Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Nineteenth century. Juan a.k.a. “El Camisón,” a thief and smuggler fleeing local authorities. His nickname is as heavy as a tombstone on his shoulder: his skin is full of pus sores and raw wounds, so he can’t have but a nightshirt on. So he’s fleeing with his nightshirt on and his wounded skin. He takes refuge with a shepherds, who takes him in out of pity rather than fear. The place is the Cortijo de las Aguas Hediondas. As the days go by, “El Camisón” watches the shepherd bathing his sheep in stinking waters. He asks about this and the shepherd tells him he does this to those sheep whose wool isn’t good and whose skin has darkened for being in the open. The thief thinks of his own skin and takes a bath himself in the fetid waters. After two, three, twenty baths, he can see that his skin’s got its normal colour and smoothness back. Who could’ve imagined that the waters that healed “El Camisón”’s skin would become the backbone of bourgeois life in Málaga –a place where deals worth millions would be clinched while entrepreneurs took a bath, a retreat where the aristocracy –businessmen and artists alike– would go for a break under the auspices of affluent Doña Trinidad Grund, the daughter of a Prussian consul who married Manuel Agustín Heredia Livermore, a member of one of the most influential families in the local industry. These were the origins of modern Carratraca: a place whose development was sponsored by a smart and powerful woman who attracted influential men to a place of healing yet stinking waters. Today, facing this bourgeois redoubt there’s a humble inn, Casa Pepa –a place whose traditional food Trinidad’s guests would’ve liked to taste.


I shot past the Guadalhorce Valley, leaving rectilinear fields of fruit trees on both sides behind as the yellow and orange citrus dots became larger and more regular. I could smell erratic, bittersweet smells. I thought of this huge pot that is Málaga, where fruit and vegetables bake under the sun –a great farming show. My car came across lines of orange trees that disappeared and reappeared as I drove on. One here, another one there, still another over there. When I began to climb up towards Campillos, the landscape changed, getting more rugged and giving way to rocky mounds and ravines. Likewise, fruit trees were gradually replaced by olives. I could see the first windmills of the wind farm on the outskirts of Carratraca. They appeared and then were swallowed by the earth in a rhythmic movement that resembled a conjurer’s pendulum. Carratraca can be accessed from two thoroughfares starting in the Málaga-Campillos road. The first of them takes you to the lower part of town, whereas the second, a little bit more remote, leads uptown. I took this. Be on the alert when coming to Carratraca, for even when the access road continues, you’ll need to take a road to the left where signs indicate “Centro Urbano” (town centre) as well as the main sights in town. I drove into a street lined with little orange trees and iron-wrought benches towards the Town Sports Centre, only to bump into a boisterous crowd and a row of stands –goods on sale and bargaining men and women. I soon understood: on Saturdays, there’s a street market in Carratraca. I parked my car, got ready, and elbowed my way through the crowd in search for foulard to protect my neck from the first winter cold. Just past the market, the streets got narrow and winding. The familiar flowerpots and flowerbeds emerged: exploding colours against whitewashed walls. My walk in Carratraca began. My feet took me to traditional Andalusia from bourgeois Málaga, from the stout and sound to the ethereal, from the coarse and rough to the refined and sophisticated. I pierced the heart of Carratraca.

In the Heart of Carratraca

The main street starts in Plaza de la Constitución, connecting the Church of Virgen de la Salud with the bullring across town. I chose to turn left, leaving the return route for later. The Carracatreños were all wrapped up against cold that morning. The town is perched on a hill by a robust mountain, facing the Sierra de Alcaparaín –a high-peaked massif that seemed to attract the grey clouds and feed them with furious anger, so that they then blew a chilly breeze that pervaded the town’s alleys. I pulled up the collar of my leather jacket and followed the ringing of bells. The church was hidden among a bunch of houses, as it if were just one of them. Getting to it meant walking all the way down Higuera Street calle Higuera, turning right, climbing up a flight of steps, and turning left. The church was simple. It sported a stout white façade, its frames and corners trimmed in ochre and a wooden cross as its only ornament. The belfry on top contains the bells whose sound I’d followed. I walked back along Iglesia Street, which changes its name to Baños after a few blocks. The houses opened out into the street, their hallways protecting their secret inner lives, their chimneys burning the embers and filling the air with autumn smells.

