Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata-Níjar

by Robert Bovington

Cabo de Gata - Las Salinas © Robert Bovington

In the south of Spain, a few miles east of Almería, there is a delightful area that offers miles of unspoilt beaches with secluded coves, sand dunes and much more within a protected coastal reserve. It is the Cabo de Gata, a natural park that I think is quite splendid. It is one of my favourite areas in the province of Almería.

It is a nature lover's delight. There are thousands of different species there including the pink flamingo and the rare Italian wall lizard. There are eagles, kestrels, puffins, cormorants, oystercatchers and storks. The extraordinary wealth of wildlife is unbelievable. There are some species that are unique to the park. This includes the dragoncillo del Cabo, which flowers all the year round. Europe's only native palm tree - the dwarf fan - is to be found here. In the sea, there are bream, grouper, prawn and squid. There are hundreds of species of seaweed, which are home to the many varieties of crustacean, mollusc and fish.

Perhaps the reason for the great variation in wildlife is due to the diverse habitats in this natural park. The 71,500 acres of the Cabo de Gata is volcanic in origin and comprises coastal dunes, steep cliffs, spectacular beaches, salt marshes, saltpans, arid steppe, dry riverbeds and a substantial marine zone. It is probably this ecological diversity that has led to the park being designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

As well as the spectacularly varied landscape, there are also scattered settlements of whitewashed, flat roofed houses and delightful little fishing villages.

One of the things I like about the natural park is that man's intervention can scarcely be detected in this area. There has been some development but it has mostly been confined to the existing settlements. San José used to be a small fishing village. Nowadays it is a tourist village but it has not been spoiled too much. La Isleta del Moro - only a cluster of fishing huts and houses a few years ago - is undergoing some development. Apartments are being built but they appear to be tasteful and their white façades blend in with their surroundings. Other villages have also been expanded slightly.

San José © Robert Bovington
La Isleta del Moro © Robert Bovington
Cortijo del Fraile

Between Los Albaricoques and Rodalquilar is a cluster of ruined buildings. The largest one is known as the 'Cortijo del Fraile'. A notice outside refers to it as a typical example of a farmhouse. However, that is only part of the story.

The famous Spanish author, Federico García Lorca used it as the setting for his chilling play 'Blood Wedding'. It was no coincidence. It is allegedly based on real life events. It is said that in 1928, a tenant farmer lived there. Apparently, he offered a large dowry to the younger of his two daughters. This angered the elder sister. A conspiracy was hatched whereby her brother-in-law would offer marriage and split the dowry with the elder sister and her husband. However, on her wedding day, the bride attempted to run away with her cousin, planning to return after the marriage was consummated to claim the dowry. As the newlyweds set out at night, they met with the elder sister and her husband. The cousin was shot in the head and the bride left half-strangled. The sister and her husband were imprisoned and the bride lived as a spinster. Apparently, she died quite recently.

The building has also been used for a number of spaghetti westerns including 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly'.


The road between the 'Cortijo del Fraile' and Rodalquilar is a bit rough but the necessary slow driving enables the traveller to enjoy the scenery. It is quite a pleasant sight, driving along this road with the yellow flowers of the pita plant silhouetted against the blue sky and the low mountains in the distance, especially on my last visit, when I observed lots of hoopoe flitting from plant to plant.

This part of Spain has always had an abundance of raw materials and this area of the Cabo de Gata has been extensively mined for 2000 years. The Romans extracted silver here. Later 'lead fever' took hold in the middle of the 19th century. However, the golden years for Rodalquilar followed the discovery of gold around 1880. At the beginning of the 20th century, a British company acquired the mining rights and, under the name 'Minas de Rodalquilar', started actively mining the precious metal. They built the millstone in which 900 tons of rock was ground day by day. Rodalquilar, with its electricity supply and its tennis courts and other luxuries was the envy of the other Andalucian villages.

