Thursday, 30 September 2010

They say that Fray Leopoldo used to sleep using a rock as his pillow. So they say. They say in Serranía de Ronda there’s a cathedral in deep red and pink. So they say. They say they found two mummies in a basement. So they say. They say the landscape morphs into a golden mantle in the autumn. So they say. They say you can see the shimmering sea from here. So they say. They say there’s a well of wishes and you have to throw a coin if you want to make a wish. So they say. They say the name of this place is “Alpandeire” and it’s a beating town in Alto Genal. So they say. And those who say these things are telling the truth.

Zooming in

Alpandeire is surrounded by contrasting shades of yellow corn, green olives and cork oaks, and grey limestone mountains. It seems to be embraced by the mountains, sprawling up the hillside of Jarastepar. Early-rising cicadas make the only soundtrack in the morning. The town centre is dominated by a single building. It’s a considerably large building, standing out among all others. It catches the eye and makes you wonder how it was that it landed here. It’s the Church of San Antonio de Padua en Alpandeire. It’s so big that many consider it cathedral. Alpandeire can be reached from Ronda or from Faraján, via Cartajima and Júzcar. I chose the latter, even when it’s a trip I’m familiar with (or maybe just because of this), for it affords matchless panoramic views of Alto Genal. I zigzagged along the road, enjoying each and every bend, watching the chestnut ocean appear and disappear to the rhythm of the breeze.

The Way of the Cross

Following the signs that read “Parking,” I drove down a steep, narrow two-way street unfit for prudish users. Once down, I asked a pandito (that is, a local man) if this was the only exit. With sparkling eyes and a smirk, he said, “Yes, it’s the only exit. Besides, you aren’t very fond of climbs, are you?” Now we both laughed. I came to a non-parking square and drove ahead towards the sports centre, where I could park. It was the starting point of the Way of the Cross, an itinerary telling the story of the passion of Jesus in 15 stations. There was a pillory by the road –a framework used to expose an offender to public derision–, known as “La Horca” (“The Gallows”). The stations offered great views of the skyline of Alpandeire, dominated by the church.

The Square and Fray Leopoldo

Fray Leopoldo de Alpandeire (born Francisco Tomás de San Juan Bautista Márquez Sánchez) was ever-present. Images and statues of him could be seen everywhere. No wonder: the Capuchin monk was born here in 1866. He died in Granada aged 88, after hobbling across the sierras in his worn straw sandals to help those in need. A statue of his likeness stood on a hill in the distance (I’d come to it later), but his presence could be felt all over. In the square, a modern statue lent peace and quiet to the indomitable nature of the sierras. Posters announced his beatification on September 12, 2010. Locals were quite excited about it. Alpandeire is essentially Arab in its layout, a feeling confirmed by historical facts. The village was founded in 711, shortly after the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. It was thus one of the first Muslim settlements in the serranía. The square gave access to a viewpoint where I made out a series of white brushstrokes: Gaucín, Benalauría, Benadalid, Atajate. It smelled fresh and sweet with thyme and marjoram.

The Old Granary and the Church

From the square, I followed directions to the old granary and Fray Leopoldo’s birthplace, plunging into the maze of streets and asking around until I got to them. The granary, which now served as an exhibition hall, has the headquarters of the Fray Leopoldo beatification operation. There you could buy crafts with the monk’s face –textiles, pictures, keyrings, bracelets, thimbles– and books on his life and work.. I got a New Friends of Fray Leopoldo Popular Platform keyring, a picture of the blessed friar with a caption on the back that read, “Those who go down on their knees shall be raised in praise,” and a lighter of the New Road to Faith. I talked with the women running the place and asked them about Fray Leopoldo’s birthplace. They said I should ask Paquito, a young man who performed as local guide. Upon walking out of the granary turned exhibition hall, I stumbled into him. I said hello, and he volunteered to give me a tour of Alpandeire, which, of course, began with the Church of San Antonio de Padua, or “Cathedral of Serranía de Ronda” –an impressive building, both inside and out. “This church was built in the early sixteenth century and then rebuilt entirely in the eighteenth century. From a distance, it catches the eye with its size and massive pinkish walls, with a white and red rame in a typical Islamic fabric. Its rectangular floor plan includes three barrel-vaulted naves separated by round arches resting on pillars. (...) Inside it treasures Fray Leopoldo’s baptismal font, a devotional object attracting pilgrims from all over Andalusia” (source: board by the front steps). Inside, the church was spotless white, peppered with the colours of some flowers. The columns, capitals, and arches were decorated with plasterwork. The elaborate décor seemed to belie the fact that I was in a village whose population amounted to 278. I went out.

