Wednesday, 16 February 2011

An old town speaking ancient languages –the languages of the Arabs, the Romans, the Phoenicians. An old town with an eventful history, with a past peppered with illustrious and common names, the names of ordinary men and courtiers. An old town, the town of Mariyyat Ballis, Bentomiz, Mainake, Maenoba, Ash Sharqiyah, Abul Cacim Venegas, El Idrisi, Abulfeda, Ibn Battuta, Abd-al-Basit, María Zambrano. Vélez-Málaga: a town with a long, long history. It’s an overwhelming city. It was a major town in times of Al-Andalus and during the Reconquista. It played a key role in the Spanish War of Independence. It had a glorious past and now boasts a modern present. Vélez-Málaga looks up at a double mountain and shows its double face: warlike in the Castle Tower and spiritual in the Chapel of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. In the middle there’s a city with long, winding streets in modern districts and narrow alleyways in the old town, overflowing the limits set by the old wall. Vélez-Málaga is full of religious buildings: convents and chapels, churches and crosses outlining the skyline with their belfries and steeples. After the Reconquista, some of the old Muslim buildings were converted to symbols of Christianity and so mosques became churches, chapels, or convents. There were so many of them that Vélez-Málaga was classified as a “convent town.”

Arrival and Parking

The wide avenues leading to the heart of Vélez-Málaga can be deceiving. Streets get gradually narrower and more twisted in the Historic District as you get closer to the old fortress. The best thing to do is park on one of the adjacent streets, taking one of the various squares as a reference point, and then get around on foot with a help of a street map or a GPS. My tour begins at Plaza de las Carmelitas.

From Plaza de las Carmelitas to Plaza de la Constitución

The convent facing the Town Hall building is solemn and imposing, combining a sober body with a magnificent façade. The side door is very quiet; there’s a turnstile here used by the Carmelite nuns for contact with the outside world. This is the convent of Jesús, María y José, a.k.a. Convent of the Carmelites. It was built by the Carmelite Order in 1702, using two adjacent houses bought in 1699, which were converted to a single, unified site with few openings, thus emphasising the concept of cloister. The church was built between 1738 and 1745. Most sights in Vélez-Málaga bear signs with a useful information system: a phone number, a number indicating what sight you’re seeing, and a number for your language of choice. You just dial the number, enter the sight and language numbers, and listen. A mild voice tells you all you need to know about each monument (in this case, the convent). It’s simple, it’s effective, you learn a lot. Down the road, a fork: Montera and Téllez Macías Street. A new turn to the right and up Félix Lomas Street. I stumble upon an interesting, huge sight. It’s the Convent of Nuestra Señora de Gracia, a.k.a. Convent of Clarissa Nuns. An impossibly white rectangle with a portico entrance. The convent used to be in La Villa district, but its building there became too small to house it and in 1555 it was moved to where it now stands. It boasts a beautiful Mudejar cloister. Its church was rehabilitated in the eighteenth century. Vélez-Málaga is a classy town, its streets and buildings being very old and honouring long traditions. When getting around, it’s good to be aware of its eventful history. I take Tiendas Street to the right, a major thoroughfare connecting the older and the newer parts of town, Plaza de la Constitución with Plaza de las Indias. I walk on, greeting passers-by, looking at the façades, the flowers, the surprising architectural details. Right on a corner, as if showing which way to go, just where Tiendas Street and Piedad Street converge, there’s the Chapel of Virgen de la Piedad. It’s deceivingly simple. On the upper floor, a wooden door is open to show an image of Virgin Mary in all Her glory. Above Her, a roof and a lantern. Behind a glass case, the image of Virgin Mary is flanked by two Corinthian columns and a pediment on a round arch. Plus, lots of flowers. Back along Tiendas Street, to the left. I’m very near the city walls. I can see some stretches standing, defeating the passage of time. Defensive towers and earthen bricks. The Centre for Youth Information has been absorbed into the setting. Some 20m ahead on the right, there’s the Fountain of Felipe II y Fernando VI: a majestic, over-elaborate, white marble fountain, with water flowing out of four spouts springing out of the mouths of mythological creatures. A great place to take a splash. The fountain was built in the sixteenth century and moved to its present location in 1758. The original construction bore Philip II and Ferdinand VI’s coats of arms –hence the royal name (the latter’s been kept). Plaza de la Constitución opens up before me. Just imagine. 1487 AD. The Catholic Monarchs are in Vélez-Málaga. The town’s stainless walls witnessed the war from a distance, thanks to truces and agreements between victors and vanquished. Isabella and Ferdinand go through the gate in the thick walls that protected the district of La Villa. Since then, it’s been called Royal Town Gate. One of the four gates around the old medina (the only one standing nowadays) is protected by two towers and a thick wall that’s been rehabilitated. It gives a clear idea of the elegance and soundness of Vélez-Málaga defence system. Facing the old fortress there’s the granary, used to store grain as a precaution against bad harvests, rationing, or war. A large, white, rectangular two-storey building where a lot of stock could be stored. Its façade is formed by several arches. The granary’s fallen into disuse and taken by squatters. There’s a project under way to turn it into a cultural and leisure centre. Dominating the square there’s a peculiar church, whose huge belfry tower stands out against the horizon. How tall can it be? I guess, and I’m probably wrong. 20m, 30m? As it stands on a hillock, crowning the square, the effect is even stronger. The tower belongs to the Church of San Juan Bautista, dating back to the sixteenth century. The church was renovated several times in the nineteenth century, at the request of the local lawyer Federico Vahey, Isabella II’s Minister of Justice. This is how is was transformed from Mozarabic to Neoclassical. In front of the door, a statue of a penitent and an altar boy. The bells ring in an unconventional tune: a complex sequence of high- and low-pitched sounds that spread across La Villa and the surrounding area.

