El Torcal: Welcome to Jurassic Park – Andalucían style

El Torcal Nature Reserve, Antequera If you thought that this part of Spain was all about white villages, a visit to Andalucia’s very own Jurassic Park – El Torcal Nature Reserve near Antequera, will soon change your mind.

Situated around thirty kilometres north of the city of Málaga, and near the geographical centre of Málaga province, El Torcal is one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in Spain. Limestone rock formations at El Torcal, Antequera The area is well-known for its unusual limestone rock formations which had their origin under the sea around 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. In time, immense pressure caused by movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates forced the seabed to rise to an altitude of more than 1300 metres, forming one of the most striking karst landscapes in the whole of Europe.

The grey limestone has been shaped by a peculiar erosive process known as karstic moulding, which is the name given to the chemical reaction on the soluble limestone rock by carbon dioxide in rainwater and ice. El Tornillo rock formation at El Torcal, Spain But you don’t need to be a geologist to appreciate that El Torcal offers a wonderland of limestone structures, rock towers and cliffs with caves, galleries and alleys thrown in.  Even the road up to the Nature Reserve makes for an impressive ride, but nothing can prepare you for your first sight of El Torcal.

You might think that because of the altitude there would be little vegetation, but nature lovers will be in their element. Unsurprisingly there are many types of rock plant, which flourish in the cracks between the rocks, but there are many other interesting plant species including numerous varieties of wild orchid, saxifrage, peonies, wild lilies and roses.

If wildlife is your thing, then look out for geckos, lizards, snakes, wild goats, cattle and many small mammals such as moles, dormice or rabbits. Don’t forget to keep scanning the skies for golden eagles, griffon vultures and kestrels circling overhead. Limestone rock formations at El Torcal Entry is free to El Torcal Nature Reserve and, with no specific opening or closing hours, the park is open to the public anytime. The visitor centre has regular limited opening hours, depending on the time of year, and facilities which include a cafe, gift shop, information desk, exhibition/film area, clean toilets and plenty of free parking.

Even if you have reduced mobility, the road to El Torcal is worth the ride. There is a ramp up to the visitor centre and the viewpoint, “Mirador Las Ventanillas” is only 100 metres away and has level access.  From here you can enjoy a stunning view of the town of Villanueva de la Concepción, the Río Campanillas area, Málaga and, on clear days, you can see the mountains of Morocco, on the African continent. Rock formation at El Torcal From the visitor centre there is a circular, self-guided route, marked with wooden posts which will take you about an hour to complete. For longer routes you need to hire the services of an experienced guide, which can be arranged through the visitor centre.

The paths are not made up, but are simply worn by the feet of humans and animals. You’ll need to pick your way carefully between the rocks or risk a sprained ankle, especially if it has been raining and the rocks are slippery. Sturdy footwear is required and, although you don’t need hiking boots, flip-flops are not suitable.

It’s advisable not to deviate from the paths as it’s easy to get disorientated. Landscape at El Torcal In the summer months the rocks get very hot, radiating their heat so you should take sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water.  During the rest of year, the weather at El Torcal can be cold (well, it is more than 1300 metres) so it’s best to take an extra layer of clothing for warmth.

There’s no doubt that the weather conditions will determine your experience, so you might have to be prepared to return on another day.

As you might imagine, the area can get very crowded during the daytime with coaches full of tourists, so if you are a photographer, an early morning or evening visit away from the well-trodden path makes for magical photographs.

We took a 3-4 hour guided tour in the Nature Reserve with David, a knowledgeable local guide with SenderoSurAventura, who skipped along the paths like a mountain goat. He pointed out many Ammonite fossils (hard-shelled sea creatures that lived more than 200 million years ago) along the way, as well as leading us to areas and enigmatic formations that we would never have found for ourselves.

