Thursday, 13 January 2011

15,000 BC. He blew through the straw filled with black ink and his hand was stamped on the stone. His forefinger and little finger turned to the palm, the thumb, ring finger, and middle finger stretched out. This is how he marked the cave with his rustic signature, with a sense of property for the first time, with the symbol of his clan, his family.

990 AD. The rebel stands on the top of the castle. Down below, by the river, he can see the multiple fires of the camp set up by the Caliphate of Córdoba. He looks up at the sky in the early morning and goes over the past few years in his mind. A Christian in Al-Andalus, a Mozarab, Umar ibn Hafsun has led a revolt against the Umayyad dynasty. He’s built churches out of rocks, he’s protected chapels, he’s incited his people to rebellion in his own and others’ interests. His fate hasn’t been decided yet. He looks up at the sky: an eagle soars in the early morning air. It’s time now.

1921 AD. King Alfonso XIII is sitting in his white stone throne. He signs the document, thus endorsing the inauguration of the Guadalhorce dam –a engineering feat that’s bound to change the landscape of the region for good. He’s satisfied. He takes a stroll around the higher part of the dam, accompanied by politicians, military men, and escorts. He can hear the roaring water flowing into the gorge of Los Gaitanes. He asks the name of the engineer who did this and thinks about granting him the title of Count of Guadalhorce.

Our journey today spans 24,000 years, from the prehistoric paintings in the cave of Doña Trinidad Grund (a.k.a. Ardales Cave) to the present. A zigzagging trip in time, with stops in relevant events of Málaga’s history and prehistory. If in some of the towns we’ve visited you’ve felt the past breathing in your back of your neck, here you’ll feel you’re part of history. In only 110 square kilometres, Ardales combines multiple attractions for a unique travel adventure, which begins in the bosom of the Earth right now.

The Cave of Doña Trinidad Grund, or Ardales Cave

Silence all around. You can only hear drops falling on a pool of water. I light the way ahead with my torch to unveil the world of darkness and silence. Impossible shapes, stalactites and stalagmites, a little pool here and there, carvings and paintings. Those early artists trying to depict the world around them. The back and horns of a goat, the longish body of a deer, the symbol of a clan, a hand with its fingers bent. The Ardales Cave lies some 4km from the town centre. It can be visited on appointment only, calling (+34) 952 713 455 or (+34) 952 458 046 (the paintings are delicate, so they can be seen by no more than 15 visitors at a time). For information on hours, tours, and fares, go to I’m meeting my tour guides at the Visitor Centre of Prehistoric Guadalteba at 10:00 a.m. This means I can take a look at the Centre before visiting the cave itself. Like all the museums in the Guadalteba Heritage Network, this one is modern, colourful, and functional. Its cabinets display many different artefacts: weapons, fossils, utensils, and so on. The information boards give lots of explanations on the prehistoric periods they belong to and the evolution of the hominids who used to live in the area, from the Neanderthals to Homo sapiens. At the Centre you get all the background you need for your journey to the centre of the Earth. At 10:30 a.m., an expedition made up by half a dozen cars moves along dirt roads to reach the mouth of the cave. When we arrive, we need to get down a flight of stairs. The tour guide, Gerardo, provides us with torches and wise advice. Upon walking in, we’re met with silence. Impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations, and the colours of wet, almost soapy, earth –white and grey and black– combine to conjure up a magic atmosphere. The crystals glow like stars against the walls. Gerardo informs, explains, tells, lives. Trinidad Grund, the wealthy woman from Málaga who turned Carratraca and Ardales into the places for her summer retreats, used the cave for New Year’s and St John’s celebrations. Lighted with oil lamps and candles, the cave housed a band and the Málaga bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century danced until dawn. Later on, the cave was no longer used, until the local government took it over and got it ready for conservation. I can see the hand, the symbol of all cave paintings. Gerardo shows us the technique used to paint it, inviting kids to take part in the experiment. When the torches are out, darkness and silence rule again. We go up and down, listening as we walk. I pay attention to Gerardo’s accounts. Where there seems to be a blank wall, there gradually emerge the back of a deer or the horns of a goat. Two hours in the depths of history have brought me closer to the heart of Málaga Province. Out of the cave I feel dazed but content, as if I’d been on a long, long trip.

