As you might imagine, life can be very different, depending on your choice of location. Worth bearing in mind is that almost all of the Axarquía region is mountainous with beautiful valleys running down from the inland sierras to the coastal fringe, giving plenty of opportunity to choose the landscape that best suits your needs.
There are broadly three main area choices – the coastal zone (costa), the inland villages (los pueblos) and the open countryside (known locally as “el campo”). Each has its devotees and all offer advantages. In this series of articles entitled “Coast, Villages or Countryside” we will explore each in turn, to give you a flavour of what you can realistically expect in the various landscapes.
Last time we looked at the coastal region, so now we will consider what holidays, or more permanent life, is like in our inland villages.
The Villages or Los Pueblos
Almost anyone with a passing interest in southern Spain knows that they are usually referred to as the “White villages”, and the Spanish translation is almost as well known, “Pueblos Blancos”.
Once you have seen one of the white villages you can easily understand that they could not be named any differently, for every house is painted in the traditional white paint which has the joint advantage of making them look typically Andalucían and, at the same time, by reflecting as much of the summer sun as possible, helping to keep the interiors a little cooler.
All of these ancient villages date back many centuries and were mostly originated by the Moors who came over from North Africa and invaded this part of Iberia between 700 and 800 AD. They resided here until driven out by the Catholic armies 700 years later. The Moors were a very advanced race who brought over many of the crops we now think of as Spanish. They knew how to build and manage irrigation systems and many of the villages were built where they are because there was, and remains to this day, irrigation from the porous mountain rock which is vital throughout the long hot summers for making agriculture possible.
So, what is life like here? The villages are rarely built on flat land so they can usually be described as “tumbling” down the hillsides. This means that the streets are often steep, curving and twisting their way around the village, often with little side passages which, if you investigate, also contain terraces of houses, some accessed by steep steps.
Many of these old houses have, at street level, a short flight of steps going up to the living space with a low doorway giving access to more steps going down into a semi basement, which would have been the place where livestock could be kept.
What is true of Spanish cities and large towns is also true here. The Church is usually the focal point of the village, often with a square, called La Plaza. Wherever there is una plaza there are cafés, bars and local shops nearby. Of course, facilities vary from village to village with gift shops and the like, but usually there will be many places selling local produce. Some areas, such as around the village of Cómpeta are well known for their sweet Moscatel grapes, many of which are dried in large open-air drying beds under the late summer sun and sold as pasas, looking like large raisins or currants. Most villages have their own speciality produce, for example Periana has peaches (melocotón), Sayalonga is the centre for the medlar fruit (nispero) and Alcaucín celebrates an ancestral tradition each October, paying tribute to their typical fruit: the chestnut (castaña).
When we spoke of the coastal area we mentioned that bars abound in Spain and in most villages there will be several, or indeed many, each vying for your custom. You may be surprised to discover perhaps, that in even quite remote townships it would be very unusual not to get good quality coffee, wine or beer and a good range of tapas or more substantial fare.
During recent years, many people from other parts of Europe have discovered these inland areas and for some this kind of village life has really “hit the spot”, with the result that many white villages now have quite substantial cosmopolitan populations.
For the largest ex-pat communities here in the Axarquía (usually, but not exclusively northern Europeans, such as British or German), choosing life in one of the villages can often mean looking for something different to those who choose the coast. There are various ways to express it, but if we said they were looking for “the real Spain” it would probably make clear what is meant. It’s the sort of difference you can sometimes discern between what you could describe as tourists or travellers.
One thing common to life in Spain (and Italy and Greece among others) is noise. Not unpleasant or offensive, but the commotion of life that the Mediterranean races generate. Motor bikes (motos) are one such source but also any excuse for a fiesta or the setting-off of fireworks – and the Spanish are there!
Families and friends debate issues and if that happens to be in a shop doorway then so be it. Deliveries have to be made by vans and trucks and most village streets are quite narrow so, while this takes place, everything else comes to a stop. A small queue of traffic builds up, but that is how it is – no problem – no rush. There are a couple of phrases you often hear which indicate the mentality of life, “ No pasa nada” (roughly translated as – it doesn´t matter) and “poco a poco” (little by little), in other words “do a bit today and do a bit later”.
If you spend time in these lovely white villages it helps if you can speak a little Spanish, to get you by. If you can adopt an outgoing manner and try speaking the local language you will be rewarded by friendly people, who will often turn up at your door with gifts of their food, or you may find bags of lemons, onions or other such locally-grown produce, hanging on your door when you get up in a morning.
Life here is very civilized and public mis-behaviour is a rarity. Observations suggest that this is because children and teenagers never get the run of public places. Fathers, grandfathers and especially the womenfolk are a permanent presence and they would soon bring inappropriate behaviour to an end. The local children are brought up observing and joining in with all local traditions, fiestas and festivals so to them this has always been a part of their lives. There is no sense of threat if you walk through the village on a dark night – indeed you will see many windows and doors wide open with either no occupants in sight, or a little old lady wearing a shawl sitting in her chair watching the world go by. The sense of community spirit and family bonding is, in many ways, like stepping back in time – by fifty years.
Life can be good in the villages. Of course, the higher you go into the hills, the chillier it will be on winter nights, but also the air will be fresher on hot summer days. There are many activities to keep you occupied and invariably the surrounding countryside is beautiful and accessible for walking.
Not so many years ago many villages were largely inaccessible with the only form of transport being the mule, but these days there are adequate tarmac roads giving good access to even the most remote of inland areas.
Whilst it’s true that the major shopping facilities and larger supermarkets are nearer the coast, many villages have a weekly street market and, of course, local shopkeepers have been serving these local communities successfully for years.
There is a constantly developing range of rural activities being offered to visitors including, for example, horse riding, cross country motor cycling expeditions, walking and much more.
Even if you would still prefer to base yourself near the coast, you would be missing a great deal of what we have already described as “The Real Spain” if you didn’t venture inland and see a way of life, some aspects of which, have not changed in a long time. Give it a try; you may be surprised how beguiling this can be. Many a first time visitor has gone back to their own country only to sooner or later return to live what some have come to know as “the good life”.