Sulphurous Waters, A Spa, A Story…

The Villa Padierna Thermas de Carratraca Spa lies in a robust and austere building with a long ochre sandstone façade that stands out for its height. It’s a beautifully compact building. It could’ve been a figment of my imagination, but I could smell the sulphurous water without even setting foot inside, as if it came out along the crack below the door. A board indicated you had to get in through the opposite door, where the gift shop was, so that’s what I did. Ana of customer service explained that the spa couldn’t be toured when there were customers getting treatments, but my innocent look and promise to come back later did the trick: she cleared my way to a world of steam and salts and Scottish showers and beauty treatments and various pools… It was like being in Heaven: thermal baths, hydromassage pools, jet showers, spring showers, Turkish baths, manicures and pedicures, facials, and a zillion etceteras. Countless possibilities at the widest range of prices. Ana gave me a full tour of the spa. I took a look at the emerald-green pools with views of Roman statues and busts, I discovered all the corner secrets and came to the old, original fountain of mineralised water –the spa’s starting point. After its nineteenth-century glory, the house of the hot springs has regained its past splendour since its reopening in 2007 after undergoing full renovation. The place’s kept the spirit of the original construction but includes the latest techniques in beauty and wellness treatments. Hot springs and thermal baths have marked Carratraca’s recent history, although it’s well known that both the Romans and the Arabs were acquainted with these waters’ healing properties. In fact, the name “Carratraca” comes from Arabic “Karr-al-krak,” meaning “cleaning all marks.” A lover of the healing waters, Doña Trinidad Grund settled in town and had an amazing Mozarabic palace built to welcome her friends and relatives, and other members of the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth-century. The palace is in front of the spa, and it’s spectacular, standing against the Sierra de Alcaparaín and affording views of the fields in Valle del Guadalhorce. Its walls are bright ochre with red trims, arabesques beautifying pilasters, windows, and doors and lending them an unusual visual strength. At the back of the building, the iron and wood balconies overlook the gardens and mountains. Today, the palace that used to belong to Doña Trinidad Grund is home to the Carratraca Town Hall. One of its most remarkable features is an eight-sided tower in the same style that gives access to the visitors centre, “Hot Springs for a Spa”. I went in. Pepi, the woman in charge, told me the spa’s story including Juan a.k.a. “El Camisón”’s legend and his discovery of the water’s healing properties. A video gave me the historical context and a dozen information boards told the most curious and remarkable facts of the “agüistas” who visited the spa in the nineteenth-century, after its opening in 1856. Two anecdotes are worth telling. Number one: Journalists within and without the spa used to review and mark the outfits worn by the ladies. Number two: As their wives got their healing treatments, men played cards, fortune changing hands as the hours went by. Carratraca was one of the favourite places of Málaga’s bourgeoisie for many years. With the excuse of “tomar las aguas,” many businessmen and politicians clinched deals or made business between strolls and card games. The spa also drew literary figures such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Alexandre Dumas (or, in recent times, Nobel prize-winner Vicente Aleixandre). All of them were welcomed by the greatest of hostesses: Doña Trinidad Grund. The visitors centre is painted in different shades of blue, wisely echoing the waters, and a mellifluous symphony of water murmurs accompanies you in your tour. The boards give a lot of information on those carefree years.

The Mountain-Rock Bullring

I left the palace of Doña Trinidad Grund behind and moved on. The bullring lay less than 100m away. Built in 1878, it could hold about 3,000 spectators. There’re two curious facts about it: first, its stands were carved out of the rocky mountain slopes, in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre; second, it’s the setting of The Passion in Easter –a very popular tradition among locals (who work hard in its preparation) and out-of-towners alike. You can’t get inside the bullring, but still you can see everything through its gates. All in all, the bullring is a place worth seeing, both for its curious architecture and also as a way of whetting your appetite before going to Casa Pepa. When I was leaving, a man told me (among many other things), that he’d played the role of Jesus twice in The Passion, adding that it was one of the town’s must-sees, given the meticulousness of the staging. Locals are nice people, so I spend some time talking to this man, who was a craftsman and made jewellery with recycled materials. He showed some of them to me: bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and the like. (Since he asked me not to reveal what his goods are made of, I won’t tell you). Then he move on to life in town, everyday activities, and so on. The amiable chat unveil some more secrets of Carratraca. Noon: time for Casa Pepa.

