by Robert Bovington
Whilst I frequently holiday on the Costa del Sol, I rarely spend much time in Benalmádena or Fuengirola – instead, I explore the mountain villages of Cádiz and Málaga. I visit places like Grazalema, Olvera, Setenil, Benaoján and Zahara de la Sierra. They are located in one of the most beautiful and yet undiscovered parts of Spain – in the area known as the ‘White Towns of Andalusia’.
Why are they called that? Because they are white and they are in Andalucía! Yes, I know, there are pueblos blancos throughout Andalucía – I frequently travel around the provinces of Almería and Granada visiting delightful villages with whitewashed houses. Nevertheless, some person or persons have determined that the White Towns of Andalusia are the succession of towns and villages in the northern parts of the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga. So there!
They are delightful. Let’s visit some of them!
One of my favourites is Grazalema. It lies within the the heart of the Parque Natural de la Sierra Grazalema, a popular location for climbers and walkers alike. The approach to the town is spectacular and is dominated by the massive Peñon Grande which rises to over 1000m above the town which itself appears to be suspended from a bare cliff face. The views from Grazalema are breathtaking – there are a number of miradors where one can view the countryside far below. The town has retained its Moorish layout and the whitewashed façades of the houses that border the winding narrow streets are bedecked with flowerpots and window boxes. There are attractive churches in Grazalema – the Iglesia de San Juan, the Iglesia de la Encarnación with its Mudéjar tower and the Iglesia de la Aurora, which is situated in the Plaza de España. Whenever I visit, there are usually a few old men sitting in the shade of the maple trees in this pretty little square.
Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara de la Sierra can be seen from miles away because it is situated in one of the most dramatic locations of all the White Towns. Its 13th-century Moorish castle stands high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sugar-cubed houses of the village that also enjoys a hilltop setting. The village was built by the Moors in the 8th century and was an important stronghold of the Nasrids until the Christians captured it in the 15th century. There is a fine church – the Baroque Iglesia de Santa María de Mesa that was built in the 18th century. Zahara de la Sierra has been declared a National Monument.
The road between Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra is spectacular. It winds its way up to the Las Palomas Pass and there are sharp bends and sheer drops on the way. The views from the top are awe-inspiring with rugged mountains, green wooded valleys and golden fields.
Serranía de Ronda
The whole region of the White Towns is located amidst magnificent scenery. There is an extraordinary rich and diverse array of flora and fauna – so much so that virtually the whole of this area is protected to some extent. Within the La Serranía de Ronda range of mountains are three Natural Parks – Grazalema, Los Alcornocales and the Sierra de las Nieves. I cannot stress enough how beautiful this area is. When I first moved to Spain, the Alpujarras enchanted me but having encountered the Ronda Mountains and the Grazalema Natural Park in particular I was even more captivated. There is a very good reason why this area is so green – rain! Grazalema is the wettest place in Spain. Yes, less than two hours drive from the Costa del Sol there is a place that gets more rain than anywhere else on the Iberian Peninsula! Warm clouds full of moisture from the Atlantic are forced upwards by the successive mountain ranges. This cools them resulting in condensation and rainfall.
Benaoján is a pretty village that I first encountered when I travelled on the Algeciras to Ronda railway. Near the railway station there is a footpath to Cueva de la Pileta – a cave with primitive rock paintings of animals that, apparently, date from around 25,000 BC. Just above the village there is a mirador where spectacular views can be enjoyed – poplar, willow and oleander at the bottom of the valley; evergreen oak, peonies, thickets of kermes oak, retama and broom on the hillside; gorse, thyme and sage beneath jagged outcrops of limestone on higher ground and probably the odd vulture or two circling above. There are about 300 griffin vultures in the Serranía de Ronda, which is a tribute to the local conservationists as during the 1960’s the birds were almost extinct.
A huge neoclassical church looms over the white houses of Olvera which is yet another town that enjoys a spectacular setting. The Iglesia de la Encarnación has two bell towers and was built on the ruins of a mosque. Next-door is the 12th-century Almohad castle that formed part the defensive network of the Nasrid kingdom. Alfonso XI conquered the town in 1327.
