Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Istán. I close my eyes and listen. Everything around me is water murmur. Istán: a town sheltered by the sierras, washed by rivers, refreshed by springs. Istán: a town where green is in stark contrast to streets and walls’ white. Istán: a village whose people are warm and kind. Istán: a place where food is hearty, right down from the mountains. Istán: a town rebellious in history. Istán: a village facing the Mediterranean Sea. Istán: a place whose name means “the highest one.”

Toward Istán

From the crowded city of Marbella, a bend-plagued road climbs up the sierras, sound and full of cyclists. The Verde river flows along and the Concepción reservoir sits to the west. As the road goes up, the mountains of Sierra Blanca and Sierra de las Nieves become prominent. A huge green mass with rocky crests where you can spot a bird of prey or two. The wood is carpeted with yellow rockroses and spiny brooms (erguenes in Spanish) and you come across the first orange and tangerine trees. The mountains are peppered with houses here and there. Many of them overlook the reservoir, the Rock of Gibraltar, Ceuta, and even Africa, behind the misty horizon.

The Chapel of San Miguel

About 2km (1.2mi) from the town centre, you can visit the Chapel of San Miguel, Istan’s patron saint. A forest trail begins at the parking area, winding among trees that smell delicious. The trail is wide and easily passable. The Chapel, 30m (98ft) away, is carved into the rock and protected by an iron-wrought and glass gate. Its small balcony affords great views of the Mediterranean Sea in the background, and the granite mass of the Sierra Blanca to the left. Inside, a winged St Michael hunts after the badly wounded devil (horns included). Near the Chapel there’s a picnic area featuring tables, benches, and barbecues. With a little peasant bread and cold meats, you’ll have everything you need for breakfast, dreaming of African scenes. Istán is only two bends (5’ drive) away. From the Chapel, you can also walk along the PR-A 138 country road, and you’ll be in town in 30’.

Parking in Istán, Plaza del Calvario, Decision Making

The town entrance is a winding road. Follow the first Public Parking sign and don’t drive ahead: the town centre is a real street maze and it’s too narrow for cars; moreover, there’re street markets on Saturdays. Following the directions, you’ll get to Plaza del Calvario or Plaza de la Esfera, where usually there’s parking space. The best way of getting around Istán is on foot. Standing on the square, you can see one of the township’s main features: ravines and terraces coming down a rugged mountain, where farmers grow their crops and plant their fruit trees. The sierras surround Istán in a sheltering embrace. Walking down El Calvario Street, you’ll get to the town centre. There’re many tourist signs and instructions in Spanish and in English helping you plan your trip. The boards suggest three different tours: Casco Histórico (Historic District), Paseo de los Miradores (Lookouts), and Paso del Nacimiento (Birth). My choice: combining number one and number two, leaving number three for the afternoon.

The Fountain of El Chorro

Istán is a small, secluded village featuring narrow winding roads and whitewashed walls, where you can listen to the birds in spring and the murmur of water running along the Moorish ditches all year round. The first landmark you’ll see when walking down El Calvario Street is El Chorro, a sort of tribute to the water that washes every corner in town. This fountain sporting seven spouts and blue and white tiles on its walls dominates the small square. To the left, a series of porticoed washing sites where women used to wash their families’ clothes. The seven-spout fountain bears the marks of the ceramic jugs used in it for hundreds of years. Take a sip. Quite refreshing! All the fountains in Istán carry drinking water –crystal-clear, pure, fresh.

The Main Square and its Church

From El Chorro, you’ll easily get to Plaza de San Miguel, Istán’s nerve centre. This square is brimming with playing children and men doing straw crafts. One of the square’s walls is the side of the Church of San Miguel, built in 1505 and renovated three times (the latest renovation took place in 1960). Although one of the church’s door opens into the plaza, the main entrance lies on a side street to the left. It’s a simple one-nave building featuring a wooden coffered ceiling. It’s quiet and cool inside. There are images of St Michael, the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Remedies, Our Lady of Pains, St Anthony, Our Lady of El Carmen, the Resurrection, and St Joseph. Back in the square, take San Miguel Street to the north. You’ll get to Mirador del Peñón. You’ll probably feel the smell of casseroles, stews, and “puchero malagueño” (Málaga-style stew), announcing the intensity of traditional flavours. The street maze is constantly interrupted by flowers, multi-coloured paths, and fountains to cool down.

