Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Like a ship rocking on a headland, there’re two masts rising out of the white hamlet that El Borge is. One is the belfry, and it’s spotless white. The other is the brick tower, it’s laden with crosses, and its dome is covered with white and green tiles. The ship’s bow faces south, moored to a stout stone wall and a deep-red portal. Its stern faces north, its two towers like distinctive, iconic stags. A roofed two-arch arcade conceals a side entrance, as if it were a secret chamber. Inside, there’s a spectacular coffered ceiling, the woodwork interweaving to form a maze of reddish beams pointing to the high altar… All the secrets of the Parish Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario were revealed to me by Manuela, but it was the Andalusian Government that designated it as a Monument of the Andalusian Historical Heritage.

El Borge, Raisins, and El Bizco

The winding road leading from the Mediterranean to the heart of Axarquía affords an impressive landscape. Bounded by La Maroma, the highest peak in Málaga Province, the mounts and hills alternate with steep ravines, plots of land where fruit trees grow, and scattered population centres. The place looks like a boiling crater whose crests are the hills themselves. The mountain slopes display one of El Borge’s distinctive features: paseros, that is, small attached rectangles where grapes are cultivated and dried. They are typical of Axarquía. El Borge is one of the villages with the largest volume of raisin exports in Andalusia (and, they say, in the world as well). It produces record numbers every year. In the late nineteenth century, this land was home to one of the most fearful bandits –a benefactor to many and a heartless, bloodthirsty murderer in the eyes of justice. His adventures went beyond Axarquía and Sierra Morena. This was my foretaste of El Borge –a mix of legend, history, and geography. But it was soon to find out that there’s much more to this village.

Tour, Part 1: Up to the Church
After leaving Almáchar behind and making out Canillas de Aceituno, perched on La Maroma, I entered El Borge. I left my car at the entrance, facing one of the first sights: El Borge Archway. This construction with Arab traits welcomes visitors to the village and its cobblestone streets. Its columns recount historical facts. In particular, they contain the images of two famous residents: Abdalallah ben Atimad, a.k.a. Al Baitar, son to a couple of veterinarians and a botanist himself, who’s reputed with the introduction of the lemon tree from the Middle East in 1200, and Martín Vázquez Ciruela, a theologian who held high offices in the Church in the seventeenth century. This was my letter of introduction into El Borge. I followed the trail of a ringing, singing, bubbling sound. It was a powerful stream of water. Turning the corner, I realised it came from one of the sights I should see today: Fuente de la Vendimia. Of course, it was only natural that a town whose economy’s been based on the production of raisins since time immemorial should have a tribute in bronze to those men and women whose work and efforts in the fields helped build such a strong industry. The fountain featured a grape harvester holding a basket brimming with grapes, ready to take the precious fruit to town, going up and down steep mountain slopes. By the fountain, there was a map showing where I was and what to visit. I took note and headed for the Town Hall. On El Borge’s streets everyone was kind and friendly, waving goodbye as they walked past me. To the right, I came to Plaza Rafael Alberti, where you can find the basic services in town: a doctor’s office, a chemist’s (on República Street), the Miguel Hernández House of Culture, Fuente de la Gallina, and a newsstand (where I bought my usual postcard). I talked with the assistant for a while; she recommended good places to eat (Bar Paco, among others) and told me how to visit the Parish Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario if it happened to be closed. I went back to Avenida Principal, only to find the church’s tower and belfry, rising up to the bright blue sky –a human feat defying nature. There they stood, impervious to the passing of time and dilapidation. One of the towers was white and clean, its walls leading up to the belfry. The other bore several crosses on top, and it ended with a white-and-green tile pinnacle. Both of them wanted to be the steering wheel of the parish church. After checking through a brick archway to the right that the church was indeed closed, I resorted to the plan suggested by the newsstand assistant. (I’d used it before in other towns.) I knocked the door in an adjacent house, bearing a sign: “Súper. La Tienda de Antonio Muñoz Pérez.” “Hi, good morning” I said, “I’d like to see the parish church inside. I’ve heard it’s been designated as a Monument of the Andalusian Historical Heritage.” “Yes, hold on,” they replied. A few seconds later, I met Manuela, an elderly woman holding the key to the church. She asked me to follow her into the building. She opened the heavy door and in we went. The Parish Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario was cold and wet. It breathed the grumbling air of an old building. Its construction was commissioned by Queen Isabella in the fifteenth century. The first thing that caught my eye was its coffered ceiling: lines interweaving to create a geometric pattern of concentric figures. The woodwork was carved with flower motifs. It was an authentic sixteenth-century structure. The altar was simple and austere, its two niches holding twentieth-century sculptures. Suddenly, the silent temple was invaded by Manuela’s granddaughters, who were running along the wooden benches around us. Manuela revealed some of the parish church’s secrets, highlighting the efforts made to preserve the building’s past glory. “Some things have been done already. Men came and took notes and pictures. But there’s still a lot to do,” she said. The church was certainly worth a visit, and its rehabilitation deserved a boost. When I came out, Manuela’s daughter took me to her house and showed me an accurate scale model of the parish church. She explained to me it’d been made by her husband a few years before. The replica was even equipped with lights and bell sounds. I said goodbye to all family members, thanking them for their kindness. Then I moved on.

