Tag Archives: White Villages

Cork Trees

The Cork Tree, Quercus suber

In the surrounding area to the west of Ronda, from Grazalema south through the Los Alcornacales Natural Park, you’ll find an unusual tree that locals use for making cork. It is the cork tree Quercus suber, native to the Mediterranean, but harvested extensively in Western Andalucía.

In truth, the casual nature lover might at first glance assume the cork tree is an Oak, with a similar dark coloured knobbly bark, at least this is what many travelers tell me when I encounter them. However, if you’re in the area shortly after the bark has been harvested you’ll quickly spot the difference.

The majority of harvesters will only remove about 1.5 to 2 metres of bark starting about half a metre from the ground. Taking too much bark can damage the tree since it is an essential part of the cork tree’s defence against fire. The summer months in Andalucia can be scorching, and the bark also helps maintain the tree’s stores of water.

After it is removed, the bark is soft and springy and children love to roll it around in their hands to see how much they can compress it. The processed cork is broken up and compressed and glued to form the cork sheets used in flooring tiles, gaskets, and the most well known, champagne stoppers.

The original invention of cork stoppers is credited to a Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, whose name is used by Moët & Chandon on their premium champagne. Sadly there is no evidence he invented the cork stopper. You will however struggle to convince any cork harvester of this.

The Quercus suber is only able to be harvested approximately every ten years, and a mature cork tree of 50 years is needed to make bottle stoppers. Since the tree isn’t not cut down, cork forests can be left to nature for the most part, and have been known to live to more than 200 years.

The ecological benefits of cork cannot be understated, this truly is a renewable resource that allows for a complex eco-system of insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and other flora to survive more or less uninterrupted by humans for centuries.

With Spain and Portugal together accounting for the lions share of global cork manufacturing, the financial benefits add to the ecological, and should be encouraged. so the next time you buy a bottle of wine, make sure it has a cork stopper in it.
Quercus suber cork tree Andalucia

El Bosque Botanical Gardens

El Bosque Botanical Gardens

Within the Serrania we are lucky enough to have three natural parks, Grazalema, Sierra de las Nieves, and Alcornacales, and at El Bosque, a small botanical garden “El Castillejo” devoted exclusively to the local and endemic plant species of these mountains.

Due to the Serrania being both Moediterranean and European, many of the tree species are common throughout Europe, whilst most of the shrubs are generally Mediterranean. Most of the flowers and grasses are either Mediterranean or endemic to the area. Your stroll will take you through several mini ecosystems, each with their own viewing area to sit and appreciate the surroundings.

Sadly many of the endemic species of the area are endangered, and not just in the Serrania, so the botanical gardens now also have preservation areas set aside for plants from the Sierra de Loja and Sierra Bermeja, thus ensuring that qualified botanists are able to track grwoth patterns and grow new seedlings for transplant should this ever be required.

As you wander around pay attention to the signs next to each species, a red dot in the top left corner indicates the species is in danger of extinction, while a yellow dot indicates the species is vulnerable. An orange dot signifies a species that is endemic or peculiar for some reason.

The park has adequate parking, and toilet facilities at the main entrance, which is also where the library and classrooms are located. Take care not to hurt any wildlife you encounter, from insects to lizards and snakes, all of which are a vital part of the ecosystem.

The Smurfs 3D Juzcar

Global Launch of Smurf Film in Juzcar

Sony Entertainment, the producers of a new film “The Smurfs 3D” recently chose Juzcar in the Genal Valley as the global launch party location, hosted by Spanish model Eva Gonzalez.

The village was chosen because of its connection to the smurfs in the form of being home to over 150 varieties of mushroom, and since the Smurfs live in mushrooms, Sony’s Spain director Ivan Losada explained the village was absolutely perfect.

Almost every building in the village was painted Smurf blue, with many in the village now calling for this to be the official colour over the village permanently, instead of reverting to the white typical of Andalucia’s pueblo blancos.

Villagers and fans crowded into the town square to be seen with Ms Gonzalez and the lead Smurf characters, Smurfette, Papa Smurf, Gargamel, and the cat Azrael. Children from the village were encouraged to wear Smurf hats and paint their faces blue.

Around 4,000 litres of the special Smurf blue paint were used, with all residents unanimously voting to approve the change in a local referendum which expires in September, though mayor David Fernandez indicated under questioning that if changing the colour to blue substantially increases village tourism that keeping the colour could be extended.

