The town dates back over 800 years to when the Alpujarras was ruled and inhabited by the Moors. The name is derived from the ancient Arabic “vergel” or pasture. It was a collection of wealthy smallholdings and a centre for the silk trade; mulberry trees still line one of the prettiest local walks leading to the ruins of the silk factory, with its perfect Moorish arch still intact, now a delightful spot for a picnic.
The town perches on the mountain side above the deep river gorge, the source of the Guadalfeo. Behind is the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and all around are terraced and irrigated farm lands. There are great old chestnut trees, cherry, peach and apple orchards, and fields of cherry tomatos, green beans, raspberries and strawberries. You will hear the tinkling of bells of all sizes on the sheep, goats and cattle and the jolly song of multitudes of birds.
Since the 1950s the population of over 5000 shrunk to 850 in 2011; but in the present economic crisis many are returning to work on the land.
San Pantaleon is the patron saint and his effigy is in the renaissance church. Every year on July 27th his statue is paraded around the streets accompanied by hymns, fireworks and a brass band, causing huge emotion and even tears among the gathered crowds.
San Marcos is another traditional celebration, in April, with a procession of livestock duly spruced up, from Berchules church to Alcutar church and back again. At the main crossroad the priest blesses the animals and prays for good weather and a decent harvest. A more recent tradition is New Year's Eve in August when the Christmas spirit returns to town. The Three Kings parade, an air of excitement pervades until midnight when the clock chimes, the twelve grapes are swallowed by all, the champagne corks pop, the dancing begins and tension is released.
The Moors' influence is still visible in Berchules, with its steep, narrow, cobbled streets, more comfortable for mules than for cars or humans. The higgledy-piggledy houses compete with their displays of colourful plants and there are many fountains, washing houses and drinking troughs. There are two banks (one with a cash dispenser), a few shops, a chemist, a doctor's surgery, library, school and a helicopter pad for emergencies. Plus several bars for tapas.
Trevélez, to the west and the highest village in Spain, is the centre for local ham production; Yegen, to the east, has a literary heritage as the former home of British, Bloomsbury Set author of South From Granada, Gerald Brenan. Just below Bérchules, the small market town of Cádiar provides some better shopping opportunities.
This geographical (not political) region stretches from the Sierra Nevada watershed in the north to the Mediterranean in the south and from the Río Guadalfeo in the west to the Río Andarax in the east, and it encompasses parts of Granada and Almería provinces.
Still relatively unknown because of its difficult access and abrupt, steep landscape, Las Alpujarras has been inhabited since the Neolithic age. Searching for minerals
and fertile soil, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, all established themselves and left an important archaeological heritage. But the greatest impact was made by the Moors, from 711 to 1492, when Las Alpujarras enjoyed "golden age". By making a sophisticated irrigation system they achieved intensive agriculture and by planting mulberry trees they made a renowned silk industry. When the Moors were finally expelled at the end of the 16th century, Philip 11 repopulated the area with 2500 families from Galicia and the north.
The geography of Las Alpujarras is spectacular: from sea level to the highest peak in Spain (Mulhacen, 3,482m) in 30 kms. There are 15 summits above 3000 metres and the area contains many exclusive plant and insect species. The bird population is massive and varied, from song birds to owls and it is still possible to see the majestic flight of the golden eagle and other birds of prey. Reptiles and lizards are well represented as well as wild boar, ibex, foxes, badgers and even civet cats.
The climate is Mediterranean with a hot, dry period of at least two months in summer. Most rainfall comes in spring and autumn but there are great contrasts in quantity, from 300 mm a year on the Almeria coast to over 1,500 mm on some high peaks. Because of the great differences in height, Las Alpujarras claims the greatest range of temperature in Europe, with winters which can be almost tropical near the coast or as severe as in north Europe on the highest peaks.
The economy still depends on agriculture; mules can still be seen toiling on fields far too steep for tractors, and goats graze the mountain sides. The main local products are wine, cherry tomatoes, green beans, almonds and olives but almost anything grows, from avocados, dates and mangoes on the tropical coast, to cherries, raspberries and strawberries, walnuts and chestnuts on the higher slopes.