Under a Spanish Sun: Rural Andalucia

Antequera,  Andalucia
This courtyard view in Antequera, Andalucia is a treat for the eyes. Photo by Deirdre O’Flynn

If you mention southern Spain, most people think of sun, beaches, paella and Malaga. Sample all those and you’ll probably have a great time, but you’d never see the real Spain – easily accessible just 30 km (18.6 miles) north of Malaga. Rural Andalucia is a place where time moves slowly, where lemon groves and orange trees perfume the air and where breathtaking mountain ranges compete for your admiration.

Here, in the whitewashed villages – the pueblos blancos – there are no pictures on the menus. Communication for most visitors is through pidgin English and pidgin Spanish. But that doesn’t matter. The tapas, fish and salads are of the most exquisite, mouth-watering quality and all for a fraction of the price “down south”.

Even the names of the towns are wonderfully evocative of a mixed Arab, Moorish and Spanish history – Valle de Abdalajis, Carratraca, Pizarra, Almogia, Villanueva de la Concepcion, El Chorro.

That’s the secret of rural Spain – the relaxed marriage of past and present. In Valle de Abdalajis, we came across the wedding of two local Spaniards. From the right of the town square, the groom and his family walked to the church. Just minutes later, the bride, arm-in-arm with her father and followed by her family, came from another direction and disappeared into the ornate church. An amazing moment – the walk to the church a nod to a previous era, with the fashions and video cameras firmly rooted in the present.

The blend of past and present reflected itself in nature. El Chorro was created in the early 1900s when three artificial lakes were created by a dam built across the 200m (65 ft.) high Guadalhorce River gorge. Today, it’s known as the lake district of the Malaga province, a magnet to hang-gliders. This identity explains its second title, the Flight Capital of Malaga. With dramatic views of the reservoir and gorge, surrounded by pine forests and the beauty of the blue-green lakes, it’s a little gem – and all just an hour’s drive from the airport.

That’s if you survive the roads, which bring new meaning to narrow, winding and, occasionally, life-threatening. Here, only the natives speed, with a casual disregard for life and limb – theirs and yours. With steep gradients, sharp corners, goats crossing and potholes bigger than most have ever seen, the roads add a certain frisson to your enjoyment of the scenery – each view could be your last!

But it’s not all beautiful scenery, olive groves, almond trees, teeth-chattering driving and whitewashed villages here. Antequera offers a slice of Spanish life, at once more intimate and non-touristy than the bigger cities of the region, Seville and Granada.

The initial view of this medieval town is breathtaking, dominated by a Moorish fortress and an enormous limestone formation. Named La Pena de los Enamorados, orThe Lovers’ Leap”, it takes no imagination to divine the Romeo and Juliet story behind it.

In this case, a young Christian man and Moorish girl were driven to the top of the cliff by Moorish soldiers, where the lovelorn couple hurled themselves off the edge rather than denounce their love for each other.

Happily, no such sacrifices are demanded as you linger on the orange and lemon tree-lined streets of Antequera. The town is dominated at one end by the Bullring, which hosts bullfights and a wonderful restaurant where, I have to confess, a medium-well done steak tends more to the bloody and, well, uncooked.

But that’s the nature of the town – it’s a Spanish trading town, full of boutiques, antique shops, ice cream parlours (helados), coffee bars, but with little or no tourist trappings. Even the tourist office closes at siesta time, anywhere from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., an unfortunate coincidence as most tourists linger around the town at just the same time, having risen late after a night out.

Be warned, it takes the hapless tourist some time to get the hang of the siesta, which seems to be a matter of individual choice to the retailers and restaurateurs. A late breakfast was often followed by a rush to lunch before the restaurant – and every other commercial property – closed at 1:30 p.m.

A later afternoon snack seems to be needed to keep body and soul together before wandering around – or driving – to find a hostelry serving food before 9 p.m. But it was all part of the fun and well-worth the trouble.

Food in rural Spain is a delight. Salads tend to be dripping in olive oil, decorated with the juiciest tomatoes and cucumber and liberally doused with tuna. Such salads are a meal in itself, but that would mean missing out on the most wonderfully tender chicken (pollo), boiled rather than roasted or grilled, which lingers on the taste buds. Equally, the fish, any fish, is a must, with a mixed plate of sardines, calamari, cod and hake.

If You Go

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