DESPITE the start of 2023 being unseasonably warm, the mercury plummeted in mid-January and early February, with constant minimum temperature warnings from Spain’s meteorological agency, AEMET. Since then, most of us have been deploying thick blankets, padded coats, the wood burning stove, and fighting an urge to hibernate.
Mountainous areas, such as the Sierra Nevada, frequently have minus zero winter temperatures that residents of the costa won’t experience, unless they visit higher ground. With many people choosing to live at altitude, what daily challenges do we face, until spring warms the environment?
Living at 1,700m
Previously dwelling at sea level, I first came to the Alpujarra in 2003. My third visit, to the city of Granada, was in the month of October. We were staying in a friend’s house near the Alhambra, and I was surprised by the pervading cold. It crept right into my bones. Wasn’t Spain supposed to be a warm place?
The shock was worse when I visited the rural cortijo we now inhabit, at 1,700m in the Alpujarra. This property is on the snowline in winter and the wood burning stove only heats the lounge. Venture into the bedrooms or bathroom, and there’s an icy blast of cold, with thin walls and stone floors providing poor insulation. Going outside at night is even worse. We’ve recently experienced –8C.
At 1,700m, it’s not just snow that can affect your daily routine. Any water lying static overnight will freeze – including, on one memorable occasion, dishwater in the kitchen sink. Yes, inside the house!
Forget your morning shower or using the washing machine when it’s minus zero. The water supply is frozen until the midday sun defrosts the outdoor pipes. People whose properties are built in the shade might have no running water all day long. This is detrimental to personal hygiene, although some mountain dwellers will happily remain unwashed, even for a fortnight. Some wear the same clothes until the washing machine comes back to life.
Add to these challenges laundry frozen on the washing line, animal troughs that need sheet ice breaking, and slippery ground underfoot. If you buy butane gas, be aware that it freezes at 0C, while propane freezes at -44C. Buy the wrong type and your gas appliances won’t work.
Motoring is a challenge above the snowline. To drive safely, you need a 4×4 with tyres made for tarmac and off-road. In the morning, you might discover that your car doors are frozen shut and thick frost needs removing from the windscreen. Electric car windows, if opened, sometimes won’t shut because the motor has frozen. The starter motor also might be reluctant, and batteries can suddenly die. Other dangers include black ice – this is unsupportable when going downhill. There might also be fog.
Trevélez and its love of snow
One of my favourite Alpujarran villages is Trevélez, the second highest in Spain at 1,476m. It’s famed for its cured ham, as well as its ascents to Mulhacén, the Iberian peninsula’s highest peak. Trevélez residents live on the snowline. They are used to the white stuff in winter. In fact, they love it.
The town mayor, Adrian Gallegos Seguros, told the Olive Press: “Being on the snowline is wonderful. It’s very cold but gives unique landscapes and we really enjoy snowy days – especially the village children. The council spreads salt for the ice, and we remove snow from the doorways. The Junta de Andalucia always sends snowploughs for our roads.”
With popular tourist villages, the snowploughs arrive quickly to restore access. Years ago, my family was stuck in the Hotel Alcabaza de Buquístar, near Trevélez, because our van couldn’t drive up the steep exit slope, which was covered in 10cm of snow. Minutes after a friend borrowed another guest’s snow chains, and broke them all, the snowplough arrived to liberate the trapped cars.
The nearby towns of Capileira, Bubion, and other high villages are also used to deploying snowploughs.
Dílar – is it really that cold?
Granada’s coldest village is reportedly Dílar, situated at 878m on the west flank of the Sierra Nevada and lying on the riverbank of the Rio Dílar. The village has 1,500 inhabitants, called Dilareños. An unspoilt destination, without too many obvious tourists, it offers a hotel, campsite, riding stable and mountain trails. So, why is it so cold?
According to last winter’s weather statistics, the village frequently sees icy temperatures of between -9 and -12C. This is despite being at a medium altitude. Similarly, the city of Granada, a stone’s throw away, frequently sees frigid temperatures. Dílar is just 9km from the Alhambra.
Having visited Dílar several times in the past, I wanted to see if it was colder than I remembered (without the warming rioja served at a friend’s dinner party). Would I feel like the proverbial Brass Monkey? I was not convinced. After leaving, it was definitely colder (and damper) in my own village, at 1,000m on the south face of the Sierra Nevada.
Rick, a Brit who has lived in Dílar for many years, and divides his time between there and sunny California, says: “It’s not a particularly high village but we had -17C one year and maybe the cold air gets pushed down the valley. We see nice lenticular clouds over the mountains in winter though.”
Pradollano ski resort
The Sierra Nevada Ski resort lies on the south face of Veleta, the Iberian Peninsular’s second highest peak, after neighbouring Mulhacén. It is a must-visit for winter sports enthusiasts, and those who like snowscapes. The winter sports season runs until April.
Catering for the influx of tourists, the town of Pradollano sits at 2,075m. If offers hotels, hostels, and restaurants, nestling close to 106.8km of ski slopes and 21 lifts. When I visited, piles of cleared snow were visible along the roadsides. Everything was accessible, although parking places were scarce.
I spoke to Carmelo, who has worked in Pradollano for 10 years, helping with rental accommodations. He said: “The main problem here is at weekends with the parking. Not with the snow, as machines are constantly clearing it. This is a good place to be, although I remember some years when we had insufficient snow.”
Climate change is unhelpful for ski operators, meaning that the resort now has 364 artificial snow cannons working on-piste. At present, at the top of the ski slopes, the snow is reportedly a meter deep, with 20cm at lower elevations.
Just 10km up the road, the nearby Hoya del Mora – providing the closest vehicle access to the Veleta peak – is full of gorgeous snow and pretty icicles. It is ideal for photography, sledging, and chilling out – literally.
With all this natural beauty, would you want to live in the Sierra Nevada ski resort? Maybe if you want to run a seasonal rental business.
Always be prepared!
Even if you’re visiting a snowy place to see the scenery, and have no intention of skiing, sledging, or hiking in the wilds, it’s best to take your padded jacket, waterproof boots, gloves, and a warm hat. Clothing layers that you can add or remove are advisable.
Always know what you’re getting into! View the weather forecast before heading on to a mountain. If you have a turismo car without snow chains, don’t drive on mountain passes when there’s a dubious weather forecast. And never take any vehicle into a snow zone without sufficient fuel, blankets, drinks, and snacks, in case you break down.
If you’re thinking of moving to the snowline, it’s definitely not for everyone – especially if you dislike extremes of summer and winter temperatures and prefer a moderate climate, such as on the coast.