How a writing retreat in Spain got my creative juices flowing
We were looping the southern foothills of the Alpujarras, which in turn form the foothills of the mighty Sierra Nevada, on our way to the little village of Ferreirola, near the town of Pitres. John, a local driver, had picked me up from Granada, 90 minutes’ drive to the north-west, and we were climbing steadily.
I learned that John was part of an informal network of multi-tasking immigrants from the UK and other parts of Europe who now – among many other types of work – cater to the likes of me, booked on a two-week writing retreat somewhere in the mountains above. The bare brown hills here are alive not only with walkers, nature- and bird-lovers, but with alternative projects of all kinds.
As if in illustration, we saw a couple of hitchhikers, on their way to the still-thriving hippy community in Beneficio. John told me that higher in the hills, a small Tibetan Buddhist retreat provides a haven for meditators, and in the following fortnight I would also hear about a school for doulas, a pet rescue centre, and all kinds of massage, cookery and walking holidays.
The Alpujarras mountain ridges and ravines stretch for 45 miles between Almería and Granada provinces, between the city and the sea. When temperatures rise towards the mid-30s in Granada – last year as early as May – city-dwellers decamp to the hills and mountains to sit out the summer in cooler air.
This makes the Alpujarras the ideal environment for any kind of retreat or reinvention – religious, secular or spiritual, individual or collective – with its inhabitants turning their own practices and passions into businesses, and providing places to stay.
Writing courses are everywhere these days, but environments that support writers at work are much harder to find. A few moments after arriving at Casa Ana, in pretty whitewashed Ferreirola, I was sure I was in the right place. Just as in Moroccan and Algerian mountain villages, the plain doors of flat-roofed houses on narrow, empty streets belie the spread of life and colour within: Casa Ana’s door opened to a courtyard of bright flowers, the sound of water and laughter, a shaded terrace and a view of the mountains that stuns newcomers to silence.
Anne Hunt bought the property as a ramshackle ruin in 2004 and set about bringing it back to life. Having in the past managed an arts charity and a record company – promoting concerts by Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita, launching Ali Farka Touré’s career and setting up World Circuit Records, which would later record the Buena Vista Social Club – she immediately saw the house’s potential for hosting creative projects: “Ferreirola is a quiet village with about 28 inhabitants, and there are few distractions.” Her aim has been “to inspire, to give time for thinking, relaxing and recharging”. To that end, in addition to writing retreats and courses, she hosts walking holidays with Chris Stewart, the author of Driving over Lemons and the original drummer of Genesis, who lives nearby, and transformational life-coaching weekends.
Hunt has a sure sense of what people need to work creatively. The way the house is designed and run feels simple and natural. Casa Ana has no “rules” as such – there’s no danger of being organised or forced to join in. Writers or walkers come for one- or two-week stints (and can extend their stay on a B&B basis once the retreat or holiday is over).
My fellow scribblers last spring were a varied, international bunch. There were poets, novelists and one playwright, beginners as well as established writers, and, unusually, almost as many men as women. Very soon we all felt like old friends, but with no social obligation involved. Because the beauty of this kind of holiday or retreat is being left to get on with it – with all the security and regularity of routine but diversion not far off when you need it. The terrace is the natural place to congregate at the end of the day, to discuss writing progress – or, failing that, walking progress – with reports of hearing stonechats or spotting golden orioles and squirrels with cream bellies and red and black tails.
During the day, the silence is unbroken but for a door closing, someone coughing, the bell for lunch. Occasionally, the tinny tinkle of goats’ bells in the distance, or the guttural roar of the weekly vegetable hawker calling his wares provide welcome interruptions. The en suite rooms, each with desk and chair, are built into the cliff like little eyries from which to stare at the mountain ridge opposite. After a time, my eye began to search crevices and ravines, following little stone slides, pathways, or the wind-bent angles of tiny trees.
Breakfast and lunch are provided every day, as well as a few (optional) shared evening meals: delicious combinations of seasonal fresh food in healthy, usually plant-based meals. Practical necessities, which at home might take up half the day, are taken care of: here, there’s no need even to clear plates, let alone wash up or shop for food. Next to the cosy sitting room – which has armchairs, books and an open fire for the winter, as well as a printer – is a small kitchen for making tea and coffee, with a fridge that’s magically replenished with bottles of water, snacks and chocolate, as well as wine and beer.
