Tuesday, 7 September 2010

And before it was “Hoxán” and then “Oxán” and now “Ojén” –a verbal spell conjuring up the inevitable Arab past. Pure, white, narrow streets, colourful flower beds –red, blue, purple, lilac, yellow… Flamenco songs and spirits, legends and secrets, eau-de-vie… Picasso and his “Bodegón español.” Ojén and ojén shots –the local variety of anisette. Las Grecas and Joaquín Sabina, “Con las manos en la masa.” Tough flamenco and OJEANDO festival. Fairs and late-night revelry. The Mediterranean. The sierras. Trails and Spanish firs. Roast chestunt, tapas, fennel stew, chestnut soup, raisins in eau-de-vie… Honey syrup and sea salt. A watchtower over Mare Nostrum. The gateway to Sierra de las Nieves. And before it was “Oxán” and before that, “Hoxán.”

Zooming in

Ojén emerges as an impossibly white hamlet perched on the surrounding mountain –a white brushstroke, a silvery dot against the green background. Just white on green. This is what you see after the first bend when you leave the highway from Marbella behind. The zigzagging road is like a magician, showing and concealing the hamlet in its snaking course. Hide and seek; hide and seek. The early sun laps at the square terraces, creating a kaleidoscope of lights and shadows over the urban layout. Ojén’s growing, climbing up the slope supporting it. Whereas the lower part of town is called “Los Llanos,” its names change as it goes up: “Castillo,” “Nacimiento,” “Chifle” –the names in Ojén along the slopes of mountain Ojenete. There’s a roundabout before you reach the town centre. To the left there’s a large parking area. From here it’s quite clear that this isn’t a flat area; instead, steep winding climbs overlap after the old Arab design. I’m ready for a stroll.

Getting to the Caves

From the parking, right opposite the new Town Hall, a steep climb leads to the town centre. It’s called “Camino de Marbella,” for it used to be the only way towards Sierra de las Nieves before the development of the road and then the highway. Plots with orange trees encroaching on the gorges, Mediterranean pines… I’m greeted by the low buzz of cicadas. A bunch of men are whitewashing a few homes. The climb culminates in a little square. I take the street on the left (Calle Río) and turn left again, down Calle Cuevas.. I want to get to the caves, a series of natural cavities used by men since the dawn of time to shelter from bad weather and keep stock. They’re karst formations and they’re part of the town; many houses stand on them, looking into the abyss from above. Before getting to my destination, I walk along Cuevas Street at leisure. It’s a narrow street and it’s brimming with flowers: bougainvillea hanging from balconies, and so on. Lots of colour, lots of vitality. The first cave is an open cavity with a bunch of mighty rocks hanging from a small stage. Blue flowers hanging up above. The stage hosts some of the shows during OJEANDO, an independent pop rock festival that’s become one of the most popular music events in Málaga Province. It’s held in July. Past a house called “El Molino,” I come to Cueva Cerrada –a deep hollow carved into a mountain which doubles as art gallery, music hall, conference venue, and so on. It’s cool in the summer and warm in winter. The open-mouthed rocks and the houses built on them make an overwhelming set. All throughout my stroll, I can hear the cooing of pigeons and the murmur of the river Almadán, whose source is close by and whose bubbling water never seems to stop, the murmur morphing into roaring in the rainy season. I climb a flight of steps to reach a balcony affording panoramic views of the karst formations. The river gurgles by my side and at my feet. I can feel its powerful influence. It tinkles. Carretera is the main street, dividing the town into two parts –a modern and an old district. I turn right.


Ojén is really nice: houses hidden amidst the ravines and prickly pears, soaring caves that make natural viewpoints, and lots of flowers. There’re so many of them… Black, pink, lilac… a zillion colours. From the road I climb towards Cueva de las Columnas, getting both the cave and great panoramic views. Narrow steps, jasmine perfume, sweet smells. The steps are tough, but the captivating views are worth climbing them. Ojén can be seen down below. In the background, the Mediterranean, promising escapes and returns, promising goods and prosperity. I sit down on a wrought-iron bench in the shade of cave. I can hear the morning sounds in town: neighbours going up and down the streets, cars buzzing past… I look out for the sea and let my mind fly.

Up to Toledillo

I climb down and keep walking. After 10 metres, I new perspective opens up before me: the old town shows its full layout: irregular narrow streets, terraces, kids playing around… A new flight of steps on the right lead to the centre of town. Down Barrio Alto Street, I plunge into a confusing maze of streets that flow into one another, branch out, or morph into corners, little squares, courtyards. Flowers, pots, flower beds are here, there, everywhere. Down Calle Jollanías (first street to the right), I keep walking into the pleasant labyrinth: new alleyways, new corners, new secrets to unveil. At the far end of the street I turn left and go into the narrow alley on the right (on the left, Almona Street). I can smell jasmines and orange blossoms. They’re delicately sweet. The smells led me to El Toledillo, a peculiar square whose white stone benches afford some rest and the best of Andalusia’s essence: tall and narrow houses with hidden courtyards and open terraces, delicate flowers hanging on façades, wooden doors and jambs –some painted blue–, singing birds.

