Tuesday, 12 January 2010

She touched the idol with her right hand. She rubbed his fingertips against the smooth surface, stroking its shape, looking at it. She did it out of superstition rather than conviction. It was irresistible, so he touched it. It’s 22cm tall and over 30 kilos. Carved in white marble, it was found in a family house when it underwent renovation work some 30 years ago. They unearthed it, whitewashed it, and used it as a flowerpot ornament. The idol is over 5,000 years old. Carved in the Neolithic, it’s been an object of worship and pilgrimage ever since it was discovered. Lots of couples come to it with the desire of getting pregnant, finding fertility in its clear, smooth surface. A visitor book bears witness to the atavistic belief. The signatures scribbled on it are about 10 years old, and come from all over Málaga, Andalusia, and even beyond. It’s an ambivalent idol, with a clear phallus in its lower part and a bulge that could be a woman’s belly in the middle. The eyes and something like long hair bring its feminine side out. It’s an ancient idol, associated with reproduction rather than sex. An idol linked to the fertility of the earth and of men. An idol that attracts onlookers and believers with the strength of an enigma. I was looking at it when the members of a TV crew showed up.

Almargen, in the Region of Guadalteba

Almargen has the countryside smells. The hills surrounding it make it look mild, as they roll like waves of corn and olives, like silky hillocks. I drove along the road connecting Antequera with Olvera and Algodonales in Seville, leaving the fields (the region’s economic staple) behind. I could see the corn silos growing willowy, as if they were rockets ready to take off, or metal animals whose spider legs resembled the lunar module that set foot on our satellite for the first time. I looked up and saw the trails left by planes against Málaga’s bright blue sky, hinting at the transitory nature of the area since time immemorial. You can check with Phoenician tales and Roman stories, or with the records of the gory Medieval battles between Moors and Christians. But the best proof of the geo-strategic value of this location is to be found in the Tartessian, Phoenician, Roman, and Arab remains. To the right, the road leading to Hins Qannit, or Cañete la Real, one of Guadalteba’s rocky lookouts. Ahead, Almargen.

Coming to the Town Centre

The mildly rolling nature of the landscape seems to have transferred to the heart of Almargen. It’s a town with long straight streets, far away from the impossible layouts I came across in other Málaga towns, perched on the sierras or the mountains. I drove towards the town centre following directions until I reached the train station. I parked my car and got ready for my tour, noticing the church belfry, which helped me get to María Auxiliadora –a secluded square featuring a nice fountain and manicured arch-shaped gardens. There were men talking in the sun, a woman and her daughter carrying shopping bags, and two children pedalling on their bikes. Almargen is a quiet town, peaceful and warm, with residents willing to welcome visitors, waving good morning to almost everyone. The Parish Church of Inmaculada Concepción is an austere, robust building, painted in white and trimmed in ochre, with a three-eyed belfry. The roof was populated by lots of doves. The door was open. I walked in. Inside, the church was humble, with a remarkable wooden coffered ceiling and a beautiful high altar where beams intertwined forming a complex woodwork structure. Conversely, the altars in the adjoining nave are profusely decorated, full of gilded plasterwork. A gothic altarpiece represented the Passion of the Christ. There were four or five women praying. When they saw me with my notebook, one of them said, “This man is taking notes to give us money for the roof.” I turned around, but they’d already left the building through the other door, so I couldn’t tell them they were wrong. Because of the time of year, the parish church included a fabulous handcrafted nativity scene made with little cauliflowers and olive flowers. I lighted a candle for the Patroness and went out. In Almargen, houses are simple and compact; they have long halls leading into shadowy patios where you can shelter from the summer heat. Double doors, hallways, refined wrought-iron windows. Some houses have ochre, blue, brown wall tiles, drifting away from traditional spotless white. They’re big houses, with high ceilings, doors, and windows. Some have kept the little windows of the old barns where grain was stored and dried. It was a quiet morning. I asked how to get to the Tartessos Visitors Centre in Guadalteba. “It’s easy,” someone replied, “you just have to walk down this street (Corredera Street) until you get to the Town Hall, an almost round building facing the Pablo Picasso public school. It’s behind the Town Hall, on San Cosme and San Damián Streets. Did you know you can see this magic stone in the museum?” “Yes, I know, thank you very much.” I followed their directions and got to the place without much difficulty.

