Tuesday, 23 November 2010

And the delicate landscape goes up. It goes up as if wanting to reach the summit of that huge crag emerging like a colossal barrier. The crag has a rock heart, a hidden garden throbbing to the rhythm set by Tethys, an ocean as old as humankind. The hidden treasure has been chiselled by time. It’s an ever-changing treasure at the mercy of cold, wind, or meteorites. It’s an ancient garden made of ancient stone. It’s the hidden heart of Villanueva de la Concepción. It’s garden featuring sinkholes and pits. It’s El Torcal, the hidden heart.

Coming Closer to El Torcal

And as I climb up, I can see the white rocks stand on end, the earth laden with rocks harden, the megalithic crags hang over me –huge stone sheets. Contrary to Lot’s wife in the Bible, I’ll become a statue of salt if I look ahead, for what I can see looking back is the full relief map of Málaga Province –a privileged landscape in which the sky and the sea blend, and the horizon merges with the peaks of the mountains. Only the morning mist seems to be unaffected by the distance spell. Before reaching the visitor centre, I park by the Diego Monea viewpoint. As soon as I get out of my car, I am met with bells. It’s the sheep and goats in their domains. The viewpoints affords matchless views; I could say it’s the best viewpoint in the province. I can see the boundaries of the mountains in Granada, Axarquía, Málaga City, Sierra de Ronda, Sierra de las Nieves, the Málaga Mountains. It’s just amazing: it feels as if the whole province could be kept in the palm of my hand. I drive ahead in the greyish lunar landscape, entering a world of impossible shapes and sizes. The sinkholes look like a giant’s fingers sunk in the earth. The ground seems to go down into hell and then rise up into heaven. Here nature leaves man behind. To highlight the idea, a flock of sheep blocks the road. I finally reach the visitor centre.

Visitor Centre

With so many visitors coming to El Torcal, the authorities have designed a system to avoid traffic jams along the narrow and winding road that leads to it. When the upper car park is full, you can leave your car in the access parking and reach the site on a minibus. A practical, sustainable, comfortable system. As it’s early in the morning, I can use my car to get to the top. After parking, I walk into the visitor centre. On the outside it looks just like one more rock, blended into the surrounding landscape. A modern facility inside, it caters for the needs of modern travellers, explaining everything on interactive boards, from karst formations to Tethys Ocean to erosion to the whimsical shapes of this wonderful place. You can even play a game on food chains, take a close look at some fossils, or smell the aromas of El Torcal: rosemary, thyme… A 15’ video tells the story of these beautiful geological formations in a sort of gothic tale. Finally, there’s a bar and restaurant to replenish your energy reserves. They’re serving paella today, but there’s more on the menu: migas, eggs and Iberian ham, homemade croquettes, and –of course– porra antequerana. After collecting all the necessary information, I embark on my tour.

The Green Tour of El Torcal

There’re two signposted itineraries to go about El Torcal: the Green Way (1.5km, 45’) and the Yellow Way (120’). I choose the former. The first stretch, however, starting in the car park, is common to both. El Torcal is a perfect combination of blunt and delicate shapes, an endless series of surprises in which your imagination finds monsters, impossible figures, princesses and armoured knights. Silence seems to have frozen here, whereas the rocks seem to move when you see them from the corner of your eye. It’s really a charming landscape, it looks magical –a rock garden where everything seems possible, a city of dolmens where crags become huge skyscrapers. The stone totems look down on me. They’re watching me. I thought what it would be like to walk around on a foggy day, one of those days when El Torcal frowns and shows it’s in a bad mood. It’s better to have read the weather forecast before coming. It’s sunny today; the sky shows its amazing bright blue autumn shades. When I reach the bottom of the ancient ocean, I feel as if a monster’s jaws were about to wolf me down. El Torcal is a place where geology must feel at ease, a sort of natural playground that makes it ideal for kids. The Green Tour is easy to follow. The course is a rocky one, though, so you’re strongly advised not to leave your trail. When I think I’ve seen everything there was to see, I stumble upon new shapes that face me like thousand-eyed giants. Suddenly I make out a silhouette on a hillock. I can’t decide whether it’s rock or man until I see it move. I cut across the monster’s heart, flow along its arteries, amidst the rocks and the twisted trees. I touch everything along the way, feeling the ancient rocks. My tour comes to a close at Mirador de la Escalerilla, a scenic viewpoint overlooking Colmenar, Casabermeja, the Mediterranean Sea, and the terrace roofs of Villanueva de la Concepción in the distance.

