The White Villages of Andalusia

The White Villages of Andalusia

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Posted 2023-09-30 by Irenke Forsythfollow
The picturesque countryside on the way to Zahara de la Sierra

The Andalusian region is one of the most charming areas I’ve come across on my travels through Spain and one that should go on any bucket list. It’s an area that’s home to rolling green hills, vineyards, olive trees and sunflowers.

Most unique are the white villages (Pueblos Blancos in Spanish), of which there are a group of 19 in the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga. The temperatures in this southern part of the country can easily get above 38-degrees Celsius in summer and with the village houses being painted white, the sun’s rays are reflected.

The white village of Zahara de la Sierra

You’ll find most of these villages are perched on top of mountains, providing amazing views. You could also see enemies coming and thus many were used as defence towns that watched out for other cities in the valley below.

I managed to visit four of the white villages, beginning with the postcard-worthy Zahara de la Sierra. Perched above a turquoise blue reservoir, the scenery is some of the best you will come across with panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The Mirador terrace bar is a great spot to take it all in. On the lake, you can enjoy a swim or water sports, including kayaking, or perhaps a hike to the top of the remains of the old Moorish Castle tower is more your thing.

Plenty of viewpoints at Zahara de la Sierra for photos

On the cobblestone streets, charming squares and restaurants complete the pretty picture of this village. Flanked by the Church of Santa Maria de la Meza and the Chapel of San Juan de Letran (providing some colour), along with the Town Hall, the heart of the town is an interesting place to wander around.

Left: Church of Santa Maria de la Meza; Right: Chapel of San Juan de Letran

Zahara de la Sierra becomes even more colourful when the Corpus Christi festival comes around. The people dress up the front of their houses with bushes and rushes, making the whole place look as if it was part of the countryside.

The next village I visited (less than 10kms away) was Grazalema. Set in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park with mountains on three sides, it’s a great base for many walks. The highest peak is El Torreon and a hike to the top will take just under 3hrs. It’s worth it as the views on a clear day can extend as far as Africa.

Watch your step, you couldn't get any closer to the cliff edge than this building in Grazalema

In the village centre, Plaza de Espana is the main square and it’s here you’ll find cobbled streets with whitewashed houses and cafes displaying pretty flower-filled window boxes. It’s also the spot to see the Town Hall and the beautiful La Aurora Church with its bell towers.

Plaza de Espana, Grazalema

Another square worthy of mention is known as Small Square. It has a monument to local traditions in the form of a sculptural ensemble that shows a fighting bull being pulled by villagers with a long rope tied to its horns. The bull rope is reminiscent of the hunting of the wild bull, the most primitive form of the present bullfighting, and it’s a tribute to one of the most unique and important festivals (Lunes de El Toro de Cuerda) celebrated in Grazalema each year.

Sculptural monument to the rope bull, Grazalema

One of the most unique villages in the Andalusian region is that of Sentenil de las Bodegas. Unlike the other towns built on top of mountains, this medieval settlement is built within the canyon with parts of the rocky mountains being used as walls and roofs for cave houses and shops.

The centre of this little town is a good place to see the overhanging limestone cliffs that provide shelter from the elements. It’s an inventive way of building that utilises the spaces between rocks to prevent houses, in particular, from getting too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Be sure to explore the gorge and rocks that were formed naturally from the creek below. The power of nature abounds here.

The overhanging rock makes a great roof for these cave shops and restaurants in Sentenil de las Bodegas

There’s also castle ruins to admire and the food is pretty good too with the town known for its quality meat products and fine pastries. The restaurants and bars are amongst some of the best in the region.

The above villages with populations of a few thousand each are small compared to Ronda with its 35,000 people. It is the largest of the white villages and is set atop a mountain above the deep El Tajo gorge which divides the 15th Century new town from the old town.

Part of the massive gorge of Ronda

Tourists flock to see the stunning Puente Nuevo, a stone bridge spanning the gorge. A chamber above the central arch has been used for various purposes in the past, including a prison. There would be no escaping, except to your death on the rocks at the bottom of the gorge. Today, the chamber contains an exhibition detailing the bridge's history and construction. Various views from a number of lookout spots provide good photo opportunities.

The historic Puente Nuevo in Ronda

Another recognisable landmark is the new town’s Plaza de Toros, a legendary 18th Century bullring. Ronda is the birthplace of bullfighting in Spain, and whilst there isn’t any bullfighting happening on a daily basis these days, you can enter the arena. The main entrance features Tuscan columns and the royal shield of Spain surrounded by baroque edging, whilst the royal box has a sloping roof covered in Arabic tiles. A bullfighting museum and a collection of antique firearms can also be viewed.

You could easily spend a whole day in Ronda taking in this historic town. It also has a Moorish King’s Palace and Arab Baths, and ideally, you should set aside some time too to wander the narrow streets, enjoy the fine cuisine, shop for souvenirs and handicrafts made from wood, leather and ceramics.

Other white villages worthy of a visit (if only I had more time) include Olvera for the best olive oil and a hilltop fort perched atop a giant boulder, Ubrique for its leather museum and the Arabic castle of Fatima, Villaluenga del Rosario for its famous payoyo cheese and an ancient bull ring carved out of the mountain rock, and Arcos de la Frontera for its exceptional Baroque architecture of churches (especially the Basilica of Santa Maria with its ornately carved exterior) perched on a cliff and the tangled labyrinth of cobbled streets that lead up to its sandstone castle (Castillo de los Arcos).

Getting there

By car

The white villages of Andalusia can be reached on a day trip from either Seville or Malaga. It’s just under a 2hr drive to the region from each of these cities. If you don’t have your own car, you can hire one or hire a private car with a driver. The latter was the choice my son and I went with. I wasn’t keen on driving on the right hand side of the road. Where I’m from, driving is on the left hand side of the road. The private driver was a more expensive option but it was worth it as our expert navigated his car down some very narrow streets and knew the lay of the land, so to speak.

By bus/coach

Various companies operate transport to the area. Local buses depart from Ronda to the other villages I visited, although they only operate one departure daily and are generally Monday to Friday only.

Day tours via coach from Seville and Malaga combine Ronda with various white villages, however you should note that the buses park down the bottom of most of the smaller towns as they can’t fit in the narrow streets above. This means you will be doing a lot of uphill walking to the villages, for which you will need a good level of fitness.

By train

You can get to Ronda from Seville or Malaga by train but there are no train stations at the other smaller villages. Instead, you can get local buses to the other villages as mentioned above.

All in all, this region is definitely one special place that visitors should consider on a visit to Spain.

(All images are those of the author)

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263175 - 2023-09-26 22:50:26

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