Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The breeze, made of shadows, tempers the morning heat. Frays of light pass through the Aleppo pines and change, painting the slopes of a majestic hill in a state of Grace. History and nature blend in a perfectly subtle mix. Wall ruins, delicate poppies, buzzing bees sucking flowers, generous views of a chapel of Arabic origin, a thousand bird tunes, an imposing fortress. Welcome to the Gracia Suburban Park in Archidona, cradle of kings.

Sierra de Gracia Suburban Park

The park has a surface area of 35.3ha. Its privileged location earned it a high geostrategic value in the past. It is bounded by the village of Archidona to the South, olive and almond fields to the North, the amazing Sierra de Calderón to the East, and Camino de la Hoya to the West. Designated as a suburban park by the Andalusian Ministry of Environment in 1999, it stands on a mound, a plateau whose slopes are covered with Aleppo pines and whose top is crowned by the Chapel of Virgen de Gracia, an Arab architectural gem housing the classical arcades of old mosques. It takes some 30’ to 45’ to get to the summit from the centre of Archidona, depending on your pace and the stops you make. The ascent is quite steep, but the landscape is worth the effort –great views and amazing attractions revealed at each new step: Peñón de los Enamorados (Lovers’ Rock), the meadows, and the olive and corn fields in Antequera, the walls around the old fortress… Locals use the trail in their daily work-out, hiking their way up and trotting their way down. Let’s get ready: camera, journal, hat, water bottle, binoculars… Done.

Up to the Chapel of Santo Cristo

I can already see the white Chapel of Virgen de Gracia –up there, imposing and inaccessible. Although it is early, the morning sun is hot; I search for the cosy protection of the shady pines. An all-pervading smell comes from the trees; it is fresh, subtle, and persistent. If I could keep it in a bottle, I would take it home. Then I would open the bottle and let the aroma fill the air: the corridors, the kitchen, the living room... The breeze brushes past my skin. A cluster of prickly pears over here; poppies painting the green fields in red or yellow over there. As I go up, Archidona gets smaller and smaller, and the grey massif of Calderón gets closer, its broken outcrops become one with the fortress walls. The climb is punctuated by the Stations of the Cross. Now I am within the pine forest. A thousand songs from a thousand beaks make the delicate soundtrack of my ascent: trills, quavers, caws, whistles. I can imagine them flapping their wings to escape visitors; I can see them motionless for a while after guessing I am coming closer. Maybe they are specimens of native species: booted eagles, Bonelli’s eagles, short-toed snake eagles, cuckoos, common wood pigeons, great spotted cuckoos, Eurasian eagle-owls, red-legged partridges… I can see the white chapel among the tree tops. Despite the uphill walk, I enjoy the cool of the morning: the breeze, the shadows… I can hear the buzzing noises from the town of Archidona –a distant murmur made up of voices, horns, barks, ringing bells… At a sharp bend, I go off the beaten path to explore a scenic viewpoint protected by a railing. Archidona stretches out before me: the Chamfered Square, the Minim Convent, the old Town Hall… To the East, Peñón de los Enamorados appears in the mist, and the road zigzags across the olive and corn fields like a black serpent. I sit on a rock and let my eyes wander. I outline the nearby mountains, the roads and the streets of Archidona with my finger in the air. Back on trail, I head for the Chapel of Santo Cristo. It was built in the eighteenth century and renovated in 1997. Preceded by a yard flanked by stone benches, the simple building features a brick lintel framing the door. It is cool and shady in here.

Up to the Chapel of Virgen the Gracia

The climb is winding and steep, but it can be negotiated without effort. I get closer to the fortress walls: stones laid by the Romans, strengthened by the Arabs, and used by the Christians. The Pico del Conjuro –the hill where the chapel and the walls stand is protected on its southern slope, for a chasm makes access impossible from the North. I walk my way up, greeting a couple of women runners and then a man running on his own. They reach the summit in a jiffy. The soundtrack of whispers, creaks, and drones never stops. Lots of animal species live here: amphibians (frogs and toads), reptiles (ocellated lizards, ladder snakes, Iberian worm lizards), and mammals (deer, wild boars, foxes, rabbits). At night, you come across bats, shrew mice, Algerian mice, European badgers, and garden dormice. The majestic shadow of the walls is on a par with the majestic sierras. The rocky crags and the wall stones become one, blending man’s intervention with nature’s work. I reach the remains of the battlements. The pine forest has been left behind and the summit is clear. I can now understand the geostrategic importance of this place, at the crossroads of Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, and Antequera. I can even picture an Arab guard standing right where I am standing now, scrutinising the clouds of dust made by the carts of merchants or the troops of soldiers. I let my imagination run wild. The Chapel of Virgen de Gracia is right in front of me, and it is not a figment of my imagination.

The Chapel of Virgen de Gracia

The chapel can be accessed by car, but you would be missing the beautiful landscapes afforded by the climb. They get better as you walk up, and they are viewed against the backdrop of animal sounds. I am happy to be here. Archidona played a key role in Al-Andalus. “Arsiduna,” as the Arabs used to call it, was the capital of the district of Rayya. It was here that Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed emir. Hence the importance of the local fortress and the mosque (the only one that has come down to us in Málaga Province). An information board at the summit tells you, “The temple is accessed from an eighteenth-century porticoed courtyeard. Once inside, you can first visit the prayer room (haram) of the Al-Andalus mosque, its horseshoe arches supported by columns with Roman shafts. The presbytery shows the signs of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century renovation. The chapel is dominated by a painting of Our Lady of Grace. The belfry tower has kept the structure of the Arab towering minaret, which was used to summon Muslims to prayer.” Outside, a row of beautiful balconies invite you to look at the nearby sierras and villages, indicated in a board: Sierra Chimenea (El Torcal, Antequera), Sierra Pelada, Sierra de las Cabras, Villanueva del Rosario, Villanueva del Trabuco, the Lakes in Archidona… I take a look at the landscape, spotting the peaks with the binoculars. I am having a great time.


EmbWith my eyes filled with the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the chapel, I climb down the trail leading to the town centre. New sounds add to the familiar soundtrack: tinkling bells and bleating sheep. I come across a shepherd with three dogs. We talk for a while. His flock comprises over 500 sheep. I say goodbye. The bleats vanish amidst the pine trees. Sheep and church bells blend.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To read more about the lakes in Campillos, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas.

Images: Here you can see all the photos of this blog entry.

Ver El Color Azul del Cielo "Espacios Naturales de Málaga" en un mapa más grande

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this nature reserve, located in Archidona, on the Google map below.