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.