The Mummies, the Well of Wishes, and Fray Leopoldo’s Birthplace

With a sardonic smile on his lips, Paquito led the way to the catacombs. Going through a barred door, he said solemnly, “The mummies.” “Where?” “Right behind the wood and glass door.” I felt a chill go down my spine. History and legend blended here: “Over 50 years ago, when this beautiful village was even quieter and more isolated than it is now, the children in Alpandeire used to play a game, ‘Who can enter the no-entry room?’ It was a small room, a forsaken crypt packed with junk, in the bowels of the parish church, a.k.a. ‘the cathedral of the serranía’ because of its huge size. In a corner of this sinister room –a source of nightmare with the little ones–, there lay the incorrupt bodies of a man and a woman. According to local authorities, the mummies had been found in this very crypt a few decades before, alongside the mortal remains of fifteenth-century Christian settlers. Their tomb was larger than the rest and set apart, in a privileged spot, out of reach. Their state of conservation was astonishing. After performing a series a tests, historians concluded that the bodies belonged to a well-off couple who’d paid for their own mummification –and they got it soon after their death. Being so strange, they were set apart, whereas the other corpses went into a common grave. The couple remained untouched in the crypt for almost 30 years, deteriorating by action of indoor air and kindling kids’ imagination” (source: José Manuel Frías). As if we weren’t in a crypt but in the house next door, Paquito showed something else on a table: “These were Fray Leopoldo’s sandals. He left them here before heading for Granada.” So there it was: a pair of austere straw sandals covered with dust. Could they be the ones worn by Fray Leopoldo? Giving in to fantasy, I supposed they were. After the crypt, I was taken to the well of wishes. I made my wish but, as I hadn’t followed the ritual –turning my back, closing my eyes, and flipping the coin–, I had to do it again. I hope it works. After the well, Fray Leopoldo’s birthplace. It stood in sharp contrast to the church, being such a humble home. Fray Leopoldo of Alpandeire was born in Alpandeire, Málaga, on June 24, 1864. He died in Granada on February 9, 1956. He was a Capuchin monk, and he’s very popular with Catholics in Andalusia. His real name was Francisco Tomás de San Juan Bautista Márquez Sánchez. He spent most of his life as a mendicant friar in the streets of Granada, where he moved after being ordained in Seville and where he was famous for his generous help to those in need. Fray Leopoldo was always ready to understand the men and women who came to him for advice. This is why he has so many devotees. It’s not rare to see his image in Andalusian homes. His growing popularity drew crowds in search of solace and intercession. This earned him the nickname “the humble beggar of the three Hail Marys,” after the prayers he offered those who came to him for his blessing (source: Wikipedia). His birthplace was a simple eighteenth-century two-story house with a whitewashed front. It was here that I parted ways with Paquito and returned to my car.

El Cerrajón and the Statue of Fray Leopoldo

With the car in first gear, I climbed the vertigo-inducing hill. Fortunately, there were no cars going down that could have forced me downhill. When I reached the main road I turned right towards Faraján. I stopped in an open area. The statue of Fray Leopoldo was in a park known as “El Cerrajón”, less than 1km from the town centre. I walked up a flight of steps to see it –the friar standing with his left hand resting on a boy’s head. Dozens of rosaries, scapulars, and images were hanging from his right arm. Fray Leopoldo was looking into the horizon, watching over the villages in the Genal valley where he’d been and walked, the Church of San Antonio de Padua in the town centre, the hills rising up against the bright blue sky, the chestnuts covering the valley, the trails and cattle paths… The early lands of a man who looks at the present from the past.


I took a look at the horizon –Alpandeire blending into the landscape, perched on the hill of Jarastepar, the foothill of Sierra Crestellina and Casares, the road connecting Ronda with Algeciras, the white villages along the valley, the ever-changing green chestnuts rocking in the breeze, the bright blue sky above. A rebellious wind blew. I closed my eyes and got carried away.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Fray Leopoldo Tour: Alpandeire is the starting point of an itinerary known as “Fray Leopoldo Tour,” visiting the villages in Serranía de Ronda and the Genal valley where Fray Leopoldo lived until he was 33, when he joined the Capuchin Order. These villages are Pujerra, Igualeja, Cartajima, Júzcar, Faraján, and Alpandeire. The tour reveals the essence of Andalusia and a rich historical heritage, especially in the field of civil architecture and its applications in everyday life –examples of who dwellers adapted to their harsh environment. Little chapels can be found in every village, but the star is Alpandeire’s Church of San Antonio de Padua.
Hiking in El Chorrerón: On the outskirts of town, only 200m away, there’s an underground river that emerges in heavy rainfall. About 1km downstream, it forms a 50m waterfall. The area, known as “El Chorrerón,” is a must-see, but it’s only there for a few days after heavy rains. One of the most beautiful nature areas in Alpandeire is the sierra of Jarastepar, whose summit affords stunning views of the surrounding landscapes with the Rock of Gibraltar in the background. Geography makes Alpandeire ideal for hiking. There’re as many as 11 hiking routes starting in the town centre and connecting it to Atajate, Fajarán, Las Cruces, Las Amarillas, or the cross of Fray Leopoldo.
Useful links: For more information on Alpandeire, check the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Alpandeire Town Hall.

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