Tuesday, 15 December 2009

It’s autumn in Alto Genal. The road snakes up the hill. To the right, bare mountain crests, only grey rocks reaching for the bright blue sky. To the left, thick woods of golden chestnut trees covering the valley like a mantle of ripe colours. The white hamlets of neighbouring towns stand out –real gemstones in white, cotton flakes under tanned clouds in the autumn sun. Conquering Alto Genal from nearby Ronda, I gave in to the natural show concocted by the time of year before my eyes. Parauta, Cartajima, Júzcar, Pujerra, Igualeja, Faraján, and Alpandeire and Atajate beyond –Serrano villages as strong as the first embers, the smell of stews, or the cold of winter, lying in wait. In autumn, Alto Genal looks like those paintings by Van Gogh in which ochre bursts into a zillion shades and yellow hues blend into one another. The brush is held by daylight, which dyes the earth and the chestnut trees in beautiful golden colours.


I drove into the ochre ocean and sought shelter in its shade. How overwhelming. Chestnuts covered the earth in the fields lining the road, even in the adjacent ditches. I couldn’t resist the temptation of getting off and stepping on the fertile ground that produces such a peculiar fruit, with its increasingly gentle layers: first the aggressive, thorny cover, then the bright brown crust and, finally, the soft white heart. I grabbed a bunch to take as a souvenir. These places should be visited in no hurry if you’re to get to their essence. After this break in pure contact with nature, I finally came to Júzcar, a town with a population of two hundred people who have refused to relinquish their Serrano character. As soon as I drove by the sign indicating the entrance to town, I parked my car. I got ready and started walking.

In the Heart of Júzcar

Silence reigned supreme, except for the singing birds. Júzcar is a compact, solid town, oozing an ancient essence and featuring all you might need if you’re in search of a hinterland experience, ready to reward your senses. I could see some country apartments, a hotel cum restaurant –El Bandolero–, and signs indicating other accommodations. Going down Sol Street, I noticed street names and numbers were shown in an original way: black characters on sandstone tiles. It was a simple yet effective method, telling how every single detail is taken care of in these small villages. I said hello to local men and women. I also noticed most houses featured piles of firewood by their doors, ready to light up the hearths in winter. The town itself is perched on a craggy, longish terrain, looking larger than it really is. I walked towards the church, working my way through the labyrinth formed by the streets, whose steepness makes them an architectural feat. You should come in no hurry, ready to take a relaxed stroll while taking in the views and the smells –stews, chestnuts…–, climb up and down the streets, come across unexpected corners, feel the breeze of the sierras. My steps led me to Plaza Virgen de Moclón, in front of the Parish Church of Santa Catalina –virtually the only horizontal ground in town. The church, just like the town, is simple and small, impossibly white with bright red trims. It looked like the perfect place for a break, looking at the surrounding chestnut trees and just enjoying myself. Then I stumbled into a group of hikers of different ages and degrees of fitness. They belong to the Andarina Hiking Club, in Granada. They came from the deep valley, their skins sweaty and their mouths wearing weary smiles. I asked them where they were going. “We’ve left our cars in Pujerra to hike down the trails connecting it with Júzcar, Cartajima, Parauta, and Igualeja,” they replied. “It’s quite a ride,” I remarked. “We know, but we’re in good spirits,” they said. I said goodbye and watched them scatter along the climb that’d take them to the road. The square also featured the Town Hall building and the small and narrow cemetery. By the graveyard gate I saw a monument featuring an effigy of King Philip V and the name of one of the first industrial facilities in Serranía de Ronda, also the first of its kind in Spain. I’d come to this sight later, following the directions given by a kind woman, who showed me the way to the factory and its mysterious setting. For the time being, I walked up the road towards Bar Torricheli, which I’d seen before and liked for the views it affords of town and the chestnut trees around it. I saw the hikers again; they were leaning on the bar. I waited for my turn to sate my appetite. I ordered a regular beer, an alcohol-free beer, a meatball tapa, and a bacon and cheese sandwich. Delicious homemade food. The meatballs were spongy, coated in natural tomato sauce. A place to recommend. The waiter told me there were many groups of hikers in Júzcar at weekends, even in winter or in the summer. Cyclists and motorcyclists were also among this bar’s patrons, as I could check by looking around. I left knowing Torricheli would make a great place for lunch or dinner. And inexpensive, too: my bill was only €4. I went for my car in order to get to Moclón and the old tin plate factory.
The Hermits of Moclón and the Tin Plate Factory

