Monday, 12 April 2010

It smells like grass, wet grass, filled with earthen scents. I’ve seen Comares before –a white brushstroke against the horizon up there. And when I say “up there,” I mean up there. The village crown is an isolated hillock and it can be seen from Vélez-Málaga even –a bright white crest whose natural walls are sheer drops that wound the valleys of fruit trees in Axarquía. The hills surrounding Comares come in all shapes and sizes: pointed and rounded, soaring and depressed, leafy and bare naked. They’re punctuated with olives and avocados and prickly pears and lemon trees. The road snakes up, embracing Comares tightly and strongly –an embrace leading up to one of the most spectacular places in Málaga Province.

All the Way Up

I drove into the climbing road. As I went up with every bend, I gained access to the first views of the area. It’s a dangerously winding road, so I had to be cautious. What’s more, pulling over to take pictures isn’t a wise idea either, for the views from town are just perfect and you might affect traffic. The higher you get, the broader your horizon. I imagined what it might have been like in the past, when mules and donkeys were used to carry jars of wine and baskets with raisins or almonds. I could see them trudging on, slowly and stubbornly, one hoof after another in what must have seemed an endless road. Beyond a bend to the left, the road seems to get thinner, revealing the other side of the landscape behind the hill: hamlets scattered all around like shreds of clouds, steep slopes, rolling hills, and bright green shades. And in the background, terrific granite massifs rising up like insurmountable walls. I kept driving up, past hiking trails slipping through the road in search of more exciting twists and turns. At the top, I took a look at the rocky mound where houses seemed to sit to naturally. White against grey and ochre. I came to a point where the road forked: to the church or to the town centre. I was advised to take the road to the left for two reasons. First of fall, it’d be easier to park, for the town square is usually packed with cars. Secondly, if I visited the church first, I’d be longing for the landscape I’d been imagining all the way up, which I would only see in full later in my tour.

Tour, Part 1: To Plaza de los Verdiales

The idea of wise use of space is taken to heights in Comares. Houses are clutching one another; streets are impossibly narrow; and terraced gardens are amazingly small. I parked my car and took Francisco Romero Díaz Street into an intricate yet cared-for maze of cobblestones and twisting alleys. Suddenly, I spotted one of Comares’s distinctive features, a curious and useful tool for tourists that doesn’t affect the aesthetics of cobblestones: footprints guiding visitors in their tour. These foot-shaped tiles with Arab motifs showing the way to the main sights. Relying on the original footprints, I came to Plaza de los Verdiales –one of those places in Comares where flatness prevails over height. The square’s name has to do with the popularity of pandas de verdiales, an old and cheerful music style matched by colourful costumes. Pandas are the small bands (little orchestras) playing this lively music. For a longer, more educational account, click on Panda de Verdiales, where you can even listen to some of the songs. Comares has its own style of verdiales, which proves how popular the genre is. The square is nice and quiet, with a tile floor and a tile painting on one of the walls, illustrating the verdiales. The part overlooking the other hill (where the old castle ruins are to be found) features a statue of a man wearing the typical verdiales outfit –a monument to merrymakers.

Tour, Part 2: To the Church against the Tide

From Plaza de los Verdiales, I took the first street to the right, Iglesia Street, up to the church. Sitting on the cobblestones, I saw a few cat-tail’s chairs, which men and women must use to chat their spring and summer evenings away, have a snack, or work on their handcrafts. I finally came of the Church of La Encarnación. It was built in 1505 using the floor plan of an old mosque, along Mudéjar lines. It’s austerely white, sober and pretty low, and it features an eight-sided tower ending in a tile roof and a small cross. Moving on, I realised I was going in the opposite direction to that of the footprints. Undaunted, I walked on. The reward was to come soon. An old woman wearing a blue gown and a broad smile in her eyes whom I stumbled upon along the way invited me to taste the fat of the land: raisins, almonds, renowned wines… I couldn’t resist the temptation and bought ½k raisins, ½k almonds, and 2 bottles of homemade sweet wine (after trying it and learning that, in the times of the Caliphate of Córdoba, they exported it to Baghdad) for €10. The woman’s lively blue eyes betrayed her resentment with her neighbour, who didn’t approve of her alluring tourists into her home and making some extra money out of the foods made in Comares. The woman was called Ana. She told me how to continue my tour: “Can you see the silo over there? When you come to it, turn left. You’ll thus get to the scenic viewpoint.” I resumed my walk, now with a heavier backpack.

