Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The almond trees are blooming, covering the mountain slopes in white and lilac. The king can see them from above. He’s clinging to the battlements of the fortress of Bentomiz, waiting for the Christian troops he’s signed a covenant with. He can hear the muezzins calling to prayer from the Daimalos and Arenas minarets. The almond trees are blooming, and its flowers are swayed in the breeze. The king gazes into the sea, making out the blurry silhouette of Africa, the trail his ancestors did a long time ago, when they came to the land he’s now in. His look gets lost in the horizon. His fortress used to belong to the Romans and the Greeks before them and the Phoenicians and even the Iberians in the dawn of times. And it’ll soon pass on to the Christians. From it you can look over Axarquía, with its fertile lands where lemon and orange trees, vines, and almond trees grow. The king looks back at Daimalos and Arenas. He sighs and goes back to his chamber. His time is over.

Getting Closer

Once you’re past Vélez-Málaga, the road connecting the Mediterranean with Arenas seems to have been carved out of the mountains. It leans back on the ravines like an imaginary lifting bridge, showing and hiding the landscapes it cuts across. You can expect a robust mountain or the shiny quicksilver sea as you drive along. The sharp bends feature verandahs with wooden benches, where you can take a seat and contemplate the roughest Axarquía. The blossoming almond trees cover the mountain slopes like shreds of white fog. In the centre of Arenas, I was greeted by the Town Hall and three grindstones. I parked somewhat ahead, by a little piazza with stone archways. Arenas is the last village in the Mudéjar Tour of Axarquía. The other towns included in it are Canillas de Aceituno, Sedella, Salares, and Árchez. They share a common layout and part of their history, reflected in a series of distinctive features of the Andalusian culture: minarets, fountains, fortresses, and so on. But they’ve also managed to keep their essence intact throughout the centuries –an unaltered heart throbbing in their guts and revealing part of their historical legacy when you come to visit them.


I worked my way uptown on foot, coming across a reference to one of Arenas’s most popular events: the Mule Fair. In mid October, the village pays tribute to the most pigheaded of all animals, which has stood by the local people since time immemorial, working the fields with them. The fair shows its virtues to visitors and the new generations. There’re branding, threshing, and herding exhibitions, animal pulling, racing, verdiales, food sampling –the star dish is migas arrieras, a hearty stew comforting the peasants in the fields. I walked into the heart of Arenas, along Farola and Fuente Streets. Flights of steps rose both to the right and to the left, leading to little squares and walls brimming with colourful flowerpots and flowerbeds. I succumbed to the intricate maze of alleys –short and steep stretches ending in minute squares. I walked around in no hurry, until I came to a beautiful square dominated by the Church of Santa Catalina.

A Minaret Burnt Down in a Christening Ceremony

The square had a curious name: Valle. A fountain-cum-streetlight invited me to get cooler. Arenas is a much quiet town; the only sounds you can hear are those that characterise everyday life. The Parish Church of Santa Catalina’s been through a lot; its walls have tried the burning love of fire. According to an information plate on one of the walls, the church, consecrated in 1505, was built upon the ruins of an old mosque featuring a high minaret. On the night of November 13, 1926, a candle was left burning after a christening ceremony. Its flames reached the high altar and then the ceiling. The whole church was devoured by the flames. The reconstruction took almost four years, from 1941 to 1944. The only part that had been spared in the fire, the minaret, had to have a part lopped off due to collapse danger. In 2005, the parish church celebrated its 500th anniversary. It’s a simple building, with a sober entrance to the left of Plaza Valle –only two images, of St Sebastian and St Catherine, and a robust door reading “I am the light of the world.”

