Tag Archives: White Villages

Gaucin in the Genal Valley

Gaucin in the Genal Valley 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.

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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.

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

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.

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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 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 hotel and restaurant Al Lago has a wonderful outdoor terrace and contemporary Spanish menu and a selection of Ronda wines to enjoy.

Sue from Nature Plus – Grazalema will be very happy to pick you up from your hotel in Ronda and take you on a journey of discovery with guided excursions and white villages of the Sierra de Grazalema.

Zahara de la Sierra Photos

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El Bosque Botanical Gardens

Within the Serrania we are lucky enough to have three natural parks, (Grazalema, Sierra de las Nieves, and Alcornocales). El Bosque Botanical Gardens in the village El Bosque is a small botanical garden called “El Castillejo” and it is devoted exclusively to the local and endemic plant species of these mountains.

Due to the Serrania being both Mediterranean 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.

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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. Continue reading History of Grazalema Village in the Sierra de Cadiz

The Cork Tree, Quercus suber

In the surrounding area to the west of Ronda, from the Sierra de Grazalema south through the Los Alcorncales 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 ordinary oak tree, 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. Continue reading The Cork Tree, Quercus suber