Fonda Casa Pepa: A Separate Chapter

I chose Casa Pepa following my friend Ramón’s advice. The eatery was on Baños street, a pebble’s throw away from the hot springs. Everybody there knew it. In fact, the man I’d been talking with agreed with my friend when I asked him where I could eat. “Fonda Casa Pepa,” he grinned. When I opened its humble door, I thought I’d come into the wrong place. It looked like a home rather than a restaurant, with a patio brimming with plants and flowers. A woman who was brewing something in the kitchen looked up and welcomed me with a smile. All the rooms that opened out onto the patio had been converted to dining areas, featuring ill-paired tables and chairs, and paper tablecloth. The walls showed pictures of family events: wedding or communion parties, a young man wearing khaki pants, the colourful clothes of the 1970s, lots of sepia. There were some patrons already, and a little noise. I asked for a table for two and they took me to one of the rooms on the left. I must have been 12sq m. We took a small table where there sat a bottle or red wine and one of soda. How genuine everything look! And that kitsch, Almodóvar-inspired touch! A young waitress came to recite the menu: “The starters are rice, cabbage, and tripe.” “I’ll take tripe,” I said. “And for me, cabbage,” my companion. Two minutes later, the girl came back with two big plates, which she set on the table. “Bon appétit!,” she blurted out. The smell was delicious –a steam pregnant with homemade aromas, as if comprising all the stews made Málaga grannies in a single casserole. I had one, two, three helpings. Then we swapped the tripe and the cabbage. I felt at home. I suddenly noticed the restaurant was crowded. Later the waitress told me you can book a table, for at weekends, Casa Pepa bursts with people. So, just in case you want to include it in your list of top restaurants, here’s the phone number: (+34) 952 458049 / (+34) 686 401 610. I enjoyed the food’s genuine flavours. Then the waitress removed the pots and said, “As main courses you can choose meatballs, pork jowl, or eggs with potatoes and chorizo.” “I’ll take pork jowl,” I replied. “And I’ll have meatballs,” said my companion. It took here a couple of minutes to bring the new saucepans, plus fried chorizo as a complement. How tasty this homemade food was! Casa Pepa is no sophisticated place, but a restaurant focusing on authenticity: no ornaments or distractions; only food, hearty food, food to fill your belly with, old style. By now, you couldn’t have squeezed anyone else in. I shared my dining room with a large group of families, who shared their bread and tripe. “For dessert, crème caramel, banana, orange.” That was my waitress again. “I don’t think we’ll have dessert, just the bill, thank you.” Again, it took her two minutes to bring the bill: “€16.” “Each?” “No, both!!!” Casa Pepa will never be granted a Michelin star, but it’ll never need it either. Nice place. Fabulous traditional food. Good service. Amazing prices.


The fresh air of the early afternoon helped me digest my lunch. I stopped at Plaza de la Constitución for my usual postcard, which I’d bought at the hot springs’ gift shop. I jotted down a few lines on sulphurous water, Doña Trinidad Grund and her palace, the bullring and its rocky stands, the tower, the craftsman I’d met, and Casa Pepa. The summary decided me to come back to Carratraca some other time for a thermal bath, more traditional food, and a card game with which I could emulate those lucky members of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.

Travel Tips and Useful Links
What to see: The hot springs: The town’s main sight. At the spa we can get a wide range of treatments for a wide range of prices, so all budgets are welcome. Given its importance and historical value, it really is a must-see. Find all the necessary information at or phone (+34) 952 489 542.
What to do: “Embrujo de la Luna Mora” Festival: On the first weekend of September, Carratraca celebrates the “Embrujo de la Luna Mora” (Spell of the Moorish Moon), a fiesta recreating all the Arab customs and traditions that are part of the region’s history. The souk, featuring arts & crafts stands, workshops, concerts, circus shows, etc., is the epicentre of the celebrations. There’re also dance shows and al-Andalus food to taste. At 7:00 p.m., all lights go off and thousands of candles burn, lending Carratraca a matchless magical atmosphere. To read more, go to
Useful links: The following websites have guided me through Carratraca: the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, the Carratraca Town Hall, and the Guadalteba Heritage Network.

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