A weekend in Andalusia
July 12, 2005
My wife, Julie, and I land at Málaga’s large airport, rent a car and quickly head out to Ronda. It’s only about an hour’s drive if you take the A-7 westward along the coast to San Pedro de Alcántara and then go north on the A-376, but we’re taking the longer photographic and historic route.
Our first stop is the stunning white cemetery at Casabermeja, some 20 miles straight north of Málaga. Then we curve eastward to Archidona, with its 8-sided central plaza and the beautiful “Santuario de la Virgen de la Gracia,” a small church on the hillside overlooking the town. It has a wonderful gift store, full of little boxes inlaid with enamel. A steep limestone peak juts upwards about halfway between Archidona and the nearby town of Antequera. This is La Peña de los Enamorados (The Peak of the Lovers). The legend is that a Moorish girl fell in love with a Christian boy. Realizing that their love could never endure, they threw themselves off the peak.On the outskirts of Antequera are three dolmens (a tomb or monument made by laying a large flat stone across several upright ones). One of them, the Menga dolmen, is the largest in Europe at about 20 feet tall. Reminiscent of Stonehenge but smaller, the dolmens are about 4,000 years old, but nobody knows exactly who built them.Then we continue on to Teba, a small town barely visible between two rocky hilltops, one of which has the ruins of a Moorish castle on its summit.On March 25, 1330, Teba was the site of a battle between the Moors and a Christian army led by Sir James Douglas, the greatest general of the first Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. A year earlier when Bruce was dying, he asked Douglas to “carry his heart against the enemies of Christ.” Douglas agreed and, in fact, was en route to the Holy Land with the heart when he stopped in Spain and ended up in this battle. Unfortunately for Douglas, the Moors outmaneuvered him in the rocky terrain and he was killed.
Heading west from Teba, the stunning town of Olvera suddenly appears, with whitewashed houses spilling down a hillside and the summit topped by a soaring church, La Encarnación, with the ruins of a Moorish castle next to it. This is one of the most beautiful sights in Spain; driving into the village’s tortuous streets, however, is only for the courageous.Next is the strange little town of Setenil, where many of the houses have been carved into a ledge that overhangs the Trejo River.Finally in Ronda, we check into the Hotel Reina Victoria where the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke once stayed. The staff here is helpful and knowledgeable and our room has a wonderful view across the valley towards Montejaque, tomorrow’s destination. Ronda is really two towns, split by the deep gorge of the Guadelvin River. Many believe that the bridge spanning the two sections was the model for the bridge in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, from which Pablo and his men hurled the local priests and merchants.Ronda is famous for the oldest bullring in Spain (a must visit) and for its bullfighting dynasties. One family, the Romeros, are said to have founded bullfighting. More recently, the four generations of the Ordoñez family have been dominant. First there was El Niño de la Palma and then his even more famous son, Antonio Ordoñez, who was a close friend of Hemingway’s. Their statues are outside the ring. Ordoñez’s son-in-law, Paquirri, was fatally gored in Pozoblanco in 1984. Paquirri’s son, Francisco Rivera Ordoñez, looks like Tom Cruise, was briefly married to a princess and is a leading bullfighter today.
In the evening we slip into the Peña Tobalo, a flamenco club only three blocks from the hotel. Although it is a private club and we are the only foreigners, we are warmly welcomed. Serafin, the bartender, offers beers on the house. In a small kitchen the rest of his family works hard preparing a variety of local tapas.The singer is a man named Antonio Trujillo or “El Chi Chi,” from the nearby town of Alcalá del Valle. Dressed in black and accompanied by nothing more than a guitar player, he sits beneath a brooding painting of the famous singer, Camarón de la Isla. Looking downward, Trujillo taps his fingers against his thigh. Then out come a series of deep, harsh songs. To me this is beautiful music, but it’s not for everyone.Saturday morning we drive some 15 minutes to one of Spain’s highlights, La Cueva de la Pileta. Here is its story.
In 1905, farmer José Bullón was looking for bat guano for his fields when he spotted bats circling above the rugged limestone mountain that towered over his farm. Investigating, he found an opening in the rocks, lowered himself about 100 feet by rope into the darkness and realized that he was in an enormous cave. He then discovered bits of pottery, human bones and a series of paintings of animals and humans.In 1912, leading French archaeologists visited the cave and concluded that the paintings were about 25,000 years old.During their explorations, they also found a small basin built by the Romans that trapped especially delicious water. The Spanish word “pileta” means basin or small trough, and that became the name for the mountainside where the cave was found.Bullón, his son Tomás and others from the Montejaque-Benaojan area (including the grandfather of Pepé Jimenez, the owner of the Hotel Palacete de Mañara, where we would spend the night) continued finding more rooms and galleries until the late 1930s. They also built steps and walkways and developed the cave for visitors.
