Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Guaro: the town of oil and tender olives. Guaro: counties and travellers. Guaro: white snow, valleys, and a mountainous skyline. Guaro: facing the moon in the eye –the moon of the Moors, the Moorish moon, the black-eyed moon, the moon like a burning candle. Guaro: a town for an invigorating walk. Guaro: a place full of beautiful, discreet, secret corners. Guaro: the town of flowery streets, keeping the scent of an eventful history. Guaro: a devotee of St Michael, a bold saint and a devil hunter. Guaro: a town at the crossroads.

Getting Close

In the morning, you can hear the cicadas crouching in the trees. It’s an endless, persistent sound, a harbinger of heat evoking summer’s festive, colourful atmosphere. The cicadas climb onto the olive trees perched on the surrounding mountains –rolling hills everywhere, the village clinging to one of them. High up, the skyline is most unusual: Sierra de las Nieves to the east and south, Valle del Guadalhorce to the north, Montes de Málaga to the west. The town is therefore at the crossroads, and this is why it became one of travellers’ favourites, sheltering them from indiscreet looks behind the craggy hills. The olive trees hide an intricate maze of old alleys where you can feel the essence of traditional Málaga.

Arrival and Breakfast

Following directions, I came to the town centre, only to be welcomed by a palm-lined avenue, Avenida de Andalucía, leading to the heart of town. Past the square, the streets get narrower, so the best thing to do is park on the avenue and walk 200m to the maze of broken alleys. It’s early in the morning, and a Málaga-style breakfast is a luxury you can’t miss: muffins, rolls, toast, slices of bread, ham and cheese sandwiches, bacon, tomato, oil, garlic, spicy pork sausage, pâté, and a wide array of coffee types and their funny names: nubes, sombras, corto, mitad… My breakfast bill = €4.40.
Toward the Town Centre and the Al-Andalus Cultural Centre

Having replenished my energy reserves, depleted after waking up at the crack of dawn, I set out on my tour. Walking along the avenue, I glanced sideways at the streets and their intricate broken patterns, making the roots of Guaro. Some houses feature grilled patios brimming with flowers, showing their best profile to passers-by. Before entering the maze, I came across the Al-Andalus Cultural Centre (the Ethnographic Museum), a Mozarabic tower built in the guise of nineteenth-century olive oil mills (so an information board read). Inside, I found lots of brochures, maps, and information on Sierra de las Nieves and lodging. The first floor is a journey through the past and present of the local oil making industry. An old mill stood there, in great condition, its parts well-preserved, almost ready to use: the press, the millstone, the hydraulic system, the straps used to exert pressure and produce the first oil from crushed olives. If you ask the museum’s staff, they can show you how it works, making that weird, purring sound as its parts move. The Al-Andalus Cultural Centre serves as an exhibition room and event venue. When I visited it, there were photographs of Sierra de las Nieves’s flora and fauna –a complete catalogue of flowers, plants, and insects living in this Biosphere Reserve, a recipient of EU’s EDEN award (European Destinations of Excellence) in 2008 for its intangible asset conservation efforts. A nice place to see in an interesting, educational outing. Moreover, the brochures and maps help in a tour of Guaro and the surrounding area. I left the olive oil tower behind and went down into the alluring labyrinth.

Hanging Out: Marmolejo Olive Oil Museum

Suddenly, everything got narrower, as if sucked by a centrifugal force into the town centre. I went in along Andalucía Avenue. Although it’s a two-way artery, you’d better leave your car parked before reaching the maze. Coy wooden doors hid cool patios. Shady secrets below the fountains’ murmurs. In a secluded corner, I came to a fountain dedicated to St Isidore, the patron saint of peasants, who has a pre-eminent place in Guaro, agriculture being one of the basic economic activities. The avenue leads to the town square, featuring several wrought-iron benches and a refreshing fountain. Coming across a newsagent’s on my way, I got myself some stamps; I’d bought a postcard at the Al-Andalus Cultural Centre, so in the shadow of the fountain I wrote a few lines and threw it in a nearby letter box. My next stop was at the Marmolejo Olive Oil Museum: an old house rehabilitated by the Marmolejo family including even a granary. The museum used to be on the outskirts, but as Guaro sprawled, it took it in, so that now it’s part of the town centre. To get to the museum, I walked across the town square to Dr Millán Peña Street, then I climbed down Parras Street until I found the entrance. Since this a privately-owned museum, the possibility to visit it depends on the owners’ availability. But it is open during the Festival of the Moorish Moon, in the first week of September. I retraced my steps back to the square to access the Parish Church of San Miguel.

