ALHAMA de Granada is a living, breathing slice of Spain’s past, where life goes on long after the tourists have left its sun-drenched streets for colder climes
S tepping out into the bright heat of the afternoon in Alhama’s Arabic quarter, I see two men ahead, shaking hands in the shade of the beautiful, 15th-century Hospital de la Reina at the top of the street. One of the men turns and walks past me, his nod and slight smile polite, his short hair blue-black and wavy, his eyes hidden beneath aviator shades, his crisp white shirt, navy trousers, tan loafers and leather document wallet suggesting a business meeting done, the next appointment a siesta. And a whole world opens to my imagination …
A childhood spent running these labyrinthine cobbled streets; early-morning school and later cycling between the promenading elders in one of the town’s two squares; a home life built around family and church, neighbours, community and windows so close that intimacies just had to be shared; a life lived in the sun, under a blue Andalucian sky, but hardened by the cold winters of the altitude. In Alhama de Granada, if you really look, you can see the life of the town, and its history.
Set amid stunning beauty on the edge of a gorge called Los Tajos – with ruined flour mills and an abundance of flora and fauna – an hour’s drive north of Malaga, in southern Spain, and an hour’s drive south of its namesake, Granada – Alhama is, first and foremost, a typical Andalucian working town. And the work goes on, never mind that there are tourists wandering the streets in shorts and straw hats, as well as some who have left colder climates to make a life here. Alhama is a living, breathing slice of past – some buildings date back to the 13th century – present and future, where the restaurateurs and bar owners will nod and chat as they serve your beer and tapas, but where the livelihood is with its people, and where the stray dogs know there will always be a kind word and a scrap because they’ve been here longer than the tourists.
Alhama goes about its business, but is happy to have you along for a few days, weeks, months; the people secure in themselves and their identity. You can be among them, but nothing will change.
We stayed in a house bought and restored by writer Alizon Brunning and photographer John Robertson. “The house needed lots of work – there was even an ostrich living in the garden who gave the house its name, Carmen de Pepita, meaning Pepita’s garden,” says Brunning. “Pepita has gone to the campo, the country, now, but the garden flourishes on what she left behind.”
We visit in June and, sitting on our terrace outside the light and airy converted attic space at the top of the three-storey house, we know the man feeding his dogs and watering his vegetables in the garden below will be doing it long after we’ve gone. Shopping in one of the town’s three supermarkets and exclaiming over the cheap cava and huge plum tomatoes/onions/garlic, we know that these supersize and sun-tasty vegetables will still grace the shelves when we’re back to vacuum packs in Asda. Listening from a bar to the thump, thump of bass as the three-day Feria de San Juan gets into full swing and townspeople crowd the streets until long after the stars have disappeared against the next day’s blue haze, we know that next year it will be the same.
There are places in the sun that are self-consciously touristy, and places which just are. Alhama is one of the latter. The place Brunning and Robertson fell in love with is solid and real, not some recreational illusion that closes down come the first hint of cold. Their apartments have been designed as romantic hideaways and we truly had the feeling, as we watched the light change over the olive groves, listened to the goat bells and got cricks in our necks gazing at the magnificent summer stars, that we were, like Pepita, living in the campo. Yet in just minutes we could walk to lively bars where the tapas and the rioja are of the very best quality, and just a short drive takes you to the hot springs after which the town is named, from the Arabic al hammam, within the Hotel Balneareo.
Cervantes is the middle apartment of Carmen de Pepita, with a rustic charm and its own large terrace and views across to those brown, green and ochre hillsides packed with olive groves; and on the ground floor is Carmen, with its lush garden and shelves stuffed with books and Robertson’s artful photographs. We stayed in Lorca, the light and airy converted attic space. There is history to touch in Alhama, one of the last towns to fall to the Christians during the reconquest in 1483, from the bulging, whitewashed stone of the houses in the barrio, to the aforementioned Al Reina – the oldest blood hospital in Andalucia – and the church just 50 yards from the house, which is reputed to have been the first Christian church to be built on top of a mosque.
And beyond the history of the guide books, there’s also the fact of sitting in bars such as Tigre, trying to squeeze in yet another round of tapas that owner Antonio and his staff produce quite effortlessly, it seems, from a tiny kitchen, and just watching the world go by, listening to the chat and trying to work out what’s being said. We talked to Antonio in English, he talked to us in Spanish, and we all understood one another perfectly.
As Brunning says, “We fell in love with Alhama’s beauty, the friendliness of its people, and the tapas bars. The whole place is full of life, yet at the same time, really restorative. It’s truly magical and everyone who comes here says the same.”
Sent out into yet another starlit night, buoyed by Antonio’s free sherry, I couldn’t help but think of Pepita the ostrich living somewhere among those distant hills, and wonder whether she missed her home. I know I would.
Carmen de Pepita, Alhama de Granada (www.andalusianromance.iowners.net) is about an 80-minute drive from Malaga airport and transfers can be arranged for €75 each way, though hiring a car is recommended for getting around.
Jet2.com (www.jet2.com), Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) and easyJet (www.easyet.com) all fly direct to Malaga from Glasgow, Prestwick and Edinburgh airports, with return flights starting from around £100. Car hire from Malaga airport starts from €45 per week.
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