Today Bullón’s grandson, also named José, and his son José Tomás run several carefully controlled tours each day. As we wind our way along the damp steps that José’s family built, using oil lamps for guidance, we try to imagine his grandfather’s first trips through these pitch-dark chambers. Or those early humans who found their way deep into this mountain and painted these strikingly accurate pictures – a horse outlined in red ochre, mountain goats, cattle, a pregnant mare, a great fish in black with what looks like a seal inside it, stick-like humans who appear to be hunting, even strange symbols. These were highly intelligent people who lived near the mouth of the cave and used the inner galleries for their rituals and art.Returning to the surface, we look out across these rocky, abrupt, sparsely inhabited limestone mountains and wonder if there are other caves out there, full of pottery shards, bones and paintings. In fact, Andalusia is one of the richest archaeological areas of Europe.Afterwards, José invites us to his farmhouse for a glass of sherry and a chance to meet his family, especially his granddaughter, Patricia. Neatly dressed in a plaid shirt buttoned to the neck and a V-neck sweater, this dignified man and his ancestors have done what the Spanish government failed to do at Altamira in northern Spain and the French failed to do at Lascaux, France. They have allowed the general public to experience prehistoric paintings of extraordinary importance while, at the same time, protecting those paintings from permanent damage. The Andalusian government has tried to expropriate the cave and attract more tourists. In José’s opinion, however, this would damage the paintings, just as the large numbers of uncontrolled visitors damaged Altamira, eventually forcing its closure.This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Bullóns’ ownership of La Cueva de la Pileta. What have they planned? A visit from the King or Queen? A big fancy ceremony? Not at all, José explains. Instead he plans to turn an old farm building into an interpretive center so that visitors can better understand the history of the cave.
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That afternoon we check into the Hotel Palacete de Mañara in Montejaque about four miles from the cave and 10 miles from Ronda. This whitewashed town is set in a shallow cup in the mountains, a splash of white against the grayer limestone. The hotel was once the family home of Miguel de Mañara, a wealthy aristocrat and playboy. The legend is that one day he saw a funeral procession in Sevilla. When he asked who was in the coffin, he was told that it was he. He immediately abandoned his hedonistic lifestyle, founded the Hospital of the Caridad in Sevilla and devoted the rest of his life to helping the poor.This home is now a wonderful hotel run by the Jiménez family: Pepe; his mother, Paloma, who is a superb cook, and his sister, also named Paloma. Dinner starts with a “porra serrana,” a tomato-based soup like gazpacho but thicker. Next are “choricitos en almíbar,” steaming little round sausages in a sweet reddish sauce that is used to preserve meats. Then come the best lamb chops I’ve tasted in Spain.After dinner, Julie heads for the hotel but I head back into Ronda. On the edge of the main plaza is a small auditorium where the Pilar Becerra. dance group will perform. Pilar is a striking looking woman, severe and dramatic. One of her young dancers named Tamara, however, is the star. The audience is tiny, 15-or-so tourists. The dancing, the flowery dresses, the movement and excitement make this totally different from last night’s visit to the Peña Tobalo, but equally interesting.
Before sunrise Sunday, we hike up the old stone path that used to lead from Montejaque to Ronda. On top is a small “ermita” or hermitage. High above, little mountain goats are silhouetted against the limestone cliffs. A passing goatherder tells us that there are about 300 of them in the Montejaque area.Each May, the residents carry a statue of the Virgen from the village up to this ermita and then have a huge picnic with music, singing and dancing. Returning to the hotel for breakfast, we enjoy “molletes,” thick, round loaves of Arab bread. They are baked by a young woman named Aranxta and her mother in a bakery down Montejaque’s narrow main street.As we are finishing, Pepe offers us a “chupita,” or little shotglass of anís, a powerful, licorice-tasting drink that’s very popular in Andalusia. He says that it’s a tradition in the Andalusian countryside – a little shot to get the blood moving on cold mornings.Now it’s time to say goodbye and head back to the Málaga airport and our return flight to Barcelona. We take another winding route, however, and come out of the mountains at Yunquera, where we have a late lunch of delicious and very inexpensive “choto de cabrito” ( stew of baby goat). As we are leaving, Mariana, the owner, calls us back. She then disappears into the kitchen. We’re not sure what to do when suddenly she reappears with a bag of oranges for us. This is typical Andalusian hospitality and one of the reasons we love being here.
One last stop is the new Picasso Museum in Málaga. Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga but his family moved when he was very young and, as an artist, he has always been much more associated with Barcelona and Paris. In fact, until very recently the only recognition of him in Málaga was the Casa Natal, the house where he was born.In 1994, however, Christine Ruiz-Picasso, the wife of Picasso’s son, Paulo, and her son, Bernard, offered their collections to Málaga. New York architect Richard Gluckman, whose works include the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, spearheaded a beautiful renovation of the Palacio de los Condes de Buenavista, a building that dates back to the 1500s. The structure now includes133 Picasso oil paintings, drawings, ceramics and sculptures, most of which have never been shown publicly.This was a fitting end to a wonderful weekend in Andalusia.Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can he reached at email@example.com.