All photos by www.villa-ronda.com


Zahara de la Sierra

Zahara de la Sierra, Pueblo Blanco in the Grazalema Natural Park

Nestled under the mountain that gives the village its name, Zahara de la Sierra is one of the pueblos blancos of Cadiz province, and is only 30 minutes drive from Ronda, or an hour from Jerez de la Frontera. Completely within the Grazalema Natural Park, and with the district’s largest lake at its base, as well as the beginnings of the Garganta Verde walk just outside the village, Zahara is rightly quite central to experiencing the Sierra de Cadiz.

Arriving in the village you are immediately struck by the sight of the fortress tower sitting on a narrow plateau at the top of the mountain rocks, and the white buildings wrapped around the mountain base which makes Zahara a popular village to photograph from afar with some of the best views being at the southern end of the lake on a clear blue sky day.

During the wars between what was left of Al-Andalus ruled by the Nasrids in Granada, Zahara was one of the frontier villages that protected Ronda and the city of Malaga from Christian raids, and even though the Nasrid’s were officially a client state of the Spanish nobility, there certainly wasn’t any love lost between them. The fortress was the Moorish watchtower of the area, but in those days a series of other defensive structures also existed, some of the foundations of which are still visible now. The current tower was built in the 1400s, replacing a previous Moorish tower.

Zahara de la Sierra, contrary to popular lore is not named after the orange blossom that seems to fill the air in the streets. Azahar (orange blossom) and orange trees are plentiful in the area, in fact many of the village streets are lined with short trees that in season are filled with oranges. Part of the confusion lies in one of the official names of the village after the Christian reconquest when it was known as Zahara de los Membrillos, which refers to the quince trees in the area, but the name Zahara has a different meaning in Arabic, referring to a big rock, which is precisely what the village sits on, a huge big rock.

Historically the location of the village has been used by many different people, starting with neolithic people who probably used the caves that dot the area, and evidence of their presence is felt in the polished axe heads and pottery dug up in local farms over the years. By Roman times the thriving city of Acinipo was the centre of a large district, and evidence of Roman villas and a Roman bridge still exist.

Iberian people during the Visigothic era continued their Roman culture long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and archeologists have found several burial crypts and part of a church altar dating from this period, but the first mention of Zahara as a definite location can be dated to 1282 when Sultan Yusef Aben of Morocco and the Castilian king Alfonso X met to discuss an alliance to defeat Sancho IV who had rebelled from his father’s rule. We are not certain how big the village was at the time, but it is unlikely to have been very big since it had been founded as a frontier fortress.

Local Dining

Today walking through Zahara one could be forgiven for imagining that nothing of these times exists, the village gives the apearance of being a thoroughly Andalusian and Christian mountain village, with only the ruins of the Moorish fortress left to tell the story of over two hundred years of almost constant unrest between the Christians of the north and Muslims of the south.

There are two churches in the village, both of them very close together, and between them a short strip of shops, hotels, restaurants, and the town hall. In the morning the village square and restaurants are filled with local people enjoying breakfast in the sun, but by lunch time the tourists have taken over, and then in the evening a pleasant mix of locals and visitors share these spaces together.

Your walk around the village is sure to be relaxing, Zahara de la Sierra isn’t large, and two to three hours is sufficient to see the pretty manicured streets with their citrus trees, to appreciate Zahara’s few monuments such as the church of Santa Maria, the clock tower, the chapel of San Juan de Letran, and a small marble statue representing Nuestre Señora de Zahara.

The highlight of your walk will undoubtedly be the ruins of the medieval village and the torre del homenaje, at the base of which is a museum that offers a fascinating commentary on the history of Zahara and the fortress. If you can, take the steps to the top of the tower and marvel at the views of the village, the lake, and the countryside. It truly is spectacular.

After your walk around the village, enjoy a local tapas lunch in the village square, or of views of the lake are more your thing, the restaurant Al Lago has a wonderful outdoor terrace and contemporary Spanish menu and a selection of Ronda wines to enjoy.

Zahara de la Sierra Photos

Jimera de Libar

Jimera de Libar in the Guardiaro Valley

Jimera de Libar, easily reached by train from Ronda, by walking from Benaojan, or by car from both Cortes de la Frontera and Benaojan, is a delightful white village in the Guardiaro Valley of the Serranía de Ronda. Limestone mountains for the Sierra de Libar tower over the village and birds of prey frequently look down on the ant-like people going about their business.

