What's the first image that comes to mind when you think of Spain? Blue skies? Beaches? Flamenco? Bullfighting? Paella? If you Google 'Spain' in images, actually the photos are predominantly of fantastic architecture and little white houses cascading down mountainsides. These are the pueblos blancos (white villages) and their strategically-defensive hill-top positions, narrow cobbled streets and brilliantly-white casas reflecting back the bright Andalusian sunshine make for interesting and picturesque places to visit. Here are five of our favourites within a short drive from your base at La Cazalla, our secluded luxury villa rental in Ronda:
1. Setenil de las Bodegas
A 30 minute drive from Ronda is the curious white village of Setenil de las Bodegas - a small town with a population of around 3,000 inhabitants. Curious, because most pueblos blancos were built on protective bluffs and pinnacles, yet this town interestingly grew out of a network of caves in the cliffs above the River Trejo. The bright white houses shelter inside the cooling rock cliffs of the river, integrating the rock as walls and roofs, with the result resembling a Lord of the Rings-style town for mountain dwellers.
There has been a human settlement here since at least the Arabic Almohad period in the 12th century. Given the evidence of other nearby cave-dwelling societies, such as those at the Cueva de la Pileta, where habitation has been tracked back more than 25,000 years, it is possible that Setenil was occupied much much earlier. Although most evidence of this would have been erased during its continued habitation, it was certainly occupied during the Roman invasion of the region in the first century AD.
Setenil de las Bodegas was named during the 15th century for its extensive vineyards, but sadly these were wiped out by the phylloxera insect infestation of the 1860s, which effectively destroyed most European vine stocks. Almond trees and olive groves (some on the roofs of houses!) surround the village, which also has a reputation for its meat products, particularly chorizo sausage and cerdo (pork) from pigs bred in the surrounding hills. Setenil's productive outlying farms provide Ronda and other local towns with much of their fruit and vegetables, and their fine pasteles (pastries) are renowned. Factor in time to enjoy the bars and restaurants on the Calle Cuevas del Sol with the cliff looming overhead, as they are rumoured to be among the best in the region.
For an interesting and picturesque day of exploration, we recommend driving to Setenil via Arriate and La Cimada, exploring the narrow Calle de las Cuevas de la Sombra (the caves of the shade) with their charming nooks and corners, bar-hopping for tapas along the Calle de las Cuevas del Sol (the caves of the sun), and then returning to Ronda via the magnificent Roman ruins of first-century AD Acinipo.
2. Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara de la Sierra has to be one of the most picturesque villages in Andalusia. Just under an hour's drive from La Cazalla de Ronda, the approach to the town across the reservoir with the 13th century castle outlined in front of you against the blue sky will take your breath away.
Zahara was an important Moorish outpost and part of a complex network of watchtowers and fortresses that were visually linked to each other and ran the entire border of the Muslim Kingdom. Zahara was continually on the front line of the conquests and reconquests that took place between 1407 and 1483. Parts of the 13th century Nasrid Castle and lookout tower (the Torre del Homenaje) remain, and it is well worth the walk up there to enjoy the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, even if there's not much left of the castle itself.
We recommend starting out early for your visit to the village to make the steep climb up to the castle before the day becomes too hot. You can then spend a couple of hours wandering the undulating streets of the town and admiring the 17th century Santa María de la Mesa Church, the 19th century San Juan de Letrán Chapel, the 16th century Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower) and the Roman Palominos Bridge, before stopping for lunch. The centre of the village was declared a Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1977 and an Historical-Artistic Centre (Conjunto-Histórico) in 1983.
After lunch, enjoy a refreshing dip in the cooling waters of the spring-fed miniature lake and spend the afternoon relaxing on the little beach (la playita) at the Arroyomolinos Recreational Area. It's also a great place to keep the kids entertained, as there are lifeguards, six hectares of lush gardens with barbecue pits and a cafe-bar/restaurant, and a treetop adventure park with ziplines, swinging bridges and a climbing wall. The recreational area is only open from mid-June until mid-September and costs between 3.00-4.50 €, depending on the day of the week (weekends are very popular). Check their website before you go, as sometimes the area is closed all day for cleaning.
Home to around 8,585 people, magnificent Olvera is an hour's drive from La Cazalla de Ronda. Dramatically situated on top of a mountain, with a large, well-preserved Moorish castle, Olvera can easily be spotted from far away. The hills surrounding this white town are full of olive groves that are said to provide the best extraction of olive oils in Andalusia, and in recent years it has received the award of the "Denominación de Origen de la Sierra de Cádiz". A bandit refuge until the mid-19th century (there is even a famous Andaluz saying: "Kill your man and flee to Olvera!"), the town now supports more family-run farming cooperatives than anywhere else in Spain.
The main monument of this city is itself, exemplified by the phrase "Olvera is a street, a church and a castle, BUT what a street, what a church and what a castle!". Olvera was declared “A Protected Area of Artistic and Historical Importance” in 1983. As there is plenty of parking below the busy town centre, we recommend leaving your car and heading directly up to the church and castle, then meandering back through the winding streets with their pretty plazas, restaurants and bars later in the day.
The impressive Olvera Castle was built by the Moors during the late 12th/early 13th centuries to defend the border of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada against the Kingdom of Castile, and the medieval town of Olvera grew up around it. It was taken by the King of Castile in 1327 and completely rebuilt into the castle we see today. It has an irregular plan adapted to the shape of the cliff, resembling an elongated triangle, and the rectangular keep has two storeys covered by a barrel vaulted ceiling. The castle is also equipped with a gateway protected by a barbican, curtain walls with a parapet walkway and turrets, a subterranean enclosure and two cisterns.