Church of La Encarnación and Dionysius the Areopagite

From El Toledillo, I saunter down Rey Street and then turn left into Fuente Street, and flow into Plaza de Andalucía, the nerve centre of Ojén and home to the Church of La Encarnación. It’s a busy square, crossed by men and women on their daily errands, seized by children at weekends, and witness to friends’ talks in bar terraces on summer evenings. The entrance to the church is flanked by two huge palm trees that lend an exotic air to the square. Before being a church, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación was a mosque. The catholic building was erected in 1505. The old minaret was kept as a belfry tower. The red-pine coffered ceiling displays a series of star- and cross-shaped figures. The clock on the façade relies on the same gears as the clock in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, which makes it extremely accurate, stirring the bells to peal every half an hour. Inside, the church houses an image of the patron saint of Ojén, Dionysius the Areopagite. As gory as might seem, the beheaded saint carries his head in his hand. Popular tradition has it that, once upon a time, a parish priest tried to place the saint’s head back where it should be, that is, right above his shoulders, but locals wouldn’t let him. Outside, on the left side wall, you can see another curious feature: the so-called climbing lemons. The whole wall is covered with lemon leaves and, when in season, with fruit. The upper part, inaccessible to stealthy human hands, abounds in yellow fruits, which are scarcer in the lower, more accessible, area.

Los Chorros Fountain

An essential element in the square –which is closed to traffic and, therefore, very quiet and yet permeated by the rhythm of life in town– is Fuente de los Chorros, an icon of Ojén and a practical source of water. Ojenetos come here with their jars and bottles to quench their thirst with pristine water. The fountain features five spouts –four front, one on the left side. Stout red brick, non-stop clinking, ceaseless liquid murmur. Of course, I had my share and quenched my traveller’s thirst. Clink, clink, clink go the spouts.

Olive Oil Mill Museum

Río Street by the fountain leads to Charcas Street, the way to get to the Olive Oil Mill Museum. The streets come out onto the evergreen mountains, whose pine trees betray their Mediterranean essence. Ojén is the gateway to the Sierra de las Nieves Biosphere Reserve from the Costa del Sol, and it’s also a watchtower over the Mediterranean Sea. Both essences wrap Ojén up too, so that it’s a town where the coast and the sierras come together. Moreover, in 2008, Sierra de las Nieves became a European Destination of Excellence (EDEN), that is, a place that supports sustainable tourism and protects nature. A cobblestone street made by long steps takes me to the museum, housed in an old mill that’s been fully renovated. When I arrive, a series of old machines crank up. Operated by the power of water in the past, they give me an idea of how olives where pressed and oil extracted in the past. There’s a shop in the hall selling arts and crafts and traditional foods –raisins in eau-de-vie, homemade honey, and a wide range of olive oils made in Sierra de las Nieves. In the courtyard, producers used to store their olives, waiting for their time to press them. Therefore, the museum used to be a meeting point to discuss town affairs or talk about daily issues. The two rooms adjoining the machines host temporary exhibitions (new shows almost every month). Finally, on the upper floor there’s an old still used to make the internationally renowned Ojén eau-de-vie.

Ojen’s Eau-de-Vie

Fact and myth. There’re legends and stories about Ojén’s world-famous eau-de-vie. The legends feed on age and secret. Facts are more mundane and, as such, maybe less attractive. Let’s deal with facts first and kindle the fire of legend later. “Ojén’s eau-de-vie, sweet and aniseed-flavoured, was first made with the wine produced with local grapes –quite abundant in the past–, adding aniseed for aromatic purposes. It was distilled using stills heated with juniper wood and then reduced with water to 40º. Nobody knows exactly what type of grapes were used, but many think it was muscatel, for it was the most usual variety in the area. In 1830, Pedro Morales invested his money (which he’d earned out of town) in the first eau-de-vie distillery in Ojén. The result was a high-quality sweet liqueur, aniseed-flavour and with medium alcohol content, which earned Ojén a household name in Spain and abroad. In fact, Ojén became the D.O. for quality sweet eau-de-vie. You’ve probably heard “una copita de ojén,” an advertising slogan that’s still popular in Spain. They said it with seven little taps. In the late nineteenth century, there was an outbreak of phylloxera (a pest of commercial grapevines) that affected most vineyards in Europe. It had a devastating effect in Ojén, destroying most vines. In 1920, the distillery closed down –a hard blow to the local economy, as most families lived off eau-de-vie making. In the early 1970s, Juan Espada Fernández tried to bring the popular eau-de-vie back to life by setting up a new factory. But he failed. Ojén’s eau-de-vie is still famous in people’s memories, and in novels and paintings. Camilo José Cela mentions it in La Colmena: “She smokes 90 tobacco, when she’s alone, and she drinks ojén, full glasses of ojén, from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to be.” Anita Delgado Briones, maharani of Kapurthala, a Málaga-born artist who married the maharaja, used to drink ojén in Paris. In his cubist period, Picasso immortalised a bottle of eau-de-vie whose label read “Ojén” (“Bodegón español,” 1912, Villeneuve d’Ascq Museum of Modern Art). The Ojén coat of arms also features a vine, making reference to the renowned liqueur. A bottle of the world-famous eau-de-vie can be seen at the Town Hall, in a dunite niche” (source: Blog de Ojén by Benito González Sánchez). Now, the realm of legend: Pedro Morales was the only man who knew the formula of the eau-de-vie in the aromatic herbs added to the liqueur. When the manufacturing process came to this point, all workers went out and Morales was left alone with his secret. When he died, he passed the formula on to his son, who died in a car accident and took the secret to the grave. Nobody else knew how to make anisette. Attempts to bring the eau-de-vie back to life in the 1970s didn’t work. Now, a Belgian businesswoman living in town seems to have found the formula. So maybe we soon hear “una copita de ojén” again.