Rodalquilar - old mine workings © Robert Bovington
By the late 1930s, the British company had extracted 2,000 kg of gold and following the end of the Spanish Civil War; the mines were handed over to the Spanish government. In 1956, a second golden age came to Rodalquilar. Around 500 men from faraway countries arrived to seek work in the mines and consequently 4000 kg of gold was extracted, together with 165,000 kg of silver. The village had struck it rich. Among the new buildings erected were schools, a cinema, and a casino. This was not to last. In 1966, Spain's only gold mines were closed down. This could have led to Rodalquilar becoming a ghost town. In fact, it very nearly did so, but probably due to the protected status of the Cabo de Gata, some of the old houses have been restored.

When I visited, I walked along to a viewing platform in order to look down on the old mine workings. It was a pleasant enough view. It was not so much the dilapidated buildings that made the panorama attractive, though they were interesting enough, the Rodalquilar valley beyond the mining area looked splendid - especially with the white houses of the town further on and the range of mountains in the distance.

Driving downhill towards the town, the dusty track becomes a properly made up road with palms and adelfa bushes lining both sides. Near the old disused buildings is an Information Centre where visitors can obtain maps and guides to the area. There is a botanical garden nearby.

Playa de Playazo

The highlight of any trip to the Cabo de Gata is to visit one of the many delightful beaches. One of my favourites is the Playa de Playazo. This long unspoiled beach is only a short distance from Rodalquilar. On the way there, visitors can take a detour to view another ruin, this time a small castle called 'Castillo San Ramón', a defensive fort from the 18th century.

The Playa de Playazo enjoys an exceptional environmental setting. Incidentally, the beach is also known as the Playa de Rodalquilar due to its close proximity to the town. Playa de Playazo roughly translates as big beach. It is utterly stunning. It is long and unspoiled and its sweeping bay enjoys excellent views. It is one of a number of attractive beaches in the Parque Natural. When I visit, I usually walk along the sandy coastline until I reach some cliffs. They are easy to walk on because they are smooth, not the jagged harsh variety found elsewhere in this area. It is enjoyable clambering over the cliffs and, near the next cove, there are fossils embedded in the rocks. One could be tempted to take a hammer and chisel in order to take home some samples but that would probably be illegal - the Cabo de Gata's special status as a protected environment means there are a number of restrictions. For example collecting protected species is not allowed, nor is removing soil, sand or seabed. Fishing is restricted. It is not allowed in some parts of the park with or without a permit. Fishermen still make a living in this area but a maritime mile restriction zone has been declared in order to prevent the larger fishing vessels exhausting the seabed or destroying the natural habitat.

Whenever I visit, I look for a delightful little cove. It is only big enough for three or four people - a tiny private beach. To reach it one has to either jump seven or eight feet from the cliff-side to the beach or swim underwater through the little tunnel in the rock face. It is a perfect little haven for a seaside picnic. At the back of the beach is a shallow cave that provides protection from the fierce Almerian sunlight.

There are a number of delightful coastal villages and many more pristine beaches, some of them only accessible on foot.

Aguamarga, a small coastal town that is quite pretty. There are the traditional single story whitewashed buildings, many festooned with flowers especially bougainvillea.

Agua Amarga © Robert Bovington

Las Negras © Robert Bovington

Las Negras gets its name from the shape and colour of the black hill that one can observe from the beach. It was formed by the solidification of volcanic lava. I am not that impressed with Las Negras, though I might have liked it thirty years ago. It does have character but also lots of hippies. On my first visit, a group of them sat on the pavement playing guitars and flutes. A girl in a long floral dress with bare dirty feet was juggling. Others were selling jewellery on the promenade.

Whenever I visit the Cabo de Gata I usually stop at the 'Mirador La Amatista', with its splendid panorama of the coastline. The views are stunning. It lies between Playa de Playazo and La Isleta del Moro.

La Isleta del Moro
La Isleta del Moro
© Robert Bovington
The approach to La Isleta del Moro is quite magnificent. Twin peaked hills drop down to a blue sea. Palm trees and pita frame the view. The village is another of my favourite places. It is made up of a small group of white houses where simple people who have earned their livelihood fishing have lived since time immemorial.

There is a danger of beautiful villages like this being despoiled by development. New buildings have been erected though, at the moment, they do not detract from the overall scene. Some friends of ours stayed here several years ago, in a simple hostel, and they told me that it was not quite as quaint as they remembered. It is still delightful though.

