Friday, 14 January 2011

It’s a sweet, strong flavour. The same flavour tried by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs from Palestine or the Maghreb, and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire before us. It’s an absolutely Mediterranean flavour, connecting peoples and generations in its being part of their common past. It’s a sweet smell, too. It’s a little wrinkled dark seed that contains a wealth of Mediterranean flavours. It’s a raisin produced in Almáchar.

Arrival and Twinning

The landscape of Almáchar reflects the essence of Axarquía: a catalogue of rough ravines, fruit and almond tree orchards, zigzagging trails, amazing peaks, hundreds of paseros (raisin mats), and climbing vines. Both the accesses from Vélez-Málaga (a mild uphill road lined by exotic fruit trees) and Rincón de la Victoria (a road peppered with surprising landscapes and scenic viewpoints) are worth trying. They’re sort of complementary, even contradictory. Embraced by the two rivers that surround the village, the town centre is perched on the slope of a hill, the streets designed to match the rugged terrain. You’d better get around Almáchar on foot to savour its essence. This is why I’m leaving my car in the upper square, next to the “arches.” After getting my notepad and camera, I get out. The first thing that catches my eye is a tile mural that reads, “Where the Three Cultures Meet.” Below, next to the Almáchar coat of arms, there’s the twin town of Cornellá. On the right, another twin town, Barakaldo. In the latter I can see the convergence of my family background and my present experience. My fragile memory now remembers that in Barakaldo, my hometown in the province of Vizcaya, there’s a society called “Hijos de Almáchar” (Sons of Almáchar). It was founded in 1978. I smirk at the serendipitous coincidence.

Up to El Forfe Gardens

I begin to tour the streets in Almáchar with the help of the signs on the whitewashed walls. There’re lots of signs in the town centre, so the only way of getting lost is doing so un purpose. The signs really help here, as the town is full of winding, even twisted, streets: after 10 straight metres, they come to a halt and morph into a flight of stairs, a steep ramp, a tiny square, or the vine-sheltered private driveway. Locals are kind and easy-going: “Good morning!” “Hi, how are you doing?” and so on. Almáchar’s Arab past is inscribed in the town’s layout, its buildings, and even its name. “Almáchar” could stem from “Maysar” or “Machar,” which means “prairie” or “meadowland” in Arabic. No proof of this exists, however, as all the documents were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. The only two attested events in town before the Civil War are the first christening ceremony on February 7, 1537 and the first wedding on February 2, 1573. In part, the history of Almáchar was reconstructed from legends. The first will come to me in El Forfe Gardens (see below). I can smell sweet jasmines hanging from cube-shaped roofs. I walk up the steep streets, getting glimpses of the silhouette of La Maroma, the highest peak in Málaga Province. I go past the Tourist Office, which you can contact by phone (at (+34) 952 512 002) for group tours of the Raisin Museum. And suddenly I come to the square in front of the Parish Church of San Mateo, an austere building combing brick with whitewashed walls. There’s a bunch of women chatting at the entrance. Inside, the church houses Christ in the Green Loincloth. Legend has it that He saved the lives of some sailors after a shipwreck. Grateful, the sailors tried to find an image to thank Him, and they did so in Almáchar, where they left two silver lamps. Christ in the Green Loincloth is thought to protect the town. During the earthquake that ravaged Axarquía in Christmas 1884, Almáchar was spared. This is why so many locals are His devotees. Facing the church there’s a tile board telling the legend mentioned above. The tiles show a cave, a Moor, a flight… and a treasure. A poem tells the story of a Moor who left in search of better lands, burying a treasure in a cave in El Forfe. Nobody has been able to find it so far. Almachareños like to think the treasure isn’t a hidden chest but the town itself. To the right of the church square there starts Sevilla Street, leading to El Forfe Gardens –a promenade overlooking the bed of the river Almáchar skirting the place where the Moor’s treasure is supposed to be. Daydreaming, I fancy the fleeing Moor and his donkey, carrying the chest full of gold in the dark of night.

