Tuesday, 7 July 2009

“Canta el viento, canta el río y compone una canción que en mi pecho hace sonido, que en mi pecho hace sonido cantando en mi corazón” (“The wind sings, the river sings, and they make a song that in my chest rings, in my chest rings singing in my heart”). These are the lyrics of “Bendita Tierra,” the copla sung by Antonio Molina. And it must have been a blessed land indeed to the famous cantaor, since the town’s main square’s been named after him. But there’s nothing mysterious about this. Molina’s parents were Totalatenses or Totalateños, or “rebotaos,” as they’re popularly known. The name of the square is thus a sort of tribute to the locals who gave birth to one of the greatest copla singers in the history of the genre, according to critics and fans alike. The song goes on: “La verde rama del limonero perfumaré con el eco de mi cantar…” (“The green branch of the lemon tree I’ll fill with the scent of my song…”).


Totalán is a small town, surrounded by wild, olive tree-studded hills in a dry, rough area. Some of the streets in the upper part afford views of the sea as if it were a mirage, both close and far away, embodying all desires to leave, getting away from it all. The town is a compact white hamlet, and it’s surprisingly cool, despite the surrounding dryness. Its narrow, winding streets seek the hillocks nearby in a labyrinth full of blind alleys leading nowhere –traces of the town’s Mozarabic past. The name is also Mozarabic in origin, as explained in one of the information boards scattered around. It comes from the word meaning “pie” (torta) used in Al-Andalus, according to a series of documents that refer to local “cortijo” as Tortela, Tortila, and Tortalán. The Town Hall website contains a tour to print taking you to the main sites in the historic district. I brought it along and it was most useful. Totalán is small, but it features a complicated layout, so the suggested route came in handy.

The Echoes of Antonio Molina

After driving uphill amidst olive trees, past the dry bed of the Totalán river, I headed for the urban centre, leaving Olías to the left. I soon came to a considerably large square, where I easily parked my car. As I was to find later, this was Plaza Antonio Molina. My tour began 100m away from here, at Plaza de la Constitución. This square is the nerve centre of town, where you can find the Church of Santa Ana, a baker’s, a bank, a chemist’s and one of the entrances to the Town Hall. To the sides of the church, I could sea the intertwining narrow streets. A shadowy place to unveil little by little, idly, morosely, surrendering to the rhythmic passage of time. To the left of the church, on Iglesia Street, there’s an irregular round arch connecting it to the adjacent houses, in an interplay of shadows and light, creating an indelible bond between the buildings. I asked about the arch’s origin and purpose, but found no answer. As the church door was closed, I went to the baker’s, where I was told a woman had the key but they didn’t know where she lived. So I asked a man who was sitting on a bench, and he said she lived in 1 Iglesia Street. I knocked at the door; nobody answered. Then a woman showed, scrutinising me as if she wanted to know my intention by just looking at me. I said I wanted to take a look at the church. “The key they took yesterday,” she replied. Without looking away, she walked across the street and disappeared through another door. I shrugged.

The Waterfalls

Then I walked down Arroyuelo Street towards the Antonio Molina square, where a plaque reads, “As a son born to Paco and María, Totalán residents, he was born in Málaga and learned to sing in Totalán.” Just in the middle of the square, next to a fountain, there’s a bust of the cantaor dominating the place. It’s a sculpture made by Antonio Gallero in 2001. By the plaque, a flight of steps led me to my next site: the Waterfalls –a cooling modern structure in the entrance to town, consisting of an ingenuous interplay of fountains whose water falls down a stone wall amidst trees. There’re benches to sit down and take a break, too. The waterfalls cooled me down to the sound of the splashing water, while I sat on a stone and wrought-iron bench. Two old men were looking silently at the sea, in the horizon. Politely, they said “buenos días” when I passed by, and then fell silent again. Leaving the Waterfalls behind, I climbed up Axarquía Street to the Moorish District, towards the football stadium. I was met by a strong smell of stew. It reminded me of chanfaina, an extremely popular potato dish including vinegar, oregano, cumin, and many other spices, as well as chorizo, black pudding, and pork meat and offal. Chanfaina is so popular here that there’s a festival paying tribute to it: the Fiesta de la Chanfaina, held in November. It has been designated as a Fiesta of Provincial Tourist Interest by the Government of Málaga Province.

In the Heights and In the Sea

Axarquía Street becomes Canela Fina Street first and then a steep uphill road leading to the football stadium. This is the highest point in the urban centre, where you can see the shimmering blue sea emerging between the yellow mountains and the green olive groves. A setting where you can infer the toughness of everyday life. A bend to the left took me back to the street maze. Despite the toughness all around, the little streets look cool, brimming with flowerpots and bright-coloured flowers. Enrique Castillo, Morro, Pasionaria Streets… I found my way back to Plaza de la Constitución and the Church of Santa Ana. Then I set my planned tour aside and spent some time just hanging around, taking pictures of alleys, saying hello to locals, staying in the shadow, reading the information boards, and so on. But then, as usual, my stomach began to rumble.

Stopping for tapas

I’d only seen one open bar throughout my tour, a sort of inn called Arriba y Abajo at the entrance to town. The place used to be known as Arroyuelo. My first question was, “Do you have chanfaina?” “No,” they replied, “we’re serving tripe today.” Encouraging the preparation of traditional dishes is an effort everybody should make. They’re part of a region’s so-called “intangible assets,” and they complement a country’s history and economy. Judging by the Fiesta de la Chanfaina, you’d expect to find this dish everywhere throughout the year, but you don’t. It’s happened before to me. Tasting traditional food is becoming an increasingly difficult task. Restaurant owners have a point, of course. They’re not willing to serve foods that are usually prepared in homes. But what about visitors? They snatch those delicacies away from us, and we’re left with a strong desire to taste them, assess them, learn about them. On the other hand, it can be a good excuse to come back to a place. In this case, to Totalán’s Fiesta de la Chanfaina. I tasted delicious tapas at Arriba y Abajo instead, including a (strongly scented) tripe, octopus, seasoned fillets, and meatballs. Add four beers. The bill = €13.10. The bar has a straw roof that keeps you cool in the shadow. I let myself go in a relaxed chat. I just had one more site to see: the Dolmen.

The Dolmen in Cerro de la Corona

Following the directions given by the owner of Arriba y Abajo, I drove in search for the Dolmen. About 1km after taking the road leading to the urban centre, there’s a sign indicating the access road. It’s a walking trail ending in a dirt road amidst a bunch of houses, so the best thing to do was park my car and climb on foot. Beyond the highest houses, a narrow path takes you to the megalithic monument. It’s a short but steep climb. The monument –a few remains of a third- or fourth-century structure– affords great views of the Mediterranean. A lot of vases and human bones were found at the site, but now the area is fenced off and you can read about it all in an information board. The Town Hall website says they’re working on a museum project. Back down then.

Leaving Totalán Behind

As I drove away, Totalán disappeared behind the curtain of olive groves and fields behind a sharp bend. When I saw the dry bed of the Totalán river, one of Antonio Molina’s coplas immediately came to mind: “Soy minero y mi corazón templé con pico y barrenaaaaa…” (“I’m a miner and I tempered my heart with a pick and a drill…”).

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to take: If you’re coming in the summer, wear light clothes. You might well take a break or two in the shadow during your tour.
Useful links: This time I can recommend three websites, namely, the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, the Totalán Town Hall (giving full information and containing the tour I did myself), and (featuring a wide range of useful contents).

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/visitors to this blog are very welcome. This is intended to be an open door, so the more things shown and said, the better. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.