From Plaza de la Constitución to the Chapel of Virgen de los Remedios

Skirting the church and down Sevilla Street, then 20m ahead and to the left, I take Mercader Street. Then the first to the right, San Francisco Street. I go past the church of the House of Cervantes –a large old house from the sixteenth century with wrought-iron balconies, a carriage gate, and a main door behind a hallway and before a patio surrounded by round arches supported by brick columns. Plaza de San Francisco is a busy spot, mainly thanks to two buildings: the market –a constant flow of cars and people carrying food bags– and the Convent of San Francisco, founded in 1498 on the ruins of an old mosque whose only remaining feature is a minaret, converted to belfry. The Mudejar cloisters are impressive; the original style of the church was masked by Baroque renovation. Interesting inside is the Chapel of Buen Pastor. One of the sides of the convent gives access to the frontage of the Palace of Beniel. Lofty and solemn, it can be said to be the finest example of civil architecture in Vélez-Málaga. The upper floor is a terrace whose arches overlook the town centre. Commissioned by Alonso de Molina Medrano in the seventeenth century, it housed the Town Hall for some time and now it’s home to the María Zambrano Foundation, organising art and archaeological exhibitions, lectures, and so on. So here she is: María Zambrano. The most famous person born in Vélez-Málaga. A woman of her time. María Zambrano was born in Vélez-Málaga on April 22, 1904 and died in Madrid on February 6, 1991. She was a university teacher, an essay writer, and a preeminent philosopher, a disciple of José Ortega y Gasset. She wrote about politics and society, man and time, the poetic roots of life and social life, ethics, and many other topics. Her complex thought suffered the vicissitudes of exile. She returned from Chile to Spain in 1937, on the day when Bilbao was seized. When asked why she was coming back when the war had been lost, she replied, “That’s exactly why.” She went back into exile in 1939: France, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, then France again, Italy, and back to Spain in 1984. By then, she’d been awarded the Prince of Asturias Award in the field of Communications and Humanities (1981) and the title of Beloved Daughter of Vélez-Málaga. Then she’d get an Honoris Causa Doctorate from the University of Málaga, the title of Beloved Daughter of Andalusia and the Cervantes Award (1989). After her death in Madrid, she was buried in her hometown. Hers was an interesting life, and she left a great work. From the Palace of Beniel, Arroyo de San Francisco Street leads up to the Mount of San Cristóbal, a hillock housing the Chapel of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. It’s neither tough nor easy climb. You can also drive your way up, but you’d be missing the chance to enjoy the multiple views you get as you walk up the hill: the roofs, the fruit plots, the citrus trees in the meadows, the nearby mountains, the whole hamlet, the belfry of the Church of San Juan, the castle keep, the meadows flowing into the Mediterranean in Torre del Mar and, behind the chapel, La Maroma, the highest peak in Málaga Province. The panoramic views are breathtaking. A group of old people are sitting on the benches in the scenic viewpoint, chatting quietly against the background of Mediterranean history. Outside, the chapel is very simple, showing its whitewashed walls. But inside, it’s a living work of art. White becomes colour. Every inch has been painted. The paintings covering all the interior walls is about 1,150sqm. The frescoes are the work of Evaristo Guerra, who painted them in an attempt to make the walls look transparent, so that Our Lady of Remedies can look at the surrounding landscape –the emblematic buildings of Vélez-Málaga and the whole of Axarquía– through them. It’s impossible to describe these paintings with words. The colours, the shades, the figures, the gestures, the scenes from everyday life. You have to come and see them. They’re beautifully hypnotic. I scrutinise the murals for hidden details or concealed scenes. The more I look at them, the more details they reveal to me: impossible perspectives, natural expressions, and more. I sit on a wooden bench, blessed with the special light and colour in the church, blessed with the feeling of living inside a painting.

