Tuesday, 9 March 2010

I left the Mediterranean behind –an old, sparkling mirror– and faced Sierra de las Nieves, with its door to the ocean, Ojén. I passed by Monda and Guaro, Tolox and Alozaina, Yunquera and, finally, came to El Burgo, rocking in the rocky sierras, amidst granite peaks and blooming almond trees. The wild sierras and the delicate, bright colours. In the beating heart of the sierras, this town is linked to Ronda, Antequera, Casarabonela, and the Mediterranean. Chosen by old peoples like the Iberians (who built their forts here), the Romans, then the Arabs, and then the Christians, an oasis in the mountains, a mighty river to quench your thirst, farming lands, El Burgo’s something between old roads and a modern environmental heaven. And, to cap it off, bandit stories to tell around a bonfire or frighten your kids.

First Lights of El Burgo

Immersed in an impressionist palette of colours, I arrived in the centre of El Burgo, having left the countryside, with its 800-metre-high Puerto de las Abejas and mountain slopes peppered with almond trees behind. I drove across the river Turón through the New Bridge and got to the ever-beating heart of the sierras. I parked outside San Agustín School, on Las Erillas Street, opposite the fountain known as “El Conejo” –the old, customary Cañada Real. The centre was clearly signposted, so it’s quite impossible to get lost. I followed the directions to the Historic District, ending up at Plaza de Abajo. The streets were already busy, bearing witness to the town’s vitality, active social life, murmuring everyday activities turning to face the sun, just like sunflowers. Elderly men change seats all the time, always looking for the warmest benches, moving from Plaza de Abajo to Plaza de Arriba along a straight line. They talk in a loud voice, their chats a pleasant soundtrack to my tour. There’re many good places to eat in El Burgo, with menus for all budgets and palates. I turned right into Real Street, one of the main thoroughfares in town, holding the Town Hall building, a newsstand, and a post office. Walking straight ahead, you can get to Plaza de la Villa, but I turned right, following the Ruta de la Acequia del Molino towards the river Turón.

