Dazzling in the bright Andalusian sunshine, the pueblos blancos (white villages) perch precariously on the mountainsides of southern Spain. Chosen by the Moors and Christians during the 13th to 15th centuries for their defensive advantages, these pretty hill-top towns are a delight for the discerning traveller seeking an authentic experience of the region. Tourist towns they are not, and wandering peacefully through their narrow streets (designed to deflect the strong sunshine and heat from the terraced houses) with splashes of brightly-coloured potted flowers is a salve for the soul in this age of instant gratification and constant stimulation. Relax. Take a seat alongside the older town caballeros admiring the view and discussing the weather, and immerse yourself, slow-tourism style. Sample our five favourite interesting and lesser-visited white villages in the Serranía de Ronda:
Just over an hour's drive from La Cazalla through magnificent mountain scenery we find the tiny town of Genalguacil (population around 550). Located in the lush orchard of the Genal Valley, the white village provides a perfect starting point for hiking through the rare pinsapo pine forests. However, the most interesting and fascinating aspect of Genalguacil is its passion for art. Every two years the town council invites artists from far and wide to participate in its celebración de los Encuentros de Arte (Art Encounters), converting the village into an open-air art gallery.
The artists are accommodated and in exchange their creations remain in the streets and the Museum of Contemporary Art for visitors to appreciate. There are currently around 150 works of art on display and every detail (house numbers, street names, benches, fireplaces) are finished artistically, imprinting visitors with creative and spiritual memories.
Surrounded by forests of pine, chestnut and walnut trees, Benalauría is just a 40 minute drive from your luxury villa rental in Ronda, La Cazalla de Ronda. There are plenty of historical buildings to see as you stroll through this small town, such as the 18th century town hall, the 15th century Santo Domingo Church and the Ethnography Museum housed in an 18th century olive oil factory, but make a note in your diary for a visit during the Moors and Christians festival on the first Sunday of every August.
This exciting and fun event recreates the sacking of the town by Moors during the 15th century Mudejar rebellion and the abduction of the patron saint, Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The town's Christian inhabitants effect a rescue, capturing the two sons of the Moorish military chief (qa'id), which provides them with an effective bargaining chip to recover the church and the Saint. The epilogue is a desperate eulogy by the qa'id to the beautiful land where he was born and which now, deported, he will have to abandon forever.
Those thirsting for more ancient history can discover an archaeological site of a Roman cemetery dating back to the first century after Christ just outside of the town. If you've built up an appetite during your explorations, we recommend buying fresh baked buns called “buñuelos”: a delicious town specialty.
Cascading down the cliffs of the Genal Valley, is the slightly larger white village of Igualeja (population 950). A 35 minute drive from La Cazalla, the town is situated next to the source of the River Genal, which gives its name to the fertile valley. Exploring Igualeja is a work-out in itself, due to the steep winding streets - perhaps this is one of the reasons the town's inhabitants have a reputation for being tough (as well as ruthless). A more likely explanation stems from the violent reputations of two of the town's most infamous bandits: Zamarrilla and Francisco Flores Arocha. Zamarrilla won his notoriety plundering the French during the early years of the 19th century, but carried on with his ways after their withdrawal. The more dastardly Francisco Flores Arocha terrorised the surrounding mountains and the main Ronda-Marbella road and was hunted down and killed by the Guardia Civil in 1932.
The enduring intensity of the town's residents can be best experienced during their Maundy Thursday and Good Friday passionate (and almost gruesome) displays. However, we highly recommend visiting the white village during October for the 'Primavera de Cobre' (the Copper Spring). At this time the chestnut trees intrinsically linked with the commerce of the region burst into their Autumn colours and the landscape turns bronze, ochre, yellow and gold - one of nature's own incredible displays.
Once a haven for brandy and tobacco smugglers, the peaceful town of Gaucín provides spectacular views to Gibraltar and the Rif mountains of North Africa. Just under an hour's drive from La Cazalla, the village is a gateway to the Serranía de Ronda and is home to an international community of artists. Hardly surprising, as the countryside displays an impressionist's palette of colour, varied throughout the year: brilliant brush strokes of red poppies, yellow mimosa, purple wild orchids, tempered by the cool green of olive groves and springtime splashes of pale pink almond blossom.
Historians and birdwatchers alike will enjoy the Castillo del Aguila (Eagle's Castle): a series of Roman-built and Moorish-adapted fortifications strewn across the rocky ridge above this charming white village. As the name suggests, eagles can be seen soaring above and around the towers, kestrels regularly nest in the walls of the medieval convent, and there are plaques around the town showing both the native and migrating birds which can be seen in the vicinity. However, for those with more exciting visit in mind, every Easter Sunday the town hosts a rather unusual ancient Spanish festival: El Toro de Cuerda. Perhaps not for those of us with a soft-spot for animals, the fiesta involves a bull tied by the horns to a rope running throughout the town: a kind of bullfight 'on the hoof', so to speak.
5. Cortes de la Frontera
Sandwiched between the Alcornocales Natural Park and Sierra de Grazalema is the largest of our recommended white villages in the Serranía de Ronda (with a population of around 4,000): Cortes de la Frontera. Its superb vantage point overlooks the sweeping Guadiaro valley and the extensive woods of cork trees (alcornocales). Cork has contributed greatly to the local economy since the late 17th century and Cortes used to be one of the richest pueblos blancos due to its production. Grand 18th-century mansions lining the main street still stand as testaments to the wealth of the town.
History-lovers will discover ample ancient buildings to satisfy their curiousity, but the real draw is the incredible natural environment surrounding the town. If you want to entirely disconnect from the pace of everyday life and enjoy nature, visit the remote village of La Sauceda, formerly the destination of bandits and outlaws, with its magnificent corks, splashing streams and lush green ferns lodged in their mossy trees.
Of course, our own interesting hometown of Ronda is dramatically perched atop cliffs as well and you can discover our recommendations of things to do here. Alternatively, please don't hesitate to contact us with your questions about the time of year for festivals that pique your interest - we're always happy to help.