Parish Church of San Miguel

I climbed up Pósito Street in search for the church. Streets got so narrow that they blended into one another. After 20m, I came to a rather tall white wall on which the parish church and its square leaned. I walked in. The whole church was dominated by an image of St Michael imposingly defeating Lucifer. The epic battle depicted here made me want to know the underlying story. St Michael is viewed as the commander of the Army of God. In art, he’s usually represented as an angelic warrior, fully armed with helmet, sword, and shield, standing over a dragon, which most of the time is Satan, whom he sometimes pierces with a lance. St Michael is the supreme enemy of Satan and the fallen angels, whom he forced out of Heaven with his sword). Guaro’s St Michael looks beatific rather than warlike, but still he’s standing on the vanquished demon, wearing his armour and brandishing his sword. The church is simple, featuring just a central nave. It was built in 1505 and last rehabilitated in 1996/1997. There were women inside, working on the flowers and the cloaks. “There’s a wedding tomorrow,” they told me. I went out into the square and skirted the building along its right side, getting lost in the sweet streets smelling of flowers. Up and down, gazing at surprising corners every few steps. I could hear voices from everyday life, birds singing, pigeons fluttering and being frightened away. Some street names, like Una Acera (literally, “One Street”), are funny, having turned usual references into proper nouns. Walls splashed with water from the fountains are everywhere to be found. To fight the heat at noon, some doors are open, letting some air in, intimacy preserved by discreet thin curtains. The little squares are like the thresholds of individual houses. They’re full of pots and flowers.

The Moorish Moon

The streets I trod on are quite a different thing in September. Lights go off in the evening, and oil lamps and candles burn instead, illuminating all the town centre. This marks the beginning of the Festival de la Luna Mora (Festival of the Moorish Moon), whose twelve editions have managed to combine the charm of a candle light town with the medieval ambience that becomes the background to craftsmen, storytellers, performers, musicians, and Arab dishes. It’s a feast for the senses, a perfect magical harmony in which the town’s dazzling layout and the non-electrical light play a key role. About 20,000 candles burn to welcome world-class artists whose Arab-Andalusian music delights locals and out-of-towners alike. In addition, there’re workshops, films, lectures, storytelling sessions, exhibitions, and many other cultural activities. A great time to see Guaro in a different light, no doubt.


Leaving the town centre behind, I walked towards the town sports centre, stumbling upon the Chapel of Cruz del Puerto, a simple eighteenth-century building featuring benches and a fountain which makes the end point of a procession every year. The chapel affords panoramic views of the town, clinging to the hill that determines its fanciful layout. Looking in the opposite direction, I could make out the higher slopes of Sierra de las Nieves, whose white limestone peaks were a silent explanation of the mountain chain’s name (for nieves means “snow” in Spanish). I sat down, unconsciously resembling one of those past-time Guareños who used to wait here for the vehicle that would take them far away to distant provinces.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Parking: Don’t try reaching the town centre by car. Leave your car parked on Avenida de Andalucía. The centre is only 200m away.
Olive Oil: The Al-Andalus Cultural Centre displays elements from one of Guaro’s quintessential industries: olive oil-making. The old oil mill can be compared to the one kept at the Guaro Sociedad Cooperativa Olivarera, El Molino de Guaro, where you can buy high-quality extra virgin olive oil. Guaro’s Mill is on Ctra. Guaro-Coín, Km. 1. Telephone: (+94) 952 112 976. You can also buy online at its website.
Useful links: The web references used this time were the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Guaro Town Hall.

