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A Buddhist retreat in Spain's Sierra Nevada

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 terraces.

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 pilgrimage.

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.

Spiritual 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.

Ferocious and 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 gorge.

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.

There wasn't 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.

"You're 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 enlightenment.

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.


Updated: 1-8-2001

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