by Anthony Bushell
Orgiva lies nestled on the lower slopes of the great valleys of Las Alpujarras, which lead up to the southern slopes of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountain range. It is these snow-capped peaks one sees forming the backdrop to the Alhambra Palace in Granada in the classic photographed view of this, the greatest of all Islam’s architectural creations in Spain. Granada, along with Cordoba and Seville, constitutes the most visible cultural legacy of the centuries-long Moorish domination of Spain, but it was among the serpentine valleys of Las Alpujarras that the Moors clung to their very last toehold before their final expulsion in one of history’s earliest examples of ethnic cleansing. There is still some sense today of these valleys being a place of refuge or sanctuary where one might be able to build a new and different life from relatively little. Certainly, that is exactly why a good many outsiders from a vast number of nations have chosen to settle here.
In The Rough Guide to Andalucia (2012) Orgiva is described as “ a lively little town.” Well, it certainly is, but, bizarrely, it is also officially a city, despite having a population of only some 7000. It is so classified due to its “regional importance” as the capital of Las Alpujarras, although people will commonly say “I’m popping into the village” (English speakers that is. In Spanish there is no linguistic separation of town and village, both are covered by the word pueblo.). So Orgiva is at one and the same time a village and a city and this in some way is indicative of its slight oddness. It exudes a peculiar cosmopolitanism and is host to roughly 26 different nationalities, yet only really has two main streets running through it.
A largish proportion of those folk who choose to live here, including Spaniards from other parts of the country, are what one might describe as being of an alternative or creative bent. The area has long attracted artists and writers, and continues to do so. Notable among these was author and historian Gerald Brennan in the 1920s who made his home of almost 10 years in Yegen, a village in the eastern Alpujarras. There he was visited by Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey. Brennan wrote of his time in the Alpujarras in South From Granada, a fascinating account of rural life in the area between the two World Wars. More recently, Chris Stewart has written a series of books on his experiences of life in a cortijo (farmhouse) just outside Orgiva, beginning with Driving Over Lemons.
The person responsible for the creation of the beautiful banners one sees at the international WOMAD festivals and many other events, including Glastonbury, has chosen to settle a few miles east of Orgiva. Vi Subversa, singer and the main creative force behind Poison Girls, a group who were so much more than the general label “anarcho punk”encapsulates, with their powerful blend of personal politics, punk and beautifully crafted songs, lived in Orgiva until a few years before her death early in 2016. I’m sure one of the reasons she found life attractive here was the DIY ethos of so many people in this area.
The Rough Guide goes on to say “The contrast between the time worn campesinos … and some of the foreign New Age travellers … is as bizarre as anything this side of Madrid.” So it is here that one can find a tepee village originally founded by hippies from Wales, a Buddhist monastery, Yoga centres and retreats, natural birthers, alternative therapists and alternative life-stylers, organic growers and permaculturists, the largest Sufi community in Spain, and a thriving and mainly outdoor party scene of the sort long since outlawed in the UK since the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994. In fact, it is probably as a result of this controversial legal attack on many people’s lifestyles that so many traveller types found their way to Andalucia in general and Orgiva in particular. Until recently, the free Dragon Festival was an annual event that attracted large numbers of people from outside the area. The local authorities were not keen on it, but it was eventually nature in the form of a devastating flood on the riverbed where the festival was held that saw it end. All this exists reasonably harmoniously alongside the more traditional culture of local fiestas and ferias (fairs), flamenco, Catholic celebrations of saints, and important days in the religious or secular calendar. The Spanish have a culture rich in celebrations that are far too numerous and varied to describe here.
In Orgiva, one has the opportunity to attend a vegetarian raw food event complete with alternative cabaret and DJs or La Matanza (literally the killing or slaughter), a celebration of the time of year when one traditionally slaughters one’s pig. I have heard an African version of the Lord’s Prayer sung by a multinational choir in a Muslim-run cafe. I have attended informal classical music performances halfway up a mountain where a grand piano is housed in a traditional stone and mud building only slightly bigger than the piano itself. It is a rather strange and beautiful juxtaposition of the human and the natural to see the polished shine of the grand piano and the rugged majesty of the Sierra de Lujar across the valley.
One of the events that best illustrates the creativity, tolerance and internationalism that many in this slightly strange city/village aspire to is the annual pantomime. This most traditional and peculiar of British cultural institutions, held to coincide with the celebrations for Dia de Andalucia (Andalucia Day), is the brainchild of a Scandinavian lady who lived in Yorkshire, England, for many years before moving to Orgiva and involves a mix of nationalities. It is always produced in Spanish. This year’s production was Alicia en Orgiva Wonderland. The young lady who played Alice is of mixed Spanish and Swiss parentage. The song that ends each performance, “Que viva Orgiva” (“Cheers for Orgiva”), includes the lines “…que viva Orgiva, con interculturalidad…together, juntos, wunderbar…la fiesta es internacional.” This seems to me a fitting and valid aspiration for any community or group of people anywhere in the world.