Letter from the Axarquia:
The Slow Secrets of Southern Spain
There's something exotic about the Axarquia, the poorest part of Spanish Andalusia. You can see Africa from the beach. Go a little way north into the hills and you are in "bandit country" as they used to call it. This refers to Republican Guerrillas who opposed fascist rule in Spain, though the Spanish bandit has always been at home here. In 1889 "El Bizco", the cross eyed bandit of El Borge, was gunned down western style by the Guardia.
Earlier, in the sixteenth century, these rugged peaks were populated by the "Monfi" - Arabs and Jews cast out by victorious Christians after the "Reconquest". The region still bears marks of benign Muslim rule under which Christians and Jews lived with their Arab masters in relative peace and harmony for six hundred years. It was Arabs who ordered villages to be painted every year with antiseptic lime wash to fight against disease, thus creating the "white villages" that are now typical.
Arab agriculture is still in evidence. Traditional Arab crops like Muscatel grapes, almonds, figs, lemons and oranges grow in abundance alongside mangos, avocados, custard apples, guavas and passion fruit; all possible because the temperature never drops to zero.
How to get here
To get here simply jet into Malaga, one of the biggest and best known airports in Europe. Malaga expects to handle more than 20 million passengers by 2015 and describes itself as the "Gateway to Europe and to Africa".
Pick up your rental car (essential unless you want a really slow holiday in the Axarquia). Drive south to the coast and make sure you turn left - driving east. Turn right and you'll soon be in the speediest Europe imaginable - toll roads, more McDonalds per square mile than anywhere in the world, and shopping arcades where a Spaniard needs an English dictionary to buy a coffee.
These are the horrible "Costas".
So turn east instead, and you first encounter slow–rise Spanish resorts, and then the little bays and coves of the coastal nature reserves, sometimes complete with coastal naturists. However, if you seek a slow Spanish experience, drive east along the coast for half an hour, then turn left again, striking north to the hills and the white villages of the rural Axarquia.
Where to stay
Stay in one of the villages and live among the rural farmers. They are invariably friendly and helpful and are always very nosey. A little Spanish goes a long way here because no one speaks anything else, but if you only have a dictionary you can get by with gestures, drawings, hugs and loud laughter. People are very patient . . . what's the rush?
Take a vacation rental (holiday cottage) and cater for yourself. That way you patronise the shop and the bar, which makes you popular and you meet the people you are living with. Hint that you are interested in buying a house and you won't be short of a drink.
Eat as the locals do
The best and cheapest way to eat, is to eat as the locals do. Our neighbour, for example, takes a chamomile tea with half a shot of brandy at about 8am when he starts work. That takes him through to 10.30am, when he might have a hot bread roll, split and topped with macerated tomato and delicious local olive oil.
Lunch is at 2.30pm. Lunch is the main meal of the day and here you get a three course meal and a drink for seven euros – the cheapest eat out in Spain. The first course is a potage or a soup or paella, followed by a salad, followed by meat or fish with or without chips, then fruit or rice pudding or some sort of custard. If two people ask for a glass of "tinto" (red wine), they leave the bottle on the table.
Siesta follows. A little tapas before work starts again and a little more tapas after work at around 9pm and that's it.
You will find restaurants but they are really for tourists and ex-pats. The traditional eating house here is the bar. If you must dine out in the evening it's quick and easy to drive to a resort or an ex-pat village community. There you will find excellent restaurants, but isn't it cheaper and better to sit on your terrace and barbecue something light fresh and tasty while you watch an old man prune his orange trees or a young man train his beautiful Andalucían horse as dusk falls at the far side of the valley?
Our well meaning but slow witted tourist board has created a number of "routes" for those travellers incapable of planning a day out. We, for example, live on the "Route of the Raisin", which in Spanish is "Ruta de la Pasa". Spanish adolescents have scrubbed out one leg of the R on "Ruta" to make it "Puta de la Pasa" or "Whore of the Raisin". You can also travel the "Whore of the Avocado" or the "Whore of the Moor" route, and so on.
