A Road Trip through Los Pueblos Blancos, Andalusia

off the road, I squeezed into a tiny row of parking
spaces opposite a restaurant and stepped out of the car in front of
the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies. Shielding my eyes from
the glare of the building’s whitewashed facade, I made my way
towards a sliver of shade in front of the columned entrance. Above
the door stood her statue of the Lady, a local patron saint highly
venerated in nearby villages.

Beyond this sanctuary was the panorama for which I had made a
stop, the view I had been snaking towards along narrow country
roads. Perched atop a distant hill, the town of Olvera surveyed the
endless rows of olive trees below, its imposing church and Arabic
fortress touching the sky. Having seared the scene into my memory,
I returned to the car and headed into the town, just one of Los
Pueblos Blancos (the white towns), a string of sleepy settlements
scattered across the landscape of Andalusia like a broken pearl

The neighbouring provinces of
and Málaga stretch inland across arid, mountainous
hinterland renowned for wine and sherry production. Where the
provinces meet, nestled among Sierra de Grazalema National Park and
its surrounds is this chain of towns. The national park is a land
of steep summits, caves and mountain passes where vultures soar
overhead. Despite the close proximity to Málaga, its airport and
the Costa del Sol, it’s remarkably devoid of foreign travellers;
with the exception of die-hard cyclists powering up the inclines,
the towns appear to remain tranquil enclaves of residents and those
visiting from the cities.


I began in the gateway town of
, 100km from the coastal hub of Málaga. Dating from the
ninth century BC, it’s one of Spain’s oldest towns and few others
boast such a spectacular location. The town perches atop a soaring
plateau straddling El Tajo gorge, which naturally divides the old
and new town. The towering Puente Nuevo bridge traverses the
fissure that splits the settlement, its arches plunging away into
the abyss below. Following winding cobbled roads leading to the
bottom of the town, I raced the setting sun to the bottom of the
gorge. Far below Puente Nuevo, the light illuminated the bridge and
the ancient walls of the settlement. The night was warm and
peaceful, a reflection of the tranquillity to come as I drove
through the Sierra de Grazalema.

Setenil de las Bodegas

Heading north from Ronda the following morning (a Sunday) I
reached Setenil de las Bodegas. The village was built in a valley,
with bridges crisscrossing a dry river bed now bursting with
flowers. Rising from this was a network of caves into which houses,
shops and bars have been built; the village seems to emanate from
the rock. It was mid-morning and the heat was getting up. Ducking
into a wine and cheese shop, the temperature instantly cooled,
showcasing the idea behind these buildings. Tiny swallows darted in
and out of nests, their own houses also built into the valley
sides. Old men sat on metal chairs outside bars, drinking cold beer
in the late morning sunshine. I was an onlooker, peering through a
window onto rural Spanish life.


Olvera is larger than most of the other white towns, with more
signs of development but no less beautiful. Electronic thermometers
on pharmacy signs indicated that the heat had reached the high 30s
as I ambled up the incline of Calle Calvario, a street with walls
adorned with ceramics depicting the 12 stations of the cross.
Hovering dramatically over the town are the twin landmarks of the
12th-century Arabic castle and the church of Our Lady of the
Incarnation, whose cream coloured façade stood proud against the
blue sky’s backdrop, its peeling paint only adding to its

Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra

With the light becoming increasingly golden, I drove through the
guitar-manufacturing town of Algodonales, heading for a B&B on
the outskirts of Grazalema. Crunching down a gravel lane, I reached
Tambor del Llano, a small hotel
in a renovated building set amid acres of countryside where I spent
the evening on the terrace, sipping red wine and picking out
constellations in the velvet sky of the national park.

Grazalema, Zahara de la Sierra and the connecting mountain pass
approach aesthetic perfection. Painted houses are impeccably
maintained, not a rust-coloured tile is out of place and fuchsia
bougainvillaea cascades from balconies. The streets fan out and
uphill from a central plaza bordered by a sleepy church and an
equally sleepy police station. Cafés dot the surrounding cobbled
streets, serving espressos to septuagenarians who sit on benches
and lean on walking sticks for their daily chat beneath straw hats
and flat caps.

The 20km drive to Zahara de la Sierra was one of the most
dramatic. The road reaches its zenith at Puerto de las Palomas
(Doves’ Pass), 1,357m above sea level. The sides fell away steeply
as I wound my around a spectacular series of switchbacks, the
landscape undulating into the distance, veined with curvaceous
lanes and rows of olive trees. At the foot of the mountains far
below, a steep crag rises from the plains and looms over a
turquoise reservoir. Atop this outcrop sits Zahara de la Sierra, a
12th-century castle proudly sitting on its rocky throne at the
summit. While its setting is more dramatic than some of its
neighbours’, Zahara too had the familiar winding streets of
whitewashed houses and the orange-tree-lined plaza was too inviting
to decline a of beer.

Arcos de la Frontera

After leaving the national park the following morning, I made my
last stop before reaching the port city of Cádiz. Arcos de la
Frontera was perched on a towering cliff, staring towards the sea
across the plains below, like a sentry standing guard at the
entrance to the Andalusian interior. Compared to the cities of the
coast, travelling through Los Pueblos Blancos seemed an
anachronistic reminder of a previous incarnation of Spain; a
seductively sleepy corner where I was tempted to remain.

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