The Town Centre and the Peña

The tour of the town centre begins at the Garden of Poets, where I’m met with poems by Machado and Alberti. Then I head for the heart of town –an austere hamlet in the shadow of the rocky mound known as Peña de Ardales and the old castle walls. The broken streets seem to be sliding down. The sky in the early autumn morning is bright and blue, the belfry tower of the church sticking out amidst the roofs. A relaxed stroll brings me to the Town Hall square, where I’m visiting Convent of San Sebastián before the Peña. The convent was established by Capuchin monks in 1635. It’s a simple building, with a church under a half-barrel vault. Back in the Town Hall square, I brace myself for the uphill road to the Peña. The streets get narrower, the whitewashed walls show their flowery chests, the alleyways twist and turn, the church steeple keeps sticking out. Looking back, I can see the terrace roofs against the ochre fields. I can also smell the embers that take me into the cosy homes, with their warm fireplaces and burning heaters. The air is filled with the smells of hearty stews as well; in them you can feel something old and good. The Peña de Ardales is a sturdy rocky mass dominating the landscape of Guadalteba. Strategically located by the river Turón, it’s housed men and women for 4,000 years. It was a Neolithic settlement and also an Iberian oppidum. It was the natural path connecting Málaga Bay with Guadalquivir Valley, which made it special –and still does. The Iberians were followed by the Romans, who left there most indelible mark in the bridge across the river Turón, in the lower part of town. Then there came the Arab invasion, the riots incited by Umar ibn Hafsun, the campaign of the Christian army in the mid-fifteenth century, and the modern times. The Peña crowns the white hamlet of Ardales. I climb up the steep streets and reach the high square, dominated by the church. Quite amazing. The Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios stands against the rock, with its brick belfry and its white-and-blue-tiled steeple. The white façade bears creamy-coloured trimming. There’s a christening inside. The over-elaborate, twisted-beam coffered ceiling is remarkable. Although Nuestra Señora de los Remedios was built in 1720, it’s believed to have been a Roman temple, a Christian building in times of the Visigoths, a mosque in the Middle Ages, and a Mudéjar church. Adjoining the church there’s a visitor centre that’s open in the summer only. However, as I’ve been told in the museum and by two men in the church itself, you can always knock the door at No. 1 in the square and ask for Ascensión, a 92-year-old lady who can guide you through the church. Skirting the Peña, I find the road leading to the Chapel of El Calvario. Also accessible by car, the church is worth a visit. The building might not look very attractive, but the views are stunning. You can make out the castle by the river Turón, the Guadalteba reservoirs, the mount where the famous Bobastro castle used to stand in Mesas de Villaverde, the whole region of Guadalteba and, in the foreground, the Peña and the town of Ardales. The blowing wind makes me feel the cold as I look up at the bright blue sky. I sit down to enjoy the landscape. The echoes of the hustle and bustle of life come down to me. I suddenly realise I’m terribly hungry.


Following expert advice, I choose Casa de Juan Vera, a classic in Ardales. It serves traditional homemade food at reasonable prices (the servings are generous). It’s in the square, next to the Town Hall. The menu offers stews, tripe, salmorejo, gazpachuelo… I order porra, tomato salad, a steak and an entrecote, a soda, a bottle of water, and two coffees. The bill = €35. By the time I finish my meal, the place is crowded.

The Bobastro Ruins and the Mozarabic Carved Church

Back in the car for the Roman Bridge and the Turón Castle. I need to go to the lower part of town and along a short tunnel to reach the banks of the river. The Roman Bridge is in good condition. Although three arches have come down to us, historians believe it could have had up to five. Of course, it’s a robust construction. It used to be quite important, standing under the road that connected Malaca with Acinipo, Singilia Barba, Anticaria, and Corduba within the Roman Empire. The asphalt road becomes an olive tree-lined dirt road running amidst rolling hills. Green and ochre shades blend in a sort of marquetry work. Behind a bend, I can see the castle ruins, standing against the bright blue sky. I can make out at least seven towers, wrapped in a ghostly atmosphere. The castle was built during the frontier war between the kingdoms of Granada and Seville. Standing on a mount carved on the left margin of the river Turón, the fortress used to be the first construction protecting the Peña de Ardales from the Christian army hailing from the castle of Teba. It used to have two gates, a palace, more than ten towers, a second wall, a barbican, and a keep where you could control who was accessing the valley. Governor Gómez de Ribera seized it for Castile in 1433. It’s been part of the Ardales coat of arms since the late fifteenth century. And here it is, after so many years. I look at it in delight. A goatherd waves goodbye as I walk past him. I go back to my car and drive towards the ruins of Bobastro, in the direction of the Conde del Guadalhorce reservoir, taking the detour to El Chorro, in Álora, on the right. A sign on the road indicates where the Bobastro Castle is. A road snaking uphill takes you there. Make sure you stop at the Mozarabic carved church before you reach the summit. As a matter of fact, it’s not just a church but a complex comprising the ruins of the most important Mozarabic village in Málaga Province. There’re defensive wall stretches and even a Muslim cemetery. Guided tours are available for small groups. Find all the information on opening days and hours, fares, and tour guides on the Guadalteba Heritage Network website. My tour guide is Cristóbal. His explanations and the information boards help me picture the village’s layout. It was a strong village, which resisted the onslaught of Abd-ar-Rahman III of Córdoba. A highly-developed, well-structured society lived in it, performing complex religious and funereal rituals which were reflected in the architecture of the village. After listening to Cristóbal’s introduction, we come to the jewel of the crown: a church carved out of the rock, taking advantage of the natural cavities for its altars and side chapels and using the carved rock in its ashlar and plinth. A curious fact: since this was a Christian church built in Muslim times, it boasts an interesting mix of architectural features; for instance, a series of horseshoe arches. Visiting the quarry which provided the stone, we seem to be travelling back in time. Bobastro, the village, the castle, the walls. Bobastro, a village set up by Umar ibn Hafsun, the rebel who checkmated the Umayyad caliphs by designing a defence system of rings and signals involving Ardales, Teba, Cañete la Real, and Álora and thus controlling what today we know as the regions of Guadalteba and Guadalhorce. The tour ends here, with the ascent to Mesas de Villaverde. I’m out of breath. Only the ashlar remains of the old castle, showing where there used be walls. But the place is valuable in its own right, an impregnable mound where you can scan the horizon, an eagle’s nest affording amazing views of the green hills of the Guadalhorce Valley and their ochre counterparts in the Guadalteba Valley. I’m quite impressed at the sight of birds of prey soaring in circles at my feet, at the feeling of the winter breeze on a sunny day in such a high place. I take a careful look at the ruins, kindle my imagination with Cristóbal’s stories about the life and works of Umar ibn Hafsun, his revolt, his conversion to Christianity, his faith in Islam, his conquests, his betrayals. I take a seat at the viewpoint, close my eyes, and let go.