The castle is closed on Mondays, but open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30-14:00 and 16:00-18:00(winter)/19:00(summer). Entry is just 2.00 €.
Separating the castle from the neoclassical church - La Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación (the Parish of Our Lady of the Incarnation) - is a pretty plaza with shaded areas and stunning views. There's also a modern art sculpture dedicated to those that fell during the Spanish Civil War with the inscription: "It is the homage to the Olvereños and Olvereñas who lost their lives by unreason and madness. Burying the resentment, Olvera recovers the names and the victims of the Civil War renewing the commitment with a peaceful and democratic coexistence. - 'Witness of Time'". Incidentally, La Cazalla's private entrance has a piece by the same artist as it's name plate.
The church was built by the order of the Duke of Osuña in 1822 on the foundations of a small gothic/mudéjar-stlye church, which in turn was built on the foundations of an Arabic mosque. The work was finished in 1843, culminating in one of the greatest churches of the province, with dimensions worthy of cathedral. In 1936 republican revolutionaries burnt some of the icons and images along with the interior during the Spanish Civil War. In the interior are several frescos, stained glass windows of great value and images of the different phases of the death of Christ, among them a Crucified Christ from the 16th century discovered in the cellars of the building.
Located in a high valley at over 800m altitude and dominated by the magnificent rocky outcrop known as Peñon Grande, the pretty mountain village of Grazalema is situated within the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park - a stunning region of natural beauty popular with hikers. The park is a vast protected area of rugged limestone mountains, which are famous for being the rainiest place in Spain, accounting for the verdant vegetation in the surrounding countryside.
The limestone peaks of 1,500m around Grazalema are the first barriers that clouds from the Atlantic meet, causing this plentiful rainfall. A unique microclimate has developed where a wide range of flora flourishes, such as the rare Spanish fir (pinsapo) that grows in the Sierra de Pinar close to Grazalema.
Grazalema is a lively village whose population of 2,250 swells hugely with the influx of visitors to the park. Its steep, cobbled streets are immaculately kept and are lined by whitewashed houses with windows covered by wrought-iron rejas and plant pots spilling over with colourful flowers.
In the heart of the village is an attractive main square, the Plaza de España, lined with bars and restaurants. On this square is Grazalema's most popular attraction: the 18th-century church of La Aurora, together with the village hall (ayuntamiento) and the parish church (the Iglesia de la Encarnación). Up Calle Mateos Gago from the square is the 17th-century Iglesia de San José, a former Carmelite convent with paintings by a disciple of Murillo. Close to the church is a viewpoint that looks out over the village.
Berber settlers introduced sheep to the area for the purpose of wool production, and Grazalema has vestiges of this industry today. There is one workshop still in operation making woollen blankets (we have some at La Cazalla, and very snuggly they are too!), rugs, ponchos and scarves, which are exported all over the world. Visit the Artesanía-Textil de Grazalema (tel: 956 132 008), a workshop on the Ronda road where you can see looms and carding machines and buy blankets and other textiles in the shop. Other locally produced handicrafts include baskets and leatherwork, and don't forget to sample their delicious honey!
5. Arcos de la Frontera
One of Andalusia's most dramatically positioned pueblos blancos, Arcos de la Frontera balances atop a rocky limestone ridge, its whitewashed houses and stone castle walls stopping abruptly as a sheer cliff face plunges down to the fertile valley of the river Guadalete below.
Declared a national historic-artistic monument in 1962 in recognition of its exceptional architecture and impressive location, the old town is a tangled labyrinth of cobbled streets that lead up to a sandstone castle, the Castillo de los Arcos. As you’d expect from such a spectacular vantage point, there are exhilarating views over the town and the rolling plain below.
Arcos has a long history of human habitation, with evidence that Stone Age cave-dwellers used the rocks to form living chambers and the existence of Roman ruins in the area. The town became an independent Moorish taifa in 1011 during the protracted collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba. The region was overtaken by the Almoravid dynasty in 1091 and then from 1145 to 1147 was briefly a taifa under dependency of Granada, led by Abu'l-Qasim Ahyal. King Alfonso X 'the Wise' of Castile (1252–1284) finally expelled the Moors and constructed the Gothic cathedral that remains on its high ridge.
Right in the centre of town is the Plaza del Cabildo where some of the most notable buildings in the city are concentrated, such as the Town Hall and the Ducal Castle - a Muslim fortress rebuilt in the 15th century. Opposite those stands the Parador de Turismo in the old Casa del Corregidor. Whitewashed walls, grilles and tiles are some of the characteristic features of the building, whose typical Andalusian architecture is perfectly integrated into the houses of Arcos. Be sure to go to one of the many viewpoints in the area before leaving the square, as they offer an impressive panorama of the surrounding area.
The horticulture of Arcos provides excellent vegetables and pulses, which are the basis for some of the most typical dishes: "potaje" (stew with chard) and alboronía (dish made with pumpkin, chickpeas and tomato), as well as meat and fish stews. Cold meats include Iberian ham, always from the mountains of the interior. To round it off there is nothing better than one of the best-known Spanish wines - those produced in Cádiz under the Denomination of Origin Jerez-Sherry and Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Arcos de la Frontera is a little farther away than our other recommendations, taking around 1 hour 30 minutes to reach from La Cazalla, but both the dramatic vistas of the village and the stunning countryside you will drive through to reach it make the journey well worthwhile.