In the early nineteenth century, Moclón, a district that was mostly uninhabited by then, was occupied by groups of hermits who worshipped the Virgin of Moclón and lived on charity and off the fat of the land. Sheltered by the valley (Moclón is set in the deep valley, on the river banks), the hermits lived in harmony until disputes and conflict arose between them and the Catholic families, which forced them to leave. Their stories lie somewhere between fact and legend, for the hermits’ presence in the area has been documented, but their historical significance never been assessed. The only trace is the procession to the Virgin of Moclón chapel, which has been undertaken for 300 years. If the hermits aren’t fully within the realm of history, the tin plate factory is: “The never-seen-before-in-Spain Tin Plate Factory, under the rule of the never vanquished Catholic King and Queen Philip V and Isabel de Farnesio,” such was its bombastic name. A book published by Altos Hornos de Vizcaya marks this as the first tin plate factory in Spain, adding that its location by the Genal river and amidst thick woods had to do with the huge amounts of water and wood required to manufacture tin plate. The factory had up to 200 workers. As nobody in Spain knew anything about the manufacturing process, experts were brought from Switzerland, led by the engineers Pedro Menrón and Emerico Dupasquier. Legend has it that the two engineers travelled incognito, hiding in a trunk, to dodge the anti-competition laws in force in the early industrial world. The factory started operating in 1731. According to historical documents, camels were used instead of donkeys or mules to carry metal sheets and other goods, for they were more resistant. The factory went bankrupt in the early twentieth century (1901), smothered by strong competitors in Asturias and the Basque Country. However, locals say Altos Hornos de Vizcaya drew on the factory in Júzcar to design its facilities. I wanted to visit the place, so I drove across town and past the white house by the road and followed the first sign to the left, opposite the town centre: “Campsite, 2.5km.” A forest trail in fairly good condition led to the campsite, affording beautiful panoramic views of Júzcar and penetrating the valley. After one, two, three detours, I came to the Virgen de Moclón campsite, which was closed now but probably crowded in spring and summer. I’d seen dilapidated houses, snow storage facility, and the ruins of something that resembled an old factory along the way. Now they’re part of private property, as I was soon to find out, and can’t be accessed without permission. Anyway, the trail and the landscape were worth the ride: the setting was peaceful and charming. Rocked by the murmur of the golden leaves of black poplars and the gurgling river, I gave in to the sensuous experience.

See You Soon!

I climbed up the wood trail, making out the white hamlet of Júzcar in the distance, beyond the mantle of golden chestnuts. It stood out, spic and span, amidst the ochre shades, like a ghost. I imagined donkeys, mules, and camels treading up and down this very same trail when the tin plate factory was active. I smiled to myself as I thought how this town still kept its old essence, which made it as cosy as home. Time had come to say goodbye. But I wasn’t leaving for good, for I was visiting another village in Alto Genal on the same day. I’d chosen Cartajima, where I was to come across an internationally renowned chef, a spectacular sunset, a maze of Andalusian streets, and a salad made with Amanita caesarea, a.k.a. Caesar’s mushroom –a most exquisite delicacy. But I’ll tell you about all this next week, when I meet you under the bright blue sky.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: Mycological Meetings in Valle del Genal: In the second half of November, Júzcar plays host to the Mycological Meetings in Valle del Genal, an event gathering an increasingly high number of experts and amateurs who spend a weekend together, sharing their knowledge of mushrooms, picking up specimens, and tasting the dishes made with them. This year, the meetings are being held from November 20 to 22. They like mushrooms to much in Júzcar that there’s even a “Mycological Trail” at the entrance of town.
Adventure sports: On the outskirts of town you can engage in several adventure sports. Sima del Diablo, for instance, is a great place for climbing and canyoning. It’s very popular with aficionados. For less bold but equally strong experiences, there’s a full network of roads and trails in the area.
Useful links: This trip I’ve planned using the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Júzcar Town Hall, and also a private website,

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.