I’m convinced that it’s possible to stick a pin randomly in a map of Spain and where it lands will be somewhere interesting, with a long history, worth visiting. There will be a collection of beautiful buildings, an old and oversized church, a castle (probably with Moorish origins) and a host of decent eateries serving up local specialities that aren’t available anywhere else in Spain. Travelling through the hills north of the Andalusian coast, an area renowned for its wonderful scenery and beautiful white villages, the Pueblos Blancos, that definitely seems to be true.
This part of Andalusia is about as picture postcard perfect as it’s possible to get. Unsurprisingly, it’s deservedly popular with visitors, but outside of the main tourist season it feels pretty low key and relaxed. Leaving the pleasures of Malaga behind our route would take us to Ronda, but first we had plans to stay somewhere en route to experience village life in the Andalusian hinterland. Heading into the hills the scenery noticeably changes and you can spot the Pueblos Blancos, brightly illuminated against the green mountain backdrop, from miles away.
Many of the villages can date their beginnings to Roman times, but they developed most under Moorish rule from around the 7th Century onwards. All are fortified, and most still have the remnants of a castle that would originally have been Moorish. This was one of the last areas to fall to the Reconquista and traces of Islamic culture are everywhere. Ronda, the largest town in the area, fell to Christian forces in 1485, only seven years before the fall of Granada which ended Islamic power on the Iberian Peninsular. Most of the villages were absorbed into Christian Spain shortly afterwards.
Our first stop, for a quick coffee and a wander around, was tiny Casares. The village church, Iglesia de San Sebastian, sits on top of a steep hill and the village tumbles down the hillside around it. A walk around involves a bit of up and down through narrow, picturesque streets, occasionally you get tremendous views over the village and the surrounding countryside. In the main square a group of older gentlemen were sat around chatting and watching the world go by – a familiar sight in most Spanish villages.
We found our way to an interesting old cemetery before setting off for Gaucin. We’d booked a room at Gaucin’s lovely La Fructosa hotel, described by Conde Nast as one of the world’s best small hotels. It turns out Conde Nast are right: our room had views to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, the food was delicious and the Anglo-Spanish owners really friendly and helpful. Andalusia’s Pueblos Blancos hide lots of wonderful hotels and restaurants like the La Fructosa.
Gaucin sits on a ridge between two hills, on the top of one perches the ruins of a former Moorish castle. A clamber up to the fort presents you with a spectacular panorama over the village and surrounding countryside, a view that has inspired plenty of artists over the years. None more so than Prosper Mérimée, the French writer of the novella Carmen upon which Bizet based his eponymous opera. So inspired was Mérimée that he made Gaucin the birthplace of Carmen, his main character, and a literary figure who embodies all that is essential and sensual about Spanish culture.
Gaucin is home to the Toro de Cuerda – Bull on a Rope – involving letting a, presumably highly irritated, bull loose in the streets. This lunacy does have a small nod to health and safety, the bull is attached to a rope, but this doesn’t appear to stop it from careering around chasing drunk people. A bigger fiesta takes place in August, when festivities can go on all night and well into the next day, for several consecutive days.