Guide to the Andalusian white villages
| 25th Feb
The white villages of Andalucia are not only beautiful icons of this southern Spanish region and its rich history and culture, but also enjoy UNESCO World Heritage status. Here we highlight some of the main white village routes within easy reach of the Costa del Sol.
The white Andalusian mountain villages, or pueblos blancos, are so called because of their characteristic white-washed exteriors, which in their uniformity of tone and traditional Hispano-Moorish architectural styling produce a delightful maze of organically grown village houses tightly packed together against hillsides and dissected by cobbled streets, alleyways and charming squares with typical fountains.
Though they are generally associated with the Moorish period of Andalucía’s history, many have even older origins, including Roman, Celtic, Phoenician and those of Spain’s indigenous people, the Iberians. Villages with Castro in their name were founded as fortified settlements by Celtic tribes from the north, while Medina Sidonia still carries a name that links it to its Phoenician roots on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. Ronda was already a country town in Roman times and Benahavis is an example of a village with Moorish roots, thus exemplifying just how diverse this region of Spain is. By the way, they haven’t always been white. Originally largely unpainted, a royal decree saw the covering of homes with white chalk paint as a way of improving sanitary conditions in the villages.
If you’ve ever wondered why the Andalusians of old preferred to build villages clinging to vertiginous cliffs rather than settle the fair coastal plain the reason was not out of choice but need. Throughout much of its history the Andalusian coast was plagues by war and invasions, being the scene of ancient battles between the Phoenicians and Romans, or the site of a major battle near Ronda between Julius Caesar and the Pompeii brothers, but the Barbary Corsair pirates and slavers who continuously raided these shores from the 16th century up to 1830 raped, pillaged and took hundreds of thousands of Andalusians to the slave markets of Morocco and Algeria. It was only after the French conquest of North Africa in 1830, initiated for the very purpose of ending more than three centuries of raids on Europe’s coastline, that coastal settlements flourished again and the mountain villages became sleepy rural communities.
If you don’t have much time or like to stay close to Marbella, the charming villages of Istán and Benahavís are a great stop. Both around 20 minutes removed from the coast they offer beautiful country scenery in the foothills of the Serranía de Ronda mountain range, picture postcard architecture and hearty country fare. From downtown Marbella you can be in the larger village of Ojén within ten minutes, and if you carry on driving through wooded hills you’ll reach Monda in another 15. For those based east of Marbella a worthwhile port of call is Mijas, the largest and most famous of the pueblos blancos on the Costa del Sol, and for those nearer to Estepona and Sotogrande there is the unique combination of Castellar’s mountain village – now a hippie favourite – and the agrarian village on the plain.
The king of white villages is the elegant country town of Ronda. Nearby are the ruins of the Roman town of Acinipo and in one of the valleys nearby Julius Caesar cemented his power in a bloody battle. Follow the road up from San Pedro Alcántara, past the exclusive country clubs of La Zagaleta and El Madroñal, past almond groves and sheer rock, and within about 45 minutes you’ll reach the rocky plateau upon which this beautiful historic town stands. On its western side the plateau becomes a rocky outcrop from where you can scan the green valleys below and the rows of mountain ridges that extend beyond them. Among the many sites the most famous is surely the Puente Nuevo, a lovely stone structure built in the late 18th century that spans the 120-metre chasm, which separates the two parts of town.
Classic Serranía de Ronda
Travel west from here and you enter classic Serranía de Ronda country, a region of deep blue skies, wooded mountains, verdant valleys, mountain streams, waterfalls and the pretty white villages that dot them. It doesn’t get more Andalusian than this, in hamlets and towns where it sometimes feels that time has stood still. Each one is special, from the overhanging cliff houses of Setenil de las Bodegas and the agrarian feel of Benaojan and Atajate to the spectacular setting of El Gastor, Algatocin and Grazalema, said to be the wettest spot in Spain.
The charming town of Zahara de la Sierra overlooks a large lake, while Ubrique is famous for its leather ware, which is exported around the world. From here you can head southwards to Jimena de la Frontera, famous for its mushrooms and deer rutting in autumn, and on to the spectacular Gaucín and Casares, whose sheer beauty and proximity to the coast have made them popular with foreign visitors and residents. Once at Casares you are no more than 20 minutes from Manilva.
There are far more regions and typically Andalusian experiences to explore, but white villages of the Costa del Sol offer a fantastic sojourn into a world that is close to yet far removed from Marbella. Within just half an hour you can be in the old Andalucía, and if you prefer blue to white, why not visit the charming artist’s village of Genalguacil, which featured in the Smurf movie?