In recent years the village has become exceedingly popular for holiday makers choosing to rent self-catered homes away from the hotels of the area, and then use the village as a base from which to explore the hiking trails of the Grazalema Natural Park. Mr Henderson’s railway walk from Benaojan to Jimera de Libar is a popular local excursion or day trip from Ronda.

The people of Jimera de Libar, known collectively as Jimeranos, are generally considered to be amongst the friendliest of the Serranía, certainly it is not uncommon for expat residents in the village to borrow tea and sugar from their Spanish neighbours, or for visitors to be invited into the homes of Spanish residents just because.

As you wander the streets of the village, which is split into two parts, the Barriada de la Estacion, and the village proper, most people are struck by how clean and orderly the village seems. This is certainly no accident, villagers are justifiably proud of the homes and the lifestyle they have, and the streets are testament to this.

Every year the tradition of white washing homes continues just as it did before the reconquest in 1485, the time when Inz Almaraz as it was known was a Moorish village on the frontline between the Kingdom of Granada and Catholic Spain. Since the men were always out in the fields or making local products, it was left to the women to paint their homes, and even now any man who dares lay hands on a brush and bucket of white wash is frowned upon.

The people of the village aren’t too keen to change these traditions, after all, their ancestors have lived here since before people painted caves, and they know all about this, some of Spain’s most easily accessible paleolithic era cave paintings are just up the road at the Cuva de la Pileta, about half way to Benaojan.

In the intervening years the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, and today’s descendents have all called Jimera home, and some of that history is still visible. At Finca El Tesoro archeologists believe they have found a Phoenician necropolis, whilst at the Molino La Flor, a Roman bridge for the road connecting Acinipo with Algeciras forms the foundations of the mill.

Very Steep Streets

Visitors planning to see Jimera need to be aware, the main part of the village is not an easy walk for the unfit. Whilst the station is not much higher than the level of the Guardiaro river, the main village is significantly higher and gives legs a good workout, both getting to the village, and then walking around the village.

However the trip is worth it, Jimera de Libar is attractive and offers several very pretty photographic vistas, including water fountains, houses that seem as if they belong in a museum of architecture, and streets with slopes closer to upright than flat.

The village church, Nuestre Señora del Rosario, attracts a lot of photographs, but is in fact a very young building that was constructed in the 1960s on the site of the previous village church destroyed during the civil war. It’s location is significant, but sadly under appreciated, for it was in this spot that the original Moorish fortress stood, and some believe, a Roman tower as well.

An older hermitage, the Ermita de la Virgen de la Salud, dating to the early 1600s is found on private property at the station, though isn’t much to look at, just a stone arch that has long since been abandoned. Every year the Virgen de la Salud, the patron saint of the village, is carried from the village church to the hermitage to commemorate the first sighting of the Virgin Mary.

In the years after the reconquest Catholic fervor was almost a state hobby, and it is fair to say that at least half of the villages in Andalucia probably had some sighting of the virgin, though it must be understood, those were troubled times with the Spanish inquisition very much a part of state policy.

Aside from the church and the religious aspects of village life, Jimera de Libar also suffered greatly during the African Wars that plagued Spain’s colonies in the early 20th century, and in Plaza Los Mártires de Igueriben you’ll find a tiled fresco commemorating the sons of Jimera who perished at the hands of the Moors.

Unlike other villages, Jimera’s shops are barely noticeable without the trappings of modern marketing. Many are easily missed if you’re not paying attention. So if you’re staying and need to find the butcher, the bakery, the little supermarket that sells milk, well it would be a good idea to make friends quickly. Several of the shops in Jimera de Libar look like converted living rooms, with entrances just like all of their neighbours.

Here are a selection of photos taken the last time the author visited the village, we hope you enjoy them.


History of Grazalema Village in the Sierra de Cadiz

Almost every visitor to the Serrania de Ronda will hear about the beauty of Grazalema in the Cadiz province, technically the village is located within the western reaches of the Sierra de Cadiz that also includes the villages of El Bosque, Zahara de la Frontera, Algodonales, and Olvera, and is the north-eastern tip of Cadiz province.

Grazalema is one of the famous white villages of Andalucia, considered by many to be amongst the most beautiful, and given that it is broadly in the centre of its namesake, the Grazalema Natural Park which is equally as famous, it is hardly any wonder the village has such a reputation.