The 'The Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata-Níjar', to give it its full title, is Andalusia's largest coastal nature park. Whenever I drive around this area, I experience an abundance of different panoramic views. The coastal dunes and salt flats are surrounded by volcanic hills that fall away steeply to the sea forming dramatic cliffs and rocky promontories. The hidden coves and white sandy beaches here form part of probably the only virgin coastline in mainland Spain.

El Cabo de Gata

I sometimes visit the small village actually called El Cabo de Gata. It is a pleasant little seaside resort beside a beach of white sand. The whitewashed buildings, that line its promenade, are mainly holiday apartments, interspersed with the occasional bar. The village still supports a small fishing fleet and the fishermen's boats, nets and lobster pots pepper the beaches at the southeastern end.

The Cape
church at Salinas de Acosta
© Robert Bovington

Southeast of the village of El Cabo de Gata is the tiny hamlet of Salinas de Acosta, where salt from the Salinas is piled in great heaps. Its church, which has a very tall tower, dominates the area for miles around and is almost on the seashore. Further along this lovely coastal road there are a number of little fishermen's houses.

Beyond them the road starts a steep climb. Near the top, the road narrows and there are sheer drops down to the rocks below, so wear your brown trousers! It is well worth the perilous journey. The road eventually descends and after crossing a riverbed, between dark rocks you will emerge at the foot of an outcrop upon which stands the lighthouse. This is the actual Cabo de Gata, the cape!

I do not know why it is called the 'Cape of the Cat'. Maybe one of the rocks jutting out of the sea far below reminded someone of a cat! I don't know but the views here are tremendous. Black and grey jagged rocks emerge from the bright blue sea below. The largest of the peaks is called the 'Arrecife de las Sirenas'. Even though the road plunges quite dramatically, it is still quite high up here. The lighthouse is not open to the public but nearby is a mirador and more tremendous views.

Arrecife de las Sirenas © Robert Bovington

The western side of the Cabo de Gata is only a very small part of the whole natural park. It is possible to walk to the eastern side of the cape, but to see more of this astonishing area in a short time a car is needed. However, the road stops just below the lighthouse. It is necessary to return to the village of El Cabo de Gata before driving to San José, the next village in the park.

On one occasion, as I drove between the cape and the village of El Cabo de Gata, I viewed the spectacular sight of hundreds of pink flamingos! I also noticed a couple of bird watchers in a hide on the shore of the lakes. Between spring and autumn, thousands of migrating birds stop here on their journeys between Europe and Africa. Apart from flamingos, there are storks, avocets, eagles and many other types. Only a few remain in the winter when the Salinas are drained after the autumn salt harvest.

There are many other delightful places in the natural park and not just the coastal parts. The inland scenery is delightful too, especially the mountains, some of which have a distinct pyramid shape to them. Compared with all the other mountain ranges in the province of Almería, the Sierra del Cabo de Gata is not nearly so high. Yet, some are still over 1000 feet! Most of the mountains here have a distinctly volcanic appearance with sharp peaks and crags. Where they fall sharply into the sea, jagged cliffs are created. These are broken by gullies leading to small, hidden coves with white sandy beaches.

The Cabo de Gata is a truly splendid place and I would recommend you visit it. Go tomorrow. There are cheap flights these days between the UK and Almería. On second thoughts don't! One of the beauties of the natural park is that so often one can find peace and solitude in this enchanting area.

Robert Bovington

more blogs by Robert Bovington...
"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"
"Books About Spain"

Friday, August 7, 2015


by Robert Bovington

Ávila is the highest city in Spain. It is 3,715 feet above sea level and is situated on a plateau that is surrounded by even loftier mountains. It is a good place to visit but not to live because, whilst the city is rather spectacular and is a notable tourist centre, it has long cold winters and short summers. The surrounding neighbourhood is not too attractive either. It is an arid, treeless plain strewn with immense grey boulders, which, I suppose, came in useful when the walls of the city were built.

