Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The knight has brought his king’s heart all the way from Scotland. He’s heading for the Holy Land. He needs to bury it in Jerusalem. In Seville, before going on board, the young Spanish King, whose name is Alfonso XI, invites him to take part in a new crusade: fighting the Muslims in Granada and drive them off Al-Andalus (and the Iberian Peninsula) for good. The Scottish paladin accepts the invitation, not knowing he’ll die in the land of his new crusade. His name is Sir James Douglas, and he’s the right-hand man of the first King of Scotland, Robert Bruce, heir to the independent spirit of Sir William Wallace. He’ll die holding his sword at the side of the Teba Castle on August 25, 1330.
Like a watchtower or a lighthouse, a guiding light in the green rolling meadows, there stands the Castle of La Estrella, right on the spot connecting Seville with Málaga, a pass used by man since the dawn of time and a major stage in the war between Muslims and Christians. The plains in the area are covered in ancient blood and inscribed with the capital letters of History and the handwriting of stories. Therefore, the land contains the key to understand its past: Roman statues, Neolithic flint tools, Phoenician pottery… Everything can be watched from the fortress tower, whose stone and ashlar have witnessed the battles of willowy spears and now stare at the morose turn of modern windmills. Teba was part of the last defensive line of the Christendom, and it was the spearhead of the Reconquista, taken from the Arabs by Alfonso XI on January 20, 1389. I take a look at the tower up there; there seems to be a guard in its battlements.


Teba sits on a river bed. The Castle is the highest point in town. I choose to visit the premises inside the walls first and the Visitor Centre “A Crusade in Guadalteba” in the tower and fortress. Coming from Málaga City along the Málaga-Campillos road, I take the detour to Ronda and then follow the signs indicating the road to Teba. The tower can be seen from a distance; it gets larger as I come closer. It’s quite impressive. I drive up to the town centre and follow the signs to the Castle of La Estrella, climbing up a series of steep, winding streets to reach a parking area next to the wall. In this cold morning in January, under a sky laden with clouds, I get ready and get out with the feeling that this is a very special place, with an eventful history. The landscape before my eyes takes my breath away. Looking up, I can see the entrance. Wearing a beaming smile, I move on.

A Crusade in Guadalteba

Before visiting the fortress itself, I took a look at the castle premises. Together with Bentómiz, Teba boasts the largest fortress in Málaga (25,000sqm). Both the building and the views are stunning, with their contrasting shades of green, ochre, blue, grey. An established geostrategic reference, the tower seems to be floating above a rolling surface. After soaking in the landscape, I walk in. The Visitor Centre is part of the Guadalteba Heritage Network. Like in all the museums in this network, everything has been taken care of, to the tiniest detail. The building has been carefully rehabilitated to offer visitors all the information they need without damaging the local architectural heritage. Admission is €3, and it’s worth every cent. The assistant, Serafín, adds lots of explanations as I move on, filling me in on background details. Now I understand the important role the Castle of La Estrella played in the Muslim-Christian war. Built in the twelfth century under Almohad rule (when they were building La Giralda and the Torre del Oro in Seville), the fortress used to have 18 towers and three gates (one of them was octagonal and another, square). In the late seventeenth century, the church inside was dismantled and the materials were used to build a new church in the centre of town. 80 percent of the fifteenth-century keep has come down to us. Teba used to be a key point in the roads that connected Málaga to Seville or Granada to Algeciras. Likewise, it was part of a defensive line made up by Teba, Cañete la Real, Cuevas del Becerro, the Turón Castle in Ardales, and El Burgo… A zillion stories bear witness to the role played by the Teba Castle in the history of the region. Serafín tells me why the Centre is called “A Crusade in Guadalteba”: In 1389, a young Alfonso XI, King of Spain, sought to turn the conquest of the Castle of La Estrella –then in the hands of the Arabs– into a holy war, a sort of crusade, so that he could claim the papal bulls that allowed him to have a larger army and more money. The bulls were granted to him, and the war in Guadalteba echoed the battles in Jerusalem. I savour my stroll inside the fortress. A video and Serafin’s account help what I’ve seen fit in like the pieces in a puzzle. Now I can see why this area is so important to the history of Andalusia. I’ve learnt about Sir James Douglas. I’m enjoying myself. It’s an ideal trip to make with kids (but they don’t have to be too little). Let them go inside the tower and rush across the premises, and kindle their imagination. But beware! Two knights lie hidden in the fortress… When I get out, my head is brimming with fantastic stories.

The Centre of Town, Part 1

I drive down to the town centre and park on a street. Teba is quite a big town, but you can easily get around on foot, for most attractions are at a walking distance from one another. After leaving my car on San Cristóbal Street, I walk up Grande Street into Carrera Street. The rest of the tour is very easy: down Carrera Street past the Church to Herradores Street, where the Chapel of Jesús Nazareno is, then to the right for Plaza de la Constitución, where you can see the façade of the house belonging to Empress Eugénie and the Town Hall building, which houses the Museum of Archaeology. After the Museum pause, I’m to resume my tour. I draw the itinerary on the map and enter it in my mobile GPS. Now I’m ready to begin. The Church of Santa Cruz Real is a majestic building. Some of the materials used to build it came from the old temple in the castle, which was dismantled and brought downtown for master José Tirado, from the Cathedral of Seville, to design and build the new Church. The construction work took 16 years, from 1699 to 1715. Inside, the Church features a central nave and two aisles, and 8m high red marble columns supporting several arches. Against what many believe, the marble was not brought from El Torcal but from a nearby quarry already used in Roman times for statues. The Church houses the Museum of Religious Art –a remarkable collection of chalices, purses, crosses, ciboria, lecterns, and the like. But the jewel in the crown is the cross used in the procession during Teba’s fair. It’s a stylish cross, richly decorated. The collection also includes a fourteenth-century chasuble that could’ve belonged to Isabella the Catholic. In the cold January morning, I walk down Grande Street towards Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, a modern chapel that is home to the Fraternity of Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno. I come to Plaza de la Constitución from Herradores Street and face a wonderful door that seems to be hanging from nowhere, made of the cotton materials of dawn. It’s the façade of the house belonging to Empress Eugénie. In fact, it’s only the lintel and two columns. It’s an accurate sample of the whole house, giving a clear idea of the power held by the House of Alba. It also frames the Town Hall in the background. Inside the Town Hall, there’s the Museum of Archaeology, which I’m visiting in the next section.

