Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Alcaucín: a land of legends. Arab queens, mythical heroes, nymphs in love. Stout mountains and delicate flower pots, flowery beds, narrow streets, shady corners. Five-spout fountains and scintillating, murmuring, crystal water. Alcaucín: a village below La Maroma, a pass to Boquete de Zafarraya, a balcony overlooking La Viñuela. Ulysses and Calypso in love; scented Zalia; a Nasrid man taken by surprise and taken captive. Welcome to Alcaucín.

Landscape and Legend

Alcaucín lies in a peculiar area of Axarquía, dominated by the impressive gorge of Boquete de Zafarraya to the right and the water mirror of the reservoir of La Viñuela. The horizon is peppered with the white dots of estates, farmhouses, and cortijos, separated by fields punctuated by olives. The zigzagging road unveils the landscape on the left. I could see the Mesa de Zalia in all its glory –a trapezoidal rocky plateau where legends live in ambush. They say this plateau could’ve been Ogygia, island where the sea-nymph Calypso welcomed hapless Ulysses in his return back home. Hospitably, she healed his wounds, washed his cloths, and fell in love so deeply that she wouldn’t let him go.
“Stay with me and you’ll be immortal,” she begged.
“I can’t. I need to go back to my homeland, Ithaca,” he replied
“Is Penelope better than I am?”
“Of course not. You’re a goddess. You’re far better than her. But Penelope is my home; she’s my life.”
Historical records, on the other hand, suggest Zalia could’ve been home to the Phoenician settlement of Tangara, although there’re no documents to support this hypothesis. What’s a fact is that the fortress there was once occupied by the Arabs and then by the Christians.

Arrival and Breakfast

It’s early in the morning. Time for breakfast, first household chores, first morning errands. The village is waking up; I can hear the people, their hustle and bustle. When you come to Alcaucín, park just past the Information Point, for the streets get narrower from there and driving becomes more difficult, at least for out-of-towners. Besides, Alcaucín is a village to walk in, to be negotiated on foot, so that you can enjoy its alleys and shady corners, its smells, its rows of balconies overlooking Axarquía. There’re several fine restaurants in town. You’ll come across two of them –Rancho Grande and Restaurante Azafrán– as soon as you drive in. Given the hour, I can only have breakfast in the cool streets. I choose Enrique, ordered two white coffees, one ham-and-cheese sandwich, and one bacon-and-cheese sandwich. The bill = €5.60.

The Five-Spout Fountain

While having breakfast, I can hear the birds and the murmuring water flowing out of the Five-Spout Fountain, where alcaucineños come to fill their 5l jugs promising something fresh to drink at home. I can see some simple gestures, too: a middle-aged woman clutching her shirt with her left hand and holding on to the wall with her right hand leans and takes a long sip from the fountain while raising her left foot. The five spouts are protected by a four-column arcade with round arches. The wall is covered by tiles in red shades that glow in the sun. Locals tell me the fountain has never stopped producing water, no even in times of the fiercest droughts.

The Town Hall and the Church

Leaving the fountain behind –but not before splashing my face with water from it–, I come to a crossroads. Taking the street on the left, I’ll get to Plaza de la Constitución; the street on the right leads to Plaza de Salia, where there’s an open-air market on Saturdays. (And today is Saturday.) I choose the left option. The pots burst with flowers: geraniums, violets, daisies… Plaza de la Constitución is the place where secular and religious power come together: the town hall and the church are adjoining buildings almost holding hands. The Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario is incredibly simple, featuring a central body and a wall attached to it culminating in a two-bell belfry. The bells are different sizes. Built in the eighteenth century, the church comprises a nave and an aisle separated by three round arches. The Gospel aisle includes a side chapel whose Rococo plasterwork is remarkable.