Whoring apart, raisins are important here. Along with mangoes they are the cash crop of the region, and the definitively slowest way imaginable to earn a living. Fruit farming is done entirely by hand because the hills are too steep for machinery. Ripe muscatel grapes are harvested in August and loaded onto donkeys. They are taken to "paseros" - strips of sterilised bare earth where they are laid out and rotated by hand each day for two or three weeks until the heat of the sun has turned them into raisins. This is a family affair and if it rains, everyone runs out to cover the pasero with canvas and protect the fruit. When done to a turn, they are gathered up in bunches and taken by donkey to the village houses where the whole family helps to snip off the individual dried fruits, filling the air with the click of scissors.
It's not all work though. In fact parties are the way of life here; there's at least one a month in every village.
The annual summer "Feria" used to be a produce trade fair and is now an old fashioned fun fair and village dance. There is some sort of "Fiesta" most months in honour of the village god, usually disguised as a saint or a version of Jesus or the Virgin. Although Spain is supposed to be Catholic, villagers suspect distant authority, so it's the local god who is worshipped here, and always because he's done the village a favour - averted an earthquake or prevented a plague. So the fiestas are by way of returning a favour. There are processions, dancing and singing, eating with free paella and wine for everyone and so on.
Other Local Activities
Between parties you have to make your own entertainment. Activities include walking and hiking, having barbecues or scaling the peak of the great Mt Maroma (2000 meters) which is walkable.
Bird watchers love it here; we have eagles, gryphon vultures and other hawks, bee-eaters exotic finches and waders.
You can go riding and quad biking. The terrain is great training for tour cyclists, who have been known to assemble their bikes at the airport and cycle to us, going along the flat beach "paseos" and then over the mountain (medium to medium hard riding) to find us in the hills. If just reading this wears you out, take a five minute wander through the olive groves instead, stretch out in the dappled sunlight and read a book.
The whole region has a rich and multi layered cultural heritage. Malaga is a beautiful and grossly underestimated city. Visitors who only see its horrid suburbs from the 'plane, miss the beauty of the old city centre which boasts Picasso's birthplace and gallery, a fine gallery of modern arts, centres for flamenco and the "cante jondo" music of the gypsies, vernacular and municipal architecture of all centuries from Rome to Napoleon now undergoing intensive renovation, numerous sherry bodegas and tapas bars with great food markets all animated by the bustle of local enterprise and an enthusiastic multitude of Spanish tourists.
Granada is 1 1/2 hrs drive, so leave at 8am and you can be eating breakfast in the shadow of the Alhambra by 9.30am. Or drive to Torre del Mar (20 mins), take a bus along the coast to Malaga station, go to the train station next door and travel by a clean, quick, reliable commuter train to Cordoba for the day.
Plan a leisurely tour of the back roads via the villages, buzzing past the date palms and through the mango groves. There is Frigiliana, the prettiest village in the region, set up for tourists and with good restaurants, Loja with its trout farms where you can eat caviar from the only organic sturgeon farm in Europe, and Maro which is a pretty fishing village. These are three villages among dozens.
Our most successful visitors are the ones who work hardest at their holiday. Up at the crack of dawn they are touring all day, returning exhausted late into the night. They'll take the next day off – a book and a barbecue in the mountains, or eating char-grilled sardines from a beach shack, or simply hanging about the bars in their home village. Refreshed, they are ready next day for the road.
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If all this dazzles and confuses, take the smart option and come and stay with us.
For the last five years we have been running a little company here called Vivasiesta. Our properties are located in the foothills of the Sierra Tejeda mountains, a range to the east of the Alpujarras and dominated by Mt Maroma and the Zafarraya pass, the route of invading armies of Romans and Arabs. We have vacation rentals in two villages in the area north east of the town of Velez-Malaga (meaning the fort of Malaga). These villages rely on agriculture, not tourism, for their livelihood. We have a big house in the middle of the village of Almáchar. Eight minutes drive up the mountain road is the little known hamlet of Cútar, where we have two more cottages.
Our properties offer comfortable accommodation in a traditional Andalucía setting for travellers who want an active holiday among people whose life, values and customs might give them a perspective on their own.