Tuesday, 22 September 2009

His name was Abdelselam ben Arrabat, and he was a member of the guild of dyers in the Banuh Rabbah tribe. They would say he was an alchemist, his complicated formulas magically changing the colours of the fabrics manufactured in Valle del Genal. Stones, plants, earth, animals, insects were the ingredients in his magic potions. After several essays, he once came up with a bright colour resembling blood. He called it “qarmazi,” i.e. “crimson,” keeping its formula secret until he died. After his death, one of his sons revealed the secret: the colour came from a scale insect called “qarmaz,” who profusely sucked other animals’ blood. All this blood dyed the threads in the clothes of old Benarrabá’s inhabitants.

Getting Close

Clusters of pine trees and cork oaks make the slopes rolling down into Benarrabá look leafy and cool the summer air. There’s a thick smell that reminds you of old earth scents, shady streets, field paths, cork lines. As I got closer to the town centre, I stared at the landscape surrounding the town: high mountains, steep slopes, thick woods, and the white spots of the villages sipping the water of the Genal river. Benarrabá is the sum of two bunches of buildings separated by a winding hill: the urban centre around the Chapel of Cristo de la Vera Cruz and the one around the Parish Church of San Sebastián. Benarrabá is a small town of uneven, steep, narrow, and broken streets. Local experts say there’re slope gradients amounting to 70 percent. In fact, there’re only two thoroughfares to drive along. Given these peculiarities, the best thing to do is follow the directions indicating “Chapel-Church-Parking.” The first sight –the Chapel of Vera Cruz– lies only 20m away. But before beginning my tour, I need to send a warming to potential visitors.

Point and Shoot

Benarrabá boasts remarkable tokens of domestic architecture. Many eighteenth-century houses have come down to us, keeping elements from a distant Arab past: guardapolvos (protruding eaves protecting passers-by from the rain), adarves (patios common to several houses and connecting them to the street), bocatejas (the first tile in each row), and algorfas (from al-gurfa in Arabic, a room in the attic used to store corn). The Benarrabá Town Hall website,, contains a tour of the streets and houses featuring these traditional architectural elements. Take note of their street numbers and be ready to travel back to faraway times.

The Chapel of Vera Cruz

Now, let’s go back to the Chapel of Vera Cruz. I got off my car to take a look at the simple, peaceful square in front of the chapel: a small fountain, two dozens of trees, a bunch of benches inviting tired travellers to take a seat. It was still cool in the morning. I could hear the sounds of birds and household chores. The chapel itself is a humble building, a small bell hanging in its belfry and three yellow borders on the façade as the only décor. But it had the charming power of simplicity. One of the walls bears a board where you can get the essence of Benarrabá: “From the Porón you’re still the shadow/ of the castle that’s disappeared/ you’re the kind lookout/ of the towns that lie near./ Despite your centuries-old poles/ and your eventful history/ you play hide-and-seek behind the mountains/ and reappear in Valle del Genal./ A great many palettes will be envious/ of your colourful landscape like a fantasy mantle,/ of your stout cork oaks and holm oaks,/ of your majestic green pine trees./ In your streets with secluded corners/ floating on the cobblestones/ there’s a song turned whisper:/ it’s the song of memory./ At noon I find treasures/ hiding in our pantry,/ I walk along your thoroughfares,/ I feel your pulse, like a river,/ I turn my eyes to the blue dome of the church.” The poem was written by María José Collado in 2005. Following directions, I took the road to the left of the chapel. I drove down and found a parking space behind a bend. They advised me not to drive further on, for the streets get impossibly narrow and broken. So walking around was the best way of getting familiar with Benarrabá. I strolled down Sol Street towards the church, its blue dome against the bright blue sky.

The Town Centre and the Church

Benarrabá streets are covered in cobblestones that give you the impression of treading on living history. Through Virgen de la Paz Street, I entered the chaotic town centre, mirroring the fleeting shadows pursued by the Arabs, their bunching strategies against heat and cold, their defence against invaders. The ringing of bells surprised me in the quiet and silent morning. I came to the little square in front of the church. I heard the bells again, stronger this time. I liked the simple beauty of the Parish Church of San Sebastián, with its undulating façade and bright yellow-trimmed doorway, illuminated by two lazy lamps whose light I fancied as faint and quivering. Sol Street is the starting point of numberless alleys –as if they were the tributaries of a mighty river–, which took me to the Town Hall. Most restaurants seem to be on Sol Street. I could hear the squeaking of double wooden doors, their upper parts open to let some fresh air in. Benarrabá has the genuine charm of country towns, bare and straightforward. Benarrabá isn’t a setting but an authentic Andalusian village, where you can feel the Arab past in every corner: broken street patterns, narrow alleys, iron-wrought window grillers, thick wooden doors with stout iron knockers… I took some time to look at the voladizos, adarves, guardapolvos, bocatejas, and algorfas… The washing hung on the line in a patio, a bench in the shadow of a tree, some children playing, a man carrying a donkey, Estación Street, Baja Street, Saucal Street, Pósito Street, Calzada Street, Rosario Street... I looked back. I’d got lost. God bless such an incident. I took in the ancient smell and smiled. So many Málagas, so many Andalusias, so close to one another and yet so distant, so many great experiences…


Following a good friend’s advice and knowing this was a pork producing area, just like the neighbouring town of Algatocín, I bought some meat packs and half a loaf of bread –€5. I sat down in a corner to savour my loot, knowing that many men and women have tasted these very same foods before me. What else could I ask for? After this special breakfast, I headed for my car, taking the same road that’d brought me here. I plunged among the cork oaks and holm oaks and soon lost sight of the town centre. Bye-bye, Benarrabá, “playing hide-and-seek behind the mountains.”

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: Domestic architecture: Download the list of streets displaying interesting architectural features from the Town Hall website. You might not get to see all of them, but many you will, giving you an idea of what eighteenth-century buildings really looked like. The best way to get to Benarrabá’s essence is just walking around, sitting on a bench in the shadow of kind trees, getting in and out of alleys, finding an adarve here and there, and so on.
Useful links: As usual, you can use the website of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board as a guiding point, supplementing it with the Benarrabá Town Hall site (I took the crimson legend and the information on local architectural features from here).

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.