La Axarquia: Paradise in Southern Spain
A favoured destination
On our visits to Spain, one of our favoured destinations is the La Axarquia area in the Andalusian region of the south. This is where we have experienced some of our happiest travel adventures. Retaining a special unspoiled charm, the area is known for its beaches but also a character that offers a greater sense of tranquillity.
The boundaries of La Axarquia
According to ‘old Castilian’, xarquia means ‘district or territory east of a great city’ or in Arabic ‘eastern part’. This area of Andalucia, east of Malaga and extending just beyond Nerja, constitutes the south coast of La Axarquia and is described as sub-tropical with the best weather in the world. The Parque Natural Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama forms the mountain range that runs from the coast right up the northeastern border to Alfarnate. The Sierra de Camarolos form the northern mountain range before the boundary arcs south-east, curves back towards the west, and zigzags to the coast towards Rincon de la Victoria. The area covers about 1,025 sq km (396 sq mi) with the highest elevation at 2,066 m (6,778 ft).
The region’s capital
The rather unspectacular capital of La Axarquia is Velez Malaga which lies about 4 km inland from the coastal Torre del Mar. It is white and shines in the heat of the intense Mediterranian sun where it rises slightly onto the foothills of the Parque Natural. The most interesting feature is the restored castle on the hill above this small city.
The Moors, who occupied this land long ago, left a legacy that is still very much alive today. Olives, almonds, tomatoes, figs, oranges and vines, more latterly joined by a growing industry in mangos, bananas, avocados, lemons and many more varieties of fruit and vegetables, provide delicious produce. The area has always attracted foreigners, many of whom now live permanently in the white houses that dot the landscape or in the attractive white villages on the hillsides. The growing tourist industry brings more people each year to visit and enjoy what la Axarquia has to offer.
The rural landscape
Wild herbs, poppy fields, and pretty streams in the quiet valleys of the mountains give way to the oak, walnut, chestnut, and poplar trees higher up the slopes. Farming in this area is olde-worldly and it is a pleasure to experience the goat and sheep herds when walking the trails beyond the pretty white villages. Away from the tourist traps and beaches of Malaga, you feel you can relax, let go, and be free in the sub-alpine hills of the Parque Natural. This is nature at its best. Walking trail maps are available in information centres and on various websites. These trails are freely available and accessible.
A prominent geological feature
A ‘gap’ in the mountains on the northeast edge of the Sierras creates a stunning view of the landscape on the way through to Zafaraya and on towards Granada. Commonly known as the ‘Lions Gate’, El Boquete de Zafarraya is a U shaped cleft in the mountains which provides road access through the range of mountains to the olive and vegetable growing region of Ventas Zafaraya. At 900 m (above sea level) it has, for centuries, been a strategic route for the many towns along the way through the Sierras on this border between the provinces of Malaga and Granada.
Caves and railways
In the Cueva del Boquete de Zafarraya (cave) near the top of the pass, some 30,000-year-old well preserved Neanderthal bones were found in 1979. An abandoned railway line, now used by walkers who enjoy a stroll along a gravel road and through a tunnel hued out of the grey limestone rock, runs onwards to the vegetable growing town of Ventes de Zafarraya, just beyond the pass. The old railway bridge stands as a monument to the past glory of the Andalusian railway. But for me, the drive provides stunning views to photograph as the road negotiates its way steeply up the mountainside twisting and turning, through small hamlets and the tree-lined streets of roadside villages.
Of bandits and secret meetings
Some areas of La Axarquia, which in places are wild and inaccessible, have a legendary history of bandits. One lair, the stronghold of the bandits was the 13th Century Inn – Venta de Alfarnate, which is in the northwestern part of the region. We visited the Inn and had lunch there. It is now a museum to these times when the bandits roamed wildly in the area and is filled with memorabilia and photographs.
With its dark wood interior, you can almost feel the bandits gathered around the tables plotting their next attack! The Lonely Planet describes these bandoleros as having ‘roamed the mountains without fear or favour’.
Comares is a small village, in which we have stayed, that sits atop a mountain towards the western boundary of La Axarquia. The view from Comares is so stunning that you just want to stay and look towards the ocean, the surrounding mountains, and the beautiful land below. It is described as being ‘like a snowdrift atop its lofty hill’ and to get there requires a steep drive up the side of the hill.
On more than one occasion we have encountered small snakes on the road. You can park your car at the entrance to the village, pass under an arched bridge, and wander the town on foot following the ceramic tile footprints in the narrow lanes from balcony to balcony, and towards the ruined remains of the Comares castle.
Our hotel, ‘Molino de los Abuelos’ sits on the small main square and with its relaxing balcony, a glass of local wine in hand, a plate of olives and dining at the house restaurant, Comares is definitely a destination to visit, admire, and stay a while.
The reason these white villages were built atop lofty hills and fortified against invaders with forts and castles is understood when you hear stories about Comares being the stronghold of the rebellious Omar Ibn Hafsun. Known in the 9th century for resisting the armies of Cordoba for 40 years, Omar is Spain’s equivalent to Robin Hood!
Life on the hills: White villages, tasty food and sweet wine
Across the valley, a succession of beautiful white villages are to be found. These villages are Canilles de Aceituno, Canilles de Albaida, and Competes. The roads between them traverse narrow gullies, high passes and deep ravines, and are dotted with the houses of the expat British and the local farming community. On previous trips we have stayed a while, eaten beautiful food, tasted the local white wine and enjoyed flamenco concerts in the small town square. Having stayed in Canilles de Albaida, we loved the small village atmosphere and enjoyed hanging out with the friendly locals, eating outside at tables in the square and walking the hills beyond.
Down on the coast, we enjoyed the seaside town of Nerja where there are no imposing high rise buildings such as those encountered along the coast at Malaga. The walkways along the cliff tops above the beaches provide wondeful views of the coves below, along the coastline, and to the higher mountain ranges in both directions.
The water is clear and inviting and swimming, as well as shopping or eating, in Nerja is a pleasure not to be dismissed. The sand is warm and white, the tangled old streets lined with shops and restaurants give way to the colourful patios and gardens of local homeowners and holiday makers. The Balcon de Europa juts out into the ocean atop a solid rock promonitory. In the 9th centruy the Moors used it as a fortress watchtower to observe for pirates and smugglers.
Another favourite place we like to visit is the Buddhist retreat of Karma Guen. It is well known locally for its stupa, a white monument, on the hill above. Adorned with colourful prayer flags, it offers stunning vistas in all directions. Karma Guen had been an abandoned small village when it was purchased and now it has been restored, new buildings have been added and it is a place of great beauty and peacefulness.
Renting a Cortijo
On our most recent holiday in the area, along with our Bavarian friends, we rented a lovely holiday house (Cortijo) on one of the hill tops nearby. Casa Trinidad has a deep blue tiled swimming pool, exotic trees and outdoor dining areas; this cosy house is set among mango and avacado planations.
Orange and lemon trees line the road and offer beautiful views down to the coast and to the mountains in each direction. It is always hard for us to leave Spain and our favourite places in Andalucia but there is always a story to tell and a plan for another vacation in this land of great beauty and experience.
The links to the 3 stories from this trip to Spain published in ‘Travelista Club’ can be found below. The link to Travelista club! Travel the world: at your fingertips
BUT first read MY stories!
Sierra Magina – our first destination on this trip: Read about our first destination in Spain here
Cabo de Gato – from the interior mountains to the coastal desert: Read about our second destination on the south east coast of Spain here
Mairena – in the remote and beautiful Alpujarras: Read about our third destination in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain here
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