La Universidad Católica de Ávila © Robert Bovington

 Ávila is old. It is one of the oldest of all the cities in Castilla y León. Celtic Iberians, Romans, Muslims and Christians have all left their mark on this fine city.

Las Murallas - the walls - are magnificent and encompass the whole of ancient Ávila. Building started at the end of 11th century and they are 2.5 kilometres long, 14 metres high and around 3 metres thick. They are still in pretty good nick. Alfonso VI ordered their construction after his conquest of Avila in 1090. Moorish prisoners were allegedly employed to build the wall. I don't suppose they were paid though! There are eighty-eight towers and nine gates that include the imposing Puerta del Alcázar and the Puerta de Rastro. Visitors can walk along the walls between these two points. The walls are beautifully illuminated at night.

The modern part of the city lies outside the walls. Within the old city are many fine buildings including churches and the 12th-century Gothic cathedral. Ávila Cathedral was planned as a cathedral-fortress - its apse is actually part of one of the turrets of the city walls. Construction started in 1095 shortly after the Reconquest. The earliest parts were in the Romanesque style and built like a fortress with battlements and sentry walks incorporated into the structure. Most of the cathedral was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and the building is, therefore, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic. It is credited with having introduced Spain to Gothic architecture. The Cathedral Museum has a display of religious art including an El Greco - the "Portrait of Garcibáñez de Múxica". 

Ávila photo: Robert Bovington
There are quite a few religious buildings in Ávila but, then, there have been a number of religious residents. These include the 4th-century theologian Priscillian who was the first Christian to be executed for heresy and the notorious Friar Tomás Torquemada who was Spain's first Grand Inquisitor and the zealous leader of the witch-hunts of the 15th century. Another resident was San Juan de la Santa Cruz who was a reformer of the Carmelite Order. 

Santa Teresa de Ávila

Saint Teresa of Ávila is the city's most famous resident. She was born in Gotarrendura in Ávila province on March 28, 1515. She was the daughter of a Toledo merchant and his second wife, who died when Teresa was 15, one of ten children. Following a period in the care of the Augustinian nuns, Teresa resolved to enter a religious life. In 1535, she joined the Carmelite Order.

She was a major figure of the Catholic Reformation - a prominent Spanish mystic, writer and monastic reformer. Gregory XV canonized her in 1622. Her feast day is October 15 when the city honours its most famous daughter with a celebration in her honour. It begins with an opening speech from the Town Hall balcony followed by a solemn mass in the cathedral. The celebration continues with a procession through the main city streets, and, like all good Spanish fiestas, concerts, bullfights, fireworks and partying takes place for a few more days. 

St. Teresa has left Ávila with a legacy - not only the memory of her Carmelite reforms and her writings but a reminder of her can be found in the Convento de Santa Teresa, which was built in 1636 over her birthplace. Another monument to her name is the Monastery of La Encarnación where St. Teresa lived for thirty years.

Tomás Luis de Victoria
Another famous person, born in Ávila was the composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Born in 1548, Victoria is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 16th century. He was certainly the most significant Spanish composer of sacred music in the late Renaissance. The biggest influence on Victoria is said to be the aforementioned Saint Teresa, which is probably why he wrote only religious music.

With all those devout residents, it is no wonder that there are so many temples in Ávila. Quite a number have prestigious connections like the Real Monasterio de Santo Tomás that houses the tomb of Don Juan, son of the Catholic Monarchs. There is the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista that contains the baptismal font in which Saint Teresa was baptised. It is just one of many Romanesque churches in the city as well as one of a number with Saint Teresa connections. 