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.


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Sierra de Yeguas on the olive trees, amidst the olive trees, for the olive trees. Sierra de Yeguas: a living flat layout. Sierra de Yeguas: talkative mountain people. Sierra de Yeguas: asparagus and corn. Sierra de Yeguas: a hard-working farming town. Sierra de Yeguas: chosen the Romans as transit land and now a moveable border between Seville’s meadows and Málaga’s coastland. Sierra de Yeguas: a town to walk around, stroll in, enjoy calmly. Sierras de Yeguas: a town to be discovered.

Coming Close

Red earth, large fields, boundless olive orchards beyond the horizon. The persistent sound of the cicadas is the only soundtrack I can hear. There’s the countryside all around. Border landscapes and new experiences. Fields full of olive trees. No beaches and no mountains. Málaga gets richer with such views. The attraction here is the difference it makes, the vastness meeting the eye. The plains of Navahermosa are dead flat. An area to gaze at in brave delight. Imagining the roads being trodden upon by Roman troops or by wagons carrying goods from Seville to Málaga or vice versa –impassive landscapes in the background– can make your hair stand on end. You can easily fancy a glorious past of fluttering flags. Archaeological remains speak of Roman villas and thermal baths. Now this is a farming area, and “the fat of the land” is so valuable that it has come under the Environmental Protection Plan of the Málaga Government. Sierra de Yeguas bears no connection to the region’s common Arab roots, so strongly reflected in the culture and architecture of so many villages. There’re Neolithic and Roman traces, but no sign of the Moors. In fact, this contrast between Sierra de Yeguas and other towns in the region makes it even more attractive. It rather looks like a Castilian village. Country roads and trails that seem to have been drawn with a square or a triangle. Lots of cortijos, both dilapidated and brand-new. Olive trees, and olive trees, and olive trees. New windmills brandishing their white blades as if they’d been taken out of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. This is what you can find on the outskirts of Sierra de Yeguas, which is also a haven for cyclists and hikers.


The Sierra de Yeguas Town Hall website contains a downloadable PDF file displaying three of the main hiking routes starting in the town centre. “Ruta de Los Cortijos” (13.2km, easy) leads to “El Concejil,” “Cortijo de la Mezquita,” “Las Flores,” and “La Quinta” along mildly undulating trails. “Ruta de los Flamencos” (12.5km, easy) takes you to the viewpoint of the Cantarranas lake, where you’ll get different views of the nearby Fuente de Piedra lake, close to the Roman thermal baths of the third century A.D. Along this route, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll spot flying pink flamingos and other water birds in the spring and fall seasons. Finally, “Ruta de los Cultivos” (11.3km, easy) brings hikers to the plains of Navahermosa amidst the fields sown with wheat, corn, asparagus, and olives. These routes are also suitable for mountain biking. They give visitors a glimpse of the essence of Sierra de Yegua, with its deeply-rooted farming character.

The Town Centre

Following directions, I came to the town centre. It’s impossible to get lost here. Sierra de Yeguas’s layout is flat and straight, free of the hidden corners and winding alleys you can find in other Andalusian towns, so finding your way around is an easy task. And so is parking your car. I parked in Plaza de Andalucía, a welcoming, shady place that is full of inviting trees. This square dominates life in town: the Town Hall, the church opposite, coffee bars, restaurants, shops…

The Parish Church of Inmaculada Concepción

When I entered the Renaissance-style Parish Church of Inmaculada Concepción, I remembered a funny story I’d read. The Marquis of Estepa had the church built in 1559, and in 1578 it was designated as a parish church. Its baptismal font was added in 1592. In 1833, Sierra de Yeguas was transferred from the Council of Estepa to Málaga Province, but the church was only incorporated to the Málaga Bishopric in 1960. One of the reasons they give is that, as the Inmaculada Concepción belonged to the Vicariate of Estepa, it reported to Rome directly without the bishop’s intervention. The apparent simplicity of this temple stands in stark contrast to its elaborate altars. Carved in noble woods, excessively ornate, hanging from the spotless white walls to the sides of the central nave, their images give away the hands of skilful craftsmen. While I was watching them, a group of women came in to present saints with flower offerings. It
was nice and cool inside. For being such a small town, Sierra de Yeguas has two fraternities: Nuestra Señora de los Dolores and Santísimo Cristo de la Vera Cruz. Both of them have their processions in Easter.

