Monday, 19 December 2011

Surrounded by a belt of pine trees, the fault rises up against the bright blue sky. El Camorro is looking at me, sizing me up with a posture similar to a Greek statue. Its silhouette shows the hollow of the Cave of Belda –a wound in the mountains, a promise to enter a magic labyrinth. The fault of Sierra del Camorro looks like a ship aground in the olive groves. Broken ground forged in the primeval fires sprouting from the fault. There it stands, waiting for me to conquer it, to come near the fault, to unveil the secrets of the Earth and meet the demon that –legend has it– lives inside.

Zooming In

The fault of El Camorro and the sierras stand crowning Cuevas de San Marcos, a village stretching from the tranquil basin of the Genil river up to the Cave of Belda. It is a deceivingly mild area in Sierra Norte, Nororma, with rolling hills peppered with olive trees. It is a land of invisible ravines –impossible mouths of the crying earth. The fault is a child of savage Nature, of powerful forces that press and move and break and raise the rocks. In the past, their compressive strength produced faults that opened to see the massif emerge from their entrails and move in two directions to acquire its present shape. The crack opened to reveal karst topography, highly vulnerable to erosion, which has carved holes, cavities, and caves (like Belda) in the rock. Being secluded and inaccessible, the area attracted the Arabs, who built a city, Medina de Belda, in the higher part of the fault. From high up you can see the roads leading to Córdoba or Granada, and the clouds of dust made by the farming machines. I look up at the highest point and let the morning air paint today’s version of El Camorro.

Falla de la Sierra del Camorro Natural Monument

Designated a Natural Monument in 1999, it is a large area (1,086,057 sq m) that includes not only the fault but also the massif. Although natural monuments are usually designated to protect individual elements in rather small areas, this is not the case. In fact, the original target was the fault, but it was impossible to protect it without the sierras it is part of. The area is home to Aleppo pines, spiny brooms, turpentine trees, common hawthorns, and orchids. In addition, there are some century-old holm oaks –a remnant of the oak grove that used to be here. Animal species include foxes, rabbits, hares, partridges, Eurasian eagle-owls, Bonelli’s eagles, and griffon vultures. However, the largest population in the area is that of bats, taking shelter in cavities and holes in the rock. Three are the things to see: the Cave of Belda, the old town of Medina de Belda, and Senda de los Milenios Visitor Centre. The recently-opened visitor centre can be a good place for a first approach to El Camorro. A series of boards and other educational resources explain how this Natural Monument was formed. There is also a brief guide to Cuevas de San Marcos and the region of Nororma. The centre is housed in a modern building, whose architectural features match the surrounding landscape. The Cave of Belda, in Sierra del Camorro, is a north-south-oriented 350m-deep cave of great archaeological, geological, and biological value. It consists of a karst gallery featuring stalactites and stalagmites. The cave’s mouth is big and oval-shaped (6m x 12m), with a flight of steps carved out of the rock. A high and narrow corridor leads to the first room, where the most interesting findings were made: pottery and evidence of human presence (maybe burial items), high domes, three accessible lakes, massive columns (over 1m in diameter), and charming corners. Plus, one of the largest bat colonies in Europe (source: Town Hall website). About Medina de Belda: In his Geography, Ptolemy writes about a village called “Belda” (298 B.C.). In Roman times, it was one of the wealthiest cities in Hispania Baetica. A bronze coffin, amphorae, and coins from the Low Roman Empire attest to this. The summit of Cerro del Camorro still has traces of the Muslim village: thirteenth- and fourteenth-century room floors, parts of stucco walls, dry-string tiles, and the fort’s foundations. A lot of information to munch on. Let us get started.

