Monday, 24 May 2010

It smells of orange blossoms. It’s a strong, sweet smell. It pervades every corner, every nook and cranny, filling the houses through the doors and windows. It’s a delicate yet strong smell, bringing along an old legacy that’s been with the inhabitants of this land since time immemorial. Pizarra lies right in the middle of the Garden of Eden: meadows, fruit trees, the typical Valle del Guadalhorce picture. The lemon and orange trees have already borne fruit, and now their spring sequel remains: orange and lemon blossoms, like the call of the past. They trail after me, captivating me with their smell –the essence of Pizarra.

The Church and the Palace

The longish cobblestone streets have just been developed. The town is relatively new; it became a municipality in 1847. Therefore, it has nothing to do with those Andalusian villages with a stronger Arab legacy, whose layout grows in a labyrinthine fashion. I drove into the town centre and parked on one of the main streets, Málaga Street, opposite the Town Hall and by the town square, dominated by two tall palm trees. The stone benches lining the square feature tiles showing images of the different districts that make up Pizarra: Zalea, Cerralba, Gibralmora, Barriada Hipólito. The centre was busy, people coming and going, chatting, shopping, laughing, and so on… The typical atmosphere of a town that is alive and kicking. From the town square I took San Pedro Street and went down to Puerta de la Guardia Street, where the Church of San Pedro Apóstol is. The houses –most of them two-storey buildings– plunged into the shade just behind their hallways. The courtyards were populated with shadows bringing some cool to playing kids and old ladies trimming lemon trees. The windows were protected by black wrought-iron grilles, and so were most balconies, coyly leaning on the street. I turned left to find the door to the church. It was a simple temple, with a red-trimmed door below a skylight letting the sun in. A wall tile read, “A single-nave Mudéjar construction built in the seventeenth century right where Diego Romero, the founder of Pizarra, had the town’s first church built in the fifteenth century. It was renovated in the nineteenth century, when it was endowed with a new door, and stained glass and rose windows brought from Zaragoza which can still be seen.” Adjoining the church there’s a manicured garden whose stone benches make a great place to sit in the fresh air. Next to the garden, there’s the Palace of the Counts of Puerto Hermoso –a huge mansion with a touch of the Americas surrounded by a garden and high walls preventing onlookers from taking a peek inside. What can be seen is two palm trees and two main towers. The palace has a complex outline: roofs and roofs at different heights, crenelated terraces affording views of the outside world… And here again, the palace was built in the early twentieth century upon the ruins of Diego Romero’s home. It was here that King Alfonso XIII spent the night of May 2, 1921. One year later, the palace housed the Government Conference on the Moroccan War.

The Convent

I strolled up Real Street, taking in some fresh air from the open courtyards. I felt as if I was being looked at, watched, scrutinised. It was the effect of “El Santo,” a huge sculpture of the Sacred Heart on Sierra de Gibralmora which can be accessed on foot (more about this later). I walked past the town square and up Alta Street to the Convent of the Sisters of the Cross. The convent looked just like one more house in town with one distinctive feature: a wall tile telling its history. The tile read, “old convent of the Dominican Mothers founded in Pizarra by Pedro Soto Domecq, Count of Puerto Hermoso. Opened in 1955, it is famous for the fine Plateresque altarpiece in its chapel.” I was standing there, hesitating, when a woman approached me and asked, “Would you like to get in?” “Of course I would,” I replied. She stepped forward, rang the bell, and a nun showed up. She was wearing humble clothes. The sister, who was chatty and smiley, let us in. The convent had all the characteristics it’s usually associated with in popular imagination. It was quiet, simple, clean, and secluded. Its hall was dominated by a painting of its founder, St Angela, a.k.a. “Madre Angelita.” I had a long talk with Sister María del Camino, who told me the convent was full of life, welcoming children for extracurricular activities and housing seven nuns who paid visits those in need. “Even if it’s just company they need,” she added. She took me to the chapel, where I saw the Plateresque altarpiece mentioned in the wall tile outside. I exchanged a few more words with Sister María del Camino and went out.

