Las Acequias: Veins of the Alpujarras

Autumn is in full swing here in Spain; the grapevine at the bottom of our land has turned a heavenly pumpkin orange, crunching brown at the edges; bougainvillia is shedding its three-fold paper lanterns to the high winds, each one a different shade of fuchsia, violet, ochre, or something in between, and each leaf carrying a tiny twisted seed. Jasmine is still exploding into ecstatic white windmills.

The Bougainvillia's last gasp

Though the oranges on the trees are still green, this house saluted those gorgeous round baubles that dangle juicily like little scattered planets:

Orange on the edge

The eucalyptus wood we talked through this afternoon was lush with greenery, the last few whisperings of the acequia gushing along the path on its way to meet the river. We were trying to cut across the countryside to the little place my mother-in-law had rented on the other side of town, Shamsie on Caveman’s shoulders, baby Rosa in a rucksack on my back, dozing off.

Caveman and boy

We got stuck at a reedy marsh, wood spears blocking the path: None shall pass. The road was tantalisingly visible above, but we had to turn back and tramp up another hill. I thought of the Sherpas I’d been watching on a Michael Palin documentary the day before, hauling twice that weight at more than 6,000 metres. Tried not to complain, told my inner whingebag to shut its trap, and was rewarded by a cunning little short-cut that led along another acequia to the main road. Acequias, from the Arabic as-saqiyya (saqaa is to quench one’s thirst), are the canals that slope along the sides of the mountains carrying snowmelt to the smallholdings. Originally cut by the Romans but massively extended by the Moors, they are what turned this valley from the wild, semi-barren string of crags into the lush hills we see today. As such they are (almost)* universally respected, and one can always walk along them; they cannot be bought and are common property.

Acequia hard at work

Water rules all here. Three solid months of torrential rain last winter made the ordinarily dry Rio Chico burst its banks, ripping metres of earth away from people’s bankside gardens, undermining house foundations and carrying hippie vans off into the river. Yet without it there would be no greenery, no fruit on the trees, no almonds or pomegranates or olives or oranges, no reason for tourists to come and rent houses and bask beside swimming pools, gazing up at fountains of bougainvillia and jasmine spilling over walls. There would be no colour. What can destroy us also makes alive.

Pommes de Granada

* The exceptions (surprise surprise) are big businesses. Lanjarón, the waters sourced above the town of the same name, from the Arabic al-‘Aynu Harun or Aaron’s Spring, are bottled by the company that sells it nationally, owned by Danone. Elsewhere in the Alpujarras (from al-Bushra, Joyous News), acequias have been hijacked by the ravenous thirst of the greenhouses, lying like vat rippling plastic lakes on the warm slopes by the sea. The acequias high above the towns away, from public view, have too often being cemented, preventing the vegetation of the high slopes receiving any water as it passes by. These slopes are now brown and dry, trees dead, olive and almonds groves begun five centuries ago rendered barren. A great film about the Alpujarras and the water systems here is El Canto del Agua, in Spanish and English, by Lilian Simonsson, Kirian Scheuplein and Isabel Wolfes (

5 thoughts on “Las Acequias: Veins of the Alpujarras

    • Thanks for the comments guys! Yes autumn here is pretty glorious. It’s whipping up a gale right now but this weekend has brought the first grey and drizzly moments, trudging under an umbrella with sodden cold socks, that I can remember here for a long time. Hope it doesn’t rain like it did last winter – several metres of river bank and a few hippie vans were washed right away!

  1. Soo lovely to have this impression of autumnal andalusia. The forest looked really lush and more like the ones I am familiar with up in the UK. I welcome your lovely images and creative inspirations Medina….

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