Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Casabermeja is a solid hamlet, a cluster of houses, crowned by a belfry tower. The pinnacle seems to scrape the bright blue sky, a lighthouse jutting out to welcome visitors from Antequera, Córdoba, or Granada. Casabermeja greets people like the gateway to Málaga, showcasing its mighty whitewashed streets, its impressive church, its impossible layout –everything at a glance. It’s the password to enter the Costa del Sol. And when you leave the first moment behind, you can see the burial mounds and tombs and cylinders lying on the ground in your rear-view mirror. Everything looks glittering white. Your rear-view mirror shows the crosses sticking out. You ask what this is all about and Bermejos answer, “It’s the cemetery of San Sebastián.”

Zooming in

Casabermeja is a knot in the regional communications network, crisscrossed as it is by roads that connect with Antequera, Córdoba, or Granada. It’s the first impression many visitors get of Málaga Province, and it’s unequivocal: steep, narrow streets, white all over, a totem-like church… all the ingredients of the Andalusian recipe, of the imagery of Andalusia that squares with reality. Casabermeja is a lighthouse guiding travellers along the winding valley of the river Guadalmedina and across the Mountains of Málaga, to the promised land of the Costa del Sol beaches. Today I’m going in the opposite direction, so the first thing I spot before coming to the port of Las Pedrizas is the niches of San Sebastián graveyard. I really want to have a look at it. It was designated as an Asset of Cultural Interest in 2006, being the first cemetery in Andalusia to be granted such high-degree protection. I stop under the highway and climb up the way to the town centre. There’s a parking sign on the right. Leaving my car here, I’ll need to negotiate a couple of climbs, but the views of the church-dominated hamlet are unrivalled.

The Church, the Fountains, the Castellum

The church of Casabermeja is really impressive, with its impossibly high belfry tower supported and raised by the rest of the building. I can see four of the five superimposed parts, as if in a children’s construction game. A curious detail I notice: in street name plates (tiles), the streets’ names are illustrated with matching drawings. The plate of Calle Palomo, for instance, bears a pigeon; Callejón de la Luz shows a streetlamp, and so on. I soon reach the square in front of the church. There’s the Tourist Office opposite –a good place to get yourself a few maps and brochures. I ask the assistant how to get to Torre Zambra, a natural viewpoint and tower affording great panoramic views of the Mountains of Málaga, El Torcal, and the coastline. She explains you can even get the key to the tower for even better views; you just have to call in advance. I take a few minutes to know where I am. The parish church of Nuestra Señora del Socorro is the most important sight in downtown Casabermeja. It’s undeniably beautiful… and really big. The austere white and red brick façade includes a simple stone round arch. You can see the interior from outside, with its three distinct naves. At the far end you can spot a more elaborate part, with a dome above the high altar. The tower stands out, with its five superimposed parts. The church was built in the sixteenth century and renovated 200 years later. Inside, a black-and-white diamond floor pattern, barrel vaults, three large naves, and the side chapels of Our Lady of El Carmen (left) and Jesus of Nazareth (right). Upon walking out, I can hear the bells ringing, sending pigeons away. There are many old houses in Casabermeja, with long hallways and courtyards converted to large halls or living rooms. I can make out a fireplace, a man reading the newspaper as he’s sitting at a small round table. I can smell the embers, with distant olive and almond notes. By the church there’s a map board showing where you are. I take a look. I walk down the street on the right, San Sebastián, which leads to the town cemetery. But I want to visit the Castellum Aquae first, an old Roman construction used as a fountain for decades. Only the vaulted entrance and the garden have come down to us. These elements are enough to imagine it must have been a curious place.

