are in blossom and hanging in thick colourful tendrils down the outside walls. In winter the extra insulation keeps the warmth in, too. But the best of it is that the waterproof layer of PVC that you must have to keep the roots from penetrating the concrete of the roof, also keeps the drips out.
And so, as we sat inside day after day, watching the rain sheeting across the valley, there was a certain smugness about us… and this despite the fact that the great stone wall of the chicken run had collapsed in the night and the fox had got in and taken all the hens.
We lost our bridge, too, in that first terrible onslaught of rain at Christmas, as well as the road, the acequia, our water supply, a whole rake of oranges and olives, and some of the fields down by the river.
But it would be wrong to complain; many people were hit a whole lot harder. We have recovered more or less by now. A week after the loss of the bridge we set up the ‘Flying Fox’, which consists of a steel cable stretched high above the river, and a cunning system of ropes and pulleys for winching whomsoever or whatever is necessary, across the raging flood.
It’s sort of alarming, but you can get used to anything, and in fact we rather like it: it makes the most banal of expedition something of a Boys’ Own adventure. (I’m not altogether sure if the Wife concurs with me on this, but she puts on a brave face.)
To date we have winched in and out six bombonas of butano, two sacks (rather poignant this) of chicken feed, 30 sacks of sheep feed, a sofa, and 89 sheep, who, through no fault of their own, got stranded on the wrong side of the river.
But to return to my theme: it’s not just the architecture of the Alpujarras that suffers in the rain; it’s the geological weft and warp of the hills and valleys, the very fabric of the mountains.
Apparently the Sierra Nevada is very young geologically speaking. This means that when it gets wet it all starts falling to bits: rocks break off and roll down the steep hills; land slips away; the very earth turns to porridge and pours in thick, sludgy flows down into the rivers. And the rivers run turgid, grey and evil smelling… a kilo of sediment dissolved in every four litres of water, so I am told. Standing by the river in the rain, you can watch the process of erosion that ought, in about a hundred million years or so, to turn the Sierra Nevada into something resembling the Pyrenees, where all the extraneous muck has been washed from the tops, leaving beautiful bare pinnacles of rock.
It happens on a smaller scale down in the valleys, too, where every morning the villagers wake to find yet another stone wall collapsed, yet more terraces fallen away, and the paths and bridges that lead to their lands, impassable.
This is what I find more difficult to take: I can accept the mountains sliding little by little down to the sea; it’s a natural organic process; it’s what’s meant to happen, and we’re not going to be here to see the end of it anyway. But I hate to see the damage to the man-made landscape, the walls and terraces and ancient roads that are the result of centuries of human ingenuity and backbreaking labour.
For me the beauty of the Alpujarras is in the juxtaposition of wild savage landscape with the intricate webs of terraces and fields, the lovely green skirts of a hundred textures and colours that surround the villages.
And to walk along the ancient ways, the Caminos Reales, among the villages in the valleys, with the majestic backdrop of the high peaks, is just the very best way to enjoy that beauty.
Unfortunately, even without the winter rains, this part of the infrastructure has fallen on hard times. Unless real efforts are made to restore the ancient ways and revive the small scale agriculture that has always nourished these villages, then much of the area’s unique beauty will disappear, and people will no longer come to walk in it and wonder at it.
With this in mind, we have set up “Campos y Caminos de la Alpujarra” (www.camposycaminosdelaalpujarra.com).
The thing is still in its infancy, but we aim to motivate that dying breed of older Alpujarreños who have the ancient skills to teach, and those younger folks who may be out of a job, or just fancy the idea of learning a new skill, to get out there and hump stones about. The idea is that if we can start reopening the ancient ways, rebuilding the ancient walled terraces, and repairing the fallen bridges, then we can give a shot in the arm to the poor battered old Alpujarras and its enfeebled economy. For the mines have been closed, and there’s not a lot of money in mountain agriculture; but what remains is the dazzling beauty of the landscape, the history and the unique cultural heritage. Try as they might, the rains will never wash those away.