The Moorish Heritage of Andalusia
Biking in the mountains of al-Andalus
The Moorish heritage of Andalusia is not just the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada. It also includes the white villages with Moorish quarters and fortresses, which lay scattered between countless olive groves and wild mountains with spectacular canyons. Biking there, you also get to see a lot of Baroque buildings as well as religious processions.
Travelogue & photos: Piet de Geus
From the airport of Málaga it's less than a mile along the six-lane highway before we leave the wastelands at the exit Coín to explore the real Andalusia. When we reach Alhaurin de la Torre, we also leave behind us the busy truck traffic route. We now bicycle on a quiet road with on our left the wooded hillsides of the Sierra de Mijas. On our right, the plain of Málaga with its citrus groves, fades away in the depths below us. In front of us appear impressive mountain peaks.
Coín is a nice provincial town with a small Moorish quarter, squares with cast iron benches and streets with black and white mosaics. We have a drink in a café; not only are its walls covered with colorful tiles outside as well as inside, but also the bar. Over it, big hams are hanging to dry.
After Coín the real climbing begins almost immediately. We can feel the consequences of Dutch spring: it's early May and we still haven't been able to ride long distances. It's hot as we creep through a beautiful mountainscape along the white villages Alozaina and Yunquerato to Puerto de las Abejas, where we are treated to a refreshing, strong breeze. With a beautiful view of the bare rocks of the Prieta, we whizz through the grassy fields to El Burgo, which lies on a rock, covered with cactusses.
El Burgo is a quiet white village with steep streets and a pleasant hostel with a great kitchen; order swordfish and the wine of the house. The hostel is managed by an old couple and they allow us to park our bicycles in the beer cellar. Opposite the hostel is a typical village bar: the noisy one-armed bandit, the music and the bullfights on tv compete for attention. Next to the church is a "mirador" with a great view of the surroundings. Every self-respecting village here has one, which obviously is also the place for the showing-off parade in the evening.
A 390 feet deep canyon cuts right through the middle of town
Just outside El Burgo the road ascends between the fir trees 900 feet up to the Mirador del Guarda Forestal, from where we see El Burgo one last time, deep down below us. The ranger after whom the mirador is named appears to be a statue in fascistoïd style, which wouldn't look out of place in a communist country either.
After another bend in the road we see bare rocks and after still another bend we find ourselves bicycling in a beautiful, wild landscape. While birds of prey circle above us, we climb another 1200 feet to the Puerto del Viento ("Gate of the Wind") at 3570 feet. At this height the wind is strong, taking a German mountain biker by surprise and causing him to make a nasty fall.
1350 feet and many bends in the road lower, we enter Ronda via the remains of an aquaduct. Ronda is famous for its impressive, 390 feet deep canyon that divides the town. Every day, here buses drop their unsightly load which they picked up in places like Marbella and Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol.
But that doesn't diminish Ronda's beauty, with her old city walls, her elegant bridges over the canyon, and the oldest bullfighting arena in Spain. Both the maze of the old Moorish quarter Ciudad, where you'll find Renaissance mansions and churches, and the atmospheric Mercadillo quarter with its white streets, squares and outdoor cafes are definitely worth visiting.
Sitting in one of the outdoor cafés, we have a bite. When my girlfriend orders fruita del tiempo (fruit of the season) for dessert, she hisses: "If it's from a can, I'll kill that waiter." Apparently he understands Dutch, because he serves, on a pretty plate, with fork and knife, a fresh banana.
Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra
Ridiculously white and picturesque, it sits there, hemmed in by mountains
A busy road with fly overs leads us out of Ronda into a canyon between wooded hills. When the canyon gives way to waving grainfields, we take a left turn onto a road which snakes its way accross woods with holly and cork oak. Near the Puerto de Alamillos the woods disappear and we're bicycling through another beautiful and rocky mountainscape. A few turns in the road later, there is Grazalema, between the mountain peaks, ridiculously beautiful, white and picturesque. This village is a starting point for hiking in the nature reserve Sierra de Grazalema, but this does not disrupt the lazy quiet on the intimate village square at all.