Torre Escalante

On San Miguel Street, 10m (33ft) after the post office to the left, you’ll find the access to Torre de Escalante (Escalante Tower), in the highest part of the town centre. The tower is in the far end of a carefully decorated square –the perfect place to take a break, sit down, and listen to the relaxing murmur of water. What remains of the old watchtower is the entrance and part of the interior, standing on a cobblestone patio that is spick and span. The Escalante Tower used to protect locals and ward off enemy attacks. It was also used as a watchtower by the inhabitants of Marbella. It’s a nice place indeed. I spent some time there, sitting on the iron-wrought bench right of the entrance, just around the corner. Istán is a charming village, where you feel at home as soon as you set foot in it.

Mirador del Peñón

One of the best things you can do in Istán is strolling up and down the streets, in a labyrinth where voices and the sound of water get intertwined. Walk on down San Miguel Street. When it changes its name to Nueva Street, look for the stone steps and wooden rail climbing down through Rincón de Picasso to Peñón Street. Locals (called “Panochos” rather than “Isteños” or “Istenses”) are extremely kind. They’ll help you out in case you get lost, giving you lots of useful directions. The term “Panochos” was given to the people living in Istán after the Moorish rebellion in 1569, when the town was resettled by families coming from Murcia and speaking a dialect that bore the same name. After climbing down these intricate stairway, walk to the left to reach Mirador del Peñón. You’ll see a plate reading a poem by Carlos A. Padilla: “...el sol se quedó contigo / como un morisco rezagado. / Enamorado de Istán... / Aquí estás Istán / estallando de blanco entre los verdes. / Blanco aljibe de la Costa del Sol / ¡Tú el más alto! / ... San Miguel espada en alto / vigila tu blancura y el encanto de tus aguas”. (The sun stayed with you / like a Moor lagging behind. / In love with Istán… / There you are, Istán / Bursting with white amidst green hills. / The white well of the Costa del Sol / You, the highest one / … San Miguel brandishes his sword / protecting your whiteness and your charming water.) The lookout affords broad views of the Verde valley, peppered with orange trees, in the shadow of Sierra de las Nieves.

Mirador del Tajo Banderas and Las Herrizas

Monda Street will take you to the cemetery. Following the clear and visible signs, you’ll get to Mirador del Tajo Banderas (Tajo Banderas Lookout) and Las Herrizas (lookout and drive). Both lookouts are very close to one another but far from the city centre. However, the ride is worth it: a nice trail flanked by gardens. To the right, among mimosas and orange trees, you’ll hear and see the Verde river. Tajo Banderas is your first panoramic stop. You’ll feel the first hints of the Concepción reservoir, supplying the western Costa del Sol with water. This is why the town is called the “well of the Costa del Sol.” Beyond metaphors and similes, that’s quite true. To the left, Istán stands on its mound, a tight block of white-walled houses in the mountains. The lookout has a board where you can read the names of the surrounding peaks. The road to Las Herrizas includes the elements you’ll have become familiar with by now: trees, water soundtrack, herbal smells (lavender and rosemary this time). It’s a cobblestone trail and it’s in perfect condition. At the foot of the lookout, there’s a threefold choice: the second lookout to the left, an open-air sports park to the right, and the peak in front of you. Choose number three. The views from Mirador de las Herrizas (Las Herrizas Lookout) are simply overwhelming. You’ll be able to see the Concepción reservoir almost in full, with the Mediterranean Sea in the background. The reservoir often holds canoes or kayaks, provided by companies like Ticket To Ride (owned by Scandinavian kayak champion Lars Walker) or local firms such as Hotel Altos de Istán. If you’re interested in kayaking, watch this video before coming to Istán: Full Crossing of the Concepción Reservoir. In the upper part, crowned by two olive trees, there’s a stone bench to sit down for a while. You’re a sports guy, you can use the sports park before lunch. And guess what? If you’re thirsty, there’s yet another fountain to quench your thirst. In the far end of the road, great scenery again. To the left of Las Herrizas, a narrow drive takes you to the last lookout, where you’ll find more panoramic views, more peace and quite, more echoes of life. Now back to town.