Around 2,000 people still call the village home, with a few hundred of these being counted in the hamlet of Benamahoma, though at varying times in the past the village population has been both bigger and smaller. The origins of the village are not completely known yet from Roman ruins in the vicinity we can be reasonably certain that at the very least a Roman settlement centred around the villa Lacidulia must have existed.

During the Roman era the legions of Scipio are thought to have built dwellings on the hills of Clavijo beside the villa, which is presumed to have been home to one of the generals in Scipio’s legion.

However the name of the village can be certainly dated to the Islamic period, known first by the Arabic name Raisa lani suli, then Ben-salama meaning the son of Salama, and at the time of the Christian reconquest in 1485 by the Duke of Arcos the name had changed to Zagrazalema, which quickly become Grazalema as the existing population converted to Christianity and the Castillian language.

Aside from the gorgeous natural park surrounding the village, Grazalema is mostly known for its textile industry which in the 17th century employed several thousand people making wool blankets and ponchos, a tradition that continues to this day albeit with significantly less artisans.

At its height the industry was considered one of the most important in Spain with Spain’s king Philip V awarding special privileges to the workers within the industry, many of whom worked from home using loans provided by the mills. The industrial revolution of the 19th century decimated Grazalema and put thousands of workers out of a job as large factories in the north of Spain began to produce blankets quicker and more cheaply than hand woven blankets could be made.

Grazalema Woollen Products

Within the village it is still possible to purchase locally made Grazalema wool blankets, scarves, and other items of clothing that are made locally, and surprisingly Grazalema handmade woollen items are not overly priced, thus making an excellent gift to take home for visitors.

Local cheeses made from goats milk are regaining their popularity as more and more visitors discover the village and start to demand organic and hand-made cottage industry products in place of mass produced cheeses. The cheeses from Grazalema, the most popular being Payoyo made at Grazalema’s Hotel Payoyo are full flavoured cheeses owing to the richness of the milk produced by local goats, however anyone who sees the grassy hills of Grazalema might understand why, this is one of the wettest areas of Spain and typically averages around 2000mm of rain per year.

The rainfall benefits other industries in Grazalema, notably honey collectors and the tourism industry which has sprung up since the declaration of the UNESCO Biosphere, the Grazalema Natural Park. Of particular importance is the surrounding parkland filled with pristine mountains and walking tracks, endemic species of wild flowers, and an area noted for the huge variety of birdlife that makes Grazalema its home or passes through on annual migrations to Africa.

Gaucin, Genal Valley

Gaucin in the Genal Valley

Gaucin at the Southern end of the Serranía de Ronda is more than just a village in the middle of nowhere. This attractive white village founded by the Romans, and then expanded and heavily fortified by the Moors who named their village Gauzan, an Aran word meaning strong rock. These days Gaucin is better known as a haven for international artists who flock to the area for the peace and tranquility afforded them.

With a population of 2,000 and a few more scattered outside the village, Gaucin is large enough to have a small town centre, with markets, butchers, fruit shops, clothing, banks, and other miscellaneous traders. In fact many of the residents are able to buy everything they need on a daily basis in the village without having to travel to Ronda or the Costa del Sol.

At 626 metres, Gaucin is also high enough above sea level that the weather is noticeably cooler in summer and winter than the coast, which makes the village almost ideal for many foreign residents who choose to setup home, and then proceed to rip out the modern features of their homes and replace them with traditional wooden beams, tiled floors, and rough painted walls; to the endless amusement of Spanish residents.

For visitors, Gaucin is considered one of the prettiest of the pueblos blancos, malaga’s white villages, with narrow warren-like streets strewn together as if a large ball of twine had been dropped and houses built in the gaps between the string.

This may in fact have been intentional for two reasons. First, the castle above the village, perched on the crest of El Hacho mountain was of strategic importance from Roman and most especially in Moorish times, and narrow winding streets make an attack more difficult as soldiers have to first battle from street to street before reaching the formidable castle defences.

The second reason is more practical and perhaps more believable; narrow streets at odd angles from each other prevent the hot Sahara winds from overly heating the village houses in the summer, and in winter offer some protection against the cold northerly winds. Certainly other Moorish towns without a castle have a similar pattern so it isn’t impossible to assume weather played a bigger role in the town layout.

