Thursday, 13 January 2011

The wind blows, whistles, howls amidst the rocky outcrops. Two birds of prey fly in circles at the feet of a king. Alfonso XIII’s gaunt body shakes to the rhythm of the wind. He’s 70m high, treading a walkway made of wood, iron, and concrete, attached to the wall in the inner part of the impossibly narrow gorge known as Desfiladero de los Gaitanes. It’s overwhelming. The walkway, only 1m wide, is comprised within the water works of the Guadalhorce Reservoir. The King shudders. It’s 1921, and the King’s visit to this place is bound to give birth to a legend: the Story of Caminito del Rey.

Álora, “The Fenced-In Town”

Álora rests in an area comprising three hills. One of them holds the tight town centre. The second looks the Guadalhorce Valley in the eye, featuring the Alí Ben Falcum “al Baezi” viewpoint. The third is home to the Chapel of El Calvario. In between, the heart of the white village beats, the core of a three-node network. Álora is alive and breaths, taking in the air in the hills and breathing old traditions out in every corner. Housing 14,000 people, it’s managed to keep the essence of an old village, with an undeniable Morisco layout: irregular, discontinuous, reconstructed. Turdetans, Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Christians… Many ancient civilisations lived here, defending the castle with steely determination. They made the village’s impregnable walls, protecting its coveted geostrategic location. No wonder there’s a romance that describes Álora as “la bien cercada,” telling the epic story of the battle between Muslims and Christians that put an end to the life of Governor of Andalusia Diego Gómez de Rivera in 1434.

Arrival and Parking

Since Álora is a typical Arab village, with impossibly narrow and steep streets, you’d rather leave your car on the outskirts, using your feet instead to get around. Coming along the Málaga-Campillos road, you have to take the detour at the first town centre sign. There’s a long climb and then a large parking area, where the town market is held once a week. This is the starting point of my tour, up an orange tree-lined alley leading to the junction of Cantarranas and Algarrobo Streets. Take a look on the right; you’ll see the monument to the women working in the fields.

To the Church of La Encarnación

Maze of streets. Labyrinth of alleyways and little squares. A fabulous Arab village within a densely populated town. In fact, the town centre is huge, reaching the hills and adapting to fit their geography. Oh, yes, architecture can be imaginative. The Town Hall is a remarkable building, as are traditional houses I come across along the way. In modern times, Álora had a glorious period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, triggered by its agriculture-based economy. The stately mansions you can still see today are the result of its past glories. The smells of the late autumn fill my nose: pots and stews, hearty dishes, Perotas soup (made with bread and vegetables), mint… Going after the odorous notes, I come to Plaza Baja de la Despedía, past large hallways, hidden interior courtyards, elaborate doors, gates, lintels, and classical columns, windows behind black bars, polished bronze door knockers in the shape of tight fists, claws, or doves… A tour here is like travelling in history. Opposite the church there’s a house whose plate reads, “His Majesty Philip IV, King of Spain, accompanied by his favourite, Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count and Duke of Olivares, and other men of the court visited this place, Álora, on April 2, 1624, staying in this house.” I asked my way to Plaza de la Despedía, where Aloreños celebrate their popular fiestas. But my eye was caught by the church. A huge religious building with stone walls and a tall, tall belfry tower –the second most majestic and largest belfry tower in Málaga Province, trailing behind the Málaga Cathedral only. It took 99 years to build the church, from 1600 to 1699. I notice it’s very dark inside. Unlike all the other churches I’ve been to in Málaga, this one features no whitewashed walls but rather the original stones. This makes it unique. There’re kids rushing around, singing carols and flitting from one side chapel to another. The over-decorated altar stands in sharp contrast to the austere, bare stone walls. Last but not least, the coffered ceiling is quite impressive, its beams intertwining in fantastic ways.

The Castle, the Old Church, and the Scenic Viewpoint

Starting at Plaza Baja, Ancha Street is a steep uphill climb. Next to it there’s the Cervantes Scenic Viewpoint, named after the author of Don Quixote, who was in Málaga for some time, as a member of the royal administration. The walk up the street takes a while, if you are to undertake it quietly and easily. As you go up, it gets even more twisted. But the summit affords the most impressive panoramic views of the Guadalhorce Valley. You can also see other districts that are part of this municipality, with Sierra de Mijas facing you and Sierra de las Nieves on the right. Behind you, a complex defensive-religious system made up by the old Parish Church of La Encarnación, built on the ruins of the larger mosque in town in 1484, after Álora was seized by the Catholic Monarchs; the viewpoint of Alí Ben Falcum “al Baezi;” and the fortress built by the Phoenicians in the tenth century B.C. and then successively reconstructed by the Romans from Iluro, the Arabs, who called the village “Álora,” and the Christians, who besieged it and settled for good. This makes the setting of the romance “Álora, la bien cercada,” about the death of Governor Diego Gómez de Rivera in 1434. “Álora, the fenced-in city,/ lying next to the river,/ the governor besieged you/ on a Sunday morning,/ with workers and soldiers/ a gap he made in your walls./ You should’ve seen the Moors, men and women/ fleeing for the castle;/ the women carried clothes,/ the men, flour and wheat./ Just above the wall path/ their banner flies unfurled./ There, behind the battlements,/ a Moor’s been left behind/ with a crossbow in his hand/ and a pilum on the top./ And he was saying out loud,/ most people have heard his words,/ “Truce, truce, dear Governor,/ and the castle will be for you.”/ He raised his visor up,/ to see who was speaking./ He was shot in the head,/ and the brains spilled out./ Pablo takes his left hand,/ his right hand Jacobico/ (they were two slaves of his/ he had raised since they were little),/ they take him to the masters,/ to see if they can shelter him./ The words he spoke just then,/ as a sort of will he told them/ that commended his soul to God/ and that his soul had already left him.” I skirt the walls without being able to get in, understanding the village’s geostrategic importance, the challenges posed to the besiegers by its high walls and impregnable towers. I keep walking, gazing at Álora being rocked by the hills.

