English writer and Hispanophile Gerald Brenan moved into the Andalusian village of Yegen in January 1920. Brenan, then 25, had been demobilised from the British Army and had come to Spain searching for a tranquil spot in which to read and write. This tiny settlement, located in the Alpujarra region of Granada's Sierra Nevada natural park, immediately appealed: he liked its isolation, its clean running water and the fact that it appeared as if it had been "made out of the earth by insects".
The writer lived in Yegen, on and off, until 1934 and wrote about his experiences in South From Granada (1957), a book that delights with its affectionate characterisation of 'pueblo' life as much as its descriptions of the Alpujarra's incomparable beauty. But does the Yegen or the Alpujarra that Brenan knew still exist?
Visiting the writer's former stomping ground after reading South From Granada, it seemed to me that, in many respects, this remote pocket of Andalucía hasn't changed much since the early twentieth century. Getting off the bus in Brenan's former pueblo (a twice-daily service runs from Granada and takes you through some of the Sierra's most humbling landscapes), a few old houses on one side of the narrow road were the only indications that I'd arrived in a human settlement.
The fresh, clean air was laced with the scent of rosemary - also one of the first things about Yegen that Brenan noticed. In the 1920s, it was due to the fact that the women used bushels of thyme, lavender and rosemary as fuel for their stoves; but now it seemed to come solely from clumps of the herb growing on the hillside. Gas and electricity have presumably removed the need for this aromatic kindling.
Still and silent
Leaving the "main" road, I took Calle Real into the village in search of the house now known as La Casa del Inglés. The village tumbles down a lush hillside, accompanied by streams of crystal-clear water, overlooking the Alpujarra's eastern plains. Brenan spoke of Yegen as being "washed by [an] ocean of air" - a phrase that perfectly captures the stillness, silence and freshness of the place.
Yegen, he wrote, "hugged life to itself.... The speaking tone [of the locals] was soft and... if anyone shouted, the sound was at once sucked up into the silence". This is still true today. All I saw on my way to the centre was a cat dozing outside a closed bar and a lady sweeping the street outside Brenan's former home. Nothing stirred or made a noise. But from behind closed doors, some of them bearing Christmas decorations, I heard and smelt the sizzling of onions and peppers (it was almost lunchtime) and lively conversations. I also heard TVs - the first small sign that, despite its far-flung location and rustic appearance, Yegen has welcomed some aspects of the modern world over the last hundred years.
Brenan's house is found just past Pensión-Bar Fuente, where Calle Real meets Calle Era del Cañamo. It is a sprawling, somewhat ungainly building, accessed by a wooden door on Calle Real and bearing a plaque commemorating its celebrated former resident.
There was no sign of life as I lingered outside, just some builders renovating a dilapidated house opposite. Odd to think that this was Brenan's base for fourteen years - a home in which he hosted literary friends such as Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf (whose eventful visits are described in the book), read voraciously and recorded all aspects of life in 1920s Yegen.
A few steps beyond La Casa del Inglés is Calle Gerald Brenan - a flower-filled alleyway overlooking the immense spaces beyond Yegen. Walking on, I soon arrived at Plaza de la Ermita, where a bar had a few tables out in the sun.
Over tapas and beer, I watched locals come and go from a garage opposite: everyone who drove or walked past stopped for a chat, or shouted greetings to the chain-smoking mechanics. Yegen has a population of just 440 people, so everyone here must know each other, and probably far too much of each other's business too.
This close-knit way of life is something that Brenan loved about the village, yet the fact that a garage serves as one of its present-day focal points is another indication of change. Mules, not motor cars, provided transportation in 1920s Yegen, and households fetched water from fountains that doubled as social hotspots. Indeed, the gossipy richness of South From Granada concerns a pueblo life that has changed a lot since Don Geraldo's time.
Brenan wrote, for example, that "the prostitute was...an institution: every [Alpujarra] village had two or three". Máxima, a "very plain" such woman in her early thirties, lived a few doors down from Don Geraldo, perhaps on the flower-filled dead-end now named after the writer. In order to put food on the table for her several children, Máxima coupled with local men in exchange for a couple of eggs - "or when the hens were not laying, one egg". It's probably been a while since such a transaction took place in Yegen.
Mules to motors
Other changes to the Alpujarra since Brenan's time are more obvious. A high-quality asphalted road now links the region to Granada, and is wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other without problems. In the 1920s, it took a couple of days to reach the provincial capital from Yegen, on foot and/or donkey. And most villages in the western Alpujarra are now popular tourist destinations, chief among them Pampaneira, Capileira and Trevélez (all of which have nevertheless retained their beauty and charm).
But Yegen, and the eastern Alpujarra as a whole, is still of a "different character" from the west, as Brenan observed almost a century ago. Despite the arrival of TVs, gas cookers, electric lights and the odd foreign visitor, Don Geraldo's former pueblo remains unspoilt, contentedly adrift in its "ocean of air".