Madrid -- It may not be the most obvious
outpost of Tibetan Buddhism, but high on the Mediterranean slopes of Spain's Sierra Nevada
sits O Sel Ling, a thriving retreat centre opened 20 years ago by the Dalai Lama.
But then many
things about the Alpujarras region of Andalucia come as a surprise, not least that this
landscape of rolling hills and deep valleys set against snow-capped mountains exists
little more than an hour's drive from the Costa del Sol.
The Alpujarras may
offer shimmering views of the sea 30km to the south, but there's not a high rise in sight,
only whitewashed, flat-roofed villages dotted haphazardly between centuries-old hill
Of all the walks we
could have chosen in the region, the six-hour round trip to O Sel Ling probably wasn't the
most obvious. More sceptical than spiritual, I never quite got my partner's love for all
things Buddhist. But trekking the ancient, winding mule paths and Moorish irrigation
trails to O Sel Ling, even I couldn't fail to appreciate the overwhelming sense of
If it's atmosphere
you're after, it doesn't come much more inspiring or on a more breathtaking scale than the
Alpujarras. But what took me by surprise was its serenity.
A budget flight
from the secular routine and drudge of life in England, and we had seemingly found
ourselves on the top of the world. We were unmistakably in the land of the gods and I no
longer felt as though I was in Europe.
O Sel Ling, or
"place of clear light", sits celestially high on the western flank of the
awe-inspiring Poqueira Gorge. Facing it across the unforgiving ravine are the three
villages of Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira.
We made our way
from Pampaneira's bustling plaza through olive groves and down to the icy river. The
Gompa, or meditation hall, was 500m above on the far side of the gorge, glinting in the
sunshine like a welcoming beacon.
homecoming or not, once we'd crossed the Rio Poqueira and begun our ascent through the
wooded slopes there came the inevitable squabbling over the route to take as we tried to
decipher the typed and line drawing directions of a local walking enthusiast.
"Do you think
that could be the derelict cortijo we're looking for, or maybe it's that one? Or what
about that one over there?"
Testament to the
grind of rural life here, empty farmhouses outnumber those that are still lived in.
Despite my voicing doubts that we were going in the right direction, my partner, Simon,
headed on regardless, patently disinterested in such trivial worldly details.
plentiful barking from the direction of the nearby cortijo brought him back to earth. With
more holes than roof to keep out the mountain sun and snow, as unlikely as it seemed, this
ramshackle farmhouse was evidently still occupied.
As we got closer, a
small, crumpled farmer in blue overalls and red cap appeared from the chicken and animal
pen beneath the cottage. With a slight indication of his head towards one path, he
responded to our faltering attempts to ask the way.
Following his not
entirely conclusive directions, we eventually found ourselves on a sloping open meadow
pricked with clumps of fragrant flowers and offering the first westerly views of the
By now Pampaneira
was just another splattering of white on the far side, hemmed at the top by the pink of
its cherry orchards and indistinguishable from its neighbours.
another soul in sight and only the melodic clanging of a nearby herd of grazing goats
broke the silence. In the distance little bunches of grubby cotton-wool sheep were just
visible. I hoped this would be the only animal life we'd encounter given the tales of
marauding wild boar we'd heard the night before.
The higher we
progressed, the more impressive the views became of the snowy peaks rising beyond the
cavernous limits of the gorge.
Never one to hold
back when an occasion merits ritual, Simon decided we must be close and began chanting
Tibetan mantras raising a smile from a pair of nearby farmers.
English," one shouted, removing a cigarette from his mouth. I smiled in
acknowledgment expecting cracks about mad cows or an order to get our foot-and-mouth
diseased feet off his land. "How much to kiss your wife," he called after Simon,
slapping his weather-beaten friend on the back in mirth. So much for spiritual
I plodded on behind
the ignorantly happy chanter until the yellows and reds of the centre's prayer flags
appeared above us it later transpired that they were the Lama's washing, the prayer
flags themselves being more of a sun-bleached affair of tired carnival bunting.
Squinting into the
afternoon sun, we could just make out O Sel Ling's low-rise stone farm buildings and the
original threshing floor that is today used for religious gatherings.
A seriously rutted
vehicle track, used by the novelty-seeking Spanish tourists who keep the centre fed, took
us the final stretch to the limits of the retreat centre. The entrance was marked by the
traditional flower- and stone-circled white and gold stupa pointing prophetically
skywards. An oversized wind chime shone from below the branches of a nearby tree as it
kept up its gentle tinkling.
Closer to the heart
of the settlement the track became a footpath, flanked on either side by tiny huts for
solitary retreats. Although they looked little more than sheds, they apparently contain
all mod cons and volunteers leave residents' meals on the footpath so as not to disturb
their meditations. Signs with zippered smiling mouths requested "silencio".
Making our way to
the visitor centre and library, we met our guide. A Spanish woman in her early twenties,
she had come for a week as a volunteer and stayed for more than a year.