In the south of Spain, the white towns of Andalucia are so stunning even vertigo-sufferers find it's worth overcoming their fear of heights
‘A flower of the highlands spreading dreams like bread,’ is how the Spanish poet Antonio Murciano describes these beautiful white towns. Scattered within a triangle between Malaga, Algericas and Sevilla, these towns or pueblos blancos are unfeasibly picturesque, perched precariously on the side of Andalucia’s mountain ranges. From a distance, as you work your way round the twisty roads, they look like a splash of white paint accentuated by the crystal clear blue skies and the glaring sun above. The majority are within an hour’s drive of the voguish Puerto Banus, yet the way of life feels very assiduous and rural. This for me is real Spain!
With four international airports all within an hour and a half’s drive, and a fifth opening in Antequera soon, this part of Spain is easily accessible and cheap to visit. I flew to the compact airport of Jerez de la Frontera and headed along the A382 towards the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, which is where I chose to concentrate my attentions. Along the A382 from Jerez the first ‘big’ town is Arcos de la Frontera. This is commonly known as the beginning of the ‘white town route’ whilst the pueblos capital, Ronda, resides at the end. Between these two outstanding towns there are many smaller, more intimate towns to visit - it’s possible to see them all but better to be selective. Grazalema Park is Andalucia’s greenest mountain area and to me is the haven of the most beautiful white towns, including Zahara, Ubrique, el Bosque and Grazalema.
My base for this trip was Olvera, aptly named after the peripheral olive groves, and perfectly placed on the outskirts of the national park. The main drag up to the 12th century Arabian castle is steep and has an unusual array of retail stores. Something tells me the people of Olvera are gearing up for a brighter future in the tourism trade: new shops are opening and the EU has given a budget for redevelopment (as they have for a lot of the surrounding areas). Strangely, there are around 122 bars in Olvera – a lot for a population of 11,000. You pass bar after bar, some looking like locals’ front rooms, which you daren’t enter out of politeness! When you reach the summit the views are outstanding. From here you can see Zahara, hugging the vertiginous Puerto de los palomas mountain or ‘pass of doves’, standing tall at 1350m. With vertigo like mine, my hands were perspiring at the prospect!
In the morning I was raring to go so, map in hand, I jumped into the small hire car (small is good on these treacherous roads) and set off into Grazalema national park. The first town on my round trip was the stunningly attractive Zahara de la Sierra, a few kilometres south of Agodonales, back along the A382. The approach to this town is dramatic, as you make your way round the reservoir at the bottom of the mountain. The water is desert island blue and the drowned tree stumps jutting through the water’s surface creates an eerie effect. On the ascent towards the town the first thing that strikes you is how immaculately kept the entrance is: newly laid roads, deeply painted black railings, lush green verges with mathematically positioned flora. The buildings are serenely white and the roofs look newly tiled. There seems to be a sense of collective pride and responsibility towards the upkeep.
After parking my car I climbed my way to the plaza, where fruit trees nestled amongst the restaurant and bar seating. Santa Maria de la Mese’s parish church is the centrepiece, adorned with religious images and painted an unusual pink and red colour. There is a restaurant called Los Estribos just up past the Church, and no words can explain the view from the seating out the back – it’s a must. Before leaving Zahara, though, there was one thing left to do. Against my better judgement and natural inclination, I climbed up the slippery steep steps to the Moorish fort at the summit of the town - and I’m glad I did, as the view is nothing but sublime.
The next town I wanted to visit was Grazalema, which meant driving on the second highest pass in Andalucia, the CA513 or ‘pass of doves’. Now without wanting to sound over dramatic, I do suffer from vertigo, but this is a breathtaking journey, quite literally! There are two reasons why it’s worth braving it. Firstly, the views are simply beautiful; and secondly, the Garganta Verde – a lushly vegetated ravine with a 300m deep gorge, which on your descent passes a colony of gigantic griffon vultures.
Andalucia as a whole is great for keen hikers but this has to be the best. I didn’t do the whole journey down, which apparently takes around 4 hours, but I did walk to the vulture colony and it was probably the highlight of my trip. They look almost Jurassic as they swoop around in a hypnotic motion in the confines of the gorge. It’s quite spectacular. If you’re lucky (and quiet), they will fly right above your head and you can hear the rush as they pass.
I ended my trip in Grazalema, which encapsulates these white towns perfectly. Like Zahara, its cobbled streets are extremely well maintained and attractive, but here they go a step further. All the exterior signings are black iron plaques, which give uniform-like consistency to the town’s appearance. The doors to the buildings are all solid wood and nail-studded and the residents look to be having a competition to see who can have the prettiest window boxes! The plaza is vibrant and atmospheric, although it’s difficult to assess which waiter goes with which seating area. There’s a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication about Grazalema. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend this part of Spain to anyone, whatever your agenda. Whether it’s walks that you want, or simply to sit back with a glass of wine and some tapas and enjoy the way of life, the pueblos blancos really do deliver.