This region of Andalusia was, until fairly recently, considered to be off the beaten path. The mountainous terrain, lack of good roads and poor economy gave it backwater status. Tourism has changed that and the relative isolation of the Pueblos Blancos has worked in their favour: ancient villages with minimal modern development, interesting traditions and good food set in beautiful landscapes. Still, when you consider how short the drive is from the fleshpots of the Costa del Sol, and how many tourists visit the Mediterranean coast south of here, tourism is quite limited.
Driving in spring is spectacular, tremendous views in every direction and a seemingly endless supply of beautiful villages to explore. Driving on narrow mountain roads with sheer drops to the side is a little hair-raising, but the roads aren’t the real challenge of driving in Spain. That is reserved for negotiating your way through absurdly narrow village streets to find a non-existent parking space – these are not places designed with the car in mind. Never, ever upgrade to a larger hire car in Spain, get the smallest car possible.
We left Gaucin heading for Ronda. It was early so we stopped to investigate some villages en route. Jubrique, our first port of call, defines ‘out of the way’, the narrow lanes we took to get there passed through beautiful wooded countryside. With fewer than a thousand inhabitants Jubrique is a sleepy place, but the day we arrived there was a small market in the square outside the church, and walking the streets we discovered a number of public artworks.
Jubrique’s tranquility hides a violent past. Following the capitulation of Islamic forces in 1492, Moors (and Jews) were forced to convert to Christianity, or leave the country and lose all their possessions. Many converted in name only, continuing to practice their own religion in private. Known as Moriscos, this group of Islamic ‘converts’ were regularly persecuted, leading to violent rebellion. This area was home to a lot of Moriscos, there was vicious fighting around Jubrique.
There are conflicting accounts, one tells of Moriscos being herded into the church and burned alive; another says it was the Moriscos who herded Christians into the church and burned them alive. It’s likely that the current village dates from after this period, rebuilt in a different place following the violence and destruction. As with other Moorish villages, the old inhabitants were exiled and replaced by Christians from different parts of Spain.
Back on the road we found our way to Setenil de las Bodegas. The town is famed for being built into bare rock: overhanging cliffs appear to be supported by houses, vast lumps of rock seem perilously close to crushing the town. I’m not sure what property prices are like in Setenil, but I suspect it’s a buyer’s market. Sitting in a narrow gorge, the rocks don’t allow much room for development, or space for cars – this has to count as one of the most difficult villages in which to drive.
Humanity has a long history of living in caves and Setenil was reminiscent of cave villages I visited in southern Tunisia. Presumably the Moorish inhabitants of this region had links to those North African communities. The village name is derived from the Latin septem nihil, meaning ‘seven times no’, which legend would have us believe is because the Moorish forces were besieged seven times by Christian armies, only to defeat them. The ‘Bodegas’ part of the name was added later, when the region was famed for wine making.
We’d have stayed longer to explore this truly peculiar town, but, after a lunch featuring more pig than was absolutely necessary, we had a date with Ronda. The only question was would we be able to work out how to get out of the town and would our car fit?