On a recent hike in the Sierra Nevada, on a June day of high temperatures in the city, I was glad of the gloves, woolly hat, scarf and thermal vest that I’d long put away for the winter. At around 3,000 metres, it was cold – 7 degrees when we got up there at 10 o’clock. Walking some of the time on thick snow, I was reminded of los neveros, teams of hardy men from the villages who, before the days of refrigeration, used to trek up to the high Sierra to fetch snow so that those living in the city could keep cool in the summer heat.
The tradition of fetching snow from the Sierra Nevada goes back hundreds of years, probably from the times of Muslim al-Andalus, and it continued until the early 20th century. No written accounts remain of these expeditions, the neveros being mostly illiterate. It was the botanists, wandering the mountains in search of plants and herbs, and later the romantic travellers of the 19th century, who documented their encounters with the ‘snow-men’.
They described how the men would set out in the early hours, accompanied by mules and climb steadily until late afternoon, singing as they walked; how they would stop on the way to eat their provisions of bread and cold meats while the mules munched hay from their panniers; and how in the hot summer months they would have to ascend the very highest peaks – well over 3,000 metres – to find enough snow. Then they would set to work with picks and shovels, filling each esparto (woven grass) pannier with as much as 150 kilos of snow. At sunset, with the air starting to cool, they would begin the long trek down, covering the panniers with blankets to stop the snow melting. It was tough work – the round trip of 50 kilometres meant they had to walk for around 18 hours. Back in Granada by dawn, the men could at last rest, while the ice-sellers began their distribution.
The industrial revolution soon made the neveros redundant. What had been by long tradition a free activity – the right to extract snow from the Sierra Nevada and sell it in Granada – was now monopolised and sold off by the Council and in the early 20th century an ice factory was established in the city. Cheap artificial ice-cubes took over from the natural mountain snow, making the work of the neveros economically unviable. The highest road in Europe, reaching a height of 3,392 metres, was completed in 1925 and further extended ten years later. Areas previously accessible only on foot or horseback could now be reached by motor vehicle.
The use of snow from the Sierra Nevada did, however, see a revival during the 1940s. In the times of desperate poverty following the Civil War, power cuts and other restrictions made it necessary once again to collect snow from the mountains during the summer months, although it could now be loaded in wooden crates and transported by lorry. Among other rights with a long tradition that had been revoked but were now re-established (including the right to pan gold from the rivers), was permission to sell snow in the streets of the city.