The smell of fresh laundry wafts through the narrow labyrinth of paths in Casares, a mountainside pueblo in Andalusia where we’ve parked and headed out to explore on foot.
These magical villages call to visitors with a quaint, rustic allure. The architecture is simply stunning; white structures huddling conspiratorially on the edges of cliffs, clinging to the mountainside as an eagle does to its aerie. The valley falls away below, a precipitous drop that must have posed risky challenges to the adventurous people who built this village.
Far above, ruins of a castle lord over the mass of white below. Enormous vultures lazily circle even further overhead, carefully watching for evidence of a meal as we make our way along the town’s narrow streets barely wide enough for three of us to walk side by side. Earlier, we drove this route, pulling the side mirrors close to our car so we could traverse what at first seemed impassable.
Turning the corner, the smell of freshly baked bread invites us into a basement paneria offering racks of sturdy Andalusian bread, mountains of honey-drenched cookies and slices of torta, all ready to go. We stare, salivate, and move on. Our quest is for something else.
Back in the car, it’s on to the next narrow, winding road. We approach another tiny mountainside village with white buildings that cling to one another, seemingly defying gravity and the elements. Ahead, the highway plunges to the village entrance, offering a stunning vista that takes your breath away from the contrasting beauty and sheer enormity of the land that spills away as far as you can see.
Pink almond blossoms explode in the late winter sun, visible from a distance against the grey rock and brown earth of the almond grove’s mountainside home. Grey-green olive trees dot another slope in the distance, surrounded by thousands of tiny yellow blossoms that spring from the bright green undergrowth throughout the olive grove. Further down the road, oranges appear in staggering numbers in row after row of prolific trees that discard their abundance to be mashed underfoot.
Contrasts other than color and texture abound.
One recent day we hiked for an hour deep into a mile-long cave featuring some of the oldest Paleolithic period paintings in the world. An hour later, we drove through a village painted blue by Sony Corporation for the filming of the Smurf Movie. After shooting the film Sony offered to return the village to its original white hue, but villagers – entranced by the surge in tourists who inexplicably continue to flock to the town to see a handful of giant Smurf statues and another dozen images painted on the blue sides of their homes – elected to retain the kitschy veneer.
Driving here is a challenge and a joy. The roads rise and plummet, painted along mountains’ edges and narrowing to single lane without warning as they sink into valleys cast into shadows.
Villages’ names blend into one another: Belalauria, Benadalid, Cortez de la Frontera, Algotocin, Atajate. They appear with common features; carbon copies architecturally and with similar urban plans, but each with distinct qualities that make them special and unique.
Overhead, cloudless blue skies press down on craggy mountain tops that swiftly sink into deep valleys ringed by blue-green rivers tinted by mineral deposits that have been painting the waterways for centuries.
The soundtrack of these vistas is simple: wind, birds and the occasional lowing of cattle, bleating of sheep and goats and tinkling of cowbells. Otherwise silence rules as if to leave one’s vision in charge of the sensory overload.
We continue, taking note of a sign that warns of a narrow road and steep decline to another valley beyond the north side of the ridge. The road becomes a slim ribbon of tarmac which snakes along the mountain’s edge. Tiny cutoffs have been added where possible to allow cars to pass one another; it’s a good thing traffic is light in these parts of the world. At one point a bus rises in front of us, causing me to mutter “you must be joking” as I edge to the side of the road to make room for the bus to pass.
Cyclists love these roads, and their brilliant lycra racing suits announce their presence as they struggle up steep inclines. They appear in groups and as solo riders, all accepting the challenge of the mountains as they make their way from village to tiny haven. Enormous block letters appear painted in the roadway here and there, left by bike racing fans as motivational messages for their favorite stars. Worn by traffic, time and the elements, the messages remain as fading inspirational moments of races long since concluded.
The road switches back and forth, ending with a hairpin turn into a village with typical Andalusian flair. A central plaza offers a few ventas (small restaurants) and cafes. A fountain gently splashes in the mid day sun, and elderly men with caps and canes amble about, many well into their first beer or sweet wine of the day.
We park to wander the village’s streets. Typically cobblestoned rabbits’ warrens lacking sidewalks, village streets must be driven with a sense of humor and extreme patience. It’s common to encounter a car blocking the path as the driver engages a passerby in conversation, oblivious to the waiting traffic behind, as if time is theirs alone to utilize and disperse. No one honks their horns or grows impatient; what’s the hurry?
People are friendly, often curious, greeting strangers with a “buenas” or “hola” as we make our way through the village.
Deep blue flowerpots with red geraniums dot the walls of a home along the street, and the entrance is surrounded by foliage and flowers tucked into planters made of oak bark. Villages ooze a quality of calm and quiet normally reserved for places of worship.
This part of the world is known for the upscale lifestyle of Costa del Sol, with tony restaurants, pulsating nightlife and pricy shops. We’ve spent a bit of time in the alleys of old Malaga and Marbella but have otherwise stuck to the more authentic Spain of the mountains and valleys far removed from streets where Brad and Angelina walk hand in hand.
Why wouldn’t we?
Back on the finca, the birds sing to bring another brilliant day to a close, and we sit on the terrace of the farm we have called home for the past six weeks. The sun kisses the mountain top that rises a mile from where we sit and a pair of egrets rise from the river to seek a nesting spot for the night.
Evening falls across Andalusia. The air turns chilly. A donkey brays in the distance. The birds grow still. And the mountains, valleys, rivers and all of the gorgeous flora and fauna of this special place all yield to the authority of the night.