In the Mountains of Andalucia

Into the Hills
Setenil, located north of Ronda, was built on a riverbank between the walls of a narrow gorge.
The White Village of Setenil

I did some reading about Ronda and I began to suspect it was the town I'd seen from the train compartment those years before. On a hot, glaring June afternoon we piled into a rent-a-car — the four of us plus Amy's father, Rags, who'd come to visit. We'd been warned to visit the White Villages before the end of June, when summer's heat would begin to bake the mountains to shades of brown. As we drove down Cadiz's peninsula toward the mainland, hundreds of swimmers and body surfers were playing on the sparkling blue swells rolling in from the South Atlantic, and I wondered if we were heading the wrong way, pushing toward the interior where towns possessed nicknames like "the frying pan of Andalucia."

Two hours later, we'd traversed sun-scalded lowlands, swung off the main highway and climbed into green hill country. Then we crested a rise and before us stood a wall of reddish rock towering above a green river valley. Hugging the sawtooth edge was the casco antiguo — the old town — whose white houses and buff-colored sandstone castles appeared to have been pushed to the brink of the cliff and were about to jump.

Through late afternoon and into the golden evening we passed through Pueblos Blancos named Arcos de la Frontera (River Bend on the Frontier), El Bosque (The Forest) and Benamahoma as the road climbed higher and higher into the Sierra de Grazalema. Their lower slopes cloaked in dark pine forests, these rocky crags rose to 5,000 feet, on the same scale as the Appalachians.

They form the westernmost range in the 360-mile-long fishbone-like chain of mountains across southern Spain known as the Baetic Cordillera, while the 12,000-foot Sierra Nevada anchor the eastern end. With the highest rainfall in all of Spain cascading down in short, intense bursts followed by the warm Mediterranean sun, the Sierra de Grazalema are known for their rich variety of bird and plant life, and especially the rare Spanish Fir, a relic of the Tertiary period. Some 52,000 hectacres were declared a Natural Park in 1984, an area that includes some thirteen of the most spectacular Pueblos Blancos and offers everything from hiking to rock climbing, whitewater rafting to spelunking.

We put in that night at Grazalema, the most beautiful Pueblo Blanco we'd yet seen, and also the site of park headquarters. Its red roofs and whitewashed stone walls spill like a waterfall between rocky peaks. As we descended the hairpin curves down the pass into the village, I could smell pine smoke from cookstoves, reminding me of villages of the Austrian Alps. We settled that night at a mountain inn with heavy wooden beams, tiled floors, flowery courtyards, then headed down to Grazalema's little plaza for dinner.

At 10 p.m. on a Friday night, quite early by Andalucian standards, the local families were just sitting down at the two outdoor cafes to drinks, tapas, and dinner. I had grown very fond of the Andalucian sense of public life and the plazas that served as a sort of great communal living room. To enjoy it properly, however, one had to seize hold of that American urge, Get something done! Quickly! and simply fling it to the winds. Amy and Rags and I sat in the cool mountain night talking softly and eating venison stew and the local chorizo marinated in red wine, while Skyler slept like a chipmunk curled up on his Mom's warm lap. Molly ran wild with the other kids in the plaza playing cogido (tag) and escondido (hide and seek), stopping breathless and red-cheeked every once in a while at our table to snag a french fry off our plates. The stars glinted like brilliant ice chips in the black sky above the blacker peaks. It was a moment of repose when our little family seemed perfectly balanced somehow between the earth and the sky and I remembered what Frank the Hippie had said to me, looking up at Molly perched on my shoulders:"You are lucky. You can make the commitment. For me, always I must move on."

The next day the spirit of Andalucia was upon us and we couldn't force ourselves to move on to Ronda. We lounged over breakfast in the plaza until the church bells struck noon while Molly and the local kids filled up water balloons at the ancient Roman fountain and bounced them gleefully over the cobbles.

As in the other Pueblos Blancos, the history of Grazalema is written in its location and structures. Here at the far southern edge of Europe, virtually within sight of North Africa, the region's earliest inhabitants such as the Iberians and Celts built fortified settlements on the highest, most defensible hilltops. But still the successive waves of invaders swept over the hilltowns: from the East came the Romans, then from the North came the Visigoths, followed by the various ethnic groups known collectively as the Moors, sailing from the South, who landed at the Rock of Gibraltar early in the summer of A.D. 711. On July 19 of that year 12,000 Berber troops from North Africa's Atlas Mountains vanquished King Roderic of the Visigoths in a decisive battle about forty miles south of Grazalema, and eventually took the rest of Spain.

The Moorish invaders called the region "al-Andalus" (Island of the Vandals) from which derives the name "Andalucia." It was the Moors and their seven hundred years of occupation who stamped the White Villages with much of what makes them so distinctive today: the whitewashed walls, the twisting streets, the red-tile roofs, and the cool, palmy patios at the heart of the houses where fountains gurgle like the oases of the Moors' desert homelands.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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