Raja Ancha

I strode up Real Street and across Barrio Alto, then down Rosales Street and Fuertecillo Street to come to the Raja Ancha recreational area. It’s a large park reaching the first mountain slopes. In Raja Ancha you’ll find fountains, wooden tables and benches, barbecues, etc. The “Raja Ancha” (wide crack) the park owes its name to is in the upper part –a natural cleft in the rock to which a carved flight of steps had been added for visitors to reach the scenic viewpoint. Which is what I did. I saw two teenagers sitting on a bench and asked them how to get to the viewpoint. “To the viewpoint? It’s a five minutes walk,” they replied. In fact, it was five times three, but never mind. Climbing was easy, for I just had to follow the directions along the way. The rocky mound amazed me: the rocks were standing on one another with no other joint than their weight. The shady cleft looked disturbing but stimulating. I plunged into the darkness with mixed feelings. Although I was in a steadfast world of stone, I looked up at the flagstones up above my head and felt all that was solid melting into air. I went across the cleft without uttering a single word and climbed up the flight of steps, back to the sheltering sky at the viewpoint. I caught a partial glimpse of Pizarra’s centre. I drank some water, took a couple of pictures… I’d been told that the trail from here to “El Santo” commanded stunning views. It’s a clearly-signposted uphill trail with a mild slope, and it takes one hour and a quarter to complete. I took note for my next visit, for I still had to take a look at a few of Pizarra’s sights. I returned to Málaga Street, where my car was parked.

The Chapel

The chapel can be reached on foot. Except for a short climb at the end, the road is flat –a dirt trail that can be easily negotiated. You can also come by car. Either way, you have to take Ermita Street from Málaga Street and then Camino de la Ermita, also leading to Vega de Santa María. Along the way –along Pizarra’s highest streets in the first part– you’ll come across the Scenic Viewpoint of Algarrobo Centenario, offering amazing views of the fruit tree groves all around the town. But the real gem along this trail is the chapel itself. Carved out of the rock, the temple features a soaring deep-red and white front, two roofs that bring the building out. “This chapel dates back to the sixteenth century. It’s partly excavated out of the rock, standing on the foundations of an older, thirteenth-century Mozarabic church. Its present façade in the neo-Gothic style and marble altar were added in the early twentieth century. Its dedication of Our Lady of Fuente Santa has to do with the water spring that emerged when it was being built.” Moreover, this chapel has hermits: Josefa and Ángel have lived in a house next to it for 20 years. They take care of the religious building. They told me that, in the summer, locals come at dawn and sit outside trying to breathe in some fresh air and catch the pervading smell of orange blossoms. Josefa and Ángel were cheerful and talkative. I stayed with them for a while, feeling their kindness and enjoying their stories.


Leaving Pizarra behind, I drove amidst the valleys peppered with charming fruitless orange trees. Their blossoms were swaying in the breeze, their smell sticking to my car, my clothes, my hair. It was a sweet yet strong, volatile yet heavy smell. There was a poet once who said orange blossoms and nigh jasmines smelled like smothered flowers. Obviously, he’d never been to Pizarra in spring.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: Pizarra for archaeologists: There’re several traces of old Pizarra which expert eyes could translate into part of the old Castillejos de la Quintana on Quintana mountain, which provided an ideal defensive setting for a Mozarabic settlement; or the remains of the Arab Tower on Sierra de Gibralmora, which used to be part of the Muslim defence system along the Guadalhorce Valley; or a prehistoric burial site in the area known as Castillejos de Luna (about ten graves dating back to the Bronze Age); or the “Bañaero de la Reina,” that is, the place where, according to popular tradition, the Moor Queen used to take baths (although in fact it’s a Roman pool).
Useful links: The following websites I’ve used when planning my trip to Pizarra: Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Pizarra Tourist Board, Pizarra Town Hall, and Valle del Guadalhorce Rural Development Group.

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