Route of the Irrigation Ditch and Much More…

When your eyes follow the streets fleeing towards the horizon, they stumble upon the rocky mountains and the farming fields. The Ruta de la Acequia del Molino (Irrigation Ditch Tour) runs alongside the river Turón from the New Bridge, amidst the prickly pears that stick to the old wall. It takes you to the old flour factory, then converted to salt factory, which is nothing but a huge mill. Now it’s just a ruinous site, but it used to be of great significance to life in town. I set out on my trip, lulled by the murmur of the Turón, a generous and powerful river flowing down from the mountains. There’re lots of prickly pears around. The tour skirts the lower part of town, revealing part of its past. I negotiated my way about the rocky mounds that jutted out, only to draw in and give way to the mountains and the fields a few metres farther. The tour also takes you to the walls of the old fortress, where you feel really safe. I finally came to the mill’s ruins. A narrow alley flanking one of the walls led to the lower part of town, so then I had to climb back up, surrounded by fragments of the old castle’s walls which are now part of private homes. Walking up Casas Largas Street, I came to Plaza de Arriba. I followed instructions to get to the Church of La Encarnación. El Burgo is a charming country village. It looks authentic and untouched –a feeling that’s emphasised by the majestic mountains. The church, built in the sixteenth century, stands on the ruins of an old mosque –it’s even kept the old minaret, now turned into a belfry. The entrance opens out on a scenic viewpoint affording views of Sierra de las Nieves and its complex relief. The coffered ceiling is quite remarkable: a wood structure forming intricate shapes. The side chapels are dedicated to St Augustine –the patron saint of the village– and to Our Lady Immaculate. In the town centre, the trees bear a tile indicating their features and history. The Tree of Love, for instance, tells a story of gold coins and Judas Iscariot. From Plaza de la Villa, where the Church of La Encarnación is, I walked down Escaloncitos Street and reached the Plazuela, where you can take a look at the castle’s tower, which is better kept than other walls but has nevertheless been swallowed into modern constructions. Returning to Plaza de Arriba, I walked across to visit the Chapel of San Sebastián, adjoining the cemetery. The chapel was commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs in the fifteenth century. Four hundred years later, “it was a meeting point to inform residents of serious affairs after summoning them by ringing bells.” Now the chapel is being renovated. I sat on a wrought-iron bench by the door, enjoying the great views. I walked down and across Plaza de Arriba again, then along Enmedio Street towards the Church of San Agustín. Its belfry tower is finished off with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who seems to by praying while facing the mountains. The church is modern; it was built in the mid twentieth century, thanks to the efforts made by the successive parish priests to raise funds and get aid from the Franco Administration in the wake of the war. The Church of San Agustín has a sad story. Before the priest’s house came to completion, two children were playing in an open area next to the building where they found a little iron ball. They took it to Porrillo Street, removed the pull string, and the ball went off. It was a grenade from the Spanish Civil War. One of the kids got killed. The church opened on April 27, 1952. Inside, it has a remarkable altarpiece and images of St Augustine, Our Lady of Fátima, St Joseph, and Jesus Christ. After visiting the church, I went down to Real Street, in search for an eatery serving homemade and typical food. However… - “As you can see, I’m not getting any younger; my children don’t live here anymore and I can’t handle both the boarding house and the restaurant. I used to prepare homemade food, oh, yes. Those dishes that have always been made here, just so as keep the tradition alive,” apologised the owner of the Sierra de las Nieves Boarding House and Restaurant. “So could you recommend a place to eat?,” I asked. “Of course, there’re many nice places. The one across the road, the one round the corner, the inn you find upon leaving town… All of them are good,” she replied. I thanked, said goodbye, and decided to do three things: visiting the Scenic Viewpoint of the Forest Ranger, eating at the Venta del Yoni (the inn the woman had talked about), and coming to the Fuensanta Recreational Area in the late afternoon. But first things first: I should find traces of the bandit Pasos Largos and the Roman Bridge before doing all this.

Pasos Largos, the Roman Bridge, and the Scenic Viewpoint of the Forest Ranger

He was a bandit. And, as it always happens with those characters whose shadows are larger than life, some describe him as a sort of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, while others say he was a merciless, bloodthirsty thug who had the Civil Guard on the rack in the Serranía in the early twentieth century. He fought in the Cuban War of Independence, killed two members of the same family, went to jail in 1916, was pardoned in 1932. When free, we went back to his old ways –stealing and poaching. His death in the Cave of Sopalmillos is wrapped in mystery: Was he betrayed by one of his friends? Was he gunned down by civil guards? This is Juan José Mingolla Gallardo, a.k.a. Pasos Largos, and El Burgo pays tribute to him with a statue and an information board. Legends about him still haunt Serranía de Ronda, and grannies still frighten their grandchildren invoking him: “Behave yourself, or Pasos Largos will come and take you away.” The statue and board are at the entrance of town (“El Cruce”), very near the place where I’d left my car. I got on and drove towards Casarabonela. 500 metres more, almost outside of town, I spotted the Roman Bridge. It was a robust construction, built in heavy stone and featuring a single arch. It’s thought to have been part of Via Augusta, leading to Málaga. This is why it was known as “Málaga Bridge.” Since then, it’s been trodden upon by noblemen, laymen, Roman legions, Moors, carts, wagons, donkeys, cars… Pledging to come back soon and follow the road connecting El Burgo with Casarabonela, I retraced my steps by to El Cruce and then drove towards Ronda. Two kilometres after leaving town and driving along a winding road, I came to an open area behind a rocky mound. I parked, got off, and walked down a stone trail around a mount. After skirting the mountain, the trail unveiled a majestic sight before my eyes: the peaks, valleys, and trails of Sierra de las Nieves, decorated with pines, olives, and almond trees. A bird of prey (probably an eagle) flew across the sky above my head. I could hear the murmuring water of a distant river before it became the Turón. I made out the first slopes of the Guadalhorce Valley. The mountain was crowned by a statue of a forest ranger pointing to the horizon. The kid by his side stood for future hope, showing how generations to come will look at this landscape and protect it. I took a rest amidst the rocks, feeling the smooth breeze brush past me. I suddenly realised I was feeling hungry.

