November 1st is celebrated with a national holiday each year in Spain, as Todos los Santos (All Saints´ day). Cemeteries will be packed with families paying their respects to loved ones who have gone before them.
November 1st is celebrated with a national holiday each year in Spain, as Todos los Santos (All Saints´ day). Cemeteries will be packed with families paying their respects to loved ones who have gone before them.
As we have discovered previously, everyday life can be very different, depending on your choice of location within the Axarquía. Let’s assume there are broadly three main area choices – the coastal zone (la costa), the inland villages (los pueblos) and the open countryside (known locally as “el campo”), giving plenty of opportunity to choose the landscape that best suits your needs.
Each area has its devotees and all offer advantages.
In this series of articles entitled “Coast, Villages or Countryside” we are exploring each in turn, to give you a flavour of what you can realistically expect in the various landscapes. We have looked at the coastal areas and the inland villages, so now we will consider what holidays, or more permanent life, is like in the countryside.
The only way to refer to the open countryside around here is “el campo”, which will be understood by all Spaniards and most foreign residents.
Throughout the Axarquía region, to the east of the city of Málaga, there is almost no flat land (other than near the coast), so the countryside will be either hilly or mountainous. Most people live on the slopes of hills and valleys which run eventually to the sea. This means that from lots of places you can find country houses and villas offering stunning views down the valleys to the Mediterranean Sea in one direction, and back inland towards lofty mountain peaks in the other.
The altitude above sea level will have an effect on average temperature and the kind of plants that can be grown in gardens. Anything up to 500 or 600 metres above sea level still gives Mediterranean weather all year round, and a whole range of citrus trees and avocados can be grown, together with the typical long-established crops of olives, grapes and almond trees. Indeed, these latter three crops can be grown at higher altitudes in areas with quite cold winter weather, as it is very high summer temperatures that is needed for successful fruiting.
Many country houses come with substantial land attached, often ranging from 2,500 square metres to 10,000 square metres or more. This gives plenty of opportunity for growing your own vegetables, or a range of fruit trees and plants, which cannot easily be grown in more northern climates.
The available land area means that most campo houses have plenty of parking space as well as their own private swimming pool, which you would not have in a village house, or would likely have to share in a coastal apartment or development.
You might also find that house prices are generally a bit lower than on the coast, but this is not always the case.
Country houses might be the traditional cortijo or finca, or a more modern house often referred to as a villa. If you are considering buying a holiday home in the countryside, you might need to think about getting someone to look after your land and pool in your absence.
Much of the countryside in the Axarquía region is terraced, and apart from the grapes, almonds and olives you will increasingly see avocados and mangoes being grown, due to the sub-tropical climate. In January and February, the pink almond blossom is spectacular and, as the year progresses, the wildflowers are pretty special too.
The countryside around the Axarquía is largely unspoiled with large areas of protected natural park land. You will see age-old traditions such as grapes being hand-picked, and men with long sticks whacking the olive trees for their fruit. There is no mechanisation here due to the terrain, so you can still see bullocks ploughing the fields, and mules carrying their loads.
As far as services go, there are no postal deliveries in the campo, so we have a post box at the Post Office in the village, as well as having to take all of our rubbish to the waste disposal and recycling bins. There are no landline telephones because of the mountainous landscape, but don’t worry, mobile phones, satellite TV and wifi internet are available. I’ve mentioned in my Cost of Living in Spain reports that we don’t have piped gas in this area, but bottles of butane and propane gas can be easily and cheaply purchased from a variety of outlets.
Living in the countryside means that you will enjoy a virtually noise-free existence except for maybe the distant bleating of goats, which are kept in pens around the hills, and can be heard over several kilometres. True peace and quiet are the norm here, as are the usually clear skies which, at night, give spectacular views of more stars than you ever thought possible. If you have not been used to seeing the stars, satellites tracking across the skies, or the Milky Way without light pollution, then you are in for a real treat.
As you travel away from the coast and into the campo you will notice that there are dozens of white houses scattered about the hillsides, each far enough away from the neighbours to maintain peace but near enough, usually, to be able to keep in contact as much as you wish to. In our experience there seems to be an understanding between neighbouring households that in the event that help is needed, for example if you suffer vehicle trouble, there is a reciprocal offer of assistance always available.