Popular imagination has defined many of the strange shapes, which have been given such names as El Tornillo (the Screw), Los Cuchillos (The Knives), La Mano (the Hand) and El Sombrerillo (the Little Hat). El Sombrerillo (the Little Hat) at Torcal Early humans and neanderthals inhabited this area for thousands of years and there is evidence that they lived in some of the caves within El Torcal. But this should come as no surprise given the proximity to the ancient dolmens in Antequera and the best-preserved remains of Neanderthal man ever found in Western Europe, in a cave near to the Zafarraya Pass.

My advice: Take a picnic, don’t forget your camera – OH and watch out for dinosaurs!

Have you met Malaga’s sensational Phoenician Goddess?

Phoenician goddess, Malac

Allow me to introduce you …..

This is Malac, also known as Noctiluca, Goddess of the Moon, the night and of fertility.   This beautiful lady cuts a lonely figure as she stands on the promenade in Rincón de la Victoria, gazing longingly at the sea.

Phoenician goddess, Malac, looks out to sea

Her people, the Phoenicians, who were experienced sailors, navigators and traders, founded the settlement of Malaka (which later developed into the city of Málaga) at the mouth of the Guadalhorce River, around 770BC.  

Yes, Málaga’s history can be traced back more than 2,800 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.

Phoenician goddess, Malac in Malaga province, Spain

Málaga’s early inhabitants were mainly engaged in fishing.  They revered their great Goddess, Noctiluca, and worshipped her with offerings and sacrifices at her sanctuary in the present day Cueva del Tesoro (one of only three such marine caves in the world)in Rincón de la Victoria.  

Each year, an image of the deity would be carried in procession and immersed into the sea to provide good fishing for the fishermen.  The Phoenician influence was considerable and many traditions and customs have been bequeathed and continue thousands of years later.  

Phoenician goddess, Malac

To this day, on 16th July each year, sailors and fishermen from villages along the Spanish coast,  parade their statues of the Virgen del Carmen though the streets and introduce her to the sea to bless the waters.

Phoenician goddess, Malac in Malaga province, Spain

The statue of the Phoenician goddess, Malac (Noctiluca) is by well-known Málaga sculptor, Jaime Pimentel.

The divinities may change, but the customs continue.

Malaga: the city that gives you Moore – Henry Moore!

Henry Moore sculpture, Malaga

The Fundación ‘la Caixa’ sponsored exhibition, “Henry Moore: Arte en la Calle” (Henry Moore: Art in the Street) has brought some of Moore’s monumental bronzes to Málaga.

Six of British Surrealist artist, Henry Moore‘s bronze sculptures can be seen on Calle Alcazabilla, in the midst of some of Málaga’s most popular tourist attractions, near to the Alcazaba fortress, the Roman amphitheatre and the old Customs House.

 

Henry Moore sculpture, Malaga

It’s a joy to see these modern pieces against such a historical background.

You only have another two weeks (until June 28th) to view the sculptures in Málaga, before the exhibition moves to other Spanish cities including Santander, Burgos and Pamplona.

Henry Moore sculpture, Malaga

Henry Moore sculpture, Malaga

Henry Moore sculpture, Malaga

Henry Moore would have been delighted that his sculptures are displayed on the streets of Málaga, as he once famously stated: “Sculpture is an art of the open air. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know.”

Which is YOUR favourite?

An Inspector Calls: Only this time it’s Alex Polizzi, the HOTEL Inspector

Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi with Karen and Sarah outside Hotel La Casa

Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi, with Karen and Sarah outside Hotel La Casa in Torrox pueblo. Photo: Twofour/Channel 5

Following last night’s airing of the show as the finale of the current series, I can finally reveal a secret I’ve been bursting to tell you!   Alex Polizzi, also known as “The Hotel Inspector” came calling, east of Malaga and, as someone who knows the area well, I was offered an opportunity to work with her.

The Hotel Inspector is a UK documentary television series featuring hotelier and business-woman, Alex Polizzi, in her quest to turn flagging hotels into profitable ventures. The programme usually features some of Britain’s worst-run hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments, whose owners appear to have no idea how to run a hotel.