Venta del Yoni

Across the town centre lay the inn I’d chosen. Its open area overlooked the old walls, the higher houses, the Church of La Encarnación, the prickly pears, and the bed of the Turón and the Mill Ditch Route below. The place was fantastic –a restaurant serving quick meals and charcoal-grilled meat in summer and spring. The menu surprised me: authentic traditional food, dishes from the sierras, including seven-sprig soup, roast lamb, ajoblanco with apple, and gazpacho... Finding it extremely difficult to resist the temptation, I ordered ajoblanco with apple (€3.50), seven-sprig soup (€5), roast lamb (€10), stewed cheek (€8), a ⅓l beer, and a 1.5l bottle of water. The bill = €29,50. The seven-sprig soup is a hallmark of the sierras, an old subsistence dish turned into tourist attraction. It’s made with stale bread, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, wild asparagus, and a fried egg on top. It reminded me of the hot gazpacho I took in Benalauría. It was delicious –a hearty soup with the taste of the terroir. The seven-sprig soup is so important to El Burgo that the town pays tribute to it on February 28, Seven-Sprig Soup Day, coinciding with the Day of Andalusia. This special day has been designated as a Fiesta of Provincial Tourist Interest. As to the ajoblanco, it was a white soup with juicy apple segments. To the great food –the cheek and the lamb were also delicious–, I must add the good service and the stunning views. Venta del Yoni, a place worth eating at.

Fuensanta Recreational Area

Only 1 kilometre before El Burgo coming from Yunquera, there’s a detour to the Fuensanta and Saucejos Recreational Area . You can get to it through a shady dirt road running alongside a river, which can easily be used by cars. The area is equipped with wooden tables and benches and barbecues. It adjoins the old Fuesanta Mill, a large and austere mill housing public toilets and other facilities inside. One of the walls features an image of Our Lady of Sierra de las Nieves. Mass and a procession in Her honour are held on August 5. There were people in the area. Families and groups of friends. They’d come by car or on foot. They were having a late lunch and chatting the afternoon away. Fuensanta is a popular, easily accessible place for an outing in contact with nature.

So Long, Farewell…

Still savouring El Burgo’s landscapes, I left Fuensanta behind: the scenic viewpoint and the horizon, the forest ranger –a true memory keeper– showing the way to his little disciple… El Burgo got the EU EDEN Award to European Destinations of Excellence in 2008. One year later, it was the recipient of the Award to Research and Training in Tourism, granted by the Andalusian Government. I gazed at the landscape before me and imagined the Iberians, and the Romans, and the Arabs, and Pasos Largos looking at these very sierras, capturing the spirit of the land where they lived and keeping it for generations to come.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: Hiking: If you like walking for hours on end, then El Burgo is the right place for you. There’re about a dozen hiking trails starting in the town centre and cutting across different areas in the protected natural area of Sierra de las Nieves. They can be short –Los Peñones, El Dique, El Largo or Fuente Nueva–, long –Peñón de Ronda, Sierra de la Cabrilla–, or longer –Fuensanta, source of the river Turón, Monte del Viento. Hiking tours are a unique way to get to know the original fauna and flora of the region.
What to use: New website of Sierra de las Nieves: The Town Council Association and the Rural Development Group of Sierra de las Nieves have developed a useful web tool for travellers. This new site,, contains all the region’s resources and it’s easy to use.
What to see: The Burning of Judas: A peculiar fiesta on Easter Sunday. After the Miraculous Medal and Sacred Heart procession, residents gather in Plaza de Abajo to burn a huge rag doll representing Judas. The doll is filled with sawdust and bangers, so when it catches fire, it makes the noise of firecrackers, to everybody’s joy. Watch a video of this popular tradition by clicking here.
Useful links: To the websites I’ve already mentioned, I should add those of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and El Burgo Town Hall.

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