Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A lanky man walks amidst the rows of orange trees. He carries a dark hat and a cigar in his hand. And a notebook under his arm. He’s strolling around, enjoying the perfume of the fruit trees. One step at a time. He has many names: “The Englishman,” “The Traveller,” “The Writer,” “Don Gerald,” “Mr Brenan.” He came to Alhaurín el Grande and settled here a few months ago. He chose the town as the place to live in, write in, walk in. I see him amidst the rows of orange trees and wonder if his shadow is real.

Zooming in

The morning mist covering the fruit trees like a subtle wool cloud is soaked with their exuberant citric aromas, pervading the air with them. Alhaurín el Grande has an Arabic origin, for “Al-haur” means “valley” or “basin” and the full name is thought to mean “Garden of Allah,” as the old inhabitants of the land used to call it. It is a quiet village on a hillock, in the first northern slopes of Sierra de Mijas. From here it watches over its fields of orange and lemon trees. The area is peppered with ancestral homes –modern cortijos showing their towers, skylights, walls enclosing tamed gardens. The cool of the early morning finds its way along the long straight streets leading to the town centre. It’s still silent in the autumnal morning which hasn’t quite set in.

First Streets, Church, Archway

I accessed the town through the road from Coín, down Convento Street into Plaza Alta. This was where I parked my car. I took the tour book out which I had downloaded from the Town Hall website, which proved to be extremely helpful. I got out and began my tour down Cruz Street, the early sunlight painting the houses in shiny gold. Life was waking up, quiet and calm. Big, high-roofed houses whose shady hallways and doors led to bright patios. I let the street guide me. Passing by a baker’s shop, I remembered Alhaurín el Grande was famous for its wide variety of high-quality, traditionally made bread. I bought myself a loaf (€1.60) –huge, crunchy, fragrant, smelling of wheat toast, with a strong crust and coated with flour which stained my hands. In fact, it is on Cruz Street that the first Bread Museum in Spain opened in 2007 – a tribute to the Garcías, a family of bakers, the owners of “El Colmenero de Alhaurín.” Then I went down Albaicín Street (to which I’d come back later) and turned left, after the steeple of the Church of La Encarnación. I reached Plaza Baja in front of the church –a huge square where the bars had already arranged their breakfast tables. “The Church of La Encarnación was built just after the Christians settled in the village in 1485. It was built at the top of the hill, where there used to be a castle. It is dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Gracia, the Patroness of Alhaurín el Grande. Traces of the original building can still be seen, like the Gothic ribbed vault in the lower part of the tower. The whole church was rehabilitated in the nineteenth century to get a Neoclassical appearance,” my tour book reads. The church was a solid square building with a six-sided tower crowned by a bright blue tile steeple. Inside, it features a bright, longish nave with a white marble floor, ochre trims, and wood column bases. On the sides, eight niches featuring different images. The ringing bells spread their sound across the adjoining streets. In its wake, I came to the back of the church, where the Arco del Cobertizo was. “The Cobertizo Archway dates back to Muslim times (twelfth century). It used to be the entrance to the medina, probably part of the city walls,” my guide explained. “It lay near the souk, where farm and cattle products where sold and bought.” I could picture it: travellers and traders coming and going, laden with products, spices, cloths, fruit, fish, meat; donkeys and mules climbing up from the bottom of the valley.

Chapel of San Sebastián, Houses

Past the Archway and the house of Nuestra Señora de Gracia Fraternity, I walked down across the Village Gateway and came to the House of Culture, a handsome rehabilitated building with a whitewashed façade and black barred windows. Crossing Ollerías Street, I reached Plaza de San Sebastián, preceding the Chapel of San Sebastián –a curious building of Muslim origin that in 1485 was already dedicated to St Sebastian (a saint the Catholic Monarchs were devout followers of). Remarkable features: an elaborate single-eye belfry with two bells and purely Andalusian ornaments resembling four pottery vases in glossy white and lilac. I retraced my steps back to the corner of Convento and Albaicín Streets, surprised at the high number of stately homes, some of them dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries –huge constructions in bright colours against a white background, with grilled doors and windows, tiled hallways, patios and fruit trees. A mix of jasmine and citric perfumes pervades the air. Alhaurín el Grande smells sweet.