Arcos de la Frontera
Arcos de la Frontera is the most westerly of the White Towns and one of the biggest. From a distance, it looks spectacular with the whitewashed houses tumbling down the side of a sheer limestone cliff face. There are plenty of monuments for the student of architecture to enjoy here including Baroque churches, palaces and mansions. The Plaza del Cabildo is an attractive square that is dominated by the impressive tower of the Church of Santa María. Other buildings in this plaza are the Town Hall, the Castle and the Casa del Corregidor which was formerly the magistrate’s house but which is now the parador. On the western side of the square is a mirador that affords spectacular views of the countryside below. The Church of Santa María de la Asunción is worth a visit. It was built on the site of a former mosque between the 16th and 18th centuries. It has splendid plateresque decoration on its west façade whilst the south facing side is in neoclassical style. From here, a tangle of alleyways leads to the late Gothic church of San Pedro, which also has an impressive bell-tower. There are stunning views from here too because the church seems to lean precariously over the steep cliff face. Visitors with a fear of heights would be advised to wear brown trousers!
There are lots of other attractive pueblos blancos. Villaluenga del Rosario is the highest of the White Towns and is one of the prettiest. Setenil is unusual in that there are troglodyte dwellings built into the rock. Ubrique is a largish town famous for its leatherware. The Natural Park of Grazalema Visitors Centre is located in El Bosque, which also has a botanical garden.
Gaucín and Casares
Moorish fortresses loom over the towns of Gaucín, Jimena de Libár and Casares. Gaucín is quite attractive although I did not find too much of historical interest there. What did impress me were the views down towards the coast – the Rock of Gibraltar and the Rif Mountains of Morocco were clearly visible. The Moorish Alcázar above Casares was built on Roman ruins. The sugar cube houses that spill down the hillside make the village extremely photogenic, which is probably why Casares is often seen on postcards of the White Towns. It certainly gets a few tourists, as it is only 11 miles from the coastal resort of Estepona.
Casarabonela is on the easternmost edge of the area officially classified as the White Towns of Andalusia. I have included it here because it is within easy reach of the popular coastal resorts of Fuengirola and Benalmádena. It is situated in the Sierra de las Nieves and is yet another attractive pueblo blanco that has preserved its Arabic heritage with its narrow streets and whitewashed houses festooned with flowers. Like many of the villages some of the alleyways are rather steep – on my last visit I left my aged relative sitting on a bench in the main plaza while my wife and I explored the charming alleyways. We spotted a number of attractive fuentes – some with attractive decorative tiles. An attractive church – the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstle is located in the main plaza. It has some interesting crypts and a museum of silver and religious artifacts.
One of the most popular places in the area is Ronda. The best word to describe the town is dramatic. It enjoys a spectacular location clinging to a cliff-top 500 feet above the Tajo gorge and it has had a dramatic history. Smugglers and highwaymen have inhabited the town and it was one of the last strongholds of the Moors until the Catholic Kings reconquered the town in 1485. The main attraction in Ronda is the Puente Nuevo – the new bridge with its breathtaking views of the countryside and the gorge far below. There are numerous historical monuments that include churches, palaces and museums. The town, itself, is a living museum especially La Ciudad the old Moorish quarter which its many historic buildings and monuments like the Arab Bridge and the Arab Baths. Ronda is also the cradle of bullfighting and there is a museum dedicated to this very Spanish spectacle. It is part of the bullring complex, which is an impressive piece of architecture. Another interesting museum is the Museo del Bandolero, which is devoted to bandits, outlaws and smugglers. Highwaymen roamed the surrounding mountains in the 19th century, robbing wealthy tourists headed for Ronda on their ‘Grand Tour of Europe’. Smugglers too visited the town. Nowadays, it is tourists who invade Ronda because it is one of the favoured excursions for people holidaying on the Costa del Sol. Of all the White Towns of Andalusia, it is my particular favourite.