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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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