Up to the Castle Keep

I go down, the wonderful murals by Evaristo Guerra still sparkling in my eyes. I go back to the street that leads to Plaza de la Constitución. I could retrace my steps or, even better, walk across the district along Calzada Herra Street, across Plaza Santa Cruz, past Cruz del Arrabal (a chapel I take a picture of), across Plaza de los Sastres, up to the walls in front of the Royal Town Gate. I go under the archway to find an old world at the other side: twisted Arab buildings that used to be part of the medina, low houses, shops, small factories, water cisterns… Protected by the impervious castle keep, sheltered by the castle walls. This is how I feel as I walk down Real Street, across Plaza del Espinar and Plaza de Rojas and up Santuario Santa María Street to the Church of Santa María la Mayor, housing the Easter Museum. This church used to be a mosque, and it was converted to converted to Christianity in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. It’s large inside, soaring up. Its most remarkable feature is the Mozarabic coffered wood ceiling. The church looks regal, grave, opulent. It marks the highest point of La Villa district. Outside, it affords views of the whole of Vélez-Málaga at its feet. The Easter Museum contains crowns and golden cloaks, chasubles and other garments, and images of Virgin Mary which aren’t shown except when the Passion comes. Rich ornaments as symbols of the power held by the Church, and the power of art beyond the powers of the world: finely engraved pieces, filigrees to trim the figures, carefully made artwork. Leaving the spiritual behind, I walk out to be welcomed by the midday sun. I saunter down Cuesta de Santa María and reach the premises of the old castle behind a wall. The impressive keep and a few wall stretches are still standing, opening up to the meadows and the sea. The views are amazing: fields sown with fruit trees stretch out from the sea into Axarquía, reaching Benamocarra, Benamargosa, and the entrances to Canillas de Aceituno, La Viñuela, Alcaucín, and Periana. With a natural outlet to the sea, the castle dominated the whole area, controlling ships, the coastal connections with Málaga, Almería, and Granada, and the ground connections with Granada through Boquete de Zafarraya. Vélez-Málaga had, and still has, a geostrategic location which was ideal to control the flow of people and of goods. The castle keep made any movement visible. Two young boys are sitting here now, chatting, their legs dangling from the wall. They must be talking about girls and mischief in the dark of night. They’re unwittingly gazing at a beautiful and very old past as they experience their vibrant present. Carpe diem. The sun warms my skin up in its kind and delicate winter heat. I look at the horizon and fancy the whole thing: battles, surrenders, Christian knights and Arab caliphs, Egyptian chronicles, Roman expeditions, Phoenician settlements. Everything’s here.

Torre del Mar and Caleta de Vélez

Back to my car. History still reverberating in my ears. Now I need the salty taste of sea. I drive towards Torre del Mar and park in a street adjoining the Sea Promenade. I can smell the sardine skewers and the barbecues, the grilled and the fried fish. The beach bars blend into the beach; they’re spacious restaurants specialising in fish and seafood, but they also prepare a wide variety of international dishes. The blue sea and the bright blue sky come together. Bunches of young foreign tourists are lying in the sun, their clothes on, their tees rolled up, trying to absorb the delicate sunrays falling on the beach. Torre del Mar’s Sea Promenade is 3km long, running between the beach and quite a few restaurants. It’s sheltered by lots of plants and trees that paint it in green and punctuated by signs where you can read poems by Manuel Alcántara. In the far end there’s the 26m-high lighthouse dominating the coastline. From this modern lighthouse, as well as from its predecessor on Toré Toré Avenue, you can make out the Manganeta Tower by the river and the chapel in the district of La Noria. I stroll along the promenade, stop, nibble at my grilled squid and fresh prawns at a beach bar, washing them down with sodas and a beer, then I move on, stop again for more snacks (sardine skewers), take a rest, hit the promenade again, stop for more victuals, go back to my stroll, and so on.


With the light of Evaristo Guerra’s murals still shining in my eyes, I look at the Mediterranean, dressed in deep blue. Past and present colours blend, as do ancient history and philosophical reason, green meadows and high mountains. Vélez-Málaga’s well of history is like shoes to a traveller’s bare feet, food for thought to the inquisitive mind, a new skin to a sensitive soul. Every corner hides a visible treasure and a tale to be told. I soak in as much as I can, lying on the warm beach in Torre del Mar and staring at the bright blue sky.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Easter Week in Vélez-Málaga: “Vélez-Málaga’s Easter Celebrations are considered to be among the best in Andalusia. The town’s long-standing religious traditions, which began in the fifteenth century with the building of multiple churches and convents, have naturally led the consolidation of a series of rituals that reach their climax in Easter. Early-established brotherhoods compete with newer ones to become the most splendorous for a few days, in a time when the town lives for and by processions. Religious feeling is so strong and contagious that even sceptics join the religious fraternities with genuine enthusiasm. It’d be pointless to name a few fraternities, for they all contribute their magnificent ornaments and devout crowds to turn Vélez-Málaga’s Easter celebrations into an unforgettable event” (source: Costa del Sol Tourist Board website).
Caleta de Vélez: Another population centre in Vélez-Málaga, Caleta de Vélez lies 2km away from Torre del Mar. It’s wrapped in the original atmosphere of a fishing village. In fact, it’s home to the leading fishing port in Málaga Province, where you can also engage in yachting. There’s also a top-quality golf course in Caleta de Vélez.
Useful links: For more information on Vélez-Málaga, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Vélez-Málaga Town Hall.