The streets in town

Several streets to walk along begin at Plaza de la Constitución. Since Sierra de Yeguas lies in the plains next to the Seville meadows, most streets are flat and thus great for a stroll. No climbs here, at last. The houses make a fine sample of popular Andalusian architecture: small square or rectangular buildings featuring interior patios, window and door grilles, square terraces, and floor tiles coming right into the streets. Sierra de Yeguas spreads out, a hamlet projecting onto the endless olive orchards. I walked around and visited the market past the church: a porticoed square where you can buy vegetables, fish, pork products, delicatessen, meat, fruit, etc. in small yet well-supplied stalls. In Plaza de la Libertad there’s a street market on Thursdays. The square faces the exterior walls of the fraternities, whose frontages tell long stories. I walked on, mixing with local people. When the sun is overhead beating down on the city, they take shelter in Plaza de Andalucía. Seniors try to find a place in the shadow, wearing light-coloured shirts, and they move away from the sun as it comes higher in the sky.


On a corner in Plaza de la Libertad, near the church, I stumbled upon a bar, El Cañero. It was a typical tavern where patrons ordered tapas and small servings at noon. A busy place, with a small terrace outdoors and two tables inside. There were lots of things to taste: little squid, porra, tripe, giblets, bacon… All kinds of tapas and traditional servings. Following the waiter’s advice, I ordered 2 beers, 1 little squid tapa, 1 guarrito with quail eggs tapa. The bill = €2.40. I washed everything down with amiable chat and some jokes, feeling at home.


Going back to my car, I chose to return along the same road, which was somewhat longer and in poorer condition but cut across the red earth and olive orchards. I left a trail of dust behind so that it guided me back in when I visited Sierra de Yeguas again.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: 1. Hiking: If you’re hiking along any of the trails mentioned above, you’d better wear comfortable shoes and drink enough water. They’re easy, but in summer they’re really hot. Ask for further directions from locals before setting out. Bring binoculars, just in case you spot flamingos. The hiking PDF file can be downloaded at Hiking in Sierra de Yeguas. 2. Asparagus Fair: For foodies, April is the right month to visit Sierra de Yeguas, for the town holds its Asparagus Fair, serving over 6,000 kilos of asparagus to locals and out-of-towners alike.
Useful links: If you want to know more about Sierra de Yeguas’s history and everyday life, try these websites. Antonio Solís González’s blog contains a lot of information on this town’s history. Also, filmmaker Mari Quesada has a website where you can watch short films featuring Sierra de Yeguas. Federico Sánchez Torres recreates historical events in films and also some nature videos. Finally, there’s an interesting blog containing recipes from the sierras by the Rural Tourism Department of the Sierra de Yeguas Town Hall. For general information, you can always use the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, the Sierra de Yeguas Town Hall, and

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.


Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Montejaque has two secrets and a story of a failure. Secrets of impossible plains behind rocky mounds. Secrets of access rooted in the heart of the earth. Stories of nature’s victory over men in their attempt to narrow the course of a river. A four-letter mystery: P.O.E.M. “Lost mountain” in Arabic. Mures, Tavizna, and Hacho in the surroundings. Brave men in search of freedom. A great many legends.