Ávila is not just about churches. There are a number of palaces and houses of noble ancestry as well as museums. Because the city is so rich in architecture it has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This article is an extract from “Spanish Impressions” by Robert Bovington
ISBN 978-1-4452-2543-2 available from

more blogs by Robert Bovington...
"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"
"Books About Spain"

Thursday, August 6, 2015

White Towns of Andalusia

(Pueblos Blancos de Andalucía)
by Robert Bovington
Whilst I frequently holiday on the Costa del Sol, I rarely spend much time in Benalmádena or Fuengirola - instead, I explore the mountain villages of Cádiz and Málaga. I visit places like Grazalema, Olvera, Setenil, Benaoján and Zahara de la Sierra. They are located in one of the most beautiful and yet undiscovered parts of Spain - in the area known as the ‘White Towns of Andalusia’.
Why are they called that? Because they are white and they are in Andalucía! Yes, I know, there are pueblos blancos throughout Andalucía - I frequently travel around the provinces of Almería and Granada visiting delightful villages with whitewashed houses. Nevertheless, some person or persons have determined that the White Towns of Andalusia are the succession of towns and villages in the northern parts of the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga. So there!
They are delightful. Let's visit some of them!
One of my favourites is Grazalema. It lies within the the heart of the Parque Natural de la Sierra Grazalema, a popular location for climbers and walkers alike. The approach to the town is spectacular and is dominated by the massive Peñon Grande which rises to over 1000m above the town which itself appears to be suspended from a bare cliff face. The views from Grazalema are breathtaking - there are a number of miradors where one can view the countryside far below. The town has retained its Moorish layout and the whitewashed façades of the houses that border the winding narrow streets are bedecked with flowerpots and window boxes. There are attractive churches in Grazalema - the Iglesia de San Juan, the Iglesia de la Encarnación with its Mudéjar tower and the Iglesia de la Aurora, which is situated in the Plaza de España. Whenever I visit, there are usually a few old men sitting in the shade of the maple trees in this pretty little square.

Grazalema © Robert Bovington
Zahara de la Sierra can be seen from miles away because it is situated in one of the most dramatic locations of all the White Towns. Its 13th-century Moorish castle stands high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sugar-cubed houses of the village that also enjoys a hilltop setting. The village was built by the Moors in the 8th century and was an important stronghold of the Nasrids until the Christians captured it in the 15th century. There is a fine church - the Baroque Iglesia de Santa María de Mesa that was built in the 18th century. Zahara de la Sierra has been declared a National Monument.

Zahara de la Sahara © Robert Bovington
The road between Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra is spectacular. It winds its way up to the Las Palomas Pass and there are sharp bends and sheer drops on the way. The views from the top are awe-inspiring with rugged mountains, green wooded valleys and golden fields.

view from Las Palomas © Robert Bovington
Serranía de Ronda 
The whole region of the White Towns is located amidst magnificent scenery. There is an extraordinary rich and diverse array of flora and fauna - so much so that virtually the whole of this area is protected to some extent. Within the La Serranía de Ronda range of mountains are three Natural Parks - Grazalema, Los Alcornocales and the Sierra de las Nieves. I cannot stress enough how beautiful this area is. When I first moved to Spain, the Alpujarras enchanted me but having encountered the Ronda Mountains and the Grazalema Natural Park in particular I was even more captivated. There is a very good reason why this area is so green - rain! Grazalema is the wettest place in Spain. Yes, less than two hours drive from the Costa del Sol there is a place that gets more rain than anywhere else on the Iberian Peninsula! Warm clouds full of moisture from the Atlantic are forced upwards by the successive mountain ranges. This cools them resulting in condensation and rainfall.

Sierra de Grazalema
Benaoján is a pretty village that I first encountered when I travelled on the Algeciras to Ronda railway. Near the railway station there is a footpath to Cueva de la Pileta - a cave with primitive rock paintings of animals that, apparently, date from around 25,000 BC. Just above the village there is a mirador where spectacular views can be enjoyed - poplar, willow and oleander at the bottom of the valley; evergreen oak, peonies, thickets of kermes oak, retama and broom on the hillside; gorse, thyme and sage beneath jagged outcrops of limestone on higher ground and probably the odd vulture or two circling above. There are about 300 griffin vultures in the Serranía de Ronda, which is a tribute to the local conservationists as during the 1960's the birds were almost extinct.

