Thursday, 30 September 2010

From a distance, the landscapes look like lunar landscapes: fields peppered with olives arranged into perfect green lines and floury earth. Clouds of dust rising from unbeaten paths like harbingers of the threshing machines, tractors, and trucks that plough across the land. Rows of trees rise high up to reach the highest peak without losing shape or messing up the patterns drawn with a set square. These are the new olives, for the old ones twist and turn in their gnarled trunks, giving rise to irregular thickets. These twisted trees look wild rather than grown in their whimsical shape. Maybe they were planted back in Roman times, when Cuevas de San Marcos was Belda, one of the thriving towns in Bética, later chosen as a hub of the Arab world. Its geographic location certainly helped, being as it was at the crossroads of Málaga, Granada, and Córdoba. Archaeological remains of past times include the Medina de Belda settlement and an Almohad site. The undulating, zigzagging road runs amidst mountains laden with olive trees. The glittering landscape appears and disappears after each turn. A pleasant drive past a bunch of cyclists has brought me here.

The Cave of Belda

Before getting to the town centre, I take the detour leading to the Cave of Belda, past the town football stadium and the swimming pool. I park next to a construction site. A sign indicates three sights, all of which are to be reached through the short trail PR-A234: to the left, the Almohad site (658m, 12’) and the Cave of Belda (953m, 17’); to the right, Medina de Belda (2006m, 29’33”). According to the information given by a local man, the cave is closed to the public right now. “The Cave of Belda is in Sierra del Camorro. Facing a north-to-south orientation, it develops along 350m. The cave has a huge archaeological, geological, and biological value. It’s a karst gallery with stalactite and stalagmite formations. Its oval-shaped mouth is 6m by 12m, offering a flight of steps carved out of the rock. A long, narrow hall leads to the first room, housing the most interesting findings: pottery and traces of life, possibly burial items. The high-domed cave also features three easily accessible interior lakes, robust stone columns, over 1m in diameter, and particularly beautiful corners. It’s one of the most important bat habitats in Europe” (source: Cuevas de San Marcos Town Hall website). So I take the right lane and park some 1km ahead to take pictures of the town below and take a look at the Iznájar reservoir –a real water mirror. Then I head back towards the town centre, where I park on Pablo Picasso Avenue.

The Town Centre

Wherever I look, the streets seem to blend into the sierras brimming with olives, which are ever-present in this landscape. I walk down Andalucía Avenue and reach a roundabout, where I take Doctor Marañón Street to the right. The town seems to be framed within the karst formations of Sierra del Camorro and the olive groves, no matter whether you look northwards or southwards. I turn right and take the first street to the left, Calle Cervantes. I prick up my ears and listen to a curious mix of accents from Málaga, Córdoba, and Granada which give rise to a unique, mellifluous speech. The accents multiply when I reach the square, with its characteristic hustle and bustle. Today is market day, so all Cuevachos go out and do their shopping in a festive atmosphere. Some of the stalls are sheltered by the shadow projected by the Church of San Marcos and its belfry tower. A group of men are sitting on the front steps, chatting.

The Church of San Marcos and the Chapel of El Carmen

The church has a brick belfry tower whose blue-and-white tile pinnacle shimmers against the bright blue sky. Inside the tower, there are four ringing bells. The church is really beautiful: three naves with ochre columns and moss-green bases matching the tiles of the floor, an impressive over-elaborate altarpiece with four highlighted images, a neoclassical green-marble side chapel on the right housing an altar for Our Lady of El Carmen. Next to the front door, on the right, there’s a another chapel. Three documents are hanging from its walls: a Papal Blessing for the Fraternity of Nuestra Señora Auxilio de los Cristianos from pope John Paul II, the appointment of queen Sofía of Spain as Grand Chapel Stewardess, and the appointment of king Juan Carlos as an Honorary Grand Brother. The image under a canopy in the altar is carried on a procession in Easter. I stroll down Molinos Street towards Plaza de la Constitución. The whole area remains busy when the market is in full swing. The first street from the square to the right leads to the Chapel of Virgen del Carmen. Grey wrought-iron windows; cool, shady hallways; doors half open; bright-coloured, geometric-patterned curtains as the only barriers between the street and home interiors. The curtains sway in the breeze, opening gaps that allow a glimpse inside: a boy sprawled out in an armchair, a man having a glass of wine and some olives as he watches TV… The chapel has a high, soaring belfry tower scraping at the bright blue sky. The tower is bright red. Inside, the chapel is silent and cool. Its euphuist high altar is too important to be in a chapel. Paintings on the side wall depict scenes from the life of Jesus. A woman is sitting on the bench at the back; in deep mourning, she’s staring heard. When I pass by her, I hear her murmur, “She works miracles, she does.”

Noria de la Aceña: The Water Wheel

Cuevas de San Marcos is brimming with life today. People are talking, smiling, filling the air with their peculiar accent. I go back to my car to reach the water wheel on the banks of the river Genil. It’s about 1km from town towards Cuevas Bajas. The whitish dirt road zigzags amidst the olive groves, dodging the lowest branches. The car leaves a cloud of dust in its wake. I stop for pictures and drive on. A curious, 100% Mediterranean landscape where young olives grow alongside older specimens, some of them being centuries-old. Getting to the water wheel is really easy. The two forks I come across bear clear signs reading “Noria de la Aceña/Ribera del Genil.” I am surprised at the good condition the water wheel is in. It dates back to the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It was made of iron, although the original buckets were made of wood. Partially rehabilitated, the area contains boards explaining how the water wheel works: Since the river flows faster here, the wheel buries its blades in the water, splashing around and humming a never-ending tune. The scene lends some coolness to the hot olive groves. The humming of the wheel sounds natural, like water flowing regularly, falling once and again.


I come closer to the water wheel and its buckets, little by little, step by step. Splash. Splash. Splash. I can feel a few drops on my face. The splashing tune goes on. Splash. Splash. Splash. I look around and feel the privilege of being right here right now: the olives, the might river, the rhythm of the wheel. Splash. Splash. Splash.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Museum of Archaeology: The Cuevas de San Marcos Museum of Archaeology contains items whose timeline goes from prehistoric times to the Early Middle Ages. There are, for instance, Palaeolithic and Neolithic findings, as well as Punic-Roman artifacts found in the Iznájar reservoir (loom weights, glass, etc.) or Spanish-Muslim pottery and Visigothic material from Medina de Belda. The collections at the museum are used for educational purposes. (Phone: (+34) 952 727 007; visits: by appointment only.)
Andalusian Hound Fair: In mid-April, Cuevas de San Marcos plays host to the Andalusian Hound Fair, which includes a Blackberry Bush Competition for Andalusian hounds. Boasting a long tradition of Andalusian hound breeding, Cuevas the San Marcos is home to some of the finest pedigree dogs of this breed worldwide.
Useful links: If you want to learn more about Cuevas de San Marcos, the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Cuevas de San Marcos Town Hall, and the region of Northeastern Málaga can be of great help.

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