Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Tolox rests. It rests on a hill, in a gorge that shelters it from the wind. It looks like a white chasm, a whitewashed wound against the huge mountains. It seems to fall from the majestic summit like an avalanche in the form of a white hamlet. I watched it from the open area by the humble Chapel of San Roque, a few steps before the town centre –a natural viewpoint affording matchless views of the powerful rocks of Sierra de las Nieves, a Biosphere Reserve as well as the recipient of the EDEN Award and the Skål International Eco Tourism Award. Tolox oozes with the sap of the sierras. If you want to visit it, you have to find it, spot it, reach it. It’s not the type of town you come to because it’s just by the road. You have to go to Tolox. You have to make your way to Tolox. And it’s worth it.

Of Characters and Stories

The history of Tolox is pregnant with interesting characters and legends. Maybe it’s because it’s a secluded place, where the embers helped cook beautiful stories while sending charming smells off. I could fancy old ladies weaving stories about Umar Ibn Hafsun, his son Soleiman and their defeat in the hands of Umayyad caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III, or about the Spanish Inquisition and the banning of popular dance and music, where Arab rhythms
reverberated. There’s also the story of Micaela Merchán and
Padre José: “This ‘story’ has its origin in the preaching and influence of a former convict known as ‘Padre José’ and Teresa Villatoro on local women, Micaela Merchán among them. The women said they’d seen Virgin Mary and dead people too, hurling anathemas and warnings of hell against those who didn’t believe them. In the evening of March 23, 1886, they announced the end of the world was coming and burnt everything they had in a bonfire. They got undressed (“encuerichi,” they said in town) and danced around the fire, flogging themselves like Medieval flagellants. Then the Civil Guard arrested them and they went trial. Only Micaela Merchán was sentenced to serve four months and one day in prison for injuries and public scandal” (source: Costa del Sol Tourist Board website).

Arrival, Parking, First Impressions, Museum of Popular Arts and Crafts

Tolox is a town of ups and downs. And narrow streets. The best thing to do is park on one of the streets adjoining the town centre and then just go for a relaxed walk. I parked on Cuesta del Caño and reached the town centre from Calle Encina. There were signs clearly showing the way. If you want your tour to be even easier, you can download and print your Tolox street map at the Town Hall website. Calle Encina housed the Museum of Popular Arts and
Crafts and the Tourist Office. “The Museum of Popular Arts and
Crafts first opened in 1992. Its furniture, utensils, and photographs recreate life in town in the late nineteenth century. Its rooms include a bedroom containing a bed with a wool mattress, a missal, espadrilles, and the traditional Tolox outfit; a high-class dining room with toys, radios, a ration book, and ‘pan de higo pintao;’ a kitchen with a boiler and chimney, a coffee bean roaster, jars, salt grinders, and irons; and a shed where you can see farming, baking, milling, or carpenter’s tools, the most amazing being the threshing machine. The museum is open Tue-Sun 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-6:00 p.m. (October-May) and 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. and 6:00-9:00 p.m. (June-September)” (source: Tolox Town Hall website).

To Plaza Alta

From the museum, Balneario Street leads to Plaza Alta as it gives an idea of what Tolox is like: narrow snaking streets, tight clusters of houses and doorways that allow for shreds of the bright blue sky only when you look up. The sun glittered against the whitewashed walls, giving rise to playful lights and shadows. The streets came suddenly to a halt and were replaced by flights of steps leading to new streets, and so on. There were climbs everywhere around. Plaza Alta is the venue for local feasts and celebrations. On one of the sides there’s the House of Hidalgo Fernández Villamor. Built in the sixteenth century, the house could only be accessed through a staircase even in the twentieth century. A mansion with barred doors, balconies, and windows, the house lies in a privileged setting. You can feel its noble character.

Rinconadas del Castillo and Church of San Miguel

You could smell the autumn in Tolox: maybe roasted chestnuts, maybe the traces of homemade stews, maybe the embers of orange trees… Opposite the House of Fernández Villamor there was the road that brought me to the church. My steps got me deeper into Rinconadas del Castillo, a district with an unmistakable Morisco past visible in the zigzagging alleyways and labyrinthine layout. The Parish Church of San Miguel Arcángel featured a main door with a
surprisingly red brick lintel, just like the edges below
the eaves or the belfry tower roof. The bells rang, the door opened, and I entered a dark world. The church looked old inside, full of shadowy corners under an impressive coffered ceiling. The main altarpiece features St Michael clutching his fearful redeeming sword in his fist. Built in the sixteenth century, this parish church sheltered the Christians during the Morisco riots in 1568. Burnt down in 1577, it was rebuilt and then renovated in 1632.
Leaving the church behind, I plunged into Rinconadas del Castillo. Beyond the streets, the mountains, peaks of all heights adjacent to
the harsh façades of the houses. Rinconadas del Castillo
spreads around the church where the old Arab fortress used to be. The district closes on itself and then opens up again and closes back, its many surprises including a narrow covered alleyway, just 1m wide, which could be a match to “Callejón de Araceli” in Canillas de Albaida (Axarquía). It’s a short passageway, but it’s a journey in time to Tolox’s Moorish past. You’re strongly advised to let go in Rinconadas del Castillo (after a short stroll you’ll understand the meaning of the name), getting lost and finding your way once again to stumble upon amazing corners, impossible squares, broken alleys, and minute courtyards brimming with flowers. When I emerged from the maze, I was faced with the steep horizon of the mountains again. The autumn sun painted the walls in shades of ochre. I took a look at the shady fertile ravines, where orange and lemon trees grew. I could hear the murmur of flowing water.

