TOP SPOTS TO BIKE: ALHAMA DE GRANADA, Life in A Small Andalucian Town

How to live in Southern Spain - A Canadian in a hot country

With the sirocco wind that carries the exotic African scents of jasmine and cedar trees and bathes Southern Spain in a delightful hint of medieval Arabian Nights and shades of Scheherazade, you could almost forget you need to pay your taxes on the internet.  This is where my husband and I have transplanted us, away from the pollution and crowds of city life, into a village where shepherds are a common sight and stone doorways in the town are carved with dates of a time when North America’s shores were only known to the First Nations who hunted and fished there.

Alhama´s Grainery Dungeon
Winding around the valley floor of the Valley Genil, a river that comes from the heights of the close by snowy Sierra Nevada, burial places of Arab princes, you crest over the last hill to find the market town of Alhama de Granada, sheltered by the rolling Sierra Tejeda with its dark forests and rocky paths and stories of civil war Maquis guerrillas. Romantically perched atop a swelling landscape of vast poppy and wheat fields it is only 50km from either the Mediterranean Sea or from Granada the cultural epicentre in the province (if not the country). It is a small town that packs a punch visually as well as historically and is a real find for visitors who are looking for the rustic Spain of Hemmingway & Washington Irving.
As you drive around the curving roads, you come upon Alhama, with the impressive medieval church ‘Iglesia de la Encarnacion’, stands stalwart and commanding in the heart of the old town with the white Andalusian homes clustered around it like admirers. Surrounded by a rocky gorge the town evokes a poetic feel with a light, which dramatically changes through the day like a movie scene set.
Historically human reaction to this town has been similar and the intake of breath as one catches Alhama nestled in the bulwark of the Sierra de Alhama, Tejeda and Almijara mountain range hasn’t changed through the years.  References to the place sprinkle literature from Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow Fame (and who has his own cultural route here) to Robert Semple’s, President of the Hudson’s Bay Company, memory of it when in 1809 he visited entering through the ancient horseshoe shaped portal through the Mediterranean coastal mountains:
The Gorge in Autumn (old flour mill)
“After passing through a noticeably deep crack in the hills, we arrived in Alhama. It was only possible to make out the romantic outline of this town by the light of the stars.”

Nowadays you don’t have to wait for a bright night, as the two medieval churches, former synagogue, 15th century hospital with Moorish courtyard, and even the gorge are all attractively floodlit and electric lighting doesn’t ruin the atmosphere of the ancient cobbled Arab quarter with its dusky indigos and golden interiors. However come out and stand on the hill in a crisp winter evening when there is a full moon and dusting of snow on the mountaintops and time stands still.

The former Arabic quarter (Barrio Arabe)
The interest in this area reaches back into the dimly lit passages of time with vestiges of Neolithic aged finds. However, it was the Romans who made a large impression on it drawn to its defensive position and hot springs, and naming it “Artigi”. You can still wander down into the gorge (where there is a peaceful walking trail between the tall walls) and walk across their stone bridges. 

The Moors who would build Andalusia into a powerhouse of culture, art and scientific achievement for 700 years soon followed from Africa. It was their use of the “hammam” or hot baths, which gave it its name in the 8th century of Alhama. Today, one of the nicest places to settle down for an hour is not just in the original hammam, now inside a hotel, but outside in the Alhama river, where the hot water is funnelled and where amidst the shady overhanging trees you can while away the time with the locals in this bubbling oasis. Like the passing of time, the Moors were soon swept away by a daring raid by the Christians during the Reconquest era. Alhama’s loss directly contributed to the subsequent fall of their power base in the nearby city of Granada (at which time the Moors fled the Alhambra Palace and Spain). “Ay de Mi Alhama!” they cried when hearing of the loss of Alhama in 1482, this cataclysmic event evocatively told in prose by Lord Byron.
Having lived here for several years, we have settled in as the resident guiris (foreigners) and the townspeople around us have decided that although we are odd, we are generally not too offensive. They seem to have become quite used to our early eating times compared to theirs, which are more favourable to hours of the midnight snack and our strange adherence to drinking tea from cups and not their Arabic tradition of hot drinks coming in handle-less small glasses.

However, all of us share in the discomfort of summer days over 50 degrees and winter months, although which rarely finds snow piles lining streets, surely sees us all lining coats and wearing them inside as few people have any central heating system and tile floors are frigid!. In both cases this increased our knowledge of Andalusian profanity (their habit of peppering everyday language with vulgarities is usually impressive, but in these times exceptional. In terms of language generally, all credit is due to their perseverance for not going into hysterics when I slaughter their idiom. Like the time I spent a whole morning talking to a local farmer about membrillo (or quince, a fruit which they do magical things with here) and its pulpo (octopus) rather than the more useful pulpa (pulp).
The Gorge (Tajo)
We have also become accustomed to social engagements starting at 11:30pm and the telephoning of our Spanish friends to come out for the summer evening paseo, If it were just an amble around town, which is really only a couple of plazas and a main street, that might suffice, but these Andalusians love to catch up on the gossip (although it usually has only been four hours since you last saw them anyway). Thus, summertime paseos end up in a tour of outdoor tables in the plentiful number of cafes, cooing over babies and the antics of small children, sharing a tinto verano  (refreshing wine and lemonade mix) with a table of grandmothers and arriving home in the small hours.

Casa de la Inquisicion
We’ve come to terms with the fact we just can not take the pace but they haven’t, and although their promises of “oh no problema, it will be very short,” they just can’t help themselves and press us to stay on into the early hours. “Don’t worry about mañana, today is more important. Be with friends, enjoy the cool air.” A lovely thought and said with true Andalusian corazon (heart), but I am secretly glad when the winter months begin to sidle up, when all this late night socializing will be restricted and I’ll be able to get some sleep.

See our photos in our Picasa Album of Alhama de Granada  or experience this beautiful place yourself on our Quiet Paths Self guided tour or for Roadies, Training or White Villages.


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