Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Al-Z’jaima, the Arabs used to call it. Al-Z’jaima: “the highest place.” Standing on a hillock where lookout acquires a literal meaning, you watch over Valle del Genal in autumn, blended with a leafy palette of yellow, ochre, brown, and green shades. Leaving Júzcar behind, only 5km away, I’ve come to Cartajima, to take in this landscape that penetrates your skin and gets deep into your heart. It’s the highest town in Serranía de Ronda (850m above sea level), affording extraordinary panoramic views of Alto Genal. The autumn has overwhelmingly inspired the landscape: lazy daylight filtered through the chestnut trees, a slow sunset against the horizon, the sun rocking on a light breeze… The woods look like a breathing animal: warm, temperate, morose, inviting. The animal is getting ready for winter, with its chilly mornings and everlasting snow. Cartajima is the white tiara that crowns these thick chestnut woods. This is how I saw it by the road, sheltered by Los Riscos, a serrated karst mountain range looming high against the bright blue sky. I parked my car at the entrance, for I wanted to walk into this town with character. Besides, poetry notwithstanding, I was so hungry. It was past noon and I’d been to Júzcar already, so I needed a place to feed my body rather than my soul. But I didn’t know that my accidental choice of restaurant would give me a huge surprise.

From Z to A: Lunch and Surprise

I got off my car, which I’d parked by the cemetery, and walked down the only street leading to the town centre. I got a glimpse of Cartajima, Los Riscos, grey and serrated, as if mouth-opened, behind my back. A man looked at me, so I asked him if he could tell me where to eat good homemade food. “Go to Casa Amalia. In fact, I’m going there myself, so if you want to come with me…,” he invited me. Of course I did. Eduardo hadn’t been born in Cartajima, but he and his family had lived here almost all his life. He was a kind, smiling man. I listened to his stories: “In the past, wherever you found a few inches of idle land between the rocks, you grew something. Beans, corn, whatever. Now it’s… different. Working in the fields is tough, and young people don’t want to hear about crops. But the little we sow is top-quality, fertilised with manure only. It’s –what do they call it now?– organic farming,” he laughed. Then he talked about Los Riscos: “They go from the back of Cartajima to Júzcar, and they can stand alongside the world-famous Torcal in Antequera. The best time of year to come is spring, and you’d better hire a local guide, to avoid getting lost. We walked our way to Casa Amalia, a.k.a. La Cosita Buena. It was like a family home with a bar and a bunch of tables on the ground floor. There were few patrons. “Everyone’s in Parauta today. It’s Rabbit Day. So there’re a few tapas and a little stew,” the owner told me. “Well, tell me what you have.” “There’s meatballs, tripe…,” he began. I ordered one of each, plus one regular and one alcohol-free beer. The dishes were delicious. 100% homemade, evoking childhood smells. Encouraged by the old familiar flavours, I had two more tapas: bacon and quail eggs. Equally tasty. Eduardo had to go, so we said goodbye to him and started talking to the restaurant’s owners, Amalia y Baltasar. They told me about Cartajima’s Must Fair, how good homemade grape must was, how many prizes it’d been awarded. Then we talked about the typical food of the sierras and its characteristics. Without my ordering it, Baltasar brought some larded loin, which was outstanding. “It was prepared yesterday,” he said proudly. We moved on to life in Cartajima, what young people did here, and this is when the surprise came: “Our son lives in Guipúzcoa. We works with a cook you must’ve heard of: Martín Berasategui.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Michelin-starred Martín Berasategui is one of the most renowned international chefs. He’s one of the chosen few who’ve revolutionised our way of understanding gastronomy, transforming it into culinary art. Amalia brought a photo album showing her son with Berasategui in a kitchen. They were working together, side by side. I was told he was one of the men Berasategui trusted with designing menus and trying new developments. The young man’s name was Baltasar Díaz Corbacho. Stay alert for the steps he takes. His future is promising. “Well, I can tell where his knack for cooking comes from,” I said. As a farewell gift, Baltasar gave me a huge dish of Amanita caesarea (commonly known as “Caesar’s Mushroom”) salad –one of the best mushrooms you can eat. The salad contained fresh amanita, parsley, pomegranate, garlic, and a vinaigrette. Baltasar revealed Berasategui was his son’s godfather, and that his son worked with him in Lasarte. Coming back from my astonishment, after a good deal of excellent food and better anecdotes, after sharing views on life in Cartajima, tourists, foreign residents, and similar topics, I bade the kind couple farewell, feeling incredibly well.

Watchtower in a Tangle

Getting out of Casa Amalia, I realised the light was different now, languorously dressing the chestnut trees in yellow, making them look brighter. You can’t get lost in Cartajima: it’s surrounded by a single long street that ends in the only entrance to and exit from town in a circular fashion. I walked towards a balcony overlooking the valley, the mantle of chestnuts climbing up and down the hills and disappearing in the horizon. I could make out Parauta down there, and even Igualeja. The streets in Cartajima are like a tangled ball of curly hair sprawling here and there. They’re all covered with cobblestones, lined by thick-walled, small-windowed houses. Beyond the alleys, there’re the golden chestnut trees, showcasing their zillions¡ shades of yellow. Except for Ancha Street, which is pretty straight and lined by little orange trees, the town look like a seemingly chaotic street maze. I enjoyed the afternoon, smelling the first evening coffee and roast chestnuts (which I fancied to myself to be washed down with eau-de-vie). There’s something about Cartajima, a secret element that makes it different, special, something you can’t define that’s made of countless subtle yet ordinary details… Moreover, there’s another surprise in the heart of town: the majestic Church of Virgen del Rosario. Walking up one the all-alike streets, I bumped into it. I lay behind a flight of steps in one of the highest places in town –a watchtower, a lighthouse over Alto Genal. It was a beautiful church, with whitewashed walls and a crimson frontage. It was simple and austere, decorated with flowers that made it look even higher. The best way to know Cartajima is just get around: walk along its streets, discover its blind alleys and flower-infested corners, talk to local the warm and friendly local people… The best thing about Cartajima is… Cartajima itself.

Sunset in Cartajima

The sun goes down into the mountains morosely, slowly. I watched the sunset while sitting on the steps in front of the church. The chestnut trees seemed to be burning; the roofs and chimneys and wafts of smoke, too. The birds contributed the soundtrack to the setting. I turned my camera off and put my notebook away. I looked at the horizon, beautiful in its blazing red, and didn’t say a word. I just felt the first evening breeze.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: Los Riscos: It’s a great spot in the area. Although the trails are clearly signposted, you’d better go with a local guide, who’ll show you to its beauty. For geological information and pictures, go to Malagapedia. Archaeological sites: As noted in the Cartajima Town Hall website, “There are several archaeological sites on the outskirts of town: Cañada de Harife (Roman baths), Cortijo del Ratón (Roman necropolis), or Cartamón and Casapalma (two former Medieval villages, now deserted). They all bear witness to Cartajima’s long, eventful history.”
What to do: Country travel: There’s a wide range of country retreats in Cartajima, where you can take a break and go hiking. The Town Hall website shows some of them, but you can find others in the Internet.
Useful links: I’ve planned this trip using the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Cartajima Town Hall websites.

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