Where Montejaque Throbs

Embraced by steep limestone hills, Montejaque’s streets stretch from the plains to the first rocky slopes. A maze of alleys truncated once and again. I drove to the heart of the town centre, to Plaza de la Constitución, opposite the Town Hall and next to the church. From this point, I could go almost anywhere on foot. Montejaque is a great place for rural tourism, as shown by the high number of country hotels you can find in the area. You can also engage in active travel, as there’re several hiking trails on its outskirts. The winding streets cast shadows that seem to cut the walls, in a chiaroscuro that highlights the discontinuities. Some of the corners aren’t rectilinear but bevelled-edged, round-shaped, adding to the impression of an interplay of arches. I walked to the Parish Church of Santiago el Mayor. The tower seems to be as high as the mountains surrounding the town. It stands out sharp against the bright blue sky, while the peak next to it looks like an unperturbed, perfectly irregular pile of rocks. It’s a huge church, flanking the square and linked to a nearby house by a series of three arches. The yellow-trimmed belfry bears half a dozen stripes of different widths.


Flanking the church, I came to a little square, Plazuela de los Voluntarios por la Libertad, just around the corner. Under a cross, an information tile board told some interesting stories: “Guerrillas: Since the old times of Moorish rebellions, this land’s witnessed the efforts of many Montejaqueños to set themselves free from oppression, be it religious, political, or social. Big names like Francisco de Quexí, José Aguilar, Umar ibn Hafsun, José María ‘El Tempranillo’ or ‘Pasos Largos’ are still vibrant in collective memory, as synonymous with courage, bravery, and generosity. They fought Castilians, French invaders, or absolutism, or they just fought for survival .In modern times, after the Spanish Civil War was over, a gang led by Bernabé López Calle –the epitome of the indomitable struggle for the rule of law and one’s own ideals– was seen around. López Calle and many other men like him lost their lives in the mountains, refusing to come to terms with the country’s new reality.” The board reveals how courageous local people have been, conquering their mountainous environment and turning the rocky landscape into something beautiful. Montejaque’s character is best exemplified by José de Aguilar, who set up his own guerrilla to fight Napoleon’s troops in the War of Spanish Independence. On October 20, 1810, Aguilar and his 250-strong popular militia defeated 600 French soldiers and 90 cavalry officers on the bridge of the river Gaduares.

Along the Streets of Montejaque

Walking around, I realised most houses have a name: “Casa Niña Catalina,” “Casa del Abuelo,” “Casa Anita,” or “Manolo,” referring both to the container and the contents. Montejaque is incredibly clean. In the summer, the sun is merciless. The rocky mountains are always visible at the far end of streets. No matter where you look at, they catch your eye. There’re some mysterious, poetic corners in town, patios carved into the mountains for shelter. It looks like the perfect combination of nature and human action. Its chaotic layout holds many surprises in store. The coat of arms, showing on house frontages or street furniture, bears an acronym: P.O.E.M. I made enquiries and learn about its history. The coat of arms was adopted in 1979 after some nineteenth-century authentication seals, showing a castle (which could be Arab castle standing on the crest of the mountain where the town is located) and the four letters in question. Nobody knows exactly what they mean, but, after the decision made at the Town Council meeting on May 12, 1987, the acronym’s official translation is “Populorum Omnium Excelsior Montejaque” (Montejaque, the Most Illustrious of All Towns). Wrapped in this mystery, I left the town centre for the Lavadero de la Fuente Vieja.

Lavadero de la Fuente Vieja

The wash house lies at the entrance of the town centre. Women have gathered here since the dawn of time. As there was no running water in homes, they came here to wash their families’ clothes. While working hard, they chatted and sang songs. The soap they used was natural, made at home from used oil. The old fountain was officially made a public wash house in 1845. Before, women went to the new fountain, closer to town, and hung their clothes there, but as the town sprawled, neighbours began to feel more uncomfortable at the sight of them. This is why a plate was added to the new fountain, reading, “Clothes washing here is forbidden, and subject to one-peseta fines. In the year of 1870.” Now, the wash house of the old fountain is a little, newly-opened museum. I got out of town: El Hundidero.