Fuente Amargosa Spa

Led by the water, as if its sound were a secret tune, my feet retraced their steps along Calle Balneario and came to an eucalyptus-lined walkway. (Later I was to find the trees had been planted by the students of a public school some 20 years before.) I bumped into one, two, three men walking at a slow pace with their hands in their back. “Good morning.” “Good morning.” My step was faster than theirs. I could picture the Fuente Amargosa Spa after having
read about it: “Water springs had been popular in
Tolox since the dawn of time. They were classified as ‘amargosas’ (bitter) after their funny taste. Locals relied on their healing power for a series of illnesses in infusions or baths. It was the Tolox-born chemist José García Rey who first noticed the healing power of the springs and conducted a study which ultimately led to a deep understanding of their properties. Mr García Rey performed all the
necessary tests on the mineral water, analysing it and
classifying it as alkaline-bromide, ammonium-sulphite, crenate-
ferromagnesian. The spa opened in 1869, but it was destroyed by river flooding in 1906. It was redeveloped by Manuel del Río. In the late nineteenth century, the spa attracted politicians, artists, and bullfighters” (source: Fuente Amargosa Spa website). The spa is set on a depression, yellow and white under the green sierras in the background. I felt I was in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when the members of the Málaga bourgeoisie came to alleviate the symptoms or their illnesses. It was very quiet this time of year, for the spa is closed in winter. I took a look at the terrace and the silent corridors and then sat down, listening to the murmur of water and feeling the subtle smells that are typical of spas. I closed my eyes and just let go.


I fingered the shapes of the sun on the façades. A painting made with light and shadow with ochre hues, sky-blue, and mountainous green. I fingered the silhouette of the majestic sierras, followed the smell of autumn stews, brought the legends to life, remembered past riots… And now Tolox painted a subtler, more complex work in my mind, a painting in which unique colours merged to create a unique, undecipherable essence combining history, nature, deeply-rooted traditions, old rituals, and secret places. You have to go to Tolox. You have to make your way to Tolox. And it’s worth it.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Hiking and mountaineering in Sierra de las Nieves: Tolox wouldn’t be what it is without the sierras. The town is part of the Sierra de las Nieves Biosphere Reserve and El Torrecilla, the second highest mountain in Málaga (1,919m) lies within its boundaries. It can be accessed from amazing places like Puerto de los Pilones and its gall oak wood or Cañada del Cuerno and its old population of Spanish firs. Hundreds of hiking trails cut across Tolox, taking visitors to unforeseen peaks, unfathomable caves, impossible spots. Click here for hiking routes. Look for the traces of defunct trades, e.g. snow remover, along the way.
Mardi Gras and Día de los Polvos (Powder Day): “Tolox is a white village, but it gets even whiter in Carnival, especially on Monday and Tuesday, after the old rite of men covering the women they love in talcum powder as a token of their love. This tradition has its origins in the fight of a Moor and a Christian girl over a single man. They were both baking bread when they began to quarrel. Soon they were throwing flour at one another. Now the situation is somewhat different, for people powder one another irrespective of love or gender, with many out-of-towners taking part in the feast. Also, people wear fancy dresses and enter competitions. There’re bands, traditional dances (guasa, tío del candil), and the burial of the sardine. All the events contribute to the creation of a festive atmosphere that makes Carnival unique in Tolox. The festival has been designated as a Fiesta of Provincial Tourist Interest. It’s held just before Ash Wednesday” (source: Tolox Town Hall website).
Día de las Mozas (Girls’ Day): This tradition began in Christmas 1539, when a Moor girl and a Christian woman fought over the use of an oven to bake their confections. Their fight led to a strife between Moors and Christians in general. The latter went to locals for help, for they couldn’t relay on troops. They rang bells and conches to summon the people. The racket frightened the Moors, who thought a Christian battalion was coming and ran away. Since then, locals have taken to the streets on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, banging pots and pans and offering local foods to taste.
Useful links: For more information about Tolox, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Tolox Town Hall, where you’ll find a lot of updated information and related documents. If you’re interested in the spa, check the website of Fuente Amargosa. For general information, go to the official websites of the Association of Sierra de las Nieves Town Councils and Sierra de las Nieves Biosphere Reserve.

N.B.: The photos of the Museum of Popular Arts and Crafts and Powder Day have been taken from the Tolox Town Hall website.

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