Town Centre

Leaving the soaring stone town of El Torcal behind, I drove down to Villanueva de la Concepción. In an attempt to make up for the stone maze, the town itself is full of long straight streets running parallel to one another. This modern layout is the result of the town’s late emergence as an independent village (it’s Málaga Province’s 101st municipality). Until 2009, it was part of Antequera. So, although it has a long history that dates back to the Neolithic Age, the town itself is very, very young. “The town of Villanueva de la Concepción was established on November 3, 1880. In March 1992, it was designated as a Territorial Unit Lower Than a Municipality (EATIM). Nine years later, in 2001, it became an Autonomous Local Entity (ELA), which paved the way to its transformation into a municipality. In 2007, the Andalusian Government acknowledged its right to independence from Antequera, and the right became effective on March 17, 2009, when the Málaga Council of Government authorised the construction of a Town Hall to turn Villanueva de la Concepción into the province’s 101st municipality” (source: Wikipedia). Following directions, I reach the Parish Church of Inmaculada Concepción, parking on San Antonio Street, only 5m away. The parish church is a late-nineteenth-century building with bright white walls and a simple belfry. Inside it features a single nave and a high altar housing an image of the Immaculate Conception and an unusually dark Neoclassical altarpiece. Walking out, I plunge into the straight lines of the streets, staring at the black iron window and balcony bars, at the hallways that anticipate the homes behind them. I feel the strong autumn smells and the homemade food, scented and pungent. I can smell the charcoal. The town is quiet; clean and quiet, as if some authority had just checked it over. Here the everyday hustle and bustle translates into pot and pan banging, into greetings and chit-chat, into distant radios and tunes. It’s impossible to get lost in Villanueva de la Concepción. The information boards lead the way to Plaza de Andalucía –the heart of town– from Callejón del Viento. All popular fiestas and major events take place in the square. What’s more, its benches and orange trees have witnessed the unfolding of recent historical events. It’s a rectangular square with a red granite eight-sided fountain in the middle. And it’s considered to be the town’s main source of water. Another board helps me find the next sight. But before going there I take a break on a bench by an orange tree, feeling the sun warm my skin. I can see the lower formations of El Torcal, still fresh in my memory. I compare its twisted shapes with the straight angles of the fountain, the square, the roofs. I stand up and take Real Street into García Caparrós Square. “The square is an idyllic place to spend the long summer evenings in the shade of its majestic elm trees,” a sign reads. I agree. My autumn morning is in fact quite similar to the summer evenings; the light is pretty much the same. Three streets lead to García Caparrós Square –Nueva, Plantel Juvenil, and García Caparrós–, so it’s a very popular transit area. In the middle there’s a gurgling fountain. When Charles III commissioned the construction of the Royal Road that connected Málaga to Madrid, Villanueva de la Concepción became a strategic node in the country’s communications network. Three bridges were built to improve access to it. They’re León, El Horcajo, and Arroyo Cauche. History fans can still visit them.

Bidding Farewell

With the warmth of the sun on my back, I fancy El Torcal. I draw it in my mind, I go about its furrows and twisted passageways, its dark caves and grey stone giants. It’s like a dream: ghostlike projections, teethed horizons, impossible trails. I imagine Tethys Ocean, deep under the place where I’m standing now. I can see how Villanueva de la Concepción emerged from the depth of the sea, bearing a crown of stone in its neck.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to do before coming to El Torcal: Check the weather forecast; the road is easy to negotiate, but it can get nasty in the rain, ice, or snow. Bring your camera and binoculars along. And pay a visit to the visitor centre to get a clearer idea of what to see.
Independence Day: On November 3, Villanueva de la Concepción celebrates its establishment as a rural village. It’s one of the major celebrations in town, with sporting games, a festival, and a tribute to the contributions of the elderly to the town’s growth and transformation into a municipality.
Bean Day: Villanueva de la Concepción produces about 1 to 1.5 million beans a year. It’s no wonder, then, that there’s a day when the town pays tribute to its magic crop. On Bean Day, more than 2,000 bean casserole helpings are served for free. Celebrations begin at 10:00 a.m., when the local bars start serving beans in olive oil as the bands of verdiales begin to play. At noon Plaza de Andalucía becomes the heart of the feast, as here locals and out-of-towners can taste the casserole and other bean dishes prepared by local restaurants. Bean Day is held in April.

Useful links: To learn more about Villanueva de la Concepción, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Villanueva de la Concepción Town Hall. I’ve also relied on two personal websites on the town itself and El Torcal.

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