The Phallic Idol, the Tartessian Stele, and the Broken Sword

The Tartessos Visitors Centre in Guadalteba is housed in an old water tank that’s been rehabilitated, keeping its internal structure with the addition of a glass door. Outside, the schematic figure of a dark orange Tartessian warrior dominates the little square. The frame of the main door is also dark orange. Later I was told that the warrior’s silhouette was part of the municipality’s coat of arms. It’s carved in a stone stele that could’ve been a funerary stele or a milestone of old Tartessos. In the stele, the warrior has a shield, a spear, and other arms. Tickets to the Visitors Centre are €2. The opening hours are Tue-Sat 10:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.; Sun 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. (Closed on Mondays, except on holidays.) If you need more information, you can call (+34) 952 713 455 or visit the website of the Guadalteba Heritage Network. The museum was well-attended. A group of people were listening to Trini, the guide, who was giving detailed information of the region’s history and describing the pieces on display. The idol caught my eye. Shiny and white, it stood out amidst the ochre and orange shades that prevailed in the museum. Its presence was imposing, simple, totemic. I read all the information boards. Without knowing how or why, my travel companion put out her right hand and touched it. Before she could take her hand out, a TV camera appeared in the room. It represented España Directo a show broadcast by Televisión Española, which was making a report on the idol’s alleged magical properties. Trini said that, since its discovery, many people had associated the totem with magic properties in connection with fertility and reproduction. The journalist asked visitors where they came from and why they were here, and several told her they’d come to see the idol, to touch it and see if it got them pregnant, for they’d been trying unsuccessfully for a year or more. A local women showed her 15-year-old son and said she owed him to the idol’s magical qualities. After the racket subsided, our guided tour continued. Trini told us the stories of the discovery of the Tartessian stele and of the old bronze sword found in Málaga. The sword had been found by two kids who were playing in the fields. It was broken, the blade separated from the hilt. The boys liked the parts and took them home. The new owner of the hilt decided the sword needed a blade, so he shaped it into a pointed object. This is how the sword’s been kept in the museum. What the boy didn’t know was that the Tartessians used to bury the dead with their belongings –warriors with their swords, for instance– but they broke them to prevent plundering. The museum is worth visiting; you’ll find lots of curious objects and learn many interesting facts about Málaga and its rich history in it. I said goodbye to Trini and left the Visitors Centre, which was still in a state of excitement due to the presence of the camera. Below you’ll find two videos on the Almargen idol. First, Cuarto Milenio, a show broadcast by Cuatro. Then, TVE’s España Directo, whose cameraman I came across in the museum.
- Cuarto Milenio (Cuatro)

- España Directo (TVE, December 13, 2009). Click here to view the images shot when I was visiting the museum (52:38).

My cultural tour, with its stele, idol, and sword, had whetted my appetite. I’d seen a nice restaurant in the entrance to town, so off I went.

Stopping for Lunch

El Cuarterón is a modern restaurant with the traits of a traditional fonda. They serve a full menu combining traditional recipes with modern dishes at reasonable prices. I ordered a helping of seasoned olives, which were delicious, plus a regular beer, an alcohol-free beer, and a big bottle of water. The main courses were Almargen-style porra (€5.20), artichokes and ham (€12), pork steak (€9.50), and pork tenderloin brochettes (€12.90). Everything was so good. The porra resembled the one made in Antequera, with tuna, boiled eggs, and minced ham on top of a cold soup. The steak (it was D.O. pork) was well-done, garnished with potatoes and boiled vegetables. The brochettes were a perfect mix of pork and vegetables. When I left, the restaurant was crowded. I still had one more sight to see: the rise of the Salado stream.

The Salado Stream

Back in town, I headed for the Town Hall, where a sign showed how to get to the rise of the stream. It lay some 2km away, so I drove there. I man told me I’d find some painted train carriages and, facing them, an eucalyptus-lined lane climbing down to the stream. I walked down the lane, but the only thing I found was a swamp full of reeds and sulphurous water. It was impossible to walk ahead, so I had to be content with having a look at the source of the stream and reading about it on the Town Hall website: “The Salado stream begins in a place known as ‘Casa Blanca.’ There’s not much water in it, but it’s got healing properties, given its high iodine levels. This miraculous spouting water is recommended for digestive and bone diseases. It was famous in Roman times already; remains of Roman baths were found in the area. It loses salinity as it approaches the Almargen river, which feeds La Venta river, which in turn flows into the Guadalteba reservoir.”


The big silos I associated with rockets bade farewell. The rolling hills yawned at sunset, taking on beautiful golden shades. Words like “magical idol” or “broken sword” still echoed in my head. I thought of the smooth white stone, its magical properties and the superstition associated with them. I grinned as I imagined Neolithic men and women worshipping the idol for fertile wombs and soils. Then I thought of how little things have changed.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: The idol: There’re many websites including references to the Almargen idol. I’ve chosen an article by José Antonio Molero, which you can read at The Visitors Centre: For more information on phone numbers, fees, hours, and directions, go to the Guadalteba Heritage Network.
What to do: Hiking: The rolling hills of Almargen are crossed by hiking and cycle touring trails connecting adjoining towns. They’re very popular in autumn and in spring.
Useful links: I’ve used the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Almargen Town Hall to plan this trip.

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