Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The year was 1569. Andrés Xorairán’s family had chosen to stay after the fearful army of the Catholic Monarchs conquered the last Moor kingdom in Al-Andalus in 1491 and Boabdil bade farewell to Granada with tears in his eyes. They’d chosen to stay because they felt attached to the land, the people, and the smells. The Catholic Monarchs had promised they’d let them keep their customs and traditions as long as they agreed to being christened (by faith or by force). But the reality was quite different. In 1567, at the request of inquisitor Pedro de Deza, King Philip II published a Real Pragmática whereby the Moorish people were banned from carrying weapons, speaking their own language, wearing their traditional costumes, and engaging in their traditional customs. Moreover, they had to hand in all their books. Soon, the Moors became second-class citizens, persecuted for their refined culture, condemned in public by a law that couldn’t envisage much beyond the Christian cross. The Moors, who had brought farming, irrigation methods, and an open concept of citizenship, were now vassals of Christian noblemen. The old Christians hated them; the Crown repudiated them; the Church despised them. Andrés Xorairán saw his family pay respect to ferocious lords who treated them like slaves and showed no mercy. Outraged, he became a monfí, an outlaw, and on April 24, 1569, he led an attack on Pedro Mellado’s inn after Mellado kidnapped the wife of one of his friends. His rebellious act spread like wildfire: Salares joined Sedella se vio arrastrada, and with it there came Axarquía and then Sierra de las Nieves (remember last week’s María Sagredo in Alozaina) and then Genal. The riots ended in bloodshed with the Battle of Peñón of Frigiliana. The rebellion was crushed; the rebels were expelled; their towns became deserted. These were the last vestiges of mighty Al-Andalus –a bloodstained diamond.

The Ravines of Silence

Málaga’s sky, usually bright and clear and blue, is leaden-grey this early winter morning. There’re two roads leading to Sedella: from Algarrobo to Árchez across Sayalonga and from Vélez-Málaga passing through Canillas de Aceituno. I chose the latter, for I wanted to take another look at La Maroma (the highest mountain in Málaga, 2,068m high) and check for snow in its crest. But when I reached Canillas de Aceituno, I could see the majestic mount hidden by thick fog. At Canillas, before reaching the town centre, a sign indicated that Sedella lay to the right, only 7km ahead. The road that connects the two villages is abruptly beautiful, sliced by gullies and ravines, rock-laden watercourses, or rough trees standing on truncated slopes. The landscape is impressively robust, and even more mysterious in winter. Despite its twists and turns, the road was easy to drive along, given the absence of other vehicles in it.