In a wide circle we climb around the village, which now lies deep beneath us. Through more oak woods the road ascends to the 3993 feet Puerto de las Palomas. No pigeon in sight, instead there is an unfathomable abyss, along which a blood-curdling descent leads, in hairpin turns, to Zahara deep down below. As a result, I need to take a few large glasses of "bloodthinner" at an outdoor café in Zahara de la Sierra. While I'm slowly regaining consciousness, I notice that Zahara is another virtually unknow gem of a Moorish white village.
The next morning we have coffee at the same outdoor café. It's Sunday and speakers in a church tower scatter classical music over the village. In front of me is an alley at which I could stare all day: with every small change in the light, the white takes on a slightly different shade. An American woman who is sitting at one of the other tables, sees it, too. She immediately opens her sketchbook.
The village constable does what he always does: chatting with people and as soon as there's a car in sight, directing traffic. A little away from us sits a van that is decorated with palm branches and Chinese lanterns. More and more women and girls in colorful dresses appear on our terrace. One of them plays the guitar, the others sing and clap along. Some even dance.
A little later, the decorated van makes its way through the crowd, honking, and the ladies follow it, singing and clapping. The constable heads the parade in his car, with flashing lights. When there's a car from the other direction, he even switches on his siren. The procession slowly makes its way out of the village, the romería has begun. Eventually they will join other, similar, processions, of which the one from Ronda has already been on the road for two days.
Olvera and Osuna
Renaissance city palaces
It's a short ride to Olvera, most of the time through a long valley, with flowers on both sides of the road. After our descent between the steep hills, our climb to the Puerto Cabañas begins.
On the mountain pass we get a view of Olvera, on a hill, behind endless rows of olive trees. It is typical for the white villages of Andalusia that the church and the ruins of the Moorish fortress tower high above the houses. More than its view from a distance doesn't Olver offer.
We leave the mountains behind us and are looking forward to a few days of easy bicycling. On the edge of the low-lying Campina Subbético plain sits Osuna between hills with grainfields. Although the dominant color is white, Osuna is not a white village. Those are the ones whose Moorish character has been preserved. Osuna developed only in the 16th century, long after the Reconquista. The reconquered land was given in large chunks to the nobility, which consisted mainly of looting gangs of knights, just like during the Crusades. Feudalism still exists and is an important cause of poverty in Andalusia.
Osuna has an atmospheric Plaza Mayor and wonderful streets to stroll in. It offers a choice of Baroque churches and convents for the afficionado, and there are hardly any tourists. The Colegiata Church overlooks the town from a hill. Underneath the church is the private chapel of the founders, the Dukes of Osuna, who are also buried here. They apparently collected noble titles: the first one was a simple Viscount of Naples, but soon the enumeration of titles became too long to fit on the sarcophaguses and therefore the lists of titles are concluded with "etc., etc.".
In Osuna we see many, often dilapidated Renaissance buildings, among which a number of city palaces. While I am taking a picture of the ridiculous looking Baroque porch of the Palacio del Marques de la Gomera, the custodian gestures: he gives us a private tour of the - extremely Baroque - chapel, the patios and the countless rooms that are built around those. No, his Lordship isn't home. He's always in Sevilla, even though he can live here on the upper floor (with spire) during the winter and on the (cooler) ground floor in the summer.
A forest of 1293 marble pillars
Via endless olive groves between which lie haciëndas surrounded by palm trees, we reach Aguilar de la Frontera. Besides a nice octagonal square this sherry village mainly offers an express bus to Córdoba, which saves us many miles through a dull, uninteresting landscape.
In 756 Córdoba became the capital of Moorish Spain. Two centuries later, with half a million inhabitants, it was the largest and most wealthy city in Europe and even surpassed Cairo and Baghdad as centers of Muslim art and science. In those days, Andalusia was a fertile melting pot of Moors, Christians, Jews and Gypsies. For centuries the work on the Great Mosque, the Mezquita, continues.