The Chapel

Down Calvario Street, I get to the Chapel of Jesús del Calvario. It’s an uphill stroll along intertwining streets, but it looks more threatening before you undertake it, for the slope is quite smooth. It takes me 10’ to come to the religious sight in the upper part of town. The area affords interesting views of a peculiar landscape: the water spot of La Viñuela, the gorge of Boquete de Zafarraya, and the Zalia plateau, which, according to a leaflet by María Ángeles Flores Cazorla, “seems to be waiting for a host of guests surrounded by peaks. Giving free rein to my imagination, this could be one of the table’s legs.” Built in the seventeenth century, the chapel has a square floor plan and a façade whose round arch is supported by pilasters.

Plaza de Salia and Walk to the Castle

Walking downhill, I take a flight of steps to the left when I reach the first landing. The steps lead to Plaza de Salia. Sitting on a bench, I can see Comares like an eagle’s nest to the left and the white hamlet of Colmenar to the right. The homes in Alcaucín are very colourful, full of flower pots and flower beds, without excessive ornament as befits a simple, austere town. Let’s bear in mind this is a mountainous village in Sierra de Tejeda, at the foot of the highest peak in Málaga Province –La Maroma (2,065m)–, which makes it a secluded, discreet place. Back in the square, I plunge into the street market. Before going to fetch my car, I make another stop at the fountain, using one of its five spouts again. It’s fresh, transparent, delicious, especially now that I can feel the broiling sun. To get to the castle I need to leave the town centre, cross the Don Manuel bridge, and turn right at the access to the main road towards Granada. After 2km of bends, a sign indicates I should turn left.

The Castle of Zalia

The fortress of Zalia is a bastion on the plateau. In the past, Zalia used to connect Vélez-Málaga with Granada through the mountain pass of Boquete de Zafarraya. This means that the castle had a geostrategic position of great importance. The fortress and the plateau owe their name to a queen, Zalia, who was said to take daily baths in the river down below. “On full-moon nights, the Moorish queen used to come down to a little pond on the crest of the fortress which was known as ‘The Pool of the Moorish Queen.’ There was a night when a Nasrid man came to the pool to watch the mythical queen having her bath. As he saw her go into the pound in the midst of petals and water lilies, he was caught by a guard and taken to La Cerca, where he spent the rest of his life by the memories of that beautiful woman and her radiant, smooth skin. La Cerca was an old jail annexed to the castle where the Muslim kept their enemies.” (Source: Wikipedia). The remains of the castle include parts of the walls and two towers. They reveal a medium-size fortress. If you can find your way across the rather thick undergrowth, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of La Viñuela (ahead); Alcaucín, La Maroma, the Roman district, and Comares (left); and Colmenar and a series of rolling hills peppered with farmhouses and cortijos (right). There’re several country accommodations in the castle area; for more information about them, go to Castle of Zalía Rural Complex.


Intoxicated by the magic landscape, I close my eyes and feel the breeze brush past, merging fact and fiction. I can hear Calypso and her beloved Ulysses. I can see the beautiful queen Zalia after taking her lavish bath. I can picture Tangara. I can conjure up all the legends and stories together in the castle ruins –silent witnesses to so many things. It’s silent now. Ulysses has left for Ithaca.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do: Hiking: Located in Sierra de Tejeda, Alcaucín offers multiple hiking options. For instance, the Sierra del Alcázar route described in the Town Hall website. “Alcaucín lies on the way to La Maroma, boasting great camping facilities by the river Alcaucín. The water springs close to the source of the stream and the thick woods around it are some of the natural assets in this cosy area. A few meters down, an impressive gorge opens up before the stream flows into La Viñuela reservoir. The best views of this natural canyon are afforded by the scenic viewpoint by the trail, where you’ll see the beautiful shapes resulting from rock erosion in the river bed and the surrounding mounts.” For more routes, explore the Town Hall website: Alcaucí
What to do: Route of Oil and Mountains: Alongside Riogordo, Colmenar, Alfarnate, Alfarnatejo, Periana, Alcaucín, and La Viñuela, Alcaucín is part of the Route of Oil and Mountains.
Useful links: To learn more about Alcaucín, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Alcaucín Town Hall, and 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.