Friday, 21 October 2011

And so I could fancy that Moor climbing up one of the watchtowers of the fortress. A sweet valley of olives and wild olives before his eyes, appearing between lazy shreds of fog. The illusion of the sea in the background, bristling with blue mountains. The smell of oil, of recently pressed olives, of the last embers. The Moor looked into the horizon and I looked at him, thinking his old and my new eyes haven’t changed in 500 years. The sun warmed my skin and face. I was in Castra Vinaria, in Qasr Bunayra, in Casarabonela.

Coming to the “Moorish Charm”

As soon as you set foot on the cobblestones, you feel the traces and the stories only a bunch of towns can treasure. Casarabonela feels at ease with its essence: broken alleyways, unexpected little squares, endless alleys. Just walking through the archway by Fuente del Cristo and up José Hidalgo Street, I can feel it in my skin. To avoid getting lost in the maze, I’ve downloaded a street map from the Casarabonela Town Hall website, which contains a lot of useful information. It’ll help me find my way in this labyrinth of overlapping streets. I can hear the ringing bells of the church, the accents from the sierras, the murmur of the water flowing out of the Caño de Álora fountain a little bit ahead (a key site in the Fiesta de los Rondeles; see below). The streets fold up, casting shadows upon one another. Casarabonela forces you to try and find hidden treasures in its white corners. From José Hidalgo Street, I take Juan Díaz and then Veracruz Street towards my first sight: the chapel. It’s a funny building punctuating the prevailing whiteness with its warmer brick three-part façade and damascene floor tiles. The Chapel of Veracruz houses Our Lady of Rondeles, the protagonist of one of the most popular fiestas in the region of Sierra de las Nieves, where darkness, fire, and torches also play a key role. This is the lower part of town, which means I have to climb to reach the fortress and the church.

Climbing Up

Veracruz Street leads up to Albaiva Street, a winding, sort of faltering, alley. This in turn leads to Calle Real, which reaches up to the church. Most houses feature niches –a tourist attraction in their own right, so much so that there’s even a much requested niche tour in Casarabonela. On Real Street, the tourist office is housed in the old town slaughterhouse. The hall is decorated like a small museum of ethnography, featuring farming tools, crafts, books, guides and brochures. The sun is just rising against the bright blue sky; the assistant is coming later. I need her advice before I visit the Molino de los Mizos, but it can wait. Meanwhile, I get myself the keys to the castle –and to one of my best experiences in Casarabonela. I’m also told how to get there and how to get in. I take note. For the rest of the morning I’ll feel I’m one of the privileged few who’ve carried the keys to the castle in their pockets. Only 10m from the tourist office there’s Plaza Buenavista, whose name is justified by the spectacular panoramic views it affords of the Guadalhorce Valley. I take a seat and just let go, feeling the charming light around me, the singing birds, the hustle and bustle of life. It seems to be the setting for bucolic poetry, but it’s for real. It’s Casarabonela.

The Church and Its Surroundings

From the square I saunter down Mesón Street, where I’m seized by a strong smell of just baked churros. Then I notice the front door of La Gotera, a churrería, which seems to be the entrance to a green wooden house. I come to Casarabonela Square, where I can see the church and a soaring chimney tower –a curiosity against the strongly Moorish background. The tower is part of the town’s industrial archaeological heritage, the trace of an early-twentieth-century power plant. The square oozes quietness. It’s the place chosen by Moriscos (this is what locals are called) to meet and chat in the shade of the trees, as they smell the charcoal, the burning logs that are the harbinger of autumn. After climbing a flight of steps I reach the church, its location showing matchless views of the surroundings. I can hear the pigeons cooing, I can smell the midday stews. And from food I turn to spiritual bread, to the Parish Church of Santiago Apóstol. The church looks at the mountains in the eye. In its strategic location, the belfry tower can be seen from a distance as if it were a lighthouse, a signal for seafarers. Santiago Apóstol is a beautifully robust church, both ethereal and gaunt, and impossibly white. The only different feature is the folding pediment in pink and black marble in the façade, supported by Tuscan columns. The church itself is majestic, with its soaring four-level belfry tower ending in a green-and-brown tile pinnacle. Inside it houses a museum of sacred art, with a few interesting items on display, from prayer books to chasubles.