After the victory of the Christians, Córdoba decayed: the mosques were converted into churches, the water supply and sewer systems fell to ruins. What remains of the once glorious city is the mutilated Mezquita and some walls and gates.
Outside the Mezquita, which has the size of a city neighborhood, it is very crowded. But on the huge patio with orange trees, the line for the tickets isn't all that long. Inside, the forest of marble pillars is overwhelming, there are no less than 1293. Unfortunately the colors of the pillars are hard to discern. The Catholic Church not only built a cathedral in the center of the mosque, but also filled the spaces between the 19 high arches with bricks, blocking the light from the patio. Apparently this religion thrives in the darkness. They also built fifty small chapels against the outer wall, one more pompous and superfluous than the other.
Inadvertently the situation in the Mezquita symbolizes the decline of Córdoba. The Moorish architecture is light and balanced, the decorations - especially those in the mihrab - are refined and radiate a deep stillness. The cathedral, in comparison, gives you a headache with its crude need to impress. The message of the Inquisition is purveyed in an intimidating way: The Roman Catholic Church is allmighty, everyone and everything is small and powerless in comparison and should submit to it.
Next to the Mezquita is the Judiaría, whith the three only surviving synagogues in Spain after the Inquisition. A few streets still look authentic, but for the most part it's one tourist store after another hotel or restaurant.
Also near the Mezquita is the Alcázar, which was rebuilt after the Reconquista. It has vast gardens in Moorish style, with lots of flowing water. Córdoba is also known for its many pretty patios, of which a large part is open to the public in May. The rest of the year you have to confine yourself to peeking through fences.
Priego de Córdoba
Thousands of geraniums between barred windows
It is easy to find on a map where the boarder was between Christian and Moorish Andalusia after the conquest of Córdoba: the Christian villages along the frontlines have the suffix "de la Frontera." From Aguilar de la Frontera we bicycle via Cabra (should be worth a visit, according to maps and guides, but we couldn't find out why) into the mountains of the Parque Natural de la Sierra Subbética. Nature Park means here that hunting is prohibited in the higher parts that are unsuitable for olive trees. Herding goats doesn't seem to pose a problem.
At the edge of the nature park sits Priego de Córdoba, a town with Baroque churches and a 16th century fountain, which looks Roman with it 180 spouts. There's a square with a Moorish castle and a church, which looks like white pastry on the inside. With its layered architcecture the church fits in amazingly well in its surroundings, the Moorish "Barrio de la Villa," otherwise known as "Flower Quarter": thousands of potted geranium are hanging from the barred windows in the white walls in this maze of narrow streets and diminutive squares. There are hardly any tourists, there are no shops, so the area is a lot more attractive then the Judiaría of Córdoba. The quarter is boardered by a Moorish mirador: a street along a steep wall of rock, with a view of the olive groves and nearby mountains.
Another Sunday. We already noticed that many streets were a no-parking zone today. Brass bands are marching toward a church. Would they? Yes! It's Statue-Shlepping Sunday! The big church doors alread open and a huge statue of the Virgin Mary is pushed outside: applause and fireworks follow.
Behind long rows of black-dressed women, forty men carry the statue through the streets in step with the beat of the music. Flowers are thrown on the statue from windows. Every few feet the carriers take a break; the men rub their shoulders. When it's time for a break, a bell sounds from the front of the frame. When it's time to move on, the bell chimes again. Through mobile communication the sign is transmitted throughout the procession. It's already been dark for a while when the statue, after a six-hour stroll, is pushed back inside the church.
Alcala la Real and Granada
A view of the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada
Olives, olives and more olives, one exhausting hill after another. We are bicycling in the province of Jaén: the poorest part of Andalusia where only olives are grown and which therefore provides only seasonal employment.
The one thing special about the rather dull town of Alcala la Real is the enormous Moorish fortress towering high above it. In the highest of its three towers is an exhibition of archeological finds on this site, starting in the era of the Iberians. From the towers you have a great view of the surroundings and of other towers which were also part of the Moorish defense.