Excursus: The Museum of Archaeology

Teba’s Museum of Archaeology boasts an invaluable collection. It’s open weekends from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. and from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. It can also be visited Mon-Fri if you make an appointment (phone number: (+34) 952 748 020). The Museum is run by the Association for the Defence of Teba’s Historical Heritage, Hisn Atiba. Admission is €1.20. You won’t regret going through that door. The collection is an amazing journey through local history: flint tools, early pottery, lead buttons, anthropomorphic figures, surgical instruments, thimbles, hairpins, and so on. The display cabinets show objects which belonged to the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and Christians who lived here, and even the cave men and women who lived before history and made fire by rubbing stones. Plus, a few gems: the figure of a ram (the Museum’s symbol), a beautiful Roman column in honour of goddess Victoria Augusta, and a marble portrait of Emperor Tiberius. With the guidance of the passionate and knowledgeable staff of Hisn Atiba, I go from one room to the next as I listen to stories of Teba, its old and new dwellers, the quarry riots, the recovery and conservation of the local heritage, the Cave of Las Palomas, the Iberian settlement of Los Castillejos, the Roman villa in Los Tajos and, of course, Sir James Douglas –his life and battles, his ideals and his death. Hisn Atiba organises Sir James Douglas’s Days every year –a tribute to the famous Scot including the staging of various episodes of his life (with Knight Templars, horses, Sir James’s coat of arms, and many of his compatriots). I keep talking for hours on end. And I’d stay, but I have to visit some other sights before dusk.

The Centre of Town, Part 2

Back to Grande Street, then San Francisco Street, and up to Plaza de España, only 100m away. A grey stone reads, “On his way to the Crusade there died Sir James Douglas, fighting the Moors with King Alfonso XI. He fell down near the Castle of La Estrella, in Teba, on August 25, 1330. He was a knight most loyal to Robert I, King of Scotland, and an outstanding leader in the Wars of Independences. Good old James was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to bring the royal king of the Liberator of the Scots to the altar of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.” From Plaza de España, I can see the portal of the former Convent of San Francisco –an over-elaborate piece that’s now being put to other uses. Still, the portal (fifteenth century, Mozarabic style) bears witness to the Convent’s important role in the past. Back in Plaza de España and down Nueva Street, past the house of the Marquis of Greñina, of whose past glory an overwhelming façade remains. Behind the door, a huge patio. A dreamlike portal, indeed, like the entrance to a small palace, flanked by two austere columns and a lintel containing a little altar. The creamy-colour columns and lintel stand in contrast to the whitewashed walls and the dark brown door.
I wander about, trying to absorb the multiple stories I’ve heard and read today. I take short steps, trying to take note of everything I see. I suddenly realise I’m hungry. Back to my car for a ride to Restaurante Diego, at Km. 5.5 of the Ronda-Ardales road.


Once again, I’ve chosen my eating place following word-of-mouth recommendations. I couldn’t have made a better choice. There’re lots of cars in the parking area. I walk in. The service is excellent. The menu contains many traditional dishes: meat, lamb, pork, wild and garden asparagus… I don’t have to think much: asparagus soup, lamb, prawn-stuffed tenderloin, two sodas, two bottles of water, a large coffee, and an iced coffee. The bill = €46.50. The soup is great. When asked about its ingredients, the waiter tells me it has asparagus, eggs, onions, red and green peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and secret crushed herbs. It’s delicious. The roasted lamb is also very good, with a garnish of grilled tomatoes, vegetables, and poor man’s potatoes. The boldest choice has been the stuffed tenderloin: delicate meat with Dutch sauce –hearty yet mild. Excellent coffee and alcohol-free liqueur shots. Kind, attentive staff. A restaurant to come back to, no doubt.


With lots of stories still reverberating in my head and a full belly, I leave Teba behind. My rearview mirror shows the Castle of La Estrella, which becomes smaller as I drive on. A tiny dot about to be swallowed by a green hill, it still looks impregnable.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Cheese Fair: All the cheese makers in Andalusia come to Teba for the Cheese Market Fair every year. The best cheeses and the most prestigious Spanish D.O.s in some 70 stalls also selling local foods (pork products, sweets, etc.). Held on October 2 and 3, the fair draws about 10,000 visitors. Besides the sampling and selling of cheese, there’re many parallel activities. (Source: the Town Hall website.
Sir James Douglas’s Days: In September, there’re Scottish Days in Teba. Since 2005, they’ve been dedicated to Sir James Douglas, the Scottish soldier who died when the Christian troops besieged the Castle of La Estrella. The two-day celebrations include games, cultural activities, and festive events, drawing many visitors from the British community on the Costa del Sol and Gibraltar. The town becomes a Medieval village and the street market sells local foods. There’s Celtic music thanks to the Gibraltar Scottish Pipe Band Association and the Teba Music Band. (Source: the Town Hall website).
Useful links: To read more about Teba, check the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Teba Town Hall, Guadalteba Heritage Network, and Hisn Atiba Association.