Conde del Guadalhorce Reservoir

Descending from the vantage point, I hit the road that’ll take me to the reservoir. A sheet of green, blue, and grey water stretches before me, creating beaches and bays and capes. When man conquers nature. It all began with the dam in El Chorro. In the early twentieth century, work got under way for the channelling of the rivers Turón, Guadalhorce, and Guadalteba. In the autumn of 1914, the architect Rafael Benjumea Burín supervised the construction of a humongous dam that would be 75m high and 50m wide on its base, with 130m arch. It was the first time electrical tools and modern building techniques were being used. King Alfonso XIII visited the place in 1921, sealing the completion of the works with his signature. He was so impressed that he decided to grant Benjumea the title of Count of Guadalhorce. The name of the dam was then changed to Presa del Guadalhorce. Two other rivers were channelled afterwards, giving rise to a three-dam complex that makes the largest drinking water reserve in Málaga Province. I walk around the original dam, gaze at the water sheet in the manmade lake, look at the ravines and gorges in the surrounding mountains. It’s a feast for the senses. I can hear the birds singing and the fish fluttering near the surface of the lake. There’re few tourists now because it’s winter, but in spring and summer they come by the dozen to eat in the restaurants by the lake or do water sports. This is where the path to Los Gaitanes starts, and also Caminito del Rey, which is to connect the area with the district of El Chorro in Álora. As a result, the place draws all manners of hikers. In sum, the whole thing is worth a visit, especially because of the strolls it affords and the viewpoints in the nearby mountains, whose views are just spectacular. Being an inquisitive guy, I can’t help visiting the three-reservoir viewpoint at dusk. The sign is barely visible, so you’d better watch out. The viewpoint lies on a hillock affording great views of the three reservoirs and thus showing what an amazing piece of work they are. Blue and green water, green fields, grey rocks, ochre ground. I scan the landscape, setting eyes on this and that. A perfect show, indeed.


I’m bewildered after such a powerful experience. Down below with our forebears and high up with the ghost of Umar ibn Hafsun, plotting rebellion inside a carved church. Calculating water pressure with Benjumea, kayaking across the lake, hearing the sounds of battle in the Turón Castle, ambling around as I picture the history of Málaga in my head: 24,000 BC, the wars between Muslims and Christians in the fifteenth century, the inauguration of the Guadalhorce reservoir in 1921, and my stepping these very stones in 2010.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Guadalteba Heritage Network website: This site is a must if you’re planning a trip to Ardales. The cave can only be visited on appointment and the visiting hours of the Mozarabic church in Bobastro are restricted too, so you’ll need information on hours, fares, etc. You can even contact the tour guides if necessary. In addition, the website contains useful historical information to make your trip more enjoyable.
Slaughter Fair: On the third Sunday of February, Ardales holds the Slaughter Fair, serving some 1,000 kilos of pork products for free. 50 local people are in charge of delivering chorizo, tripe, black pudding, morcón, and stews to visitors. Starting at 5:00 p.m., there’s music and performances. Flamenco Festival: Held for over 30 years, the Ardales Flamenco Festival is one of the longest-standing in Málaga Province, having managed to retain its original quality. It takes place in September, as a prelude to the Feast of the Virgin of Villaverde.
Useful links: To read more about Ardales, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Ardales Town Hall, and the above-mentioned Guadalteba Heritage Network.