The Castle

The left side street leads to a refreshing fountain, where you can already see the wall remains of the old castle. It was the last castle to fall to the Christians in the region, and one of the last fortifications to be seized in Al-Andalus, on June 2, 1485. I’m carrying the keys in my pocket. The castle is accessed through a door between two houses. As the door goes unnoticed, I asked a man, who takes me to the right place. I open the door. I walk in. Even when only wall and tower parts is all that remains from the proud, imposing castle, it’s a must-see. Standing on the hillock I can understand why this castle became so important during Umar Ibn Hafsun’s anti-Ummayad riots in 922 and why it was one of the last fortress to be seized by the Christians in Al-Andalus. It affords views of the Guadalhorce Valley as a whole, the massifs of Sierra Prieta, Cruz Alta, Comparate, and Alcaparaín, the early slopes of the Málaga Mountains and the peaks of Axarquía, the glittering mirror of the sea, and the criss-cross of paths and trails that cut through the region. It’s just amazing, because it’s even higher than the belfry tower of the church, which now seems to stand so far away and yet so close that you can touch it with the tips of your fingers. This is a place to stay, you face warmed by the sun, your body rocked by the breeze. The castle of Casarabonela was designated as an Asset of Cultural Interest in 1985; it became part of the European Cultural Heritage List of Monuments in 1989 and was included in the General Register of Cultural Interest Assets of the Spanish Historical Heritage on June 22, 1993, under the category of Monuments. Besides being part of the Spanish protected cultural heritage, Casarabonela’s Arab fortress boasts some of the best benches in Málaga. Here you can sit down and give free rein to your imagination as you face the town centre, the mountains, and the valley, as you hear the whispering wind and the noise of life in the Moorish style, as you indulge in the most wonderful of vistas. Time to get back to the tourist office and return the keys.

The Tourist Office and the Molino de los Mizos

When I come back to the tourist office on Real Street, María is waiting for me. She fills me in on tourist attractions, (custom) guided tours, and so on. The itinerary I’ve followed so far can be done with a guide who can tell you everything about Casarabonela: its history, its traditions, the description of its secluded corners, fountains and niches, buildings and monuments. How can you get your guide? Call the tourist office at (+34) 952 456 561 or (+34) 952 456 067, send an email to, or enter the Town Hall website, where you can download two street maps, three routes, and 18 audio guide texts for your PDA, mobile phone, smartphone, or laptop, with their virtual tours. María comes with me along the intricate maze of Moorish streets to the Molino de los Mizos, in the blind end of the extension of Albaiva Street from Juan Díaz Street. Seen from outside, you could never imagine there’s a mill behind that red door. It looks like another house, but when you open the door, you are in the heart of a well-kept olive oil mill. It was operative until a few years ago, using the power of a water spring plus animals and then machines to press the olives and make oil or grind the wheat and make flour. It’s a peculiar building: the storage court is behind a door and after a path with a chamber. Inside you can have a look at the machines, the room where the liquid is stored, some farming tools. More importantly, you can imagine the mill at work, the stone rasping the stone, the mill turning and turning, the men and women waiting for their turn, the animals dragging their heavy burden. María helps me complete the “Moorish charm” puzzle. The town’s slogan is right: Casarabonela is a charmingly Moorish town.


I haven’t been to the highest part of the fortress yet. I’m sitting on a bench, feeding my eyes on the bright horizon. I can feel the snippets of history dancing around. I can see the Arabs and the Mudéjars, the Moors and the Christian army, the Ummayad caliphs and the rebels, the civil war and the bastions to be seized. And the fortress emerges as the epitome of Málaga in a subjugating and complex vision that abounds in nuances, colour shades, and aroma notes. I let my imagination fly away, thinking I’m the owner of the keys to the castle.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

When to come: Fiesta de los Rondeles: “The Virgen de los Rondeles Festival was designated as a Andalusian Fiesta of National Tourist Interest in 2001. On the eve of St Lucy’s Day (December 13), fire becomes the star in town, lighting up the way for a pilgrimage that has taken place since the dawn of time. The rondeleros, gathered in the little square by the Chapel of Veracruz (which stands where an old mosque used to be), climb all the way up to the Parish Church of Santiago Apóstol, in the higher part of town. The burning rondeles (straw mats used to press the olives) illuminates their way along the steep, narrow streets –a trace of the old Muslim layout. The fire, the smells –smoke and oil– and the sound made by the Moorish castanets create an unreal atmosphere of the ghostlike shadows cast upon the walls” (source of text and images: Casarabonela Town Hall website).
What to read before coming: Town Hall website: The website hosted by Casarabonela Town Hall contains a lot of valuable information: street maps and PDF itineraries, audio guides, virtual tours, image galleries. It’s a useful tool to plan your trip to Casarabonela, its contents being detailed and user-friendly. In addition, Casarabonela offers guided tours, which makes it one of the towns with more information on its tourist attractions, cultural and ethnographic heritage, and calendar of festivals and events. To contact the local tourist office (Calle Real, 5), call (+34) 952 456 561 or (+34) 952 456 067, or send an email to
Useful links: Besides the Town Hall website, I’ve relied on the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Sierra de las Nieves Town Council Association and Sierra de las Nieves Rural Development Group.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.