Thursday, 30 September 2010

Cortes de la Frontera is a hamlet that seems to have sprung out of a brush rather than a chisel, the mountains gambolling in the background. A white slash in the greyish rocks, a longish stain, an almost straight line across the corn fields and the cork oak groves, a meridian of white houses studding the sierras. Cortes de la Frontera looks like a balcony overlooking the Guadiaro valley, a watchtower looking after life in the river, along the railway tracks where trains come like sighs in the bosom of the earth. Leaving the Ronda-Algeciras road, I am soon out of the leafy chestnuts of the Genal valley and meet the first cork oaks, showing coyly at first and becoming increasingly thick. The Mediterranean forest is at its best in the rolling hills and the soaring peak. The mountains, made of granite and dominating the valley from above, are watching me. At the far end, I can see the neighbouring town of Jimera de Líbar. I can hear the river, even in the warm summer. I drive across and into El Tesoro, a district that has sprawled on the river bank, along the Bobadilla-Algeciras railway. From the bottom of the valley, I climb up to Cortes de la Frontera, a haven in the sierras whose life is inconsistent with history and the origins of its name. The Romans called the village “Cortex,” a noun that means “shield” or “defence.” Given its strategic location, the Arabs kept the name.

After Parking: Visitor Centre

Following the town centre signs, I came to Avenida de la Libertad, one of the two main thoroughfares. I parked there. Cortes de la Frontera is a slim town, its layout resting on only three streets connected by a myriad of alleys up and down. The geographical situation is just great: by the Genal valley, next to the Grazalema and Sierra de las Nieves nature parks, and part of Los Alcornocales, another nature park stretching out mainly in Cádiz. The easy-to-find Visitor Centre lay near the Bullring. From July to September, its opening hours are Thu-Sun 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. and Sat 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. and 7:00-9:00 p.m. The assistants here gave me a lot of information on the village and its main sights, as well as on the trails in Los Alcornocales. At the centre itself, I first came into contact with one of hallmarks of this town: cork crafts. You can buy them here on the ground floor: little benches and other objects for as little as €1.5, alongside wood carvings, travel guides, hiking maps, T-shirts, and more. The first floor holds the Visitor Centre proper, where you can get multiple-language information on the village and the three parks within its boundaries.

Up to the Bullring

The Visitor Centre was only 10m away from Avenida de la Libertad. A tour of Cortes de la Frontera is an easy thing to do: all sights are close to one another, as if along an imaginary straight line. Nobody can get lost here. Being 30m in diameter, the Bullring is the second largest one in the Serranía, coming behind the one in Ronda only. Its presence bears witness to the important role cattle has played in the local economy and social life, as Cortes de la Frontera used to be a transit village between the ranches in Cádiz and Sierra de Ronda. Built in 1824, the Bullring was fully renovated in 1921. However, bullfighting events are attested much earlier: “The bullring is exactly 27.7 metres in diameter, accommodating 1,000 people. There’s a single bullfighting event taking place in it, in the context of the August fair” (source: plate at the entrance). I caught a glimpse of the barrier and the ring, as well as the first stands. There is an upper floor featuring a row of round arches and wrought-iron balconies. The outer walls are painted ochre and framed by brick arches.

The Church and the House of the Valdenebros

I strolled up and down the carefully kept cobblestone streets of Cortes de la Frontera, laden with trees (some palms among them), black iron window bars, long hallways, flower beds, and orange blossom perfumes. Suddenly I bumped into Fuente de los Caños, a fountain whose four spouts delivered cool water. I couldn’t resist the temptation: I splashed my head and face. Oh… delicious water from the sierras! A few metres ahead I spotted the belfry tower of the Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, the only peak interrupting the skyline. Next to it on the right, there was the House of the Valdenebros –an imposing house indeed. Bearing a tall belfry and red stone on its frontage, the house includes a chapel. It was built in 1760 in the Mudejar-Baroque style. The only part that has come down to us from the original design is the façade. The interior is absolutely modern. Legend has it that there used to be a secret underground passageway connecting the chapel and the church. Now it’s blocked, or so they say. The House of the Valdenebros is also known as “Casa de las Tetitas” (“House of Tits”) after its gate’s round metal rivets. Next to the house, the Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Nobody knows exactly when and why this parish church was built. There used to be another church in its place in the early sixteenth century, but the first real evidence of the existence of a religious building, a document making reference to an altarpiece, dates back to the eighteenth century only. The church is quite big, its most remarkable feature being the attached belfry tower, whose brick trims and blue-and-white spire make it stand out. Inside, the church is austere and impossibly white. Its altarpiece is very simple. Above the choir rises a spectacular organ. The creamy-coloured ceiling makes the building look ethereal. I lit my candle and prayed for protection in my walks. Then I stepped out in the morning sun.

