Sierra Magina: Limestone mountains, olive groves, ancient history
by TeresaGlobalTravels Teresa Lynch
Getting to Sierra Magina
As our flight to Spain descends into Malaga, we marvel at the stunning white villages and steep-sided hills awash with olive trees on the lower slopes of the Montes de Málaga – the mountain range to the north of this sprawling seaside city. It is then a 2 1/2 hour drive along the Costa del Sol, out of the overpopulated metropolis, and inland towards Granada.
Our destination, the remote and less touristic area of the Parque Natural Sierra Magina (pronounced Ma-hena). After a stunning lunch along the way, at the unplanned destination of Velez de Benaudalla, we bypass the ancient city of Granada and soon turn off to drive through olive growing country towards Belmez de Moraleda on the southeastern side of the Sierra Magina range.
We have directions to our accommodation, a converted Cortijo (farmhouse), but still, it takes a bit of time to locate it on the hillside above the main road and away from almost everywhere. This is the perfect place to disconnect, relax, and chill out.
The perfect hideaway
Reaching our extraordinary little home for the next 5 days requires travelling by car up a narrow winding road to where it sits nestled under the 2,167m (7,100ft) peaks of the Sierra’s. The swimming pool looks out onto the mountain range of the Sierra Magina, with its pale grey stone walls shining above the olive groves and bushline. The most inviting blue water but, alas, it is still early summer and the water is icy cold. This does not stop Manfred and each day he swims a few lengths just because the scenery is too good to pass up the opportunity of enjoying these moments of bliss. Even on our last day, early in the morning, he enjoys the most amazing calmness of water, air, and scenery to take the plunge into the icy waters and make the most of this delicious place. I am content to sit by the pool, enjoy the sun and relax.
A view to behold, of Cortijo’s and white villages
The view from our Cortija, ‘Alojamiento Garganton’ and on the walk around the Camino is superb, with olive trees as far as the eye can see. The hillsides, even high up above the valley on the opposite hill, are adorned with white houses and orange tiled roofs. The small village of Solera catches our imagination and thirst to explore. We become locals as we buy supplies from the supermarket in Belmez.
We eat at the local restaurants recommended by our hosts Paqui and Felix and the tall Romanian poet and writer from the grocery shop who has lived in Belmez for 20 years. They are a wonderful source of local information and go out of their way to make us welcome and help us find our way.
A walk on the wild side
On our 4km walk along the Camino through the olive groves from our Cortijo to Belmez, we follow a rough 4WD track towards the base of the grey stone hills and pass over the old stone bridge that crosses the Rio Garganton which flows down from the high mountains and passes far below. Abandoned old stone cortijos and well kept or restored homes dot the landscape beside the road and down in the valley.
The groves of olives reach high up the mountainside and farmers work tirelessly to ensure a good crop, trimming the trees, carting the wood and old leaves away, and building stone retaining fences around the base of some trees by the road making good use of every inch of available land.
Superb view from the ancient fort
We take a drive just north of Belmez towards Los Cortijos de Bélmez and the 13th-century Arab fort high up on the hillside (1,010m/3,313ft). Castillo de Bélmez de la Moraleda stands in wrack and ruin; however, the people of Belmez are proud of its presence and respect the history and former protection of the region. The views are particularly stunning and although it takes but a short time to explore we linger to enjoy the expansive vista this hillock and ruin afford both the naked eye and the camera lens.
Solera: A white village high on the mountainside across the valley
The village of Solera calls to us and we drive the winding road up the opposite mountain to explore the small white village with its 13th-century Arab castle sitting on a rocky promontory at 1,090m (3,576ft). Finding our way to the northeast corner of the village, beyond the church and up a narrow lane lined with potted plants and a plaque noting the most colourfully decorated street in the village, access to the towers is from the south side and we venture above to the top of the castle’s fort via a tunnel and stairs.
We marvel at the view of the Jandulilla river valley and as our hosts had told us, “the best place to view the Sierra Magina”. They are not wrong. With acre upon acre of olive trees stretching all around the valley and up the mountainsides, white villages and Cortijos dot the landscape, this is a sight to behold. The camera clicks and we stay awhile just taking in the view.
The other side of the mountain
Albanchez de Magina is one of the main tourist towns on the north-west side of the Sierra Magina National Parque and is the gateway to hiking and other adventure activities in the area. We make a quick visit to this village with its middle-aged Christian Castillo de Albanchez perched strategically above the town on a brown rocky outcrop. You can take the steps and walk up to it; however, on our visit here we did not have time.
We did not find a suitable place to eat and left quite disappointed in the lack of cuisine in this attractive little town with lovely tree-lined narrow avenues and park space.
Parque National Sierra Magina
A landscape dominated by the Spanish ibex this is also the home of wild boars, holm oaks, gall oaks, olive trees, and cherry trees. The Sierra Mágina Nature Reserve covers an area of almost 20,000 hectares and has a very rugged landscape due particularly to its limestone rocks.
A day in the city of Ubeda
An important regional settlement, Ubeda is a small city just to the north of the Sierra Magina ranges. It boasts a bunch of Renaissance 16th-century churches and palaces which offer open spaces in the ‘squares’ either within or outside the boundaries of these beautifully preserved buildings.
Along with its close neighbour, Baeza, the large number of monuments and graceful renaissance buildings provide the flavour that attracted the artistic set in the mid-1950s. In 2003, these twin towns were named UNESCO world heritage sites. A place of pre-Roman settlement, in the early to mid 800s, Ubeda was besieged and ruled by the Muslims until 1233 when Ferdinand ‘wrested’ it from them and, along with the Christians and Jews, these three factions co-existed here for a long time.
Agriculture, in the form of olive growing and cattle ranching, form the main industry in the area; however, another industry successful for many centuries, is pottery and we enjoy rummaging in a large pottery shop where several potters were working at their wheels. We chat with the famous Tito, (Juan Martinez Villacañas) who keeps the traditions alive in his open workshop and we carefully select and purchase a hand-painted bowl to take home to New Zealand.
Time to leave
We pack our bags, hand over the keys, and chat to Paqui before carefully driving back down the long and winding road.
Passing through a small rural town along the way to the coast and our next adventure on the Capo de Gata, we stop and find a farmers market with fruit and vegetables, clothing, shoes, and other items for sale. We choose some nice produce and happily make our way along the country roads to the highway where we leave our memories intact and turn our mind to the next encounter with nature.