We arrived in this Andalusian village on the last day of Spain's 12-day Christmas celebration to find a band and costumed marchers celebrating Three Kings' Day in the main square.
A man launched a skyrocket from his hand as the kings themselves, actually a trio of local farmers, emerged from the church. Two wore wigs of flowing curls, the third was in black face. Each mounted a wooden trailer towed behind a tractor, and the procession waltzed through the center of Pitres, with the kings tossing candy to children. Like everyone else in town, we followed along and were welcomed with smiles and a shower of confetti.
This was our introduction to the Alpujarras, a friendly region of tiny whitewashed villages that has enchanted travelers for centuries. After a frenetic week spent touring some of Andalusia's great cities, our group of four travelers had come here seeking the quiet of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
On its way from the Sierra to the Mediterranean, the trickle of melting snow has chiseled deep gorges into the southern flanks of Spain's highest mountains. It's a place of broad vistas and country hospitality, of villages rising improbably from the near-vertical landscape, and well-trodden footpaths winding through pastures, olive groves and orchards.
Glimpsing Africa in Distance
The high places offer views of the sparkling Mediterranean 30 miles away. Beyond is the shadowy skyline of Morocco's Rif Mountains.
This glimpse from Europe into Africa isn't unique in Andalusia. But perhaps nowhere else is the connection with the Islamic past more evident. Four centuries ago, this was the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe, and many of the high, quiet villages still feel exotic.
We had arranged a house rental in Mecinilla, which, along with Pitres and five other villages, is part of La Taha, a district dating to Moorish times.
Mecinilla is connected to its larger neighbor, Mecina, with which it shares a church near a grove of almond trees. The flat, white houses piled atop each other spill down the mountainside like patches of old snow. Steep, narrow lanes wind through the village. Flowering vines billow from balconies and climb the whitewashed buildings. The streets are too narrow for cars, so we parked on the outskirts of town and walked to our home for the week, Casa Berenjena. Its owner, Simon Wix, an affable Englishman, and his wife vacationed in the Alpujarras for years before settling here.
A Casa With a View
Casa Berenjena is a maze, with three bedrooms, a living room, dining room and study, each with a low-hanging ceiling constructed of roughhewn beams and slate. Its spacious country kitchen was once used as a cooking school by a French chef. The wood stoves and fireplaces are the only reliable source of heat. The back door opens onto a stone patio perched a thousand feet above the valley. All this for $60 a night.
Using a homemade guidebook from the owners, we explored paths along old stone walls, through the mottled sunlight of orchards and olive groves, and past fields lying fallow for winter. Here and there we heard goats bleating, their bells jingling.
Every village offered a communal fountain — many decorated with cheerfully painted tiles — spouting pure mountain spring water for our water bottles. One fountain tapped a naturally carbonated spring, its water gently fizzed.