Friday, 21 October 2011

And a fairy appeared. In the surreal, ghostly, foggy land where the roaring wind came up from the Genal Valley and the soaring Spanish firs reached up the sky. There she was, on a rock. She was pointing at a path in the wall of clouds. And she was smiling.

Zooming In

Sierra Bermeja is crowned by a cluster of clouds. Pure white against the deep red background of the hills, the primitive green woods, and the bright blue sky. An unknown paradise in the middle of nowhere, hidden in the fog. The land of fairies and dwarfs and elves and maybe Tolkien’s orcs and hobbits too. The native Spanish firs rock their proud branches in the wet north slopes of the massif. The south slope defiantly faces the sea. On clear days, when the fairy takes off her cloudy tiara, Sierra Bermeja makes an extraordinary landscape: a colourful 3D map of Costa del Sol Occidental. On foggy days it morphs into a more intimate setting –a darker, powerful, secret place inhabited by imaginary beings. Los Reales de Sierra Bermeja sit on a red mountain. Red, bermeja, ochre. And a fairy lives in them.

Los Reales de Sierra Bermeja Natural Area

Three privileged villages share Los Reales de Sierra Bermeja: Casares, Estepona, and Genalguacil. Each of them owns a different piece: viewpoints for Estepona, Spanish firs for Genalguacil, and pine forests for Casares. It is a spectacular natural area, with majestic peaks (Pico de Los Reales is 1,450m high), great woods, and lots of animal species. Moreover, Los Reales is the habitat of two species that had never been seen before: the Spanish fir (a type of fir native to the Mediterranean region) and the Egyptian mongoose (a rodent of the Herpestes genus). Los Reales is remarkable for its bright red colour (hence the name of the sierras), the result of the peridotite that makes the massif, whose largest area in the world is to be found here. Moreover, the population of Spanish firs in the area is the only one growing on this type of mineral soil. There are many reasons to come to Sierra Bermeja. The fact that it is such a peculiar landscape is one of them. Its surface area is 1,236ha, 100 of which are covered with Spanish firs. It is also a 35km-long natural border between Ronda and the sea. It is 1,000m high on average, its highest peak, Pico de Los Reales, being 1,450m high. It is a protected natural area housing 250 tree species and 60 different species of butterflies. The annual average temperature is 14 ºC to 17 ºC. Several hiking trails cut across the area. The best known is Paseo de Los Pinsapos. It is 4.5km long and takes 2 hours to complete (one way only). It also gives you the chance to spot impossibly old and amazingly tall Spanish firs (they can be up to 400 years old and over 30m high). There is a shelter open on weekends where you can have a cup of coffee, a hearty stew or tripe, or even a typical mountain dish. On clear days, the Salvador Guerrero viewpoint is a must. It is a real roof overlooking Costa del Sol Occidental and its overwhelming landscape.

Spanish Firs and Egyptian Mongooses

Spanish fir (pinsapo) and Egyptian mongoose (meloncillo). Curious names. A tree and a rodent, together in Sierra Bermeja. The Spanish fir was discovered by the Swiss botanist Pierre Edmond Boissier. A few years later, the German botanist and pharmacist Felix Haenseler, who had settled in Málaga, spotted a rodent he had never seen before and called it “meloncillo.” Egyptian mongooses were introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs. They were great snake hunters and highly appreciated as pets. They are also called “hairy snakes,” given their longish bodies and bristly fur, or “devils of the bushes.” The Spanish fir, or Abies pinsapo, is a species of the Abies genus and the pine (Pinaceae) family native to southern Spain and northern Morocco. It is related to other Mediterranean trees. Pinsapos are elegant evergreen trees growing 20m-30m tall with a conic crown, sometimes become irregular with age. They have a thin light-grey bark with darker shallow cracks. The leaves are 1.5-2cm long, expanding outwardly all round the shoots, and are strongly glaucous pale blue-green, with broad bands of whitish wax on both sides. The cones are cylindrical, 9-18cm long, greenish-pink to purple before maturity, and smooth with the bract scales short and not exerted. When mature, they disintegrate to release the winged seeds (description source: Wikipedia). Pinsapos are peculiar and majestic trees, rising up in defiance when young. Their branches lend them the looks that make them so peculiar, and the fact that they are native to a single region makes them valuable from the biological and environmental points of few. In sum, they are worth seeing.

