Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Gaucín, up there. Perched on the mountain peak, watching over roads. A witness, a protagonist, a martyr of its own history. Called “The Balcony of the Sierras” by the Romantics, “Sair Guazan” (Hard Rock) by the Arabs, and “Belda” by the Visigoths. Gaucín: gazing at it all from high above. Gaucín and its Holy Child. Gaucín: eagle’s nest in the sierras.

Up There

An impossible combination of sierras and fields is the prelude to the show you’re about to watch. Up there, perched like an eagle’s nest, the white hamlet of Gaucín sits on the mountains, almost overflowing them. Looking at it from below, you feel diminished, for it’s grave yet ethereal, almost weightless among the rocks. To the left you can make out the silhouette of the old castle’s tower. A privileged watchtower overlooking the sierras and the sea, the fields and the river, the roads and the homes, strategically located on the way to Serranía de Ronda, watching travellers coming from the Costa del Sol and Campo de Gibraltar. It looks impregnable. In its shadow, the lavish, miscellaneous valley and the tree groves sheltering from the scorching summer sun.

Access and Parking

If you’re driving from Casares or Manilva, climbing up the road to Gaucín should be a cautious task. It’s a steep, bend-studded, heavy-traffic road. On the slopes before the urban centre, you can see houses and cortijos scattered all around, hiding behind the trees. The Romantic travellers in the nineteenth century were right in calling Gaucín “The Balcony of the Sierras,” a common description of this town. Once you reach the urban centre, drive ahead towards the exit to find the parking area. Then you can walk back to the town centre along the same street you’ve driven on. You’ll come across your first direction on Esquina Street. Follow all the directions you find in town (and quite a few there are!); you won’t get lost, and you won’t need a map. There’s an information board every few metres. The first one I saw read: “Exit/Parking to the right and Town Hall/ Fuente de los Seis Caños / Local police station/ Parish church/ Castillo del Águila to the left. On the move.

Fuente de los Seis Caños, On the Way to Iglesia de San Sebastián

I found my way following the directions I could read on boards. On José Antonio Street, there’s a newsstand where you can buy postcards and stamps (€0.32 + €0.50 = €0.82). Upon leaving the shop, I came to Plaza del Santo Niño, where the six-spout fountain is. I also came across the remains of a street market and a boisterous group of foreign vendors, picking up their stuff as it’d started to rain. I took shelter in a bar, Casa Antonia, where I grabbed a snack (although I didn’t have to): cheese and grapes, Russian salad, and two sodas. Delicious tapas! The bar also served alluring full or half dishes at reasonable prices. Encouraged by the end of the rain, I headed for the Church of San Sebastián, leaving the Town Hall behind on a long street unequivocally leading to the church’s door. Framed by a red portico, the door was next to the white and red-trimmed brick tower. The church itself was a large, three-nave building, featuring a profusely decorated altar and several images, including a replica of the Holy Child, worshipped by locals, behind a baptismal font. I’d read on the Costa del Sol Tourist Board website that “a pious legend tells how, in 1536, a book peddler called João Cidade (who’d come to be known in altars as St John of God) saw a barefoot boy and gave him his shoes. Since they were too big, he carried the boy on his shoulders. After a while, João stopped to drink some water at La Adelfilla Fountain. The boy then transfigured himself and offered a cross and a pomegranate to his patron. “John of God,” he said, “Granada will be your cross. Leave testimony of this apparition by giving Gaucín an image in which I appear as a child.” To this religious belief we should add a historical event that I’ll tell you letter, in which the Holy Child didn’t take the best share.