So why, you might ask, would the Hotel Inspector come calling in southern Spain?

The background to this particular episode evolves over several years and focuses on two British sisters who, from 2005 to 2008, transformed a dilapidated building in the charming town of Torrox in the foothills of the Sierra Almijara and Tejeda mountains, into a stylish 8-bedroomed boutique hotel.

On the face of it, whether you love mountains, beaches, the hustle and bustle of the big city or the peace and tranquility of a white-washed Andalucían town, this hotel has it all. With spectacular views of the mountains, proximity to blue-flag beaches, many interesting places to visit nearby, being only a 40 minute drive from Malaga’s vibrant city and airport and, to cap it all, the town of Torrox is officially recognised at having the best climate in Europe.

However, soon after the doors of La Casa hotel opened to guests in 2008, the global economic downturn took hold, resulting in a fall in tourism and leaving the sisters struggling financially. Despite working long hours, the situation has changed little in the intervening years, with occupancy rates still low.

The cast of characters in this particular three-act drama includes British-expat sisters, Sarah Melton and Karen Atkinson, (with a quiet, behind-the-scenes role played by Sarah’s husband, Neil); Hotel Inspector Alex Polizzi; various international journalists and bloggers from such publications as Condé Nast and The Telegraph; Andalucía-based luxury travel writer, Andrew Forbes …. oh, and Yours Truly!

Alex, Sarah and travel writer Andrew Forbes on the terrace at La Casa Hotel

Alex, Sarah and travel writer Andrew Forbes on the terrace at La Casa Hotel

ACT ONE involved one of the sisters getting in touch with the show after seeing an advert in a local English language newspaper on the lookout for expat hoteliers. After being chosen to feature in the programme, the hotel was visited by Alex Polizzi together with a camera crew, to make her assessment of how to transform the hotel’s fortunes.

It soon became apparent that La Casa was not the usual type of establishment featured on The Hotel Inspector and, in this particular case, the problem appeared to be the marketing and branding of the hotel (and the local area), rather than its service and quality.

ACT TWO began towards the end of March 2015 and featured the return of Ms Polizzi and her camera crew, together with a string of travel writers, in an attempt to market the area to them.

At the same time, the hotel was being rebranded with the launch of a new website, logo and promotional literature, plus the main players were interviewed on local radio about La Casa featuring on the Hotel Inspector show.

ACT THREE saw the sisters leading the group of journalists around some of the delights of Torrox village, as well as giving a taste of what this ideal location has to offer today’s more discerning traveller.

Our tour began in the main square of the village before moving on to the local Nevaillo olive oil factory where we were given a demonstration of how the oil is produced and bottled.

Next, we were whisked back-in-time to the 17th century hamlet of El Acebuchal – known locally as The Lost Village where, after a brief look around, we headed to the local tavern where we were treated to a sumptuous tasting-menu featuring home-made bread, tropical salads, wild boar, venison and chicken. Antonio's tavern, El Acebuchal Our final stop of the day was a guided tour of the famous caves in Nerja, discovered by five boys in 1959 and which has now become one of the most visited attractions in Spain.

After a brief rest and just enough time for a shower, our evening continued back at La Casa hotel with a delicious A La Carte dinner. The menu was extensive with a choice to suit all tastes including antipasto, prawns pil-pil, pork with mushrooms, oven-baked cod and lamb shanks followed by such delights as “icky-sticky pudding” and platters of Spanish cheeses and hams.

Of course, every step of the way, we were filmed and interviewed about what we had seen and experienced. At first this proved rather daunting, but it was amazing how quickly you got used to having a fluffy sound microphone hovering over your head and/or having a camera crew nearby.

It was an absolute delight working with Alex Polizzi who is a lovely lady and comes across just as naturally as she does on TV.  She is outgoing, very friendly and willing to pose for endless photos or exchange a few words with people who recognised her from the show.

