Monday, 9 June 2014

A Passion for Water

There are some watery retreats in Andalusia’s hot dry summer landscape discovers Maggi Jones

Ask someone what they think southern Spain is like and they’ll confess visions of a sparkling salty coastline and beating sun on an arid landscape. So it was with great surprise when a friend asked me to join him for a day at the beach, not at the seaside, but at an impressive shoreline 60 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by a grandiose dam dedicated to a former Fascist dictator. In reality, and owing much to their Moorish heritage, the south of Spain has a profusion of sparkling fresh lakes and colourful waterfowl that rivals even the marshiest countryside.
Bermejales Lake near Granada

As you crest the hill southwest from the former Arabic royal city of Granada, the last thing you expect to see is the glittering of water in this landscape of rock and mountain. However the reservoir Pantano de Bermejales, plumply fills the basin, the reflection of light on its sandy bottom throwing off a Mediterranean aqua hue. Its backdrop is stunning and primeval with the Jurassic jagged edged Sierra Tejeda that sheltered prehistoric families protectively lying behind.  
As of yet, it is still untouched by the Spanish propensity to build ugly concrete structures for the burgeoning English and German communities who have packed up and moved to this persistent light. But seeing how other lakes in the area have been filled up with illegal housing of low-rise condos and pastel painted plaster constructions, it is only a matter of time. However, now life is simple, there is still an economic crisis for many and in the daytime the wooden picnic tables lining the shore are over-flowing on weekends with sausages, baguettes, cheeses and drinks, cooled in the lake waters. While at twilight, the day-trippers gone, a local shepherd on horseback guides his flock back across the beach to the higher pastures in the fading light and call of doves. Stopping for a vino tinto (red wine) before leaving that evening, it is apparent how the locals regard this tranquil place as nearby tapas places, where gruff farmers line the bar and issue a Buenos Dias to all who walk in the door, have decorated their walls with sun faded photos of the embalse, so appreciated is this watery nook.

The cobbled light coloured stone bridge that serves also as a dam, crosses and divides the lake attaching it to the olive fields that surround it. On one side the flat, calm water blinds in its brilliance and the large carp like fish, several feet in length, swirl at the top enigmatically waiting for the odd bread crust to come their way.  The metal plaque that once announced this bridge as part of ‘dictator Generalissimo’ Franco’s building schemes in the 1950’s has now been removed, the metal pins still hanging in the cement pillar, either by a vandal or admirer, knowing how the dictatorship years are viewed by the modern world. Despite this vestige of a turbulent and bloody history, of which this area has known much of during the 15th century war between Christians and Moors, the lake here remains a tranquil haven on a hot day.

The extensive system of lakes of Iznajar 

If you don’t want to partake in a dip, then you can take a walk instead. Not far west from Granada, a white washed village called Iznájar clings to the steep nodule of mountain over top a sparkling lake. The town itself is a venerable piece of history with a ruined Moorish alcazaba at the very top, next to a 16th century church. From here the world spreads out below and charts the landscape, with views of the 18 km walk around the lake. These lakes also serve as wonderful havens to migrating birds, but it wasn’t without a gasp of astonishment that I viewed the pink flamingos out in the muddy pasture fields surrounding the countryside cortijo (farmhouse) I was staying at near Iznájar. Like misplaced garden ornaments they stalked around until they decided to fly off in the direction of the African sun in a rosy gliding chevron shape. This, assured my hostess, is quite normal as not far away, at Laguna Salada (near Fuente de Piedra) there are another 20,000 of them. The biggest lagoon in Andalusia with several varieties of oak, its bird sanctuary has an extensive colony of flamingos, cranes and geese in the thousands. A good time to see them arrive in a dazzle of pink is February, with them leaving at the summer’s end. Fortunately for the bird watcher there are more to see and close to the southwest corner of the Granada province are the six inland salt lakes - Lagunas de Córdoba. Fed by an underground spring, they are like an oasis in the midst of a dry landscape, covering about 70 hectares and luring 13 different species of fowl.

The Alhambra in Granada
In a way it is not surprising those living and working the land in Southern Spain are obsessed with water. Parts of Andalusia (Almería, for example) have masqueraded in the famous Western movies of such iluminaries as Sergio Leone, “the Good, the Bad and The Ugly” as dusty exotic locales due to their desertification, shifting dunes and prickly cacti. In fact it is more than crucial that this area, which provides much of Spain with its vegetable and fruit produce, gets the wet stuff, which is why a reliance on reservoirs plays a part.  And just as the Moors did beginning in the 8th century by building stone irrigation runs, modern Andalusia’s landscape is strung with thin black hoses like low lying party bunting, providing and quenching the thirsty plants with piped water, often using the same channels as their forbearers.


Although it is the number one priority for those who farm here, those who play here seem to use up more than their share of water, and the Costa del Sol, Europe’s beach playground, is the main culprit. It is packed with package budget hotels whose holidayers demand large pools, jacuzzis and clamour for golf courses with chemically enhanced emerald coloured greens in the midst of heat waves. It is reported that the Costa del Sol uses double the national average per person and people in its various towns consume more water per person per day than any other European. As the high tourist season coincides to the Andalusian dry season, it is a harmful relationship. And year’s like 2005 (where Andalusia experienced the driest winter in 50 years) brings extreme concerns about low water tables. Certainly, great worries to the small rural hamlets and villages which face serious water shortages during the summer usually, with bankruptcy a threat to crop farmers. Although conservation projects are being recognized and desalination plants built and implemented, this valuable resource needs a very careful management and awareness to be shown by visitors and residents alike.

Charles V Fountain in the Alhambra
Fountain of Lions, The Ahambra
This Arabic love of water still plucks at the emotional heart and despite water shortages, the Andalusians still cannot help but install in courtyards and gardens, a gurgling fountain. Budding from the Moorish delight of water, every small village has one, culminating in the grand dame of fountain elegance with Granada’s Alhambra Palace’s Nasrid Fountain of Lions and the  gardens of the Generalife, where the hum of bees in the roses can not drown out the gentle murmuring of water from its spouts and pools. 

Even in the most incongruous places the hiker, cyclist or driver will come upon the roadside fountain, tapped off an underground spring to provide a well-earned drink. Swiping a hand under the plummeting water cools even the weariest of necks and hot faces, and in the hot Andalusian day, what sweetness this small action brings.

TRAVEL TIPS

Web Information:  For more information on hotels, coming events or outlying areas, access  Andalusia’s official website www.andalucia.org or try the sites www.andalucia.com and www.sol.com for other useful details. 

When to go:  Spain has several seasons, the winter (Dec – March) which although can be fairly rainy can also have many clear sunny skies and cool temperatures. This also coincides with the best bird watching opportunities. Springtime is the preferred period to visit, as the summer can be extremely hot with temperatures above 40 degrees celsius. Autumn (Oct-Nov) is also a good time with warm to cool temperate and bright days for lakeside picnics and swims.

For those looking for active exploration of these beautiful inland areas see Cycling Country´s self guided cycling tours, Quiet Paths, Moorish Andalucia and Lakes, Mountains and Sea, which take in Lake Bermejales and Iznajar in their routes.

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