The Town Hall

Coming out of the church, I could hear bells ringing. They were not the bells in the church. It was a more severe, urgent sound, coming from down the street. I followed it as I would’ve followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin. 20m ahead I was faced with an architectural marvel: the Cortes de la Frontera Town Hall building. Let me quote the description here: “Our Town Hall is a robust stone building boasting a neoclassical façade. It is dated 1784 in its frieze, times of the Enlightenment. Commissioned by king Charles III, this civil architecture monument was built using sandstone ashlars. Like all other town halls, it is autonomous at the local level, the coat of arms above the clock being a reminder of this. The façade comprises two-storey galleries with ten round arches supported by plain stone pilasters. The central three-arch section protrudes slightly, with a triangular pediment on top, bearing the clock and the royal coat of arms.” The stout, dark stone façade is really impressive, standing in stark contrast to the bright blue sky, festooned with white clouds. The Town Hall dominates a square that must be home to many events throughout the year, for it’s a sort of natural amphitheatre. The building is crowned by a spire made of three bells of different sizes, from smaller to larger. These were the bells whose sound I’d followed. They were ringing again now, telling a new hour had begun.

Las Camaretas Viewpoint

The alleys behind the Town Hall are a maze of bends and corners, little squares, and more bends and corners. They were brimming with life, with Cortesanos walking up and down, doing the shopping at the grocer’s shop or sipping a cool beer in one of the bars, with or without tapas. The Food Market is here, and it has a lot to do with the hustle and bustle in the village: men and women chatting, children playing around, and so forth. I asked for directions to get to the viewpoint. It was so simple that I was embarrassed at having to ask. It just had to climb Las Camaretas Street and the viewpoint was just there. At the Visitor Centre, they had told me to come here to get wonderful views of the Guadiaro valley. They were right. To the left, Jimera de Líbar, up on the hill; to the right, Sierra Crestellina, Casares, and Campo de Gibraltar; in the background, the railway station district and the railway tracks; all around, peaceful shadows rocked in the breeze, quiet benches and balconies, warm temperatures cooled down by the situation of the viewpoint. I took a deep breath, taking in the sweet smell of flowers. I could only hear the distant rustling of branches. I sat down, closed my eyes, gave in, and felt the breeze carrying me into the depths of the valley.


I wandered about in Cortes de la Frontera, my footsteps echoing smoothly in the cobblestones, sheltered by the shadows of the homes and hearing the murmur of life. Sitting on the benches facing the Bullring, men were fanning themselves, women were complaining about the price of fish, young girls were talking about the dresses they would wear in the evening. They all created a soundtrack for my stroll in the town, for my getting lost and finding my way, for my wandering and my encounter with Cortes de la Frontera.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

La Sauceda: Under the management of the Federation of Andalusian Protected Natural Spaces (FEMPA), there is a campsite in Cortes de la Frontera comprising 23 bungalows with chimney, toilet and shower, and hot water but no electricity. Additional facilities and services include a reception, a green store, a lounge, a classroom, bellboys, firewood, a shelter, a camping area, and barbecues. The campsite is open all year round. At La Sauceda you can go horse or donkey riding, caving, hiking, or wandering in the nature park. Special tours are organised for the laurel forest, Pilita de la Reina, Peñón del Buitre, and Cortes de la Frontera town centre (information at (+34) 952 117 236).
Cañón de las Buitreras: This 100m-deep canyon, with 200m slopes, is the result of erosion by the river Guadiaro on a limestone basin. It’s been designated as a Natural Monument of Andalusia. It’s quite inaccessible, for the walls are almost vertical in some stretches, which makes it a point in many climbing routes. To enjoy the landscape, get to the so-called “Puente de los Alemanes,” or find your vantage point in the upper part of the gorge.
Useful links: For more information on Cortes de la Frontera, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Cortes de la Frontera Town Hall.

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