Tour 1: The Cave of Belda

A sign indicates the duration of the first part of the route, PR-A234-Cueva de Belda (953m, 17 min.). I am ready in this wet autumn morning, dew drops still perched on the grass crunching under my boots. A strong smell of soft, wet earth. The route skirts the belt of pine trees surrounding El Camorro –a silent grey wood, full of rocks that have come down the sierras. Nothing is heard but my footsteps. The wood seems to be watching me. A beautiful, mildly rolling trail. El Camorro hides behind the tree tops. Despite its size, it manages to remain out of sight. Before undertaking the climb, I take a few more steps and get to a clearing where I can get a glimpse of the massif. The morning appears behind the mountains –a cloak of light invading the meadows and the soaring trees. I can hear the birds and the echoes from the rock slopes of the sierras. The heart of Cuevas de San Marcos beats here, in the shadows that mirror the hustle and bustle of the town centre, in the barks of stray dogs. The trail cuts into the woods and the trees fall apart at its feet, in a difficult yet beautiful balance. The slope and the rocks beneath the surface (preventing Aleppo pines from sinking their roots in the earth) make the path difficult to negotiate. It has a dizzying effect. You stand still, look around, and everything seems to be leaning and about to fall. In fact, some trees have succumbed to the pressure. As the wood loses thickness, the savage gorge appears before me, carved by the wise old hands of Nature. It is mesmerising: what lies before me and what lies beyond. The Iznájar reservoir, where the Genil river goes to rest, lies on the border with Córdoba. It shows its mouth to us and affords views of the blue sheet of water, shimmering under the reflection of the ochre and brownish olive lands surrounding it. The hills roll up and down, adjoining the lines of olive trees as if someone had drawn them with a square and a triangle. The trail finds its way among the wet rocks. (Watch your step here!) The path is in good condition; there are even stretches with a handrail or trunks to guide your footsteps on the ground. A gate opens to a metal ladder leading to the Cave of Belda. But it is closed. Brickwork tools indicate the area is undergoing rehabilitation. Of course, there is a way of going through the gate. It is not very elegant, but it is there if you want to take a look. The views are spectacular, so I take my time (and seat) to enjoy them. The huge fault, the rock slopes reaching for the sky protect my back. I wanted to come full circle along the trail, the slopes of the sierras, and the climb to Medina de Belda. But the rain has made the trail inaccessible, so I have to go down and take the trip in the opposite direction.

Tour 2: To Medina de Belda

The road to Medina de Belda is not difficult at all. It is a well-kept trail known as “Carril de la Cantera” (Lane to the Quarries), as it leads to the old quarries. You can even drive along some stretches. I prefer to walk, to discover a new landscape at every step. Cuevas de san Marcos appears and then vanishes behind the trees, giving way to the olive-peppered hills that roll up and down at will. Surprise here and there: signs telling the Latin name of plants –rosemary and flax-leaved daphne, fig trees, Iberian thyme, marjoram… I stroll at an easy step, the fault always ahead of me. The sun rises in the horizon, illuminating different parts of the sierras. The atmosphere gets warmer. At a given point, the path forks out and narrows down so that cars can move no further. The road ahead leads back to the Cave of Belda; the road on the right-hand side brings you to the climb up to Medina de Belda. After checking the condition of the ground, I go all the way up to the old Nasrid village. The settlers chose this place for two reasons: natural shelter and strategic location (you can watch and thus control the whole area). A beautiful, cool autumn morning. The rocks keep traces of the previous night in the form of dew drops. A wide panoramic view opens up before me. With the Iznájar reservoir to the right and the olive trees to the left and in front of me, I sit down. I know I am one of the chosen few right now.

Despedida: la visita del diablo

Legend has it that in the Cave of Belda there used to live a demon. Sulphur smell and creepy figures reflected in the cave’s walls pointed in that direction. One night, a group of Christian soldiers spent the night near the cave and the encounter was unavoidable. The governor of Antequera sent a priest to the cave to put an end to the evil presence. But the exorcism was useless against the devil’s wisdom. Defeated, the monk tore off the cross hanging from his neck and shouted a final imprecation: “With this cross, I’ll tie you in.” Amazingly, it had the desired effect: the devil disappeared and was never seen again. During the Reconquista, the village changed its Arab name, “Belda,” to “Cuevas de San Marcos,” for the massif had the shape of a lion –the symbol of St Mark. But this is just what they say.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: All the information on El Camorro can be found on the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. To read about Cuevas de San Marcos, check the Town Hall website and the corresponding entry in this blog (September 30, 2010).

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

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

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