As kids we would be be dragged around the south of England’s damp churches that smelt of varnished pews and candle smoke. If you were lucky you could take a trip up the bell tower. Stepping ever higher the dark, satanic bells seemed like monsters but then you had those views over chess board fields as the summer swifts circled around you.
Nearer to home the family’s local church meant very little, other than to sing with friends in the choir, giggling during the sermon at someone’s new doodle (probably rude) in the books left out to keep us quiet, but clearly failing to do so. Trying not to soil one’s pants became an art as your ‘O for the wings of a Dove‘ solo approached. And even if we didn’t know it at the time, three streets away David Bowie was writing Space Oddity. Just a year or two later, he would become one’s true saviour. He was, after all, real…kind of.
So, with the decline in one’s singing voice the oak doors of the church were to close forever; it was time for guitars, girls and Black Sabbath.
Strange then that in later life Spanish churches – now with the added aroma of incense – hold an appeal. Normally it’s to marvel at how worm-riddled beams from the 16th century are still holding up the roof.
Sunday is a favourite day to visit our local pueblos blancos (‘white villages’) of Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira in La Alpujarra. They each have their individual charm but share quiet backstreets with red peppers drying in the cool air – and bars selling local vermut with a slice of orange. The main plaza fills with church-goers in their best outfits and children seemingly from another era. Freshly-baked bread is collected from the panadería and people head home for family lunches that last hours (how people keep awake after cheese, boars stews and grilled meat, nobody knows).
This area – in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada – is just beautiful with chestnut, cherry, apple and walnut trees: blackcurrant bushes and bolders the size of cortijos littering the mountainside. Streams of icy snow-melt – sometimes gushing across a muddy path on a walk, or in the acequias (channels) that dissect the tumbling cobbled streets – are everywhere. And amazed visitors with smiles as wide as watermelons gaze over the traditional flat-roofed houses of the Porqueira Gorge looking towards north Africa, hidden behind a distant mountain.
One of our favourite bars in Capileira is next to the church plaza and has its own dog who never leaves you alone, timing his appearance just as the tapa arrive. And when the church bells ring out at noon, he howls along like a tone deaf sopranist.
Coming from the Latin word capillaris – meaning ‘top’ or ‘head’– Capileira with an altitude of 1,436m feels like a proper destination. Due to its position it was always one of the last places to be conquered by, firstly, the Moors and then the Christians in the 16th century.
The church you see today – La Virgen de la Cabeza (Virgin of the Head) – was built in the 18th century, the tower specifically in 1760, following (we think) two earlier churches from the 16th and 17th century – the former was burnt down during the Rebellion of the Alpujarras (1568–71) – more here.
Sometimes the bell tower is open to the public and for the views alone it’s worth a visit. As next door’s pizzaria prepared to open its heavenly doors (the smoked salmon pizza is a delight), we took the opportunity to visit. Those 40 or so steps would burn off a slice, surely?
At the bell tower’s entrance a man of few words – who perhaps lived in the crypt – welcomed us in. We paid our 1€ per person fee cursing the god who has sent this plague to earth, and ascended the narrow steps so that he/she/other could hear us more easily. It’s really not the place to pass wind with people following behind, although the bell tower itself, open to the elements and chicken wire to keep the pigeons out would be just fine.
The two larger bells date from 1798 with a ‘modern’ one from 1982. The tower is missing its largest bell (1826) which now sits inside the church like a naughty child in the corner. The bells ring twice an hour – prompting the village folk at certain hours to get out of bed for a rendezvous with the priest. And, for generations, these bells have guided people home in a pitch black night, or in heavy snow or fog on, what must have been in the past, precipitous and dangerous mountain tracks, especially with dozens of goats in tow.
The tower is an informal mini-museum, with all manner of things lying around including bell headstocks and dented clappers that once hit the inside of the bell as it swung rapidly (is this where ‘goes like the clappers‘ comes from?). There’s also a selection of priest stoles for various occasions, flags and a statue of someone we can’t quite remember.
Inside the church there’s the obligatory well-worn confession box where centuries of people who stole their neighbour’s walnuts came to tell all. Behind the altar is the effigy of the Virgen de la Cabeza which is thought to have been gifted to the town by the Catholic kings Isabel and Ferdinand in the 15th century.
Like all Spanish villages there are several celebrations throughout the year. In Capileira the main one happens on the last Sunday in April (and repeated in August): the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Cabeza when the whole town goes on a pilgrimage to her shrine and then her effigy – adorned in hundreds of carnations – is carried around the streets for hours.
We’ve never witnessed it but children – little devils – dress up as harlequins and go around annoying people, perhaps like trick or treat. Later there’s the ‘burial of the fox’ where a paper model, full of fireworks, is burnt in the plaza. If anyone can tell us what this signifies, please do – it’s all a bit ‘The Wicker Man‘.
So if you ever find yourself in these parts, be sure to get lost in the backstreets of these Alpujarran villages. You’ll be taken back in time and, for a few minutes at least in your tower, be king or queen of the mountain.
© con jamón spain