The castle of Gaucin, named Castillo del Aguila, the Eagle’s Castle, is an impressive structure visible above the village from many miles away, and is open to the public in the mornings and early evening. Great birds of prey such as eagles, vultures, and kestrels have always inhabited the mountains of inland Andalucia, so it is hardly surprising the castle would take its name from the eagles which can still be seen to this day circling the parapets.

Within Gaucin visitors will also see the church of san Sebastian built in 1487, on the ruins of the mosque destroyed when the town was taken by Christian conquerers. As well, Gaucin is home to a large convent built in the mid 1700s though abandoned in 1835 and now used by the town hal for concerts and other local events. Recent renovations have sadly destroyed the historic interior.

However, by far the best reason for visiting Gaucin is not for the monuments of the village, it is instead the streets and people of the village that will appeal. A simple walk around the town centre will impress how friendly the villagers are, whilst those with a penchant for the quaint will absolutely love the cute windows filled with flowers, or the tiled frescos adorning doorways and walls, or the cobbled streets that could tell a thousand stories.

Gaucin isn’t on the way to anywhere, the village is a destination of itself. Some choose to stay, others only pass through, but no visit to Andalucia will truly be complete until the soul of villages like Gaucin has touched your heart.

Art in Genalguacil

An Excursion to the Genal River and Genalguacil

Today I had the pleasure of journeying to the Genal Valley, specifically along the Ronda-Algeciras road until the turn off for Jubrique, and then towards the Genal river to wet my feet, followed by a stroll around Genalguacil admiring the art and relaxing in a local bar with a cold one, before returning to Ronda.

Visitors to Ronda often explore the pueblos blancos, but those of us who live here seem to enjoy the surroundings less often, so today’s drive was a welcome break from the city, and with great company, made the trip even more memorable.

The Genal Valley is so named for the Genal river that snakes through the valleys and mountains of the area, and is considered an area of pristine natural beauty, we parked near the Camping ground ‘El Genal’ and walked down to the river, then realised our walking plans were over as the river had diverted slightly in the heavy rains of winter, however our excitement mounted when we realised we’d have to get our feet wet.

The rocks were sharp and a little slippery, and of course we hadn’t brought rubber sandals with us, but the water temperature was amazing, and the taste exquisite when we stood still long enough to avoid picking up dust we’d kicked up as we walked.

Driving into the village of Genalguacil we expected to have difficulty parking, but the village has been remarkably forward thinking and provides loads of space for visitors, it is obvious this is a village that is fighting back from irrelevance, and in the process gaining a reputation for being one of THE places to visit in the Serranía.

Art abounds, Genalguacil is a village that considers art a natural accompaniment to the mountains of forest and high mesas of the Sierra Bermeja that surround the village so each year, usually in August, artists are invited to the village and given board and food for a week in return for leaving their pieces they create for the village elders to hang where they are needed most.

Genalguacil isn’t just another white village facing the inevitable decline as her youth move away looking for work, Genalguacileños are proud to be providing work for their young in the tourism industry as their village takes on the appearance of an outdoor gallery. Visitors are encouraged  and to see every street as they hunt for even more art to admire. In 2010 the artists will be in residence from the 1st to 15th of August.

In the centre of Genalguacil is the 18th century church, the Iglesía San Pedro de Verona, rebuilt on the same location as the original post Moorish era chapel (1534) that was destroyed in the Morisco uprising of 1570. In front of the iglesía is a wonderful plaza with views of the Sierra Bermeja and on a clear day all the way to Estepona.

Down in the valleys, and along the ridges of the nearby mountains you’ll see forests of chestnut, oak, cork, and Pinsapo pine, a curiosity of the Serranía, a relic from the last ice age. Look further into the valley and you’ll see ‘Los Morteretes’ a pinsapo forest in the midst of which the original Moorish settlers mined gold.

Be sure to visit in November as well when the village comes together to celebrate the feast of chestnut, actually less of a feast and more of a celebration the different ways chestnuts are used, roasted, made into jams, or used in savoury dishes.

Genalguacil is particularly known for several local specialties, a local gazpacho, a warm tomato soup, scrambled eg with garlic and local mushrooms, a local salmorejo with meat (similar to gazpacho but richer and smoother), and not forgetting the pork products produced in the town that rival those of Benaojan.

Genalguacil is around an hour from Ronda, or an hour from the Costa del Sol, and makes a treasured day excursion you won’t forget. There are several pensions and casa rural, a museum of art, several bars of which two serve meals.

Gallery of photos from Genalguacil and the Genal River;