The Sierra Nevada mountains are filled with white villages. Small, once remote settlements that now are working hard to survive by attracting ecotourists, hikers, people who want to get away to quieter places. Capileira, Bunol and Pampanera are three such villages dating back to pre-Moorish times.
The bus trip is not for the faint-hearted or those prone to travel sickness. Once the road starts the climb from the valley floor, it becomes a narrow cut into the face of a very steep mountain: all hairpin bends, precipitous drops, sheer rock face and occasional signs advising drivers that the next 5km are subject to falling rocks. Fallen rock is scattered across the road’s surface. There is little or no shoulder, so when a truck approaches from the opposite direction, it means someone has to back up to enable safe passing. The vehicle on the straight part of the road does the reversing … disconcerting if your window seat happens to be on the side of the bus providing a magnificent view of the drop to the foot of the mountain. But there’s more! Leaving those considerations aside, it seems that nearly everyone on the bus knows the driver … and so sit at the front to have a running conversation with him! Aaagh
These three tiny villages tightly hug the steep slopes on which they are built – accessible via a very narrow trail – making them highly defensible. The calles (streets), most too narrow for vehicles, are steep and often feature flights of stairs. Bright planter pots contrast with the harsh countryside.
The ground seems to grow rock, and eaking out an existence would have been hard. Kilometres of terraces, built for wheat production, surround the villages. Winnowing was done on circular paved platforms built over rocky terrain. No arable land was wasted.The snow covered heights of nearby mountains remind you to just how cold and isolated these places would have been in winter, and the smell of woodsmoke drifted on the chill breeze.
It’s 13km by road from Pampanera (already half way up the mountain), through Bunol to Capileira (near the top at 1200m). A series of tight corners – negotiated with oncoming traffic – finally ends in a small plaza. We wanted to walk between the three villages, so asked at a bar (filled with German motorcyclists) and were told how to find the old pilgrim trail, only 4km long, that winds its way down the mountainside. It was a wonderful downhill ramble along a narrow, muddy trail that brought us into a sun filled plaza – a clever cat knew where to avoid the icy wind!