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The Alpujarra is a natural and historical region in Andalucia, Spain, between the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean. It extends over two provinces, Granada and Almería; it is sometimes referred to in the plural as "Las Alpujarras". There are several interpretations of this Arabic name: the most convincing is that it derives from al-bugsharra, meaning something like "sierra of pastures".
The Sierra Nevada runs west-to-east for about 80 km. It includes the two highest mountains in mainland Spain: the Mulhacen at 3479 m. and the Veleta, just a little lower. As the name implies, it is covered with snow in winter. The snow-melt in the spring and summer allows the southern slopes of the Sierra to remain green and fertile throughout the year, despite the heat of the summer sun. Water emerges from innumerable springs; human intervention has channeled it to terraced plots and to the villages.
Olives are grown on the lower slopes, and in the valley below which extends from Orgiva to Cadiar, through which flows the Guadalfeo river, plentiful water, a milder climate and fertile land favour the cultivation of vines, citrus and other fruit. There is also a developing production of quality wine on the hills between this valley and the sea, and almond trees thrive on its southern slopes. The eastern end of the Alpujarra, towards Ugijar in the province of Almeria, is much more arid.
Further south, the coastal region is sometimes considered to form part of the Alpujarra, but its physical characteristics are different: it includes Motril and Adra, large towns with seaports, and there are numerous seaside resorts.
The terracing and the irrigation of the hillsides (the "Alta Alpujarra") was the work of Berbers, who inhabited this area after the Moorish invasion of 711 AD. They also created villages on the hillsides in the style to which they were accustomed in the mountains of North Africa: narrow, winding streets and small flat-roofed houses.
The Catholic "Reconquista" of Spain progressed to the extent that by 1462 only the "Kingdom of Granada" - including the Alpujarra - was left in Moorish hands; and in 1492 the city of Granada fell to the "Catholic Monarchs". Their attempts to force Christianity on the Moslem inhabitants led to successive revolts, in particular that which began in 1568. It was a fierce struggle, in which the Spaniards had to deploy large forces against this rural population, there was much cruelty on both sides; it ended with the death of the last Moorish leader in March 1571.
The Catholic Monarchs ordered the expulsion of Moors from the territory of Granada, who were taken in forced marches to other parts of Spain. Only a few, considered to have genuinely converted to Christianity, were allowed to remain, in principle to instruct new settlers in local farming practices.
Starting in 1571, settlers were brought in from all over Spain; many came from as far away as Galicia. Though they were given various financial incentives, the re-settlement provided difficult. The population of the Alpujarra, reckoned at about 40,000 before the final revolt, was only about 7,000 by the end of the century.
The isolation of this mountain region caused it to remain poor and backward, until during the 20th century it was gradually opened up by improved roads. The Civil War of 1936-39 was disastrous, as the opposing Nationalist and Republican forces fought over the area. Some villages changed hands more than once, and each time the victor exacted retribution over the vanquished. Even after the Nationalist victory in April 1936, guerrilla fighters in the mountains continued their struggle against the Guardia Civil and a locally-recruited militia (Somatén) based in the villages. This conflict - which terrorized the villagers, caught between two fires - did not end till 1942 when the guerrilla leader was captured.
Real progress has been made only since the end of the Franco regime, with the democratic Constitution of 1978; it was assisted by Spain's entry into the European Union in 1986, which opened the door to aid under the EU's regional and rural funds and opened up access to employment in other EU countries.
Access by road is now easy. Even in the highest villages all modern services are available - electricity, telephonic connections, etc. They have piped water and public sewage systems. Doctors visit almost daily, and there are emergency medical centres. There are infant and primary schools in the villages, secondary schools in the larger places.
The high villages, however, have lost population as younger people seek work in the cities, in Spain and elsewhere in the European Union. On the other hand, tourism has greatly developed as the natural beauty of this area has become better known: they include day-time or weekend visitors from Granada and longer-term tourists from northern Europe. There are bus connections with Granada and Motril; as the motorway extends along the coast, the airports of Malaga and Almeria are brought closer in time. There are also numerous foreign residents, who have also brought income and employment to the area. The villages have good-quality accommodation and attractive shops for tourists. "Serrano ham", cured in Trevélez and other high-altitude villages, is a major local product. Mountain biking and walking is well provided for; the GR 7 / E4 European long-distance footpath passes through the region.
At present (2013), the economic crisis which has already lasted several years is hitting this area hard. Tourism is down; accommodation remains empty for more of the year; some shops and restaurants have had to close.
The Sierra Nevada and most of the Alta Alpujarra is protected under various national and international schemes, ensuring that the rural and the urbanistic features are preserved. The priority now is to promote "sustainable tourism" and as far as possible to extend the tourist period.
Chris Stewart's best-seller Driving Over Lemons is set in La Alpujarra.
Michael Tracy's Bubion - the story of an Alpujarran village (March 2013) provides historical background, description of local customs, discussion of current issues and an extensive bibliography.
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