Refugio de Juanar

From the museum, I go back to the parking area, fetch my car, and hit the road towards Coín-Monda. 4km from the town centre, a clearly signposted detour to the left says “Refugio de Juanar” –a spectacular nature spot where dozens of hiking routes converge and hundreds of olives, Spanish firs, pine trees, and chestnuts live. Juanar gives access to peaks like La Concha, a natural viewpoint of Costa del Sol Occidental, the Cross of Juanar (the destination of a procession in May), Lastonar (a bastion over Marbella), and Tajo Negro (an amazing ravine across the town of Ojén). The road to Juanar is a winding road, full of bends. You can park by the shelter and explore the area on foot. The shelter of Juanar was built by the Marquis of Larios as a hunting lodge for king Alfonso XIII (who never really visited it). Then it became a parador; housing illustrious guests such as former French president Charles De Gaulle, who stayed for a long season to work on his memoirs. At present, it’s a country hotel, and it features a restaurant specialising in charcoal-grilled meat. The cheque used by De Gaulle to pay for his bill is still kept in a frame. Alongside climbing routes, Juanar is the starting point of a wonderful hiking route for families. It’s only 2km long and unfolds across a flat chestnut copse, reaching one of Málaga’s few mountain olive groves –an impossible valley between Tajo Negro and the Cross of Juanar. Up ahead there’s the Macho Cabrío Viewpoint, a balcony over Marbella commanding stunning landscapes. Remember to bring your camera and binoculars. The area is a nature reserve, so the animals and plant species are protected. If you’re silent, you might spot a Spanish ibex or two. The viewpoint puts up an fabulous show before me: the misty sea and Africa beyond, Marbella at my feet, the Cross of Juanar to the right, Tajo Negro to the left. A postcard with a frame. I sat on a stone bench, watching the mountaineers in the distance –a line of ants. I waved at them and heard them shout back: “Hellooooooo.” Silence. Peace. Nature at its purest.


I breath the fresh air of the sierras in, taking also in the emotions felt by Picasso in his childhood in Málaga and the flavours of Ojén’s eau-de-vie, the subtle colours of the flowers on the whitewashed walls, the roar of the olive oil mill, the cool water of Los Chorros, the amazing story of Dionysus the Areopagite, the coolness of the caves in the summer and the music of the river Almadán, the view of bougainvillea flowing smoothly down terraces, the cries of kids playing in the shade of palm trees, the wailing voice of flamenco in the Castillo del Cante Festival, the avant-garde sounds of OJEANDO Festival, the atmosphere of the popular games during the fair… Ojén: inspiration for the senses.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to eat: “Churros mojaos”: There’s a culinary specialty in Ojén: “churros mojaos” (wet strips of fried dough). You can try them at Churrería Er Mojaíto (C/Arroyo, 5). After frying the dough, Jorge, the owner, asks, “Dry or wet?” The former is good enough. But if you choose the latter, Jorge dips the dough in salty water. You have to eat it right away, and you’ll have a unique experience.
When to come:
Festival Castillo del Cante: One of the most traditional flamenco festivals in Málaga Province, it’s had its 36th edition this year. It’s held on the first weekend of August. The greatest flamenco artists, such as Camarón de la Isla, and emerging talents like Miguel Poveda have performed here.
OJEANDO Festival: It’s an independent pop rock festival. In its past two editions it’s attracted over 10,000 visitors, thanks to the leading and emerging bands it’s gathered. It’s held in the first or second week of July. For more information, go to the festival’s website.
Fair and fiesta: The Ojén Fair and Fiesta takes place from October 8 to 12. Joy, merrymaking, music, traditional games (musical bumps, jug, ribbon races), beauty pageants, processions (Dionysus the Areopagite and El Pilar), and much more.
What to do:
Tours: There’re two tourist assistants at the Ojén Town Hall providing a wide range of services for individuals or groups, from guided cultural and ethnographic tours to environmental workshops to hiking or horse riding routes (phone numbers: (+34) 697 501 935 / (+34) 659 666 152 (English); Facebook: Turismo Ojén).
Useful links: If you’re planning to come to Ojén, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Ojén Town Hall before doing so. Interesting personal websites include Blog de Ojén,, or Las estaciones y los días.

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