© Robert Bovington
A huge neoclassical church looms over the white houses of Olvera which is yet another town that enjoys a spectacular setting. The Iglesia de la Encarnación has two bell towers and was built on the ruins of a mosque. Next-door is the 12th-century Almohad castle that formed part the defensive network of the Nasrid kingdom. Alfonso XI conquered the town in 1327.
Arcos de la Frontera is the most westerly of the White Towns and one of the biggest. From a distance, it looks spectacular with the whitewashed houses tumbling down the side of a sheer limestone cliff face. There are plenty of monuments for the student of architecture to enjoy here including Baroque churches, palaces and mansions. The Plaza del Cabildo is an attractive square that is dominated by the impressive tower of the Church of Santa María. Other buildings in this plaza are the Town Hall, the Castle and the Casa del Corregidor which was formerly the magistrate's house but which is now the parador. On the western side of the square is a mirador that affords spectacular views of the countryside below. The Church of Santa María de la Asunción is worth a visit. It was built on the site of a former mosque between the 16th and 18th centuries. It has splendid plateresque decoration on its west façade whilst the south facing side is in neoclassical style. From here, a tangle of alleyways leads to the late Gothic church of San Pedro, which also has an impressive bell-tower. There are stunning views from here too because the church seems to lean precariously over the steep cliff face. Visitors with a fear of heights would be advised to wear brown trousers!
There are lots of other attractive pueblos blancos. Villaluenga del Rosario is the highest of the White Towns and is one of the prettiest. Setenil is unusual in that there are troglodyte dwellings built into the rock. Ubrique is a largish town famous for its leatherware. The Natural Park of Grazalema Visitors Centre is located in El Bosque, which also has a botanical garden.
Gaucín and Casares
Moorish fortresses loom over the towns of Gaucín, Jimena de Libár and Casares. Gaucín is quite attractive although I did not find too much of historical interest there. What did impress me were the views down towards the coast - the Rock of Gibraltar and the Rif Mountains of Morocco were clearly visible. The Moorish Alcázar above Casares was built on Roman ruins. The sugar cube houses that spill down the hillside make the village extremely photogenic, which is probably why Casares is often seen on postcards of the White Towns. It certainly gets a few tourists, as it is only 11 miles from the coastal resort of Estepona.
Gaucín ©Robert Bovington
Casarabonela is on the easternmost edge of the area officially classified as the White Towns of Andalusia. I have included it here because it is within easy reach of the popular coastal resorts of Fuengirola and Benalmádena. It is situated in the Sierra de las Nieves and is yet another attractive pueblo blanco that has preserved its Arabic heritage with its narrow streets and whitewashed houses festooned with flowers. Like many of the villages some of the alleyways are rather steep - on my last visit I left my aged relative sitting on a bench in the main plaza while my wife and I explored the charming alleyways. We spotted a number of attractive fuentes - some with attractive decorative tiles. An attractive church - the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstle is located in the main plaza. It has some interesting crypts and a museum of silver and religious artifacts.

Iglesia de Santiago Apóstle, Casarabonela © Robert Bovington
One of the most popular places in the area is Ronda. The best word to describe the town is dramatic. It enjoys a spectacular location clinging to a cliff-top 500 feet above the Tajo gorge and it has had a dramatic history. Smugglers and highwaymen have inhabited the town and it was one of the last strongholds of the Moors until the Catholic Kings reconquered the town in 1485. The main attraction in Ronda is the Puente Nuevo - the new bridge with its breathtaking views of the countryside and the gorge far below. There are numerous historical monuments that include churches, palaces and museums. The town, itself, is a living museum especially La Ciudad the old Moorish quarter which its many historic buildings and monuments like the Arab Bridge and the Arab Baths. Ronda is also the cradle of bullfighting and there is a museum dedicated to this very Spanish spectacle. It is part of the bullring complex, which is an impressive piece of architecture. Another interesting museum is the Museo del Bandolero, which is devoted to bandits, outlaws and smugglers. Highwaymen roamed the surrounding mountains in the 19th century, robbing wealthy tourists headed for Ronda on their 'Grand Tour of Europe'. Smugglers too visited the town. Nowadays, it is tourists who invade Ronda because it is one of the favoured excursions for people holidaying on the Costa del Sol. Of all the White Towns of Andalusia, it is my particular favourite.

some views of Ronda by Robert Bovington

more blogs by Robert Bovington...

"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"

"Book & Record Reviews"