The Labyrinth Leading to the High District

Plaza Valle is linked to the high district by an almost impregnable maze of streets including climbs and corners all around and landing at the doorstep of family houses, like the vestiges of old fortresses. I chose not to follow any rational plan, in an attempt to discover the throbbing heart of Arenas. On Rinconcillo Street, I saw two flights of steps leading to a little square lending its name to the street itself. Two women were having a chat while sitting on the iron bench facing their houses. I said hello, talked with them for a while, and made a couple of pictures. “Wait! Let me take my apron off at least!,” one of them said. “This place has always been called ‘El Rinconcillo’ (The Little Corner), and it’s quite easy to see why, isn’t it?,” the other told me. Leaving the two ladies behind, I walked along Iglesia Street towards the High District, where a beautiful renovated house in bright white and blue dominated the open square, featuring another fountain. Arenas rises up in strides. Every few metres there’s a sort of square on whose iron benches local women are having their morning chats. From the High District, I looked the Bentomiz castle in the eye, standing on the Bentomiz mount. Granada king Abd Allah made reference to it in his memoirs, written in the eleventh century. Only a bunch of ruins remain of the old castle, which used to rival those in Comares and Zalía: battlements, wall fragments, dungeons, and the like. What makes the castle unique, though, is the views, resulting from its strategic geographical location: from there you can see most of Axarquía and the eastern stretch of Costa del Sol. I asked how to get to it. They told me I should take the road to Daimalos and follow the signs reading “Castillo de Bentomiz,” only 0.5km away from Arenas. I resumed my stroll amidst broken streets, hidden secrets, little squares, and houses with long histories, walking down Risco Street and back to my car.

Daimalos, the Minaret, and the Fountain of Love

I took Carretera Street to exit Arenas towards the municipal district of Daimalos, which kept a couple of gems. To the right I found the first access to the Bentomiz castle, but I drove on, for I’d been told it was better to take the second. The road was in good condition, so I plunged ahead. 100m, 200m, 300m, and that was the end of it; the rain had damaged the road and, driving an SUV, I ran the risk of getting bogged down. I tried again a couple of times, but it was really impossible. I took down the site as a must-see for a future visit. I continued my way to Daimalos. I could see the mountain slopes peppered with the blooming almond trees. I could imagine the landscape in spring, and the views from the Bentomiz castle. Parking at Plaza San Antón, I followed the directions reading “Alminar del siglo XVII” (seventeenth-century minaret), even though the church and minaret were visible from the square. So I walked up steep Antonio Ruiz Urbano Street, turned left at Coro Street and reached the base of the minaret, adjoining the Parish Church of La Concepción. The minaret rose high, its belfry pointing to the bright blue sky and its silhouette clear against the background of hills and mountains. An information plate read, “The Daimalos minaret is one of the oldest standing in Spain. It was built in the thirteenth century, even before its counterparts in Árchez, Corumbela, or Salares, at the same time of the twin construction in Arenas.” It was designated as a Cultural Asset by the Andalusian Government in 2004. The peace in Daimalos wraps you up, so I matched the village’s tempo while enjoying its sober beauty and rich past. I asked a woman about the Arab fountain, Fuente Perdida (what a name!). She showed me the way. The fountain’s information board said the following: “Arab Fountain, Marinid dynasty, twelfth century. This is an Arab fountain. It is mentioned in the Daimalos settlement books as early as in 1561. (…) Local residents used to believe its water could work miracles. Thus, if you are single and drink from it, you will get married soon. And if you are already married, you will have a child. Likewise, the water flowing from this fountain increases your sexual power.” It’s only legend, but you never know…

Saying Goodbye

I retraced my steps along the road that brought me to Arenas, enjoying the views and the frozen time. I took a final glance of the minaret, the ruins of the Bentomiz castle up there, the cobblestone streets, the early blossoming almond trees, the paseros lying on wet ground… I took a deep breath and gave in.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: Mule Fair: One of the most popular events held in Arenas. It takes place in mid October, drawing about 3,000 visitors. It’s a unique fair, taking you back in time to watch how things were done in the times of mule drivers and be connected to work in the fields in a not-so-distant past.
What to do: Hiking: A good option for visitors who’re fond of walking is climbing the way to the Bentomiz castle from the town centre. The trail is clearly signposted. It’s a relentless climb and can be tough at times, but it won’t give you sore feet. Make sure you bring enough water and a comforting snack to eat while enjoying the great views of Axarquía and the eastern Costa del Sol. All in all, a healthy excursion.
Useful links: This time I used only one site, where I found detailed information on Arenas –useful data, sights of interest, food, facts and legends. It was my usual web companion, the website of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board.

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