Secret Spain – Alhama de Granada

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In the minds of many of us Andalucia is quintessential Spain – spectacular countryside, beautiful beaches, exotic cities, and a history and romance that has enraptured travellers from Gerald Brenan to Ernest Hemingway. White hot days, tapas nights, flamenco, bull fighting…need I go on? The majesty of Seville, the beauty of Granada and the breathtaking Mesquite at Cordoba, all combine to create that most entranching of lands – a medieval gift from those munificent Moors who wanted so much to create beauty and do justice to the place they loved.

Having previously lived near Malaga, I’ve travelled to many areas of Andalucia and while it’s beauty never ceases to amaze me, as time passes it’s noticeably harder to find places that haven’t in some way succumbed to the love of a foreigner. I’ve ventured into many of the remote nooks of the Serrania de Ronda, and ten years ago you could pretty much guarantee, when travelling just half an hour inland that every turn in the road would present something eternally Andaluce and not quite of this time. Nowadays I’ll roll into town somewhere craggy and ostensibly obscure only to hear the all-too familiar tones of mid-Surrey English wafting across the din of the venta. And while it still surprises me it also leaves me determined to keep hitting the next bend in the road.

One such journey took me through an area I’d ventured across many times – but had failed to fully explore. The delights of the Alhambra, the labyrinthine mystery of Granada’s old Moorish district, the Albaicin – and on many occasions the pistes of Mulhacen in the Sierra Nevada, had all previously occupied my time. So now I took a different route, at a different pace – and headed straight into the mountains that divide the districts of Malaga and Granada. If you try to travel as the crow flies from Malaga to Granada you will make tracks up through Velez-Malaga and into the Axarquia district. Then you will cross a vast agricultural plateau traversed by a ramrod straight Roman road, that then drops gradually down to a small town steeped in three thousand years of Iberian history, perched on a precipitous gully.

Alhama de Granada is a very well kept Andalucian secret – that is until I started writing this! A town of a mere 6,000 souls, it nestles precariously on a vast slash of gorge that dominates the surrounding countryside running 2km in length, and creating an aura of drama around the picturesque hilltop site. Known in Spain for it’s hot springs, but once a famous Moorish stronghold, the town still attracts a dribble of Spanish visitors who wish to bathe in the hot sulphurous waters which reach over 112F, as they’re considered beneficial in cases of rheumatism and dyspepsia.

However, the history of Alhama de Granada can be traced to the very beginnings of civilisation in the Iberian peninsula – Phoenician, Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish influences all fuse with the architecture of the medieval Catholic Kings. In the 14th century Alhama and the neighbouring fortress of Loja were generally considered as the keys to the Moorish kingdom of Granada, and their capture went a long way to ensuring the overthrow of the last Moorish ruler, Boabdil of Granada. It is said he lamented ’oh, for my Alhama’ as his Nasrid dynasty was expelled from the hilltop fortress in 1482 by the might of the Christians Fernando and Isabella, who then marched on Granada. The victory and subsequent capture of Alhama, lead by the Marquis de Cadiz, is celebrated in an ancient ballad ’Ay de mi Alhama’ which Lord Byron translated into English.

Today Alhama is a mixture of the ancient and modern, as it looks out over some of the most spectacular scenery in Spain. In winter the view to the snow capped Sierra Nevada is uninterrupted and majestic – in summer, the locals spend their evenings and weekends swimming and relaxing around the vast and beautiful Bermejales lake, a mere 5km from town and reached by a road lined with populars and towering Mediterranean black pine.
A large part of the town was lost in 1884 when over 800 people perished in an earthquake that destroyed five churches, a hospital, the theatre, the prison and many of the white Moorish houses. For a community numbering in it’s thousands, this was a huge blow, and from which the town never really recovered. The once popular spa town (Alhama is Arabic for ’hot bath’) fell out of fashion with the Granadinos and slipped back into the rhythmic cycle of agricultural subsistence. Still today the groves of olives, almonds, and oranges provide the majority of work for the town – although the baths or balneario are still going. Located just outside the town, the spa opens it’s doors to visitors during the summer months and is well worth a visit, if only for the vestiges of Roman and Moorish architecture.

What struck me as I walked the quiet streets of Alhama was that brooding sense of history that the greatest parts of Andalucia exude. The church of La Encarnacion (built over the old mosque) pricks the skyline of the town, it’s physical height amongst the surrounding buildings provides further emphasis of the conquering desire of the Christians. The church was a ‘gift’ to the local Moorish inhabitants from Ferdinand and Isabella, who charged the famous Granadino Christian architects Enrique de Egas and Diego de Siloe to build a house of worthy of an omnipotent Christian god and one that would make best use of the location. And yet, the remains of the Arab fortress still survive, along with the gothic-Isabelline style and rather sinisterly named House of the Inquisition, the old synagogue, dating from the days of religious tolerance under the Moors and the much later Renaissance hospital of La Reina.

The colourful history of Alhama oozes from the very mortar of the buildings but even in the centre of town, you are never far away from a spectacular view of the Granadan vega. The precipitous gorge, the fast flowing Marchan river below, the circling golden eagles, peregrine falcons and goshawks, and the forests of holm, cork, and gall oaks which butt up against the regularity of the olive groves, all take the eye up to the horizon. And while I’m sure there must be at least one non-Spaniard in the town, not once did I encounter anything but a broad Andalucian accent. It’s not that I don’t like my own nationality, you understand – but the tentacles of tourism are long – so sometimes, on the rare occasion it happens, it’s blissful to be a true stranger in town.

Venturing into a local estate agents – as they’re usually a font of local knowledge – I was directed towards the Bermejales lake. It took twenty minutes to get there and every turn in the road was breathtaking. Lying in a depression, surrounded by mountains, hills and forests, Bermejales is where the locals let their hair down in the summer. The girl in the estate agents said she went there every evening after work – and I could see why. Perfect for barbeques, swimming, canoeing and water skiing, the sparkling clear mountain water gently lapped the stoney beaches that stretched into the sandy pines that fringed the lake.

The sierras of Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama make up a vast natural park, which forms a geographical barrier between the provinces of Malaga and Granada. The landscape is rugged and craggy, with large, pronounced slopes marking out valleys and deep ravines. It’s an area peppered with prehistoric caves and formidable mountains such as the highest peak, La Maroma at over 2,000 metres. Alhama is undoubtedly a haven for nature lovers as the beauty and variation of the countryside is unsurpassed. Because it’s at an altitude of 900 metres it gets a lot of sunshine, but the air is fresher and the temperature is a few degrees lower than the coastal areas, making it altogether more comfortable in the sweltering summer months.

And yet the newly international Granada airport is a mere 45 minutes away. Sitting outside a bar in the January sunshine, looking out to the snowy Sierra Nevada, I marvelled at the complete lack of tourism. Surely some enthusiastic northern European must have stumbled across Alhama de Granada at some time. I know from talking to friends in Malaga that more and more Northern Europeans are buying property inland. I was told both Axarquia and Loja area were now becoming popular. But no one I’ve met before or since has stumbled through Alhama and tried to claim a piece of it. Long may it continue….