The Tour

Coming from Estepona on a warm, clear morning, I soon realise there is a white crest covering the peaks of Sierra Bermeja. As I drive up along sharp bends, I leave an increasingly large landscape behind: Costa del Sol, Estepona, San Pedro Alcántara, Sierra Blanca, Pico de la Concha in Marbella, Sierra de las Nieves… After 15km, I come to a crossroads. To the right, Jubrique. Straight ahead, Genalguacil road and mountain trail). To the left, Los Reales de Sierra Bermeja. A bunch of tourists from Germany are sitting in several off-road vehicles in an open area. The narrow mountain trail leading to Los Reales looks so foggy. In I go. I move slowly and cautiously. The asphalt road is covered by thousands of pine needles. Paseo de los Pinsapos is 2.5km ahead; the shelter and the viewpoint, 4km. Welcome to the Magic Kingdom. The road seems to move in circles. Silhouettes seem to live in the haunted trees, appearing and disappearing as I drive on. And then there is the bright red earth too. A particularly sharp bend to the left marks the beginning of Paseo de los Pinsapos. The roadside can hold two or three cars only. As I get out, the fog wraps me in, just like it wraps in the landscape. I get ready to go. It is magical. On a clear day, the views of the Genal Valley must be spectacular. Today, however, shrouded in this thick fog, everything looks different, special. I must first get to Plazoleta de los Pinsapos. The wet, bright green forest glitters in the fog. The Spanish firs go all the way down to the valley at my feet. I seek. They hide. The white clouds swallow them up and then throw them out. The downhill trail is clearly signposted. Some stretches are quite rocky, so watch your step. The Spanish firs greet me with wide open branches, like long-armed men. Moss paints the rocks in green. The bushes brush past my legs as I walk. The ghostly atmosphere spurs my imagination, so that I can see gnomes and elves under the first mushrooms, or cunning orcs hiding behind a thick tree trunk, or hobbits stepping stones. But I had never thought I would come across a fairy. There she is, standing on a jutting rock. She is wearing a flower crown and a white and yellow dress. Her eyes are blue. Her dress is fluttering in the wind. She is carrying a drum in her right hand, and is ready to beat it. She is smiling. What a surprise! A fairy! She is telling me which way to go as she smiles. I say goodbye to her and, still jaw-dropped, I move on. The landscape shows and vanishes. Slopes covered with green bushes and fenced in by tall Spanish firs and some gall oak. The reddish earth guides my steps. The trees are looming above me. I overcome a few hurdles. The rocky watercourses find their way down into the valley. I move easily past them. This wood is brimming with life and magic. You can listen to nature here, breathing close to you. The roaring wind pushes the fog from the valley. Dew drops fall on the ground and echo in the leaves under my feet. This forest is inhabited by ghosts and magic creatures. I take a look at the most peculiar feature of Spanish firs: their needles. When I come to a bridge across a watercourse, I look down to feel the overwhelming power of nature. Then I take the trail up to Plazoleta de los Pinsapos. On a plate you can read García Lorca’s lines about trees: “Árboles / ¿Habeis sido flechas / caídas desde el azul? / ¿Qué terribles guerreros os lanzaron? / ¿Han sido las estrellas? / Vuestras músicas vienen / del alma de los pájaros, / de los ojos de Dios / de la pasión perfecta. / ¡Árboles! / ¿Conocerán vuestras raíces toscas / mi corazón en tierra?” (Trees! / Have you been arrows / falling down from the blue sky? / What fearsome warriors threw you? / Was it the stars? / Your sounds come / from the soul of birds, / from the eyes of God / from the perfect passion. / Trees! / Will your rough roots know / my heart on the ground?). Plazoleta de los Pinsapos is a crossroads leading to Pico de Los Reales (2.2km) or Puerto de Peñas Blancas (3.5km). At the small square, stone benches surround four huge Spanish fir specimens, kindly inviting travellers to rest. Not long ago, someone built a tiny shelter for a single person in case of sudden weather changes. A hideout rather than a shelter, but there it is. I take a seat, drink some water, have a snack. I am quiet. I listen to the sounds of the woods: groans, murmurs, songs, undulating whispers… The fog, like a magician, shows things to me and then makes them disappear. If the weather forecast had not told me it would be overcast, I would have climbed all the way up to Pico de Los Reales or Puerto de Peñas Blancas. But it is wise to be cautious in this weather, so I am heading for the recreational area and the viewpoint.. On my way back, I do not come across anybody. Deep in thought and silent, I gaze at the wilderness that sucks me in. I walk across the bridge and watercourse. I let the pinsapos touch me. I come to the jutting rock, but the fairy is no longer there. Of course, she is a graceful and delicate fairy of the woods. You cannot expect her to keep still. Or maybe she was just a figment of my imagination…

Viewpoint and Shelter

I shake the mud off my shoes, drink some water and get in the car to drive all the way up (cautiously). I reach an open area and a crossroads showing the way to Pico de Los Reales, the Los Reales recreational area (120m), and the Salvador Guerrero viewpoint (1km). I leave the car here and start walking along the mountain road. After a 5’ walk, I can see a ghostly building in front of me. It is the Agustín Lozano shelter –a white house with a huge wooden door built in 1899. The whole thing is quite creepy but suddenly… two kids rush out of the shelter. I say hello and see a few brave tourists sitting inside. The shelter is also a tavern. I will come back later. I move on, as the fog gets thicker and thicker. The Salvador Guerrero viewpoint –a spur ready to split the Mediterranean– is wrapped in it. A blind viewpoint. A viewpoint in the dark. I know the sea must be there, the coastline must be there too, but I cannot see anything. And the lashing wind hits my face. When I visited Genalguacil on June 30, 2009, I came here too. It was a sunny day. I think I will use the pictures I took then to illustrate this blog entry! I retrace my steps along an invisible trail, hidden under the thick fog. I go back to the shelter and greet the mountaineers and hikers there. I can smell the stew. A strong smell. Too early, though. I can even hear the pot bubbling on the stove. I am told the shelter is open on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays and they serve the menu of the day: stew, tripe, cabbage, mountain foods like loin, eggs, chorizo, potatoes, peppers… A great plan for a holiday. I order two coffees and take a seat in one of the four long wooden tables in the big room. An austere place indeed. I can smell the fireplace, although it is not burning today. This winter, on a really cold day, I will come back and try one of those hearty dishes by the fireplace. I must do it. The kids keep playing.


The fairy gets her agile feet off the rock and takes off. She sees how two silent travellers leave the Spanish firs behind and are swallowed up by the fog. She keeps track of them. She knows they are on the right track. She swiftly flies away, vanishing in the trees like a shooting star.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Hiking: This is an ideal place for hikers. The wild trails are well prepared. There are all kinds of routes, from easy to difficult. You can find them on the Net. A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas contains three of them.

Useful links: To learn more about Sierra Bermeja, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. The Casares, Estepona, and Genalguacil Town Hall websites also contain useful information.

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

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this Protected Natural Area on the Google map below.

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


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.