Tour, Part 3: The Viewpoints and Back to the Square

It was stunning. It was impressive. It was overwhelming. The horizon unfolded before me, showing me the lower part of Axarquía in all its glory: the neighbouring town of Cútar, the road to Benamargosa, Vélez-Málaga –a white spot against the green and grey background–, the sparkling Mediterranean… The views were breathtaking, especially those of homes standing on sharp rocks and ravines. The scenic viewpoint covers almost the whole southern tip of town. I walked about, unhurried, taking pictures, feeling the breeze’s brushstrokes. Before getting to this viewpoint, I’d only seen landscape snippets beyond the streets and squares. Now I could see the show in full, a long awaited desire that’s fulfilled at last. If I’d followed the most common route, I would’ve been here earlier. This way, I’ve been eagerly waiting for it, and there it was. I walked on and got to a little square where I took a rest, sitting on a stone bench. Further ahead, I came to one of the two towers of communications in Comares, in a place affording views of the landscape in the east and the remnants of the old Arab fortress. From here I climbed down –following the footprint trail this time–, back to the square overlooking the other hill. The streets intertwined once and again. Everything looked so well-kept. The houses had been carefully rehabilitated, paying attention to details. I went down Calle del Perdón (“Forgiveness Street”), which owes its name to history: “After Comares surrendered, the thirty Muslim families living in the village were christened. This mass christening took place on this street, which has been called Calle del Perdón since then,” I read on a plate. Back in the main square, I realised my choice of tour had been less practical but more surprising and gratifying, for if you reach this point first, the first thing you’ll see is a huge balcony overlooking the horizon, and this’ll make the views less stunning. I bought postcards, stamps, and a bottle of water in a store. The owner, Miguel Cabello, told me running water had come to Comares only fifty years ago; before that, people had to come down (on foot, donkey back, or by car) to a fountain which had been used as the town’s main source of water since time immemorial. Given the difficult terrain and the height of the hillock where Comares stands, I decided the story must be true. Sitting on a bench in the square, I wrote two postcards, which would fly over a thousand kilometres away…

Tour, Part 4: The Other Hill and the Old Castle

Coming from the west, I had to climb back up, this time to the east. The trails are clearly signposted, so it’s quite difficult to get lost. I walked down Alcúa Street to the scenic viewpoint of Puerta de Vélez-Málaga, affording views of an old Roman road. With every new footprint I came closer to the old castle. It was beautifully decadent. It lay in a well-kept setting, which included a garden featuring trees and prickly pears. Climbing a white staircase that seemed to reach the clouds, I got to the highest part of town, where the cemetery is, an old Arab water well inside (it can be seen but not approached). What amazing views! The lower Axarquía and Comares’s sharp skyline against the bright blue sky. The place was dominated by a fairly big square, whose three benches commanded views of different village streets. I sat down, felt the spring sun warming me up, took a clean, deep breath, and thought of local stories: Umar ibn Hafsun and his uprising against the Caliphate of Córdoba, the Castle of Bobastro, Comares in Morisco times, housing 15,000, the Christian troops repelled once and again, the walls being built, the mules carrying water for hundreds of miles… I suddenly realised I was hungry. Before going back to my car, I visited the cemetery, which, being the highest point to the east, also afforded amazing views. On my way back, I took shortcuts, got lost in crazy alleys, spotted hidden treasures: archways, rocks, walls…

Tour, Part 5: Lunch

Following a friend’s advice, I had lunch at a restaurant at the entrance of town, just before the fork I’d first come across and the football pitch. The restaurant was called “Atalaya” (“Watchtower”) and the name became it. It was a boarding house as well, with great views of the surrounding landscape. It served homemade foods: chorizo, kid with sauce, lamb, migas –the star dish–, locally produced wine and must. I ordered migas for two, veal steak, sirloin with salt and pepper, a bottle of water, a 0.3ml beer, and a cup of wine. The bill = €40.05. I wanted to order kid, but they’d run out of it. Pity. But my migas were fabulous. The helping was so generous that it could’ve been a main course for one. They included ribs, chorizo, green peppers, and a fried egg. I can tell you they had restorative properties! Atalaya was a cosy place, featuring a fireplace and kind waiters. Great homemade food, reasonable prices, nice, ample views. It was all I needed.

Tour, Part 6: Farewell

Leaving Comares behind, I felt its warm breath in the back of my neck. The village’s whiteness shone against the grey and ochre rocks, the green prickly pears, the brownish olives… Seen from below, it looked like a mirage, something unreal, a stronghold getting blurred as I turned every new bend. When I came to the land of fruit trees, I looked up and Comares seemed to have faded into its background, as in a dream.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: Country travel: There’re lots of houses to let in Comares, spending your holidays in real Moorish homes. Just Google “Comares + turismo” and you’ll be faced with a wide range options meeting all traveller profiles and budgets. Hiking: There’re five hiking routes starting in the village and reaching various natural and historical sites. These are the Route of Fuente Gorda (easy, 60’, 2km), the Route of the Washhouse (easy to moderately difficult, 2.5h, 4km), the Route of La Teja (moderately difficult to difficult, 6h, 12km), the Route of La Mesa (moderately difficult, 5h, 10km), and the Route of Buena Vista (moderately difficult to difficult, 10h, 22km).
What to see: Fiesta of Verdiales: On June 22, Comares celebrates its Fiesta of Verdiales. There’re street shows and a festival of verdiales, drawing people from every town in Málaga and beyond. It’s a cheerful festival in which music and food are the big stars. Route of Raisins: Alongside Totalán, Cútar, El Borge, Almáchar, and Moclinejo, Comares is one of the points of interest in the Route of Raisins of Axarquía, which connects all those villages which have turned this food into a staple of their economies, social and cultural lives.
Useful links: Three websites for my tour of Comares –Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Comares Town Hall, and the Association for the Promotion of Axarquía.

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