Tour, Part 2: From the Church

From Manuela’s house, I walked about 10m to Plaza de la Constitución, adjoining the church. The square was a sort of balcony onto El Rinconcillo district and the lower part of El Borge. A curious fact: one of the church walls bore a tile informing that this used to be a “Stone where spinning tops were honed in the 1920s.” The tile also showed a spinning top, in case you don’t get it with the phrase only. The stone is just below the tile, the scratches bearing witness to its past uses, like wounds caused by the tips of the spinning tops. In the square, I asked a group of locals how to get to Fuente de las Tres Aguas. They kindly showed me how to get there: skirting the church to the right and walking down a street leading to a terrace. I followed their directions. The fountain was there. It looked weird, with three spouts to quench your thirst with water from three different sources: the reservoir, La Alcúa Park, or the river. Each spout bore the name of the place its water came from. Following the advice of local people, I chose the reservoir. Facing the fountain there was La Alcúa, a bird park where you can watch hundreds of bird species –swans, peacocks, geese, pheasants– and lots of plants. The park is unique in the area, due to the wide array of species living in it. It’s open every day from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (For further information, call the Town Hall at (+34) 952 512 033.) After visiting the park, I went back to Plaza de la Constitución, caught a glimpse of blooming Antonio Machado Street, and walked down Barranquilla Street into Plazuela de la Rueda. There I found a post office and a postbox for my postcard. I saw the Posada del Bandolero opposite, a hotel and restaurant that used to be a museum. The posada was the birthplace of Luis Muñoz García, a.k.a. El Bizco de El Borge. Born in 1837, Muñoz was cross-eyed, but he was a good shot. He died out of poisoning (or so legend has it), and the Civil Guard finished him off. It was in Lucena, on May 21, 1889. I went down Peseta Street, flanking the back of the posada and got to another fountain, El Cuerno. The fountain owed its name to the fact that it used to have a goat horn buried in it as a sort of ornament. The horn could no longer be seen. Water was extracted using a hand pump. El Rinconcillo was again in front of me –short, steep, narrow streets hiding beautiful corners. Up Peseta Street, across Plaza de la Pasionaria, and back into the main avenue for my next stop, to the left: Bar Paco.

Lunch at Bar Paco

I’d been told one of this bar’s specialties was kid. But they didn’t have. Pity. Bar Paco is popular with Borgeños. It’s an unambitious family-run restaurant serving traditional food. They treat you as if you were at home, and the food is really great. I took a table wrapped in the usual red and white checked tablecloth. Following the waiter’s advice, I ordered two tripe tapas, a half serving of pepper salad –topped with exquisite fried whitebait–, a half serving of meat and tomato, and a half serving of meatballs with almond sauce. Finally, two prawn pinchos (small servings), courtesy of the house. To wash everything down, I ordered four beers, two of them alcohol-free. The bill = €11, but after chatting with the waiter for a while about the bar’s history (it was founded in 1968) and its delicious food, I realised the courtesy had gone well beyond the prawns. If you like unsophisticated eateries, this is your place. The food was good; the whitebait on the pepper salad were a nice surprise and the almond sauce, mouth-watering. You really feel at home in El Borge, and Bar Paco is no exception to the general atmosphere in town. I said goodbye and walked back to the place where I’d parked my car.

I hit the road that’d take me back to the Mediterranean, leaving the hills and ravines of Axarquía behind but still getting glimpses of El Borge through the rear-view mirror. I’d felt at home in this village from the moment I stepped on the first cobblestones. It was a town hiding curious facts and an eventful history. A town of raisins and bandits. A town of churches that are part of the community’s historical heritage. A town of talkative shop assistants and kind residents, like Manuela. A town whose restaurants serve homemade food with a warm heart. El Borge, Mecca of Raisins, I shall come back.

Travel Tips and Useful Links
What to see: Raisin Day: On the third Sunday of September, El Borge celebrates Raisin Day, a tribute to this food that has made a household name for the village. There’re several activities, including recreations of the traditional raisin-making process –from picking to transportation and sun-drying in paseros to crushing, sieving, and bottling to muscatel grape stomping to produce must for visitors to taste. Also, bags with D.O. Málaga raisins are distributed and other locally produced foods can be tasted. Together with Moclinejo, Almáchar, Cútar, Comares, and Totalán, El Borge is part of the Raisin Tour in Axarquía.
Parish Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario: This temple was designated as a Monument of the Andalusian Historical Heritage in January 2010; the news was covered by many local media.
Useful links: I’ve used three websites to plan my trip to El Borge, namely, those of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, El Borge Town Hall, and a news blog, El Borge Activo.

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