Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Benalauría: a town of chestnuts, old flavours, forgotten smells. Benalauría: the town of the Moors. Benalauría: the town of the Christians. Benalauría: a town clinging to tradition. Benalauría: a town of arts, crafts, and mills. Benalauría: a town of ringing streets, huge balconies, green horizons. Benalauría: the town of the sons of Auria. Benalauría: a town to come back to. Ben-al-Auria.

Amidst Chestnut Trees

I drove down into Benalauría. The snaking, whirling road was flanked by slopes covered with chestnut trees, whose golden and thorny fruit –now ripening right before harvest– could be seen all over. Ripe yellowish bursts on the ground. An impossibly green arcade over my head. Suddenly, the mountains sank to form the leafy and shadowy Genal valley. After a bend, almost out of nowhere, I could see the white hamlet. Leave your car at the small parking esplanade. If you try to drive on, you’ll regret it, for the streets are really steep and really narrow. If you can find no space on the esplanade, park by the side of the road. Benalauría must be done on foot, as you take in every corner, enjoy every surprise, marvel at the colourful explosion of bougainvilleas, sniff at the ancient aromas, stop at the little squares… It’s a tireless town. A town to sharpen your senses.

The Tour

My tour began right where I’d left my car. At the entrance to town I saw a wall map showing the municipality. I took note of where I was and what I should see. Also, at the Benalauría Tourist Office you can get a user-friendly street map displaying two possible itineraries. If you want to know the Tourist Office’s hours, call the Town Hall at (+34) 952 152 502. The street maps are also available at other points, such as Mesón La Molienda (more about it later). So right ahead of me there was a real maze, a charming cluster of houses climbing the sierras and looking Valle del Genal in the eye. Just one step ahead and I was sucked into a world of ancient perfumes, old-time scents, and country art. In August, Benalauría has its Festival of Moors and Christians: residents put on traditional costumes and recreate historical facts, mixed with legend and oral traditional. After taking my first step into Benalauría, I could feel its Moorish essence. I even thought I’d seen ghost in a djellaba, swaying in the rustling wind. The streets guided me around. Benalauría opened up for me to see its streets, bursting with flowers. In the autumn light, the town looked particularly intense. Down Calvario Street, I came to Naturarte, an arts & crafts market, whose wall sign read “Museum of Ethnography/ Eighteenth-century oil mill/ Ask at the shop/ Tel.: 616 179 730 – 646 028 992/ Ticket price: €2 per person and €1 (for groups of 15 people or more)/ Naturarte: Up the street, first building on the right. I climbed up the street and found the first building on the right. How disappointing! The shop was closed. When I called the phone numbers in the sign, a girl told me the owners had travelled to Algatocín for a gathering of associations. She asked if I’d be around for a while and I replied I was leaving after lunch. She told me to call after lunch to see if they’d come back. I took mental note. I walked on along Calvario Street until I came to Plaza Teniente Viñas, in front of the Town Hall square. It was a secluded corner dominated by the Fuente Grande, whose five spouts were gurgling with water. To the left, the Tourist Office and on top of it, the Town Library –a stone building adjoining the Town Hall square. In the square, I noticed a series of clefts on one wall; they were rectangles carved in the stone. Long ago, they were used as bullfighter barriers in amateur bullfights. The Town Hall had an austere eighteenth-century façade whose grilled balconies preceded the Municipal Archives. A usual meeting point in autumn, the square showed its prettiest face today. I skirted the Town Hall down Iglesia Street and lost myself in the urban maze, contemplating the colourful flower pots, the popular architecture features in the houses –roofs, tile eaves, frontages. I was suddenly struck by a strong smell: puchero, a wise mix of hearty ingredients capped off by mint. It was an old, well-known smell, evoking fond memories. The only element missing in the perfect puzzle that Benalauría makes. Wherever I gazed at the fleeting streets into the horizon, my eyes were met by a swarm of chestnuts. I walked on to reach the Church of Santo Domingo, which should be accessed through a side gate opening on to a little square. It was a simple, sober eighteenth-century temple with salmon-coloured edges inside, featuring a prepossessing altar. A woman was arranging some flowers before it. I approached her and we talked about the church, the town, the chestnuts. The church smelled of fresh paint and some of the grilles had been recently repaired. It all looked shiny and brand-new. I went out and lost myself again in the labyrinth. I didn’t follow any fixed itinerary; instead, I just wandered about, enjoying the views, spying on some corner, marvelling at some sophisticated row of balconies, moving up and down. The fog was lifting from the valley as the hills looked steaming hot. Fog shreds got caught in the chestnuts. Time for lunch.

