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Report 856: The Romance of Moorish Spain

By janie and geoff from Canada, Fall 2004

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Page 4 of 13: Ojen, Alora, the Garganta del Chorro

photo by Geoff Chambers

The charming village of Ojen

Monday We decided to head for Antequera via Marbella and loop back down to Malaga , but to be flexible and make stops along the way where things seemed interesting.

Our first stop was the little town of Ojen, no more than 20 minutes away in the hills north of Marbella and the N340. It was on the way, and we had lots of time, so why not? This little town turned out to be a favourite spot that we returned to for many reasons. The location was lovely, the winding road had a view point just a couple of kilometres away from the town with a view of the white houses cascading down the slope and into the valley, all planted with orange groves and olive trees. The little church was small, and the main feature was an artesanado ceiling (marquetry ceiling with raised outlines in the shape of stars). The simple single-nave interior was really charming but we found the life-size Madonna Dolorosas displayed around the walls rather tacky and disconcerting. They really looked like store mannequins dressed up in Madonna regalia. The exterior walls of the church were whitewashed, covered with espaliered lemon trees and lined with wrought iron benches. An old man saw us admiring the trees and he came over to explain that the trees were “citron” and showed us the wires. Perhaps he was the gardener!

We strolled through a bit of the town, which was not at all old, but the homes were still built in the traditional style, with enclosed courtyards and iron gates. Some homes had no courtyards, but were behind small lushly planted patio gardens with low walls that faced the street. We heard some English being spoken and there behind a low stone wall and iron grates, were two elderly English women in sun hats working in front of easels, while being instructed by a leathery lean Scotsman. We had a look at the local liquor store and bought some fino sherry and some balsamic vinegar, on the recommendation of the store clerk, an amazingly beautiful young woman. She was pregnant, that may have been part of her modest and serene beauty, and I thought that she was a better model for a Madonna than any of the store mannequins we had seen so far.

According to Michelin, the market town of Alhaurin el Grande was worth a look, with a Moorish gateway and some unusual chapels. Plus, it was in the middle of the Sierra de Mijas, a rich agricultural valley that had been fought over by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths and so on. The rural scenery was just still green, only just beginning to get that wilted summer look and the wheat fields and olive groves were sprinkled with wildflowers – red poppies, wild pink geraniums, oleander in white, pink and red, Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow. We stopped to look at interesting bridges that were roadway on the top level and aqueduct on the lower level. It made you wonder if the bridges followed the line of the original Roman aqueducts since this had been agricultural land since it was settled. Alhaurin el Grande is another hill top town and when we arrived it was in a state of construction. The lower, newer areas of the town were one big construction zone. To add to the traffic snarls, the town was getting ready for a feria the following week, and there were trucks and ladders and men putting up banners, lights and decorations while cars slowly oozed around them. It was so frustrating we just drove past the sights and headed back out, down the hill and took the road to see El Chorro.

But not that long after, we spotted a truly dramatic castle standing on its own on top of a rocky cliff. There was a town below it, but the town itself was only on one side of the hill because the cliff below the castle walls was too steep for building. And so the castle perched at the top of the steep cliff, its outlines unspoiled by the sprawl of homes, looking like the archetype of the medieval castle. We decided to drive into the town, find the tourism office, and get a free map. We are now getting clear on the concept and virtues of the tourism offices. Every town we went to had very helpful tourism offices with very good free maps. We didn’t even know the name of the town until we got our free map. It was called Alora and the castle is known simply as “el Castillo Arabe”, built in the 9th and 10th centuries on top of the remains of Phoenician and Roman …well, you get the idea. We drove up very small steep streets that didn’t look as though they would ever get us to the top, and eventually ended up at a wide open, stone-paved parking area overlooking the valley. The walls of the Castillo were hung with tile plaques in Spanish describing the history of the site. The watch tower with a pointed horseshoe arch and the walls are all that remain of the Moorish structure. In 1484 the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had a small parish church built inside the walls of the castle, and the bell tower and chapel are still there.

But what was truly bizarre about this place is that it is now a modern cemetery. The entire courtyard area of the Castillo is filled with mausoleums. There were family mausoleums shaped like houses and general use mausoleums that were just aisles of walls containing niches for urns, grave markers and little vases. Many of the vases were filled with fabric or plastic flowers and this, as much as anything else, ruined the atmosphere of the fortress. On the other hand – this is life, or death, and the fortress had unused space so that the families of Alora could bury their dead close by. Shrug.

By now we were hungry and thirsty, and just wanted a quick bite. So we took the main street out of Alora and found a sandwich shop across from a gas station just at the edge of town. The sign advertised cream teas, but we could deal with it. The staff were all British, and we settled on tuna salads. The owner of the establishment, a slightly heavier version of Rob Feenie (local celebrity chef in Vancouver) served us outside, and we had a very pleasant conversation. He had sold up his high stress business in the UK and was originally looking for a place on the coast, but decided that it would hardly be relaxing at the height of the holiday season. So they looked inland, and Alora is only 45 minutes from the airport, much less expensive than the Costa del Sol, with enough ex-pats and tourists to make the business worthwhile. He moved to Alora with his wife and 12-year old daughter, who attends the local school and who now speaks Spanish like a native. He was obviously happy with the move. Then he found out that we were Canadian, and the next person out to chat to us was his Canadian waitress – originally from Prince George, BC of all places, but had been in the UK for the last dozen years. We told her how horrible Alhaurin el Grande had been, and she said “yes, it’s known as Little England now, all the Brits who can’t afford the coast have moved there, that’s why all the construction.”

Now back on the road to Parque Nacional de El Torcal and the Garganta del Chorro. This is described as one of the natural wonders of Spain, and it was really dramatic. The geology is all limestone, and this is a limestone gorge on the Guadalhorce river that is so narrow (30 ft), steep and high (almost 600 ft) that there is a hydroelectric dam at the bottom. There is also a ridiculous catwalk clinging to the rock face that takes you to a bridge that traverses the two sides of the gorge. Michelin warns that the catwalk and bridge are so flimsy now that people regularly kill themselves, so we gave it a miss and just took photos.

Then we went on a futile drive to find the Bobastro ruins, the remains of the last stronghold of the Mozarabs. There are ruins of walls of the Alcazar, caves and a 10C church carved out of the rock. We absolutely could not find it even though we did spot a rusty sign that said “Bobastro”. But we did end up driving to the top of the mountain to look down on the reservoir that sits above the Parque de Ardales and to get views of the landscape.

By now we were running late, and zoomed our way to Antequera. The approach to Antequera is wonderful, the city walls and church towers make it look medieval. We parked on the roadside to take a photo, then continued our way through the town as quickly as possible, and back onto the highway.

We decided to have dinner in Ojen that night, at La Caldera, and what a wonderful time that was! Again, even though it was past 9 pm, we were the first diners at the restaurant. The place looked very plain from the outside, but inside it was delightful and so was the waitress. We started out with the traditional gazpacho, and then I had paella made with rabbit instead of chicken. Geoff had the rest of the rabbit in a stew, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the meal. At the end of the meal, the waitress served us shot glasses of a non-alcoholic digestif of some apple extract. Then she came out with the entire bottle, giggling again, to pour us seconds. We drove back to the condo giggling.

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