Raisin Museum

El Forfe isn’t just a legendary place. It’s also a scenic viewpoint affording stunning panoramic views of La Maroma (fog-capped today). From here I get to Plaza del Santo Cristo –a secluded square, full of flowerpots and colourful flowers. I greet locals as I walk across the square to reach the Raisin Museum. It’s a small museum of ethnography whose rooms resembles those of a home a century ago. Comprising two floors, the museum displays an interesting social archaeology sample: tools and utensils used in Almáchar in the nineteenth and twentieth century, that is, not so long ago. From mixing bowls to coffee grinders to rolling pins, jars and vases, oil lamps, an old-fashioned canopy bed, jugs and chamber pots. The house features thick walls and round beams, like in good old times. One of the rooms is dedicated to the production of raisins (seeding, pick-up, drying), a staple of the local economy and a key ingredient of local gastronomy, used in multiple recipes and foods, and to prepare quality Muscat wine. Raisin production plays such an important role in Almáchar that 80% of the population is thought to live off it, in direct or indirect ways. The Raisin Museum is managed by two kind women, with whom I talk about raisins, local history, the connection between Almáchar and Barakaldo, good places to eat, local food, ajoblanco, TV, tourists, and a lot of other topics. A good talk, indeed, stringing sentences together in a carefree way. The Raisin Museum is open every day. For an appointment, contact the Tourist Office at (+34) 952 512 002. There’s a gift shop where you can buy foods and stuff. I choose a box of Muscat raisins (€8) –legend has it that their stems help you remember things– and a bottle of Muscat wine (€3). When I get out, my head is filled with lots of interesting stories.

Hanging Around

Heading for the higher part of town along Mártires Street, I spot a curious thing: the back of the Parish Church of San Mateo is linked to a house by a barrel vault. I let go amidst the snaking streets. The district known as “Barrio de las Cabras” is an impossible maze: a new corner with every step, a hallway, a small garden, a vine casting shade on two or three chairs, a cat… This is how you should get around Almáchar: unhurriedly, looking for nothing in particular, just letting the streets and squares meet your eye. Flowers and pots are counted by the hundreds. And so are the signs reading “Raisins for sale.” I’m gradually approaching the upper part of town, where I left my car. I take another look at the Almáchar coat of arms, flanked by those of Cornellá and the Barakaldo of my childhood. I smile.


Sitting on a bench in El Forfe, I look down at the river Almáchar flowing below my feet. I imagine that what lies in front of me is the entrance to the cave where the Moor’s treasure is hidden. I open my box of Muscat raisins, try them, then I open the bottle of sweet wine and take a sip. Warmed up by the raisins and the wine, I think I can make out a donkey carrying a curious wooden chest. It contains something that glimmers; I can tell from the light going through the chest’s cracks.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Ajoblanco Day: It is held on the first Saturday of September. Designated an Andalusian Fiesta of National Tourist Interest, it draws hundreds of out-of-towners who can then taste this regional dish made with bread crumbs, water, almonds, olive oil, vinegar, and salt. In addition to the food, the town becomes a huge showcase of valuable historical or artistic objects, and there’re performances with dolls or dummies dressed in old-style clothes. Almáchar’s “major fiesta” is complete with bands of verdiales, Rocío choirs, and flamenco shows (source: Costa del Sol Tourist Board website).
Christ in the Green Loincloth Ceremony: This religious ceremony dates back to 1754. It began with a series of earthquakes that decided locals to ask for protection. Since the people were unhurt and their lands were unharmed, they considered Christ as the protector of the village, giving His image a chapel and pedestal in 1797. Weekend celebrations include Mass on Sunday morning, a heartfelt procession with music bands and fireworks on Sunday afternoon, dance and music on the streets, special concerts, sports competitions, and much more. No time to get bored! (source: Almáchar Town Hall website).

Useful links: To learn more about Almáchar, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Almáchar Town Hall, and the Association for the Promotion of Tourism in Axarquía (Axarquía Costa del Sol).