The smooth asphalt of the road between Córdoba and Granada leads at 2700 feet over the Puerto López. Traffic is not as heavy as we expected. What about the pass? Actually we're mainly descending towards it, through a beautifully waving landscape with here and there red fields of poppies. While we keep descending, we get a view of the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
During the last few miles, along smelly industrial zones, many trucks overtake us and we have to watch out for the suction when they pass us by. On the bright side: opposite the end of road N 432, which ends in the highway, is a narrow path wich leads us around the suburbs to somewhere near the center of Granada.
We find a hostal in a street near the Alhambra. From the roof of our building we can see part of the Alhambra. Between the souvenir shops are workshops of Spanish guitar makers. By the end of the afternoon (sometimes famous) buyers try out their instruments and if not, the guitar makers will play, accompanied by their wives on castanets.
Granada, after the fall of Córdoba for two centuries the Moorish capital, is an atmospheric university city with cozy squares and a large Moorish quarter, the Albaicín, on a hill. Of course the highlights are the Alhambra and the Generalife. Granada is a good place to stay for a little longer. (For a comprehansive description of Granada, for photos and practical advice, see: City Trip Granada.)
Alhama de Granada
At the edge of a rough canyon
When we leave Granada, we struggle with heavy traffic for a while, but when we arrive in the mountain village Malá it already seems long ago. From time to time we meet, like everywhere else on this trip, racing bicyclists. The route is magnificent, along hills with grainfields and - of course - olive groves.
Near Agrón there's a serious climb over a winding road, after which we descend again to the reservoir Embalse de los Bermejales. The mountain peaks on the other side of the lake are obscured by clouds. From the dam we look into the canyon of the Rio Cacín. When we reach the other side, we have to go up again, with on our right side for a long time a view of the canyon and behind us the reservoir, until we reach a wide bend and start descending to Alhama de Granada.
Alhama is a sleepy rural village with a few churches. It is beautifully situated on the edge of a rough canyon. We have lunch on the Plaza de Constitucíon at Paco's, good and cheap. No less than 17 big hams hang over the bar. The main source of entertainmant for the regulars is to make less than flattering comments on the quality of Paco's hams. Paco, thin moustache, his hair combed backward and flat, grins proudly and ignores the comments. With confidence, he sticks a toothpick in this ham to show off their wonderful quality.
Villanueva de la Concepción
Surrounded by a mile high mountains
After Alhama there's a spectacular mountain stretch. After we've conquered a hillside, we descend through a wooded landscape with in the distance a view of the Sierra de Alhama over which clouds slide into the valley of Zafarraya. After a bend around a small arena, we bicycle through this valley with lots of agriculture. Ventas de Zafarraya is situated beautifully on the edge of the mountains.
Between the Sierra de Alhama and the Sierra de Loja we ascend through a magnificent and rough mountain landscape with flowers and thorny bushes toward Puerto de Los Alazores. Near Puerto we are surrounded on all sides by mountains a mile high (1.5 km). Parallel to the Sierra de San Jorge quiet, snaking roads lead us in the direction of Antequera.
On the next pass, the Puerto de las Pedrizas, we have to choose: the shoulder of the busy highway, risking punctures because apparently it's a sport here to throw empty beer bottles from cars to the side of the road, or a detour through the mountains.
We choose the mountains, despite tiredness and the late hour. It starts nice enough: we descend for 7.5 miles (10 km), but then the fun is over. When they built this road, they were apparently out of hairpins; even the cars have trouble with the steep descent into the valley. With hands cramped up because of the frequent braking, we walk downhill, cross a bridge and then have to make a steep climb again. With flushed faces we reach Villanueva de la Concepción, where we find out the address of an old woman who rents rooms only after persistant inquiring.
A Jesus statue sticks its head out of the church doors
Again the clouds roll like waves over the mountains ahead of us, this time the Sierra de Chimenea. The wind is hard and gusty and the ascent is as ridiculously steep as yesterday, so we push our bicycles all the way up. After a while we are overtaken by a racing bicyclist, who weaves from left to right against the steep wall. A little later another one. And another one. The fourth gets off his bike and gestures toward the back of the pack behind him. A few moments later we're in a bus that belongs to Club Ciclista El Efebo from Antequera and enjoy the view of the rough rocks.
