Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The year was 1570. She was just a girl. Determined, she went to the castle’s battlements and threw a thousand and one arrows at the Moor regiment besieging Alozaina. The men were working in the fields and although the bells rung to alert them of the surprise attack, it was impossible for them to come back soon enough to defend their homes. So it was only women, old men, children, and her, María Sagredo, behind the walls. She saw her father, Martín Domínguez, being killed by the invading army. What could she do? How could she keep them off? Using her brains. María dressed the few dwellers who were with her in men’s clothes and placed them above the walls, as if they were soldiers ready to fight off the moors. She bravely resisted one, two, three attacks, keeping her neighbours unharmed. After the first three attacks, María was exhausted. She was tired and could feel the fear inside; her bones were cold and defeat loomed in the horizon. Suddenly, her face lit up with joy. She had the honeycombs under the house eaves collected and threw them in her enemies’ faces. One, two, three… She thus managed to keep the Arabs off until reinforcements came. After this stratagem, her neighbours and visitors from out of town used to joke, “María, flies in your land do bite!” María Sagredo “deserved the title of Second Lieutenant of the Spanish Infantry Regiment, granted by King Philip II alongside Moorish lands in Tolox as her dowry,” as explained in the Alozaina Town Hall website. Her brave defence of her town and people is depicted in the town’s emblem.

Arrival at Sierra de las Nieves

The road unfolded amidst olive groves climbing inviting hills that higher up became granite masses, robust mountains enduring merciless cold in winter and the scorching sun in the summer. This unique and extremely delicate ecosystem is Sierra de las Nieves, a Biosphere Reserve and the recipient of the EU’s EDEN (European Destinations of Excellence) Award to sustainable forms of tourism. It’s a magical place where you can hear the echoes of a unique tree species, pinsapo or Spanish fir, growing amidst olives, gall oaks, chestnuts, and so on. I drove along the winding road from Coín to El Burgo, going up by the mile. The mountain slopes were peppered with farmhouses; some of them where country retreats. Goats were grazing in the fields, a goatherd leading them. A man was riding a donkey. A woman was sitting next to a fountain by the road. It was a genuine picture: the essence of life in nature, of daily routine in the sierras. The region welcomed visitors with no masks or pretence, opening its arms wide to greet them and show them its originality. I could make out Alozaina, a hamlet perched on the peak of mountain overlooking the huge valley of the Guadalhorce river. I drove in.