Gaudi room at Hotel La Casa

Gaudi room at Hotel La Casa

La Casa hotel features seven individually designed double/twin rooms (mine was named Gaudi, after the famous Spanish architect) and a spacious suite with a private terrace. The en-suite rooms are comfortable and spotlessly clean with A/C for cooling or warmth, whatever the season.

There is a beautiful sun terrace with amazing views of the mountains and valley, a bistro restaurant serving delicious food and, rave reviews from people who have stayed have earned this #1 rated hotel in Torrox a Travellers’ Award on TripAdvisor for the past four years.

Early morning view from La Casa

Early morning view of the mountains from La Casa’s terrace

From 5th June, the hotel’s restaurant (also used by many people not staying as guests) will be moving to a new venue in the main square of Torrox, so if you are in the village, I’d certainly recommend a visit.

Karen and Sarah are attentive hosts, and whilst I arrived as a guest we parted as friends – testimony of which is obvious by the many people who return to stay at La Casa hotel, year after year.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish Karen, Sarah and Neil all the best with Hotel La Casa and their new venture – the restaurant which will open shortly in Torrox village.

La Casa hotel is situated at Calle Baja, Plazuela de Barajas 3, just off the main square of Torrox village, with free parking nearby.   Telephone: (0034) 95253 5471    Website: www.hotellacasatorrox.com 

Disclaimer: Whilst I stayed at the hotel as a guest of La Casa Hotel/Twofour Productions, I was not asked to write any reviews or recommendations in return. Any views expressed here are my own, and I am happy to do so because I enjoyed my stay and would genuinely recommend a visit to the hotel or restaurant.

Come and visit La Axarquía, east of Málaga – it’s the AUTHENTIC Spain you’ve been looking for!

A Peep-show for 20 cents? I know just the place!

Near to the entrance of the old part of the village of Frigiliana is this rather splendid coin-in-the-slot “mechanical theatre”, known as La Casita de Información y La Fantasía (The House of Information and Fantasy).   You might remember these old-fashioned machines from when you were a child – you know the kind, where your coin makes the clown inside laugh manically?

Well, the one in Frigiliana isn’t an old machine, but a more modern version, crafted in the old-style way by a collaboration of artists known as Arte-matico de Bernado y Amigos.  

There are two quite large mechanical theatres back-to-back within the casita, both featuring marionettes, with one entitled “The Moor and his Parrot” and the other “Carmen and Dolores”.   If you were to put your 1 Euro coin into the slot (it’s 2 Euros if you’re a millionaire!), the former will talk about the history of Frigiliana, whilst Carmen and Dolores, depicting two old ladies from the village, chat together about “the good old days”.

So, what about the peep-show, I hear your scream?

Blue door with peep shows, Frigiliana

Look out for this blue door on Calle Alta (and notice the sign on the wall up the side street)

Well, you’ll have to climb up the steps to the upper part of Frigiliana and, as you wander along Calle Alta, keep a look out for this blue door.  

Can you see the peep-holes?

This time you have a choice of two peep-shows in the door – El Milagro de La Vida (The Wonder of Life) or La Esfera Mágica de Cristal (The Magic Crystal), and the good news is, that even if you are a millionaire, the price is just 20 cents!

The third show, to the right of the blue door will set you back 50 cents (also with no additional cost for rich folk) and this is called The Marvellous Seaview (Merveilleuse vue sur mer).

 Did you notice the sign on the wall, up the side street beside the blue door?

Well, here is the fourth (and final) peep-show in the upper part of Frigiliana village – The Fantastic Harem (Harem Fantastico).  This time, for us poor folk, the cost is 50 cents, (there is a reduced rate of 20 cents – but it’s not very clear how you qualify for that), whilst once again, the millionaires have to pay one Euro.

So there you have it!

What’s the cheapest peep-show YOU’VE ever seen?  On second thoughts – don’t answer that!