Monday, 7 April 2014

Escarihuela of the Taha

Recently I was out with a large group and once again walked a favourite route of mine, the Ruta Medieval in the Taha area of the Alpujarra. Whilst I have done the walk many times it has to be said it is perhaps one of the best low level routes in the area. What makes the route special is a combination of stunning scenery and great walking with numerous things to stop and wonder at en route. The route does a circuit of the Rio Trevelez gorge as it runs from Trevelez south west toward Orgiva. Trevelez lies at 1,476m and claims the status as the highest village in Spain and is famous for its cured jamon. The gorge is steep sided and dramatic with high cliff faces above narrow ravines. The nature of the landscape means that there are no surfaced roads within the valley and the river only has three crossing places as it runs the 10km section within the Taha. At each of these crossings an ancient pack horse bridge spans the river where for centuries, mules and man have been able to safely cross. The bridge below the village of Fondales is known locally as the ‘’Roman bridge ‘‘ and whilst the current structure may not be from that period a crossing at this point must have existed for many years. The gorge here is only about ten meters across allowing a single arch to span the river about twenty meters below. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three crossings is the next one up stream which lies on the river between the villages of Ferreirola and Busquistar. Here the valley sides are particularly steep and paths on both sides of the valley take dramatic zig zags through near vertical terrain. On the south side in particular the path clings to the hill side as it climbs 250m vertically in about the same linear distance. So dramatic are these routes that they even have their own word in Spanish, ‘escarihuela’ like a ladder and their dramatic nature was commented on as far back as the Moorish period when the Arab poet Ibn-Aljathib described one example as a ‘’ path, of danger and martyrdom’’ whilst the Spanish writer Hurtado de Mendoza describes the area as ‘’harsh mountain: valleys leading to the abyss: mountains up to the sky: narrow paths: gullies and precipices with no escape’’. Even after all these years the drama of these routes is still there so if you only get chance to walk one route in the area this has to be the one.

Eras of the Alpujarra

Today when walking along many paths in the Alpujarra and other areas we pass though olive, almond or citrus groves. Whilst these crops have been farmed for many years, in the past there used to also be a huge amount of cereal crops such as wheat , barley and oats grown across this region. Proof of this comes in a couple of ways. Many of the area’s river valleys contain the ruins of buildings which were obviously water-driven corn mills. In the Poqueira Gorge for instance there are about half a dozen ruined water mills down the length of the valley, once used to produce flour. Often these are found at key river crossings and at the junction of mule tracks once used to carry unmilled corn to the site and flour away to the villages of the area. Also evident higher up the hill sides are a large number of threshing circles. Known as ‘’Eras’’ these flat circular structures are often paved in the local stone and can be up to ten metres across. Eras are usually found on ridges or cols where the increased wind speed helped in the process of collecting the husks. They would have been used by local farmers to winnow the cut cereals and separate the wheat from the chaff. Here in Lanjaron there is an annual ’’ Fiesta de Parva’’ when the process of threshing is recreated. The process start when a strange cart like structure with wheels resembling circular saw blades is pulled around and around the era by a mule whilst a driver perches atop the cart. This chops up straw which is strewn across its surface. This cutting begins to break the seed husks off the stems and once tossed into the air, allows the lighter chaff to be blown away and heavier seed to fall back to ground to be collected for milling. Judging by the number of eras you see on some walks the amount of cereal produced in the area must have been huge. Within five minutes of my finca alone, there are three eras. Now apparently a protected structure, in the past they were generally seen as communal spaces which served a number of families. Another sign of this previous use of the land is the planting of olive and fruit trees along the terrace edges. Apparently the reasons for this was to allow a cereal crop to be grown down the middle of the terrace and still maintain viable fruit or olive crops. If. like me, your terrace walls are quite high this only seems to make the collection of olives even harder. Collecting olives from a four meter tree on top of a two meter terrace wall is not an easy process.