Traditional Meal at Mesón La Molienda

I had heard about Mesón La Molienda even before coming to Benalauría. Everybody knew it and knew how to get to it. It was a carefully decorated restaurant in a converted olive oil mill: stone walls painted in blue, yellow, lilac. Stone + wood, and things exhibited on the walls. An original yet authentically Andalusian building, with little tables on a terrace commanding impressive views of Valle del Genal, which was also inscribed on the menu. I was taken to the main dining room and sat at a coquettish table where a stone olive mill used to stand. I was given a traditional menu promising real foods and genuine flavours with the right modern touch. It included butchered meat, Iberian pork sirloin with fried home-grown tomatoes, Iberian tenderloin stuffed with chestnuts, lamb in almond sauce, venison with cinnamon, and so on. All the dishes were briefly described and their origins mentioned. I ordered an orange salad (orange segments with onion and mint), sopa de olla (€3.50), hot gazpacho (served in dornillos, that is, traditional wooden bowls used for Serrano soup, €5), lamb stew with chestnuts (€9.50), and grilled lamb chops in jabata sauce (a Benalauría-exclusive cold marinade made with vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, Murcia peppers, and spices, €9), three beers, and a bottle of water. The bill = €39.50. Excellent price for such great quality. The flavours connected me to old popular traditions. I looked out the window and noticed the fog had seized the whole town.


After lunch, I walked along deserted streets in silence. A thunderous storm could be heard in the sky. The clouds created a withdrawn, evocative atmosphere. Valle del Genal, the hills emerging from it, the thick chestnuts, the nearby villages. I looked back at the white hamlet perched on the mountain slopes. The flavours of tradition were still fresh in my mouth; the smells of the past hadn’t vanished from my clothes. I could only think of one thing: I’d have to come back. When I came home, I had a message in my answering machine: the owners of Naturarte said they were back in Benalauría. What a good excuse to return some day…

Travel Tips and Useful Links
What to see: Festival of Moors and Christians: In the first week of August, Benalauría has one of its major fiestas. Visitors play their part in this big town festival, as they are “kidnapped” to make their contributions at the church. The festival is basically a recreation of the 1570 riots in the sierras, when the Moors and the Christian army came face to face after a revolt by the former. The final act is the qa’id’s elegy to his homeland, which he was forced to leave. On the ground floor of the Town Hall there’s a Visitors Centre where you can find more information. For opening hours, call (+34) 952 152 502. For further information, visit, where you’ll find a lot of contents on this fiesta, including its origin and history.
What to do: Rural Tourism: There’re lots of rural tourism activities to do and accommodations to stay in Benalauría. The lodgings are equipped with all the necessary amenities. Just Google “Benalauría turismo rural” and you’ll see. Art: Valle del Genal has been chosen by many artists as their place of residence. There’re many art or arts & crafts shops in the towns in this region. In Benalauría there’re two: Naturarte (+34 952 152 543) and Artexperiencia (+34 627 333 792).
When to come: All times of year are good, but in autumn, the landscape takes on a special tone. If you’re coming in this season, bring your raincoat, warm clothes, a camera, and binoculars.
Useful links: My web guides to Benalauría have been the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Benalauría 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.