San Sebastián Graveyard

The visiting hours are at the entrance gate: 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Walking through the gate, you enter a realm of mournful silence. A couple of workers nod their heads at me. A family are carrying flowers. One of the first signs I notice highlights the importance of the place I’m about to visit: “In an attempt to keep the cemetery’s traditional aspect as an Asset of Cultural Interest, the town authorities inform that, in order to carry out works (tombstone replacement, niche renovation, etc.), you should contact the technical service.” A cypress-lined walk leads to the chapel. It’s a simple yet stout building, as white as the surrounding tombs. The journey through the cemetery can be undertaken in two different spirits, both equally respectful: curiosity for history, culture, funerary architecture or religious feeling and interest in death rituals and ceremonies. Far from being just a graveyard, the Town Cemetery of Casabermeja is worth a visit. It’s a curious place, where tombs, a.k.a. nicheras, have taken a weird form with time. “Given the shape of niches, three parts can be identified: bottom (door through which the deceased is introduced), middle (tombstone and ornaments), and top (frontispiece). This has misled people to think the dead were buried standing up in Casabermeja” (source: Town Hall website). Before becoming an Asset of Cultural Interest, the cemetery had been designated as a National Monument in 1980. The wrong idea about burials in Casabermeja came from the shape of the graves –a half cylinder lying on the ground preceded by a standing frontispiece. All niches are crowned by an iron cross, and all the crosses are different (there’re hundreds of them). The graveyard was developed after a decree by King Charles III that forbade burials in the “sacred ground” of churches in 1787, ordering the people to bury the deceased far from town centres. In 1786, the town had got 400 reales to start developing a new graveyard, the one adjoining the church being fully occupied. This is how the cemetery of San Sebastián came into being. At first, only the poorer citizens buried their dead there. Their graves where simple white stone mounds, decorated with flowers and bearing a small cross. The rich kept burying their dead in the parish church until a new decree prohibited this practice in 1804. As a result, the cemetery saw its graves become more elaborate, vaulted, and featuring peculiar frontispieces. Moreover, the rugged terrain led to the development of winding paths and an irregular layout, full of slopes and secluded places. I walk around. The grey sky looks stormy. I take pictures of the nicheras. The crosses stand out against the stormy sky. There’s a surprise round every corner, and the half cylinders of the graves give rise to a large funereal field. The elaborate frontispieces are covered with flowers. I read the names and dates. I think of the people lying there: Who were they? What did they do? What did they like? In the higher part of the cemetery, by the entrance gate, there’re some of the old graves, the little white stone mounds. They’re overwhelming.

Chapel of El Chorro and Zambra Tower

Leaving the graveyard behind, I go back to the public car park where I’d left my car. A road sign shows the way to the recreation area and the Zambra tower. I follow it, driving up the road and past the chapel of El Chorro, next to the recreational area bearing the same name. The chapel is a modern temple, built in 1989, a part glass structure where you can take a peek inside. It’s surrounded by tall cypresses, beyond which you can make out the town itself. I drive on, making a few more stops to take pictures. I get panoramic views of Las Pedrizas, El Torcal, and the town below. I ask for directions to get to the Zambra tower. Then I have to choose between climbing by car (1.5km dirt road slope) or on foot. I decide to go walking, but the weather is far from ideal. The earth is wet, but I’m sure the views are worth the effort of climbing up. Slowly, enjoying the climb, I make it to the summit. And it’s really a summit, for the Zambra tower stands on a hillock. It’s a well-kept tower whose door is accessed through an exterior iron staircase. As it begins to rain, the mist rising up from the sea steams my panoramic views. Maybe next time. Still, I sit down and feel the first drops fall on my skin.


Silence dressed in white. The graveyard in Casabermeja has a lot of stories to tell. Stories of the past, present, and future. Names and facts and dates and memories. Withered and booming flowers. Alleys and corners. Lots of different crosses –proof of blacksmith’s ingenuity. Nicheras: Why like this? Who was the first to make a vaulted tomb that looks like a cylinder? Maybe there’s no answer to these questions. Or maybe I should ask experts. The questions remain in the air, hovering in the lanes of a fairytale graveyard.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

All Saints’ Day (November 1): “Casabermeja is a town that worships the deceased. The worship reaches its climax on All Saints’ Day, when local women whitewash the niches and tombs, bring new flower to them, and lit candles for their dead” (source: Town Hall website).
Cante Grande Festival: “This festival dates back to 1969, when the Board of Town Celebrations replaced the traditional flamenco number on the fair’s programme by a festival of flamenco singing, dancing, and guitar playing, which came to be known as Festival de Cante Grande. At present, the festival is considered to be one of the most important flamenco events that take place in Andalusia throughout the year, gathering the best of cantaores: José Menese, Camarón de la Isla, José Merced, and many others. The best thing about this festival is the audience. Locals are respectful of flamenco. Their respect stems from their knowledge of the genre. They have made the saying ‘Listening is an art’ their own. They sit at tables in groups and listen to the songs as they sip their drinks. On open-air stage is set up, the illuminated belfry tower being its only scenery. Rosemary and mint are scattered on the floor, adding pleasant, refreshing smells” (source: Town Hall website).
Useful links: To learn more about Casabermeja and its graveyard, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Casabermeja Town Hall.

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