From Road to Food: Technical Stop

Retracing your steps to the cemetery, leave it behind on the right and take Perales Street back to Plaza de San Miguel. Miguel Hernández wrote some lines for this square; more specifically, for the Cross to the Fallen in the back of the Church: “Tristes guerras / si no es el amor la empresa. / Tristes armas / si no son las palabras. / Tristes hombres / si no mueren de amores” (Sad is war / if it’s not made for love. / Sad are the weapons / if they’re not words. / Sad are men / if they don’t die for love). There’re many bars and restaurants where you can get traditional tapas and small servings –from black pudding or goat to meat with tomato– at affordable prices. Most of them also serve menus of the day or weekend specials. I wanted to try “plato panocho,” a must in the religion of yesterday’s skinners and today’s old farmers. And I found it, but I’ll tell you about it later on. Before that, I entered Bar Los Rojillos near the square for a snack. Los Rojillos is a small venue whose walls are shrines of Communist martyrology: “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro, Marx, and so on. Two glasses of beer (“cañas”) = €2. You could also have steaks, meat balls, or chops, but I wanted my “plato panocho,” so I decided to wait.

Stop and Lunch: “Plato Panocho,” Goat Stew, Stuffed Aubergines

I chose El Barón for lunch, a restaurant recommended by good friendsd of mine, so as to run no risks. recomendado por buenos amigos y sin riesgo a equivocarnos. Since I’d had no expenses from museums or other activities, I wanted to have a good sierras-style meal. Dioni gives me advice. Excellent homemade food, including the town’s specialty. The “plato panocho” is a combination of eggs, potatoes, green peppers, sirloin, sausage, and meatballs. Simple and popular and delicious. I also tried a delicate goat stew –another country dish. Last but not least, stuffed aubergines made from Dioni’s grandmother’s recipe with minced meet and processed cheese. It’s the star dish on the menu. Tourists call to order it, and the restaurant’s owner says there’re “aubergines” all year round. Magnificent. Prices? Reasonable. Stuffed aubergines = €10.50. Goat stew = €11. “Plato panocho” = €9.75. Three beers = €3. A bottle of water = €1.5. Two coffess = €2. Bill total = €38.65. Now we have two possibilities: taking a nap or taking a walk and visiting the last two sites. Second option. On the move. Let’s go.

The Moorish Ditches

Up El Calvario Street, you’ll find the place where you’d parked your car. There’s 1km (0.62mi) from here to the river mouth, the final stop in our trip. It’s rather steep, but it can be done on foot. It’s impossible to get lost here: the road is clearly signposted; besides, it’s the only climbing trail beginning in the square. You can visit El Coto Recreational Area along the way, where you’ll find the Moorish ditches. El Coto is ideal for a walk after lunch. It skirts the Moorish Ditches, which feed all the fountains in Istán when they get to the heart of town. The cobblestones and the smell of jasmines will invite you to admire the Arabs for their engineering ingenuity. There’re many corners to take a seat. Of course, the murmur of water is ceaseless here. Stroll down to the road that’ll take you to the mouth of the river.

River Source and Farewell

It’s a small river park rather than a source. The Molinos river is fast flowing all year round. You can follow it to its very source, dipping your hands in it and finding pleasure in its refreshing water. The murmur of the spring bursting towards the river mouth is soothing. Close to the mouth, there’s another picnic area with tables and benches. Here you’ll bid farewell to Istán, still feeling the flower smells of its streets and the crystal sound of its fountains.
Travel Tips and Useful Links
What to see (tourist attractions): 1. “El Paso” in Istán. During Holy Week, there’re lively celebrations in Istán. Locals re-enact Jesus’ last day on earth in a fiesta that has been designated of National Tourist Interest in Andalusia. 2. The Food Fair. In March, three culinary events coincide in Istán. They’re the Tapas Tour, the Orange Day, and the Food Fair, which has been held for fifteen years. During the fair, the Main Square gathers a rich array of typical dishes prepared by “Panochos,” as well as tapas served by bars and restaurants at special prices. It’s worthwhile, mind my words.
What to see (nature spot): El Castaño Santo (The Holy Chestnut Tree). 37km (23mi) from the town centre, there’s the so-called “Grandfather of Sierra de las Nieves.” It’s an 800-to-1,000-year-old chestnut tree whose trunk’s perimeter 13m (43ft). You can access it on a bike (but you need to be an experienced rider) or by car, using a forest trail with some complicated stretches. The tree is worth seeing. Legend has it that Ferdinand II of Aragon attended Mass in its shadow in 1501.
General links: The Istán Town Hall website gives full information on the town: sites, fiestas, food, and nature spots. You can download your street map here. The Costa del Sol Tourist Board website is also a good source of information.
Remarkable feature: Locals are warm and kind. They truly welcome visitors and offer help if you need them to.
Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.