Towards the Abyss: The Story of the Failed Dam

I took the Algodonales-Seville road and, after a 10’ bend-studded stretch, I got to the Hundidero-Gato cave system, a chasm in the surface of the earth reaching the neighbouring town of Benaoján and culminating in the so-called Cueva del Gato. The area is clearly signposted. You get to an open area and walk down from there. A trail links it to the dam and the gorge, but you must check if there’re other cars parked so that you don’t block the way. But there’s a story to tell before moving on. In the early twentieth century, the idea came up of building a dam on the river Guadares, just before it disappears into El Hundidero, with the aim of generating electricity. After conducting studies and preparing the roads, the dam was built using the Hundidero gorge, a wound in the surface of the earth down to the opening of the Hundidero-Gato system. But the spillway never worked and the dam never filled. The best two fills occurred in 1941 and 1947. What’d happened? The engineers who built the dam didn’t take leakages into account. The water in the reservoir leaked through the porous rocks and the river fed further below. This mistake has resulted in an impressive water retaining system and an empty dam. However, the engineers didn’t give up. They came up with a second ingenuous plan: sealing off the access to the Hundidero-Gato system. This meant waterproofing a pit which was 5km long. Two teams of ten workers each would come in from both El Hundidero and Cueva del Gato to take a look at the cave in full, which had never been fully inspected before. This happened in 1929. The two teams, carrying carbide lamps rope ladders, and barges made with barrels, took thirty days to accomplish their mission. They met at the centre, guiding themselves by shouting. When they got out, they talked of beautiful things inside. It was an oddly-shaped cave, the result of centuries-old water erosion, a geological wonder that has become a must-see among spelunkers. By October 1929, the trail inside has been finished. But the water always managed to find its way through new crevices. The Spanish Civil War brought the project to an end, and now the cave is a haven for cave experts or adventurers only. Those who’ve been inside this huge natural pipe say you can still see the traces of the old unsuccessful work. Dilapidated ladders, bridges, and elements pointing to human activity. The project failed; what remains is a monument to man’s hubris and victorious nature.

El Hundidero: Just Amazing

Knowing this story, the climb down to the mouth of El Hundidero is even more impressive. I left my car parked in an open area by the starting point. Ideally, you bring your ID card, for the place’s protected due to its environmental value (you’ll see quite a few SEPRONA agents in the area). You’ll be asked to show it, just to check who’s getting in. I could see the abandoned dam. Access is forbidden for obvious reasons. I went down the stone steps. The slope is steep, and you have to climb back up afterwards. A thick steel rope covered with plastic serves as handrail. I couldn’t see the bottom yet, so I just climbed down the zigzagging trail towards the gorge. The steps get even steeper and I could see the mouth of El Hundidero –an open wound cutting across the rock. It was amazing down there. I was standing where the spillway could have been. Gazing at the rock masses looming all around I felt small. I could hear the echoing sounds of cicadas, muffled by the walls. I couldn’t stop looking up. The trail leading to El Hundidero is perfectly visible, but the gorge itself becomes apparent only after a bend hidden behind the bushes. I could see it now: a rock mouth crying. Deep down in front of the cave, I was greeted by a well. The curb is high. You have to stand on a rock to lean onto this dark black eye, whose bottom is unfathomable. A few steps more and I was there. Speechless. I could only stare at it I heard an owl hoot. Sitting at the entrance, my back on the well curb, I realised how fragile we are. The rock was imposing, terrifying, touching. Imposing. Terrifying. Touching.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: Don’t come down to El Hundidero around midday. The trail isn’t long but it’s steep and, even though it’s not difficult to negotiate, you’ll have to climb down first and up afterwards. What to take: Water and comfortable shoes.
What to see (other sites): You can get to Llanos de Líbar, a pleasantly surprising plain between mountains whose fields are sown with corn.
Where to find information: There are many websites on the Hundidero-Gato system. For a fine sample see: Government of Andalusia, a Planetaventura video on YouTube, Pangea Aventura’s active travel tours, Andalusian Caving Association, and Speleology Department of the University of Cádiz.
Useful links: Check out the websites of Montejaque Town Hall and the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, our usual reference.

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.