Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Cuevas Bajas is a hamlet blended into the earth, which sustains the tide of olive trees surrounding the town. From a distance, the buildings are barely seen, hidden behind the rolling hills that rock them. Cuevas Bajas is like a hidden rocking ship. The velvety hillocks are covered by ancient, twisting olive trees sinking their roots deep into the soil. Maybe a Roman emperor looked at the landscapes I was now contemplating before commanding the building of a new road. Or maybe it was the Arabs, who left their traces in irrigation ditches and waterwheels along the Genil river. Or perhaps a tribe of hunters in the Copper Age took a break under these very same olives, which still are a staple in the local economy. Miguel Hernández’s proud olive-pickers are still picking their olives, laying out their black cloths and shaking the branches with their sticks, waiting for the green fruit to fall. This is the first link in the chain that leads to the olive oil in your kitchen –the green gold on your morning toast, the essential dressing in your Mediterranean dishes. Having a look at relief around Cuevas Bajas –the houses hidden amidst the hills–, I could easily understand why the revolutionary bandits of the nineteenth century –Chato de Benamejí, Antonio Vargas Heredia, Luis Artacho, Salvador González, the Calderas– chose it as the place to hide after their misdeeds. The township was then nicknamed “Cueva de los Ladrones” (Cave of Thieves) after the high number of criminals living in the area. The neighbouring town of Alameda is home to the grave of the most famous Spanish bandit of all times: El Tempranillo.

The Tour

Down a small hill amidst the thick olive groves, I almost bumped into Cuevas Bajas: a cluster of white houses standing on a hillock. I drove into the town centre and soon I came to the Main Square, where the Church of San Juan Bautista was. I parked here. It was cool on the tree-lined streets. In a glimpse I caught the iron-wrought windows and balconies, the double doors hiding cool inner courtyards, the quieter corners, and the streets going up and down and spreading in multiple branches. If I followed the streets into the horizon, my eyes met the hills carpeted with olives. The town centre was busy and noisy; I could hear voices of men, women, and children. Many people greeted me, so I didn’t feel like an intruder. The Church of San Juan Bautista was a solid building whose only high component was the belfry tower, adjoining the main block. Its brick walls made it look austere. The belfry’s whitewashed panels were the only interruption to the church’s earthen appearance. Built in the eighteenth-century, the church had one distinctive feature: the side chapel, which is usually behind the main altar, was here on the left. From the church square I took Archidona Street following an information board’s advice. The idea was to walk around and find a series of niches locals are devoted to. Most houses in Cuevas Bajas were narrow, their double doors protecting their inhabitants from cold in winter and heat in the summer. I could imagine the square floor plans, the big spaces, behind these doors. Some of the houses looked stately. On the corner of Archidona and Victoria Streets, I saw one of the niches; it had an image of Jesus Christ carrying the Cross. I walked on, losing myself in the quiet and peaceful streets. I took Victoria Street and then turned left into Real Street, where the main sights were: the Casa de los Cristales, the House of Felipe Quintana, the frontage of the old Juan González inn, where nineteenth-century bandits got together to plot their misdeeds. Real Street had a noble air about it, and I strolled down it in the quiet shadow of the trees lining the pavement. Most houses were well-kept, probably renovated following the original designs. I came back to the square in front of the Church of San Juan Bautista and skirted the temple to look at it from different angles. To the left I found another historical building, in the square dedicated to María Victoria León Moyano, a woman who died in Madrid in the 3/11 terrorist attacks. I read the plate in silence and decided to take a longer walk before having my snack.

Appetiser at Bar Tony

Bar Tony lies on La Reja Street. You can easily spot it from wherever you might be near the church. It’s the typical simple town bar, with many locals as patrons. Beer, sodas, tapas, small dishes. All the food is homemade. I ordered two sodas (I still didn’t know who’d be driving back home), two cheese tapas, one fresh bacon tapa, two loin tapas. The bill = €6.50. Timeless classics: the cheese in oil with bread sticks, almost forced me to have seconds. The bar was crowded: patrons in their weekend relax, loud talk, lots of noise. I slowly savoured my tapas, which kindled the desire in me to have met the old bandits, who maybe ate the same cheese, washing it down with good homemade wine.

I got on my car and hit the road that’d brought me here. Snaking up and down, I got to the main road towards Antequera. Suddenly, Cuevas Bajas was no longer visible: the olives and hills had swallowed the white hamlet up, leaving no trace on the horizon. The field workers were knocking the olives down. I could see a man with big sideburns; he was wearing a headscarf and had a snub nose. Who knows… Maybe he was Chato de Benamejí.

Travel Tips and Useful Links
What to know: The lower part of Cuevas Bajas is cut across by the Genil river. In spring, its banks look bright green. By the river bed, there’s the Noria de la Agusadera, an old mill with curious buckets. Bandits: Banditry was a strong movement in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Andalusia. Bandits –who’ve turned into legendary characters in the regions of Antequera and Ronda– have inspired fiction, film, and TV. Chato de Benamejí, for instance, is the protagonist of Manuel Fernández y González’s novel El Chato de Benamejí: Vida y Milagros de un ladrón.
Useful links: I explored Cuevas Bajas on the web with the help of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Cuevas Bajas Town Hall websites.

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.