When the workday was done, I could wander into the hills and disappear into nature, stroll to the local bar or swim in a nearby hotel pool. I could stay home and request an on-site massage or hook up with others for hikes of varying lengths (maps and explanations provided). Concentrated stretches of writing can induce a strange unreality. At first, the stony landscapes and scraggy bushes that sprout bulbous thistles with their enormous purple spike-faces and those rampant, giant cactuses appeared hallucinatory, as if I’d just beamed down into a scene from Star Trek, or perhaps an early Almodóvar film.
The great Federico García Lorca was born and died near here and he drew much of his imagery and poetic force from these hills, saying that “all Spanish art is bound to our soil, so full of thistles and definitive stone”. Unusually heavy rainfall last winter and early spring meant wildflowers of every kind had sprouted all over these scrubby, rocky hills. On the smaller roads and paths higher up, little circles of scarlet and purple petals shed by vetch or salvia lay like puddles of confetti, and cascades of white and pink hawthorn blossom, patched with red-berry mistletoe, turned fields into fairylands. The strict rows of trees in almond, olive or citrus groves were softened at the edges by poppies and daisies, or dotted with pink wild orchids and cotton lavender.
What really sets Casa Ana apart as a writing retreat, though, is that there is help at hand if you are stuck, or writing badly and don’t know why, or just need to discuss your work with someone experienced and impartial. I’d been going over and over old texts, unable to break any new ground, and by the time I arrived I was fed up and had no idea how to progress.
As well as leading (optional) group critiquing sessions a couple of times a week – where I could hear voices from all genres, receive insight into my work and comment on others’ – the brilliant resident mentor, poet Mary-Jane Holmes, offers one-to-one sessions. Able to turn her hand to any style or subject, be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or even translation, she will read your work closely beforehand in order to talk over ideas and suggest potential solutions, some of which you will no doubt have been mulling. In no time I was diagnosed and setting off on a new path, or rather, exploring new dimensions of the old one.
Should the work become too intense or a need to clear the mind suddenly urgent, the picturesque white villages of Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira cling to the slopes of the nearby Poqueira gorge, which stretches up into the Sierra Nevada. Thick, handmade rugs and blankets and simple, colourful clothes adorned the tiny cobbled white streets; outside shops sat bright ceramics and sturdy handmade baskets with geometric designs similar to those found in the souks of Tangier and Marrakech, while the shop windows displayed jewellery and paintings by local artists. There were enormous jars of local honeys flavoured with rosemary, thyme, orange blossom, chestnut and oak, as well as cheeses and olive oils, hams, all kinds of embutidos (a sort of sausage), sweets, cakes and biscuits.
Like Pitres, Lanjarón to the west had a gracious, stately feel. Its mineral springs draw visitors from all over Spain for water cures, spa treatments and mountain air. The entire Alpujarras range still benefits from the ingenious irrigation system begun by the Romans and developed by the Arabs, which collects rainwater and snow melt from the mountain peaks and diverts it to wells, fountains and pools, and through the extraordinary rushing acequías that still irrigate many orchards and back gardens in towns.
On an isolated peak overlooking the town, a romantic ruin glowed orange in the setting sun, as if ablaze; in 1500, the Moorish Emir of Lanjarón is said to have thrown himself off its ramparts rather than surrender to the Christian army led by King Ferdinand II.
On the last night of the retreat, we all met on the terrace and, for a final time, headed to the Mora Luna bar in Pitres for pizza, beer and live music. At 10pm, all the tables were packed with local families, small children included. The singer sang powerful, mournful songs accompanied by a guitarist and drummer. The rippling of her throat brought to mind similar tiny bar rooms in Granada, where the singer’s vibrato doesn’t just enter the body but stakes its claim.
I would return to Granada the next day. The wonder of the Alhambra, and these mountains’ blunt beauty, in Lorca’s words, put you in touch with the essential. I came away with a sense of a new beginning, “a refreshment unknown until then, together with that quality of the just-opening rose, of the miraculous, which comes and instils an almost religious transport”.
•Casa Ana has writing retreats on 7-21 March, 13-17 June and 25 July-8 August, from €950 for a week in a single room, including breakfast, lunch, five dinners, wine and group sessions; double and twin rooms also available; travel, excursions and one-to-one mentoring extra. B&B stays at other times from €55 a night
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