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.
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.
Wildside Holidays also offer guided tours of the white villages and Zahara de la Sierra (along with Grazalema) is one of the most popular places visited