Castillo del Águila and Ermita del Santo Niño

Out of the church, I turned right. A new information board showed me how to get to the Ermita del Santo Niño (Chapel of the Holy Child) and the Castillo del Águila (Eagle’s Castle), sharing a site in a high rocky place. The trail up the hill was steep, but the views were stunning, or at least I gathered so through the thick fog that was setting in from the valley. (They told me it was a most unusual phenomenon.) You need to climb little by little, savouring the views of the rocks, trees, and prickly pears covering the soil. You can only access the castle on foot, so cheer up! The reward is huge. Bear the castle and chapel’s opening hours in mind: Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. (October-May, i.e. winter) or from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (June-September, i.e. summer). Don’t forget about them, for the castle in one of Gaucín’s main attractions. The complex is quite impressive. The buildings are surrounded by orchards kept by two hard-working guys. The first building you see is the Chapel of the Holy Child. It’s really overwhelming. Featuring two impossibly decorated baroque vaults, it’s impossible to tell what you’re going to find inside from the sober outside. The chapel is dominated by an image of the Holy Child, which went through dire straits during the Spanish War of Independence. “Another relevant (bloody) fact has to do with the fifth invasion by Napoleon’s army (there were six in all). On July 8, 1810, the French slaughtered all the people they bumped into, burning all town and church archives as well. They even burned the image of the Holy Child, fervently worshipped in Gaucín, throwing it out the castle walls.” The rich history of the chapel and the castle doesn’t stop there. Don Alonso de Guzmán (Guzmán el Bueno) met death by the castle walls, fighting the Moors on September 13, 1309. Leaving the chapel behind, I went to the castle. Its well-preserved ruins have kept signs of their Arab past and endless reconstructions, battle wounds and historic scars. They even survived the explosion of the castle’s magazine in 1848, which almost reduced the castle to rubble. I climbed the steps of Torre del Reina (the Queen’s Tower) and softly rang out the bell. The fog makes it almost impossible to see anything in the distance. At lunch I was told that, when the west wind blows, you can even see the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Well then, it sounded as a good excuse to come back. I spent some time feeling history in the castle. I could hear the echoes of the town centre –children playing, dogs barking, hens cackling… Being in the ruins is a comforting experience. It really is. Time to go down. I went through a door and then a path skirting the castle and leading to a trail climbing down on the opposite slope. A flight of stone steps placed me back on the streets of town.

The Ethnographic Museum

After reaching the main street, I had to retrace my steps back to the town exit for Manilva and Casares. I wanted to get to the Ethnographic Museum, on Ana Toval Avenue, whose collection, displayed in an L-shaped room, includes farming and cooking tools, herd-driving devices, and everyday utensils. All pieces are explained out on detailed boards bearing their names. It’s an interesting museum if you want to learn about past country life in Málaga. The museum doubles as tourist office, so you can get maps, restaurant cards, and other pieces of information here. I asked for advice on where to eat. They suggested several places, out of which I chose a downtown bar.

Stop and Lunch

Back at Esquina Street (where this tour had begun in the morning), I walked down the Corral Street, flanking the Town Market to the left, until I came to a square. There was a bar on the corner, Paco Pepe. I went in. It was one of those popular inns where content is more important than form and where you can meet the characters living in town. As soon as I picked a table, I could smell the homemade tapas and well-prepared traditional foods. Upon the waiter’s advice, I took a bacon and a trip and chickpeas tapa (scented and delicious), two small grilled chorizo sandwiches, and half a plate of pinchitos (generous, perfectly seasoned, and garnished homemade French fries). The lupin seeds were on the house. To wash everything down, a cola soda and a beer. The bill = €13.70. The afternoon ebbed amidst orders and chit-chats. They told me it was a pity it was misty, since on clear days you can see Sierra Bermeja, Sierra Crestellina, and even Africa from the castle, getting a 180º panoramic view. No problem, I said. I’ll come back. After the talk and the hearty meal, I headed for my car, but before I strolled along Gaucín’s alleys a little longer, as if I were lost in time, making out juts of the sierras in the mist.

Climbing Down and Bidding Farewell

Cautiously I negotiated my way down the road as I looked at the fields spreading from Gaucín. I promise to keep the bell tolling in the tower, the story of the Holy Child, and the taste of my pinchitos in my mind. Driving towards Casares and Manilva, I had a final look up. The white hamlet kept its secret (a blend of history and legend) under the thick fog, as if it were an unfathomable mystery looming just around one of its alleys’ corners.

Travel Tips, Curious Facts, and Useful Links

Art Geckos: When I arrived in Gaucín, I was surprised by the presence of golden geckos on many façades. House after house bore these little sculptures. As I walked around, I saw an increasing number of them. I was later to find out that they had to do with Salamanquesarte, which is Gaucín’s native version of the CowParade. Thus, there’re about four hundred geckos decorating the walls of local homes. You can see some of them at Salamanquesarte. Art in Gaucín: The region comprising the townships of Gaucín, Benarrabá, Algatocín, and Genalguacil is characterised by intense artistic activity. There’re a lot of galleries, and many painters and sculptors live in the area. Some artists have come together under Art Gaucin, where you can see some of their works.
Roped Bull Fiesta: One of Gaucín’s popular fiestas is the so-called Toro de Cuerda (Roped Bull), which consists in carrying (or being carried by) a huge black bull along the streets. The bull bears a rope tying its horns.
Useful links: There’re several websites you could use to find out about Gaucín. First of all, the website of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Gaucín Town Council. Also, two personal websites –GAUCINet and– and Art Gaucin. They all have 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.