Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.
You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.
The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.
I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.
As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.
As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.
The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.
Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.
You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.
I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.
But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.
Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.
The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.
Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).
Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.
That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.
Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.
The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.
Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.
Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.
This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.
On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.
This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.
Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.
Calle Real 66 in Benamahoma is available to rent by the week.
For more on the Moros y Cristianos festival, visit their website.