San Rafael Archway, Chapel of Vera Cruz, Town Hall

Going up Albaicín Street, I got ever broader images of the Guadalhorce Valley at my back –a huge basin filled with fruit trees. In the foreground, the blue belfry of the church. At the far end of the street (which was steeper than it looked), there was the Portón de San Rafael, the old archway that marked the entrance to one of the several chaplaincies that used to be in Alhaurín el Grande and the exit into the sierras of Mijas. The so-called portón was in fact a brick archway, with a niche bearing an image of St Raphael and plain cross on top. The street on the left lead to Arquilla del Agua Park, where I sat down to regain strength and enjoy myself. I was close to the town boundaries, getting glimpses of Sierra de Mijas a few miles away, with the Chapel of San Antón standing out against the sierras. After the break I went back to the Portón de San Rafael, crossing Albaicín Street and then Molinos de Arriba Street and getting to Calle de la Calderona. Even in this older district, there were some extravagant homes, offering hints of a noble past. Long streets whose twists and turns prevented me from seeing their far ends. After changing its name to Calle de Burgos, La Calderona led to the main street, Calle Convento, which I’d taken before to get to the town centre. I turned right. A complicated network sprawled here, with streets and alleyways going up and down to build the layout of Alhaurín el Grande. Sauntering down to Plaza Alta, I went past Plaza del Convento, where the Town Hall and the Chapel of Vera Cruz (now undergoing rehabilitation) stood almost back to back. It was a quiet square, overlooking the Guadalhorce Valley and Serranía de Ronda, with Sierra de las Nieves in the foreground and white brushstrokes in the distance: the towns of Yunquera, Alozaina, Casarabonela (right), and Coín (in front). Why was this place called “Plaza del Convento”? There used to be a convent where the Town Hall stands now: the Franciscan Convent of Santa Catalina. Now, the original basement is part of the Town Hall, serving as storage facilities and event venues. Since the Town Hall door was open, I walked in to find a huge Andalusian courtyard. As to the Chapel of Vera Cruz, “it first was a Muslim temple and then a Christian chapel in the sixteenth century. It was torn down alongside the Convent of Santa Catalina (now the local Town Hall) by the Napoleonic troops on August 27, 1812, which killed 104 Alhaurinos. It was rebuilt in the Neo-Gothic style in 1921. It stands out for its façade decorated with floral and vegetal motifs, whose twin towers, crowned by slender steeples, flank the door below a beautiful rose window” (source: my faithful tour guide). Oh, war! You change the history and the looks of towns! Down Camino de Coín Street, I bumped into the Lucena or Twelve-Spout Fountain, which was renovated in the twentieth century. Locals say this fountain has never stopped pouring water, not even in times of drought. I cooled myself and found my way to Plaza Alta, where I’d left my car.


I could hear echoes from Gerald Brenan, the murmur of his poems and stories. I can picture him wearing his hat, standing in the higher part of the Albaicín, strolling down Convento Street, sitting by the Coberitzo Archway, thinking about his next novel or article. I could hear his pen scratching his notebook, and the sound gets mixed with the breeze of the orange and lemon trees. I took a seat myself and opened his autobiography, reading about his life in the South, in the South of Andalusia, and here, in the South of Málaga.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Gerald Brenan and Alhaurín el Grande: Gerald Brenan was a British writer and Hispanist. He was also an inveterate traveller. He came to Alhaurín el Grande on January 18, 1968. From 1968 to 1973, he travelled in Greece, Turkey and Italy. In 1973, he published the biography of St John of the Cross. One year later, he released his second book of memoirs, Memoria personal (1920-1972). In 1977 he published a book of poems in English, Los mejores momentos. Poemas and one year later, Pensamientos en una estación seca, a collection of aphorisms based on his numerous readings. In 1982, the village of Yegen in Granada paid homage to him and he was awarded the Order of Knight Commander of the British Empire. On the contrary, his wealth shrank by the year. On October 11, 1983, Ugíjar, a town in Granada, named him an “adoptive son.” In 1984, his financial difficulties became evident. He was sent to a residential home in Pinner, a suburb in Greater London. His followers in Spain launched a campaign to have him brought back. They succeeded: with the help of the Andalusian and Spanish Governments, Brenan returned to Alhaurín el Grande. The Gerald Brenan Foundation was created on June 1, 1984. Brenan died at 93 on January 19, 1987. He donated his body to medical science, so his mortal remains went to the School of Medicine of Málaga University, to be cremated on January 20, 2001 and buried in the Anglican Cemetery of Málaga with his wife, the American poet and novelist Gamel Woolsey. Brenan wrote about 50 books, most of them travel books.
Easter: In Alhaurín el Grande, Holy Week processions take place amidst the “battle” between the purples and the greens, that is, the Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno Fraternity (procession on Maundy Thursday) and the Santa Vera Cruz Fraternity (procession on Good Friday). The “battle” consists in having the best images and floats, and all the citizens join in the celebrations. These includes a re-enactment of scenes from the Passion of Jesus Christ.
Useful links: For more information on Alhaurín el Grande, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Alhaurín El Grande Town Hall. To learn more about Gerald Brenan’s life and works, check the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin.

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