Sedella: “Sé de ella,” said Isabella I of Castile

I parked at the entrance of town. You’re not advised to drive in the town centre, for the streets get really narrow. The first thing I sighted, to the left, was the washhouse, which wasn’t a separate construction, as in other towns, but the ground floor of a beautiful old building. The access is marked by three green-trimmed round arches. I could hear the murmur of water, echoing the long chats of the women who used to came here to do the washing. To the right, there was a sign indicating where the future Sierras Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama Nature Park Visitor Centre would be, showing the park’s most characteristic animal and plant species. I plunged into Sedella through Villa del Castillo Street. I soon grasped two of the town’s features: its gnarled streets and its kind people. The town has a clear rural character, with visible traces of its Muslim past. I ventured into the nooks and crannies and the steep climbs, wrapped in the charm of Al-Andalus. It didn’t take me long to get lost in the maze of alleys and corners that seemed to have crashed into one another following plans that were impossible to understand. “Good morning,” local people greeted me. “Good morning, could you tell me how to get to…?” was my usual reply. “Oh, yes, of course. Take this street to the right, then turn left, walk up the second climb, then turn left again, go on straight, and when you get there, ask for more directions,” they explained. Their willingness to help was undeniable, but their directions weren’t so easy to follow. Sedella can be a temptation for those with a curious nature. There’s something to be found round every corner. Hanging around in the early winter, I could imagine men and women by the fireplace, their homes protecting them against cold. My mental picture was ratified by the smell of burning embers. I came to the main square, where the town seems to get somewhat wider. There were two sights here: the Tower House and the Church of San Andrés. The Tower House is what remains of the old fortress where the lord of Sedella used to live. It’s a robust building, as it was part of the town’s bastion wall. Now the tower’s attached to a house, but it’s managed to keep the old spirit. Built in the sixteenth century, the tower features a series of twin arches supported by Renaissance columns, which also hold up a hipped roof. Mudejar in origin, the Tower House has arabesque-trimmed paintings on one side. In fact, this sight has earned Sedella a place in the Mudejar Tour of Axarquía, alongside Árchez, Arenas, Salares, and Canillas de Aceituno. As to the Church of San Andrés, it’s preceded by a flight of a dozen steps, separating it from the rest of the square. Its belfry tower is attached to the temple, rising from its square foundations against the cloud-laden sky. The belfry is the only vestige of the old sixteenth-century building, upon whose ruins the modern parish church was erected. This viewpoint made the mountains beyond the town look more menacing, even when they were wrapped in a foggy cloak. Here Sedella was calm, unhurried, peaceful. The silence was only broken by a horn announcing the arrival of the fishmonger. I trudged on. One of the doors showed a wooden shield. It referred to Queen Isabella. Being curious, I wanted to know more about it. I was told it had to do with the town’s name. Apparently, nobody knows its exact origin. It could be related to a Latin word, sedilla, an acronym, “S.D. Lía,” or a Muslim term, “Xedelia.” However, tradition has it that “the name dates back to the Reconquista, when in the area known as ‘Arroyo de la Matanza’ there was a fight between Christians and Muslims and Queen Isabella was told about it and answered ‘Sé de ella’ (‘I know about it’)” (source: Town Hall website). Any of these stories could be true. I headed eastwards for the Chapel of Virgen de la Esperanza. The best way to get to the place is asking for directions and, with the enquiry as an excuse, talk a little bit with locals. I asked the postwoman, who got me on track. (Later I bumped into her again in Salares.) Some gardens sneaked in houses, living door-to-door with them. There were bubbling-water fountains, too. Streets ended without warning, leading nowhere, crammed with flowerpots and flowerbeds dressed in deep red and other bright colours. When I came to the little chapel, I turned around and saw the compact hamlet, dominated by the belfry tower and Sierra Tejeda and Sierra Almijara behind. I breathed in the chilly morning air and headed for my car, walking along the winding streets and past the spotless wall, which had probably been whitewashed once and again throughout the years.


This is where we’re parting ways today. I’m driving to the neighbouring town of Salares, where I’ll meet you next week, for I’m following the Mudejar Tour of Axarquía and soaking in the spirit of these charming Andalusian towns. History goes beyond time barriers and comes to the twenty-first century, wrapping us in powerful, strong sensations. In Sedella, you can still hear Andrés Xorairán calling for justice.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Where to eat: Most restaurants in Sedella are concentrated on a single street: Villa del Castillo. Mesón Casa Frasco, Restaurante Lorena, Restaurante El Chiringuito… We had two white coffees and two bacon and cheese sandwiches at El Chiringuito for €4.80. Two more choices: Mesón Granada and Casa Pintá.
When to come: Easter season: In Sedella, Easter is a deeply felt fiesta. On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the bells in the church become a sort of rattle announcing Mass. Sounds also play a key role on Resurrection Sunday, as firecrackers celebrate the rebirth of Christ.
What to do: Hiking: The majestic Sierra Tejeda and Sierra Almijara make Sedella an apt place for hiking. Most trails are difficult to negotiate if you’re not familiar with them or don’t have the right gear. The Visitor Centre now being developed will be of great help in this respect.
Useful links: My tour of Sedella was guided by the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Sedella Town Hall, and the Association for Tourism Development in Axarquía-Costa del Sol.

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


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.


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.


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.