16 Oct - More Moorish Meandering
36:08.1 N 005:21.3W
The spare parts arrived in Gibraltar on Friday afternoon, moments after the chaps in Customs had gone home for the weekend. I could not really justify their emergency callout routine, so confident that we would be able to fix the satcom on Monday we settled for a weekend road trip around Andalucía instead.
Travelling light, we walked across the border on Saturday morning and collected a diesel Ford Fiesta with a few bumps and scratches already in place. Armed with the Backroads of Spain and some recent tips from the Sanguinettis, we set off for Castillo de Castellar, the first ‘pueblo blanco’ of the day. It’s pretty small; so small, in fact that under Franco’s regime, they moved the inhabitants out and relocated them in a ‘new town’ – Castellar de la Frontera – a couple of kilometres down the hill. The quaint hilltop village with its chunky Moorish castle did not stay empty for long though and became a refuge for artistic and generally Bohemian types. Today it’s a very pretty place to wander around on a Saturday morning: no cars, whitewash everywhere, plant pots providing perspective, a few doorways selling things you didn’t know you needed and a nice hotel in the castle itself where we enjoyed the spectacular views over a decent cup of coffee.
Inside Castillo de Castellar
The countryside round about is dominated by the cork industry, with a few olive groves thrown in for good measure. They strip the bark of the cork oak off the bottom section of trunk about every nine years, so this is not exactly a fast-paced industry, but judging by the number of shops selling everything you ever wanted but made from cork, it’s going to survive the revival of the screw-top!
The ‘cork mountain’?
Energised, we moved on to Jimena de la Frontera. Much bigger, with a really good castle on the top. Loads of ex-pats in residence, apparently, but they did not bother us and we had a good scramble amongst the ruins, having parked the wheels halfway up the hill. On our return to the car, the little roadside chicken takeaway place had opened up and we were unable to resist the aroma of spit-roasted chook. They only open three days a week but judging by the steady stream of customers, it’s good. Indeed, roasted ‘roadrunner’ for lunch with a couple of warm bread rolls and some iced tea proved to be one of the cheapest and tastiest meals we’ve had in a long while.
Griffon Vulture in residence at Jimena de la Frontera
Moorish castle at Jimena de la Frontera. They certainly picked the best spots!
We moved on to Gaucin, where we had stayed with the Watson clan on a family holiday a few years ago. Here, we missed out on the Moorish castle visit and settled for some fruit salad to balance out the digestive juices from lunch. You can see Gibraltar from here and the views in every direction are addictive, but time was pressing so we pushed on to Ronda.
Gibraltar from Gaucin, with Morocco behind
Ronda is famous for its bridges across the spectacular gorge and the bullring. We visited them all and, despite the relatively high number of tourists, loved the place. It’s an ancient city and a fine blend of Moorish and Christian influences. Affluent and bursting with confidence, you can find everything here. We particularly liked the Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcent, where there is a church that started life as a Roman temple, then became a mosque and is now a rather fine Catholic church. Most people seemed to be getting married in the adjacent Registry Office whilst we were there though – a sign perhaps that Spain is changing? As if we needed one, with the ongoing debate over Catalonia in full flow…
The ‘new bridge’ at Ronda
Your everyday Romano-Moorish-Catholic drop in centre
The bullring provokes plenty of controversy and I don’t think I can make my mind up without seeing a bullfight. What I have seen is the extraordinary power and majesty of the bull, which is celebrated – almost deified – by this culture. And there is no doubt of the artistry and bravery (and bravado) of the bullfighters, who are certainly treated as gods. But the man always wins, so is this really a contest? And isn’t it barbaric and cruel? The bullring reminded me of a Roman amphitheatre and the cry of the gladiators: ‘Hail Caesar, those who are about to die, salute you!’
‘Ave Caesar, te morituri salutant!’
We got out of Ronda at dusk and headed for our overnight accommodation at Benaojan, about twenty minutes away. The hotel had the only remaining rooms available for Saturday night in this part of Spain. We found out why soon enough. The road down was worthy of a four wheel drive car and there were no lights on to welcome us. We eventually stumbled into the courtyard and spotted someone. The reception area was where they stored the dirty linen and was piled high with tatty ring binders (containing unpaid bills and complaints letters, I suspect). The staff seemed to be Anglo-American and needed to take advantage of the laundry facilities themselves. The room was fine – apart from the high percentage of broken light fittings, a broken TV and a dodgy shower, the bed was simply enormous and very comfortable. We slept well and rose early on Sunday for the Big Walk of the weekend. Breakfast was adequate – I hate DIY tea when the only water is on one of those coffee pot things that keep the jug warm. Our analysis was that the chap bought the property with the dream of making a lovely mountain retreat hotel; but ran out of money, lacked experience and probably turned to drink… Note to self: never underestimate the reserves of cash, energy and self-discipline that you need to do something like this properly.
The walk followed the nearby river down from the railway station at Benaojan to the one at Jimera de Liber – about two hours away on foot. The railway line runs from Ronda down to the coast at Algeciras and was built by British entrepreneurs, only coming under Spanish ownership during Franco’s time. It’s quite a feat of engineering and the path which clings to the hillside above it makes a great walk; not quite as spectacular as the one we did in the Picos de Europa all those weeks ago in Asturias, but very enjoyable nonetheless. The train ride back to Benaojan took just seven minutes.
We pushed on into the mountains to Grazalema for lunch. Right in the heart of the mountains, the views from here are possibly the most spectacular of the trip and the town itself is the epitome of the classic Andalusian Pueblo Blanco. Originally important for textile manufacturing, it is now a centre of the walking/eco-tourism industry. We sacrificed exploration of any Moorish piles in favour of a tapas bar Julie found on TripAdvisor, which turned out to be a triumph. Not quite sure about the bright blue bread rolls cuddling the mini-burgers, though – my Mother used to remove the blue Smarties on the grounds that the food colouring made little boys hyperactive.
Grazalema roof tiles
At least I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel then, as we followed the winding mountain roads to Zahara de la Sierra – probably the most dramatic setting of any of the towns, with the castle high on a rocky outcrop above the rooftops and a large reservoir below.
The castle at Zahara de la Sierra. Great name!
Time did not allow us to dally long there as we wanted to make our final destination, Olvera, before nightfall. The hotel was rather different to the one at Benaojan – calmly efficient and spotless. The bed wasn’t as big, but the view from the window was sublime.
The view from the bedroom window at Olvera