In the middle of Nature Park El Torcal, where the elements have sculpted the limestone into bizarre sculptures, we take a break. Sweating bike racers look surprised: didn't we overtake those two a while ago? The whole pack agrees: this is an area to bicycle with no more luggage than a water bottle. The descent is also too dangerous with our luggage, so we get back on the bus. During the descent, with sharp turns along deep abysses, where we loose sight of the bikers, we get a view of Antequera. The beautiful white town around a Moorish fortress which looms high over the houses, sprawls over the valley. The bus drops us off in the center of Antequera.
What day of the week is it, again? O right. The Jesus statue sticks its head already out of the church doors. There are fireworks and all the church bells chime. Along the route of the procession are long lines of people with lit candles. The band is followed by such a long line of dignitaries that the carriers of the statue have to keep time all by themselves, because even the big drum can't be heard anymore. So they don't. The statue is lifted, the carriers stagger to the left... Uh-oh! Put it down. Lift it again, now a mock attack to the right... Uh-oh! This goes on for hours, while the shopkeepers keep a worried eye on their windows.
Antequera is an atmospheric town with a huge Moorish fortress. Within its walls is the city park, with a view of the lower lying parts of town. It's unclear whether the fortress is in the process of being renovated or being rebuilt: whole walls are being built with bricks, brand new fountains are being hewn from blocks of rough marble.
Around the fortress is a stunning Moorish quarter. The atmospheric Herradores stretches from the 16th century gate Arcos de los Gigantes to the Plaza del Portichuelo, on which is a pretty chapel. Antequera has churches in abundance, unfortunately they were built, in the 17th and 18th centuries, with stones from a Roman city which still existed at the time, including a perfectly conserved theater. Lighting candles in these churches has been automated: after inserting a coin, the lamp is switched on.
The best place to have a cup of coffee while you're standing, is the cross-shaped market hall, which is surrounded by palm trees. You can have a drink in the restaurant of the arena, built in 1848, from where you can take a tour of the arena (just ask the waiter). Three highlights are just outside the city: Megalithic burial mounds which are reminiscent of Mycene (Greece).
High on a mountain, next to the river
After a few steep hairpin turns we bicycle between holly to the South along the other side of the Sierra de Chimenea. It's a beautiful route again, with a view of an impressive stone wall on the other side. Eventually we virtually fall down towards Valle de Abdalajís, a quiet white village in the foothills of a high rock massif. Upward is a road that leads to Garganta del Chorro, the most famous canyon of Andalusia, and a whole row of pretty white mountain villages. But, after 525 miles (700 km), we have done enough climbing and we certainly don't feel like a final sprint, so we descend along flowering cactuses into the valley of the Rio Guadalhorce.
From a distance of 7.5 miles (10 km) we see Alora, high on a mountain, by the river. The Moorish fortress sits on a higher peak next to it. Hairpin turns introduce the climb to the village. Alora is nice, but after so many other white villages, we don't think it's very special. Within the walls of the fortress is a typical Mediterranean cemetary with photos of the deceased, plastic flowers and white marble.
Alhaurin El Grande
At the airport we get our first glimpse of the Mediterranean.
The next day we follow the river downstream through the valley, along citrus groves. On our way in, Alhaurin El Grande seemed a nice white village with a terrific Moorish quarter. Now we don't find anything special about it. So maybe Alora is a fantastic white village if you bicycle this route in the opposite direction.
But we do like the view of the plain and the mountains behind it, mountains that we have got to know pretty well by now, the ones around El Burgo, Ronda, Antequera and Alhama de Granada. Only now, from where we stand, we can see how high they are. The sunset behind the mountains is spectacular.
On our last day, while descending along the wooded Sierra de Mijas, approaching the airport of Malaga, we see the Mediterranean shine behind buildings for the first time on this trip. A pity that it is inaccessible over a stretch of more than 75 miles (100 km) for people who are allergic to overcrowded beaches lined with hotel highrises.