Into the Heart of María Sagrado’s Village

I parked on Avenida de Andalucía, the main street, for I’d decided to walk Alozaina on foot. It’s a bottleneck-shaped town whose body is represented by the church and the square named after María Sagredo; the newer part of town appears first, with the old town behind. The first information board suggested two ways of going around: to the left, along Calle Calvario, or to the right, following Avenida de Andalucía. I’d downloaded a street map from the Town Hall website; looking at it, I thought Calle Calvario was a better option if I wanted to get to all sights. So off I went. I walked across the modern city until I reached a huge three-arch stone arcade doubling as a welcome totem into the inner city. The Alozaina Arcade is relatively new; it was built in the mid-twentieth century. According to a new information board, “This huge three-horseshoe arch stone arcade –the arch in the middle is somewhat larger than the other two– was built in the 1950s to celebrate the village’s Arab past. It became a sort of portico giving way to a Muslim city layout, especially in the oldest part of town.” Like many other towns in the sierras, Alozaina had lively Arab age, followed by the Christian Reconquista and the Moorish rebellion in 1571, and all three cultures have left their marks. A maze of bubbling streets has its terminus in the arcade. They seem to obey no plan. They’re remains of the Muslim architectural philosophy, whereby urban developments took advantage of the features of the terrain: uneven areas for house foundations, walls for shade, and so on. I plunged into the heart of the village. Just after walking through the arcade, I spotted a little gift shop selling original postcards by a local artist. “He’s a foreigner who’s lived here for ages. He paints them and brings them here. They’re cute, and we carry special Christmas designs,” the shop assistant said. I bought two (€2) to jot down a few lines and send some 1000km away. I could smell chimneys and burning logs. It was a powerful smell, taking you to a distant past –maybe the same aromas María Sagredo could smell. At Plaza del Romero, the dirt roads turn into cobblestone streets. I came to Plaza de la Constitución, home to the Town Hall and the only mailbox to be found in town. A group of old men were chatting in the shelter of the Town Hall arcade. The square wasn’t big, but it was busy. I asked how to get to María Sagredo’s tower. They told me I should walk through a little archway in the square and take the first turning on the left. I followed the instructions and 20m ahead I found the remains of the old tower that witnessed María’s brave feat. What remained was the tower foundations and two panels of the old town walls. Looking up, I fancied my heroine wearing men’s clothes and clutching the honeycombs. Facing the remains of the old castle there’s a little niche bearing a crucifix and decorated with red carnations. Behind the tower, there’re the church and the park honouring María Sagredo. The frontage of the Parish Church of Santa Ana is preceded by a little red-tiled square flanked by the church door, the vestry door, and the accesses to two fraternities, Hermandad de la Veracruz and Santa Cruz de Jorox. It’s a quiet, secluded place, affording impressive views of the mountains, pregnant with olives, and the sierras and the valley behind. I took a seat, breathed in the fresh morning air, took a couple of pictures, and heard my voice echoing against the bright blue sky. Then I took the first street to the right, Calle Viña, towards the Park of María Sagredo. The gate features three Arab-like arches. Walking through them, you get to a large scenic viewpoint overlooking the Guadalhorce river, flanked by white towers and battlements. The area, though, is dominated by the Parish Church of Santa Ana, featuring a huge eight-sided belfry. The spacious square has public services and premises used as a sort of tavern in popular fiestas. Two children were hanging around, chasing each other, playing. They must have lived in a nearby house. How lucky they were! Enjoying themselves in a place whose historical heritage felt like home to them! I sat down in a stone bench and travelled back in time, fancying the Moors besieging the city. I wasn’t frightened: the spirit of María Sagredo was by my side. From the scenic viewpoint, you can look into the horizon: the Guadalhorce valley at my feet, the olive groves, and the mountains reaching out for the ocean. Turning around, I walked into the inner city, where I was finally met by the typical Andalusian traits: whitewashed walls, flowerpots and flowerbeds brimming with colourful geraniums, men and women working on their everyday chores, barking dogs, playing kids… Alozaina is alive, a town where history and everyday life share the same sounds, the same streets, the same perfumes. On the way to Yunquera and El Burgo, higher up Sierra de las Nieves, and also to Casarabonela and the Guadalhorce valley, this village is like a balcony where you feel elated –a town at the crossroads of history.

Bye bye, María
Sitting down at the Park of María Sagredo, letting the sun wrap my skin with delicate golden shawls, I wrote my postcard, telling of my heroine’s feats, describing the arcade in the entrance, fishing for words to capture the smells, mentioning the whitewashed walls and the flowerbeds, connecting everyday life with history. I wrote about what I’ve lived in Alozaina and what Alozaina’s lived in the past six centuries.

Travel Tips and Useful Links
Curious facts: Pecheros: The people who come from Alozaina are called pecheros. According to the Town Hall website, the name was first used in 1498. “The word pechero comes from pecho, a property tax paid to your king or lord. The residents of Alozaina were the first to pay this tax.”
What to see: Hoyo de los Peñones: An eleventh-century Mozarabic settlement featuring a small chapel and a necropolis. Lying on the way to Casarabonela, it could be more attractive to archaeologists than tourists. The site also includes a fountain, El Albar, a precarious aqueduct carrying water from the source of the river El Albar to the fountain. Popular fiestas: Carnival celebrations are remarkable in Alozaina; locals dust one another with flour after an ancient custom. They also celebrate Olive Day in September, a festival paying tribute to one of the staples of the local economy.
Useful links: This time I’ve browsed several websites: Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Alozaina Town Hall, (personal website), Sierra de las Nieves Rural Development Group, and Sierra de las Nieves Town Council Association.

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