From the Chapel of Veracruz to the Convent of Nuestra Señora de las Flores

Climbing down the fortress, I return to the maze of streets. I take a quiet stroll, getting pregnant with the town’s smells and flavours, contemplating its architecture, spotting an aljibe or water well over here, a hidden square over there, and so on. This is how I get to Plaza de Arriba, the Town Hall square, where I ask how to get to the Chapel of Veracruz. “You can’t get lost,” they tell me, showing the way with a hand. Zigzagging, I come to an apparently simple building, marking the old road to Málaga and Álora Station. The chapel is a white and creamy-coloured building whose most valuable feature is its belfry. I go back to my car, for I want to visit the Convent of Nuestra Señora de las Flores, 2km from the town centre. I have to take the roundabout, then the old road to Carratraca to the religious premises. The road is populated with people who’re keen on walking “to the convent and back”: groups of determined women, two middle-aged men and a dog, teenagers in rapper outfits… Leaving the boundary cross behind, I reach the convent. It lies on a hillock affording good views of the area. Standing here, you can imagine the defile of Los Gaitanes and the peaks enclosing the river and narrowing it to create one of the most beautiful landscapes in Málaga Province. Built in the seventeenth century and renovated several times in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the convent is a sober, austere building. The courtyard at the front oozes peace and quiet. I take a seat, letting the fresh air of the surrounding gardens fill me. I’m looking forward to seeing Caminito del Rey after lunch, and the mouth of the gorge, a deep cut into the skin of the Earth.


I’m not having lunch alone this time. I’ve made an appointment with a woman from Álora and her illustrious companion, and we’re meeting in a well-known restaurant, “Los Conejitos,” 2km away from the convent. At “Los Conejitos” you can try the Perotas soup, a dish with a long tradition in Álora. There’s even a celebration in its honour. Greetings, amiable talk, children’s playground, birds, turtles, and good food: tropical salad, Perotas soup, chicken steak, brochettes, Mozarabic-style kid, sodas, water, desserts, coffee. Perotas soup is one of those hearty regional dishes that have gone beyond space and time to become all-time classics. It’s prepared with lightly-fried stale bread, water, onions, peppers, and fruit (grapes, oranges, prickly pears, and the like). A great meal, in good company.

The Gorge of Los Gaitanes and Caminito del Rey

After launch, I set off for the district of El Chorro, a zigzagging road amidst old houses, cortijos, gardens, and groves, leading to El Chorro Reservoir, which feeds on a river trying to escape the narrowness of the gorge. It takes your breath away: rocky crags plunging into unfathomable depths, a geography interrupted all of a sudden, an impossible architecture created by nature, and three sights: a manmade siphon that looks like a column next to the Bobastro ruins to drain the water from the reservoir, flowing 20m down the mountains, Caminito del Rey –a thin line above a precipice born through the rock–, and a narrow gorge (less than 10m wide at some points), 3km long, its walls 70 to 100m high, going deep into the dark recesses of the mountains. I come closer, for I can’t believe my eyes. It’s an amazing spot, as if someone had chiselled it, engraved the original matter of the mountains. It’s a violent tear in the earth, a partition whose bottom is occupied by a subtle yet mighty river. The spot known as Desfiladero de los Gaitanes starts in the neighbouring town of Ardales, in the Conde del Guadalhorce dam, and cuts across the mountains to become the impressive, deep gorge you can see in Álora. The Caminito del Rey, is a narrow walkway attached to the gorge with concrete and iron. It seems to be floating in the air. Lots of adventurers, mountaineers, and daring tourists have given it a try. The name of this walkway has to do with the fact that it was built for King Alfonso XIII to take a look of the water works and the river flowing down the mountains. It was 1921. Rumour has it that the King looked into the abyss and kindly declined the invitation to go for a walk. Since then, the structure attached to the gorge has been used by hundreds of people visiting Málaga Province. With the passing of time and dilapidation, what used to be an adventure became extremely dangerous. As a result, Caminito del Rey was closed down. Now, however, to the delight of past and future visitors, there’s a rehabilitation project under way, scheduled to begin in spring 2011 (check this article on Diario Sur). Lots of people, including myself, will be looking forward to the time when the road is reopened to go between the imposing walls of the spectacular gorge. If you’re not familiar with Caminito del Rey, view the two videos below (source: YouTube. For other videos, just go to this website and find many more.)


The wind failed to shake Alfonso XIII’s body, but it did stir my imagination. So no I fancy the walkway up high and the river down below. A can see a flock of pigeons flying under my feet, and two birds of prey, too. I can hear the thundering river, promising unavoidable dangers. I breathe a sigh and wait. I wait for the reopening. The reopening of Caminito del Rey.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Perotas soup: According to the Costa del Sol Tourist Board website, this soup is so famous that it’s overshadowed other local dishes, based on the top-quality produce of the region’s fertile meadows. It’s an apparently easy-to-prepare soup: lightly-fried bread and water plus season fruit and vegetables (grapes, prickly pears, oranges, peppers, onions…). What’s difficult about it is getting the right mix to produce its special flavour. On the first Saturday of October, Álora plays host to Perotas Soup Day, delivering 7,000 helpings of the famous soup, accompanied by other typical dishes. In addition, there’s an interesting programme of activities that take place all day long.
Useful links: For more information on Álora, check the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Álora Town Hall. You can also visit YouTube for extra videos or type the phrases “Desfiladero de los Gaitanes,” “El Chorro,” or “Caminito del Rey” in your search engine.

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