At first sight you might wonder how all these houses are reached but closer inspection shows that tracks have been cut across the landscape. It has to be said that these tracks vary in quality, some being well surfaced in tarmac or concrete, some being compacted stony earth but still easy to drive on, and others which are quite rough – and for these, you would probably need a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
It will be obvious that should you choose one of these country houses, you will need access to a vehicle because to reach the necessities of life always involves a drive, but that usually gives an opportunity to have a look at a different landscape, visit a favourite tapas bar and drop off your rubbish or collect your post whilst you are out.
We have chosen to live in the countryside for the past ten years, and have discovered that the simple joy of looking after a sub-tropical garden, picking fresh lemons, limes and oranges, together with the fabulous birds and insects we see is enough to convince us that, for the time being at least, we have made the best choice for us. We can, and frequently do, travel the few kilometres to the closest villages or the coast to have a change of outlook, but how we love to return to the tranquillity that the Axarquían countryside offers.
How evocative does a beautiful summer afternoon sound, spent with friends having lunch on your terrace, with many kilometres of open land in front of you and the ever-sparkling Mediterranean Sea at the bottom of what seems like your very own valley?
Of course, countryside implies wildlife, and you will likely see kestrels, hoopoes, buzzards, bee-eaters as well as foxes, various lizards and praying mantis amongst many other strange creatures you might never even identify. As we are driving to the village or down to the coast along the winding mountain roads, we regularly come across herds of goats, moving from one pasture to another. Many expats who live here permanently will tell you about stray dogs turning up on their doorsteps. We hadn’t been here long when our little “campo dog” appeared, ready to adopt us! But, what joy and love he brought with him.
So, there you have it – the choice is yours – coast, villages or countryside. Best of all, come to this little patch of paradise, east of Málaga, away from the high-rise developments and spend some time in all the locations on offer. Why limit yourself to just one type of landscape when there is so much to offer?
If you were tempted to come back for longer or even to come and live here permanently, my suggestion would be to rent a place first for a few months and get around to see as much as possible. Once you have spent sunny, warm autumn and winter days when you know that in northern Europe there is wind, rain and damp greyness, you will know just how fortunate we are to be living in such a special place as La Axarquía.
As you might imagine, life can be very different, depending on your choice of location to visit or live. Always worth considering is that most of the Axarquía region, to the east of the city of Málaga, 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 (la costa), the inland villages (los pueblos) and the open countryside (known locally as “el campo”). Each has its fans and all offer advantages or disadvantages, depending on what you are looking for.
In this series of articles entitled “Axarquia: Coast, Villages or Countryside” we are exploring 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.
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. Every house is whitewashed in the traditional way using slaked lime (which is a white dust) mixed with salt and water and then painted onto the houses. This is a cheap and durable alternative to paint, and 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.
The rooves of these village houses are typically covered with red or brown tiles.
Many of these ancient villages date back many centuries and were mostly originated by the Moors, who came over from North Africa and formed the Moorish kingdom of Al-Ándalus in this part of Iberia, between 700 and 800 AD. They resided here until driven out by the Catholic armies almost 700 years later.
The Moors were an advanced race who introduced many of the ingredients now typically used in Spanish dishes – such as rice, saffron and almonds. 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 to one side giving access to a semi-basement, which would have been the place where livestock would have been kept.
Mules are still used in many of the villages as a means of transporting goods up the steeper streets, where there may be no access for vehicles.
What is true of most Spanish cities and large towns is also true here, with the church usually forming the focal point of the village, often with a nearby square, called La Plaza. Wherever there is a square there are cafés, bars and local shops nearby. Of course, facilities vary from village to village regarding gift shops and the like, but usually there will be many places selling local produce and groceries. I’m always intrigued when I see a little shop in someone’s living room!
Most villages have a visiting street market each week, where local traders sell a wide variety of goods including freshly-picked fruit and vegetables.
You’ll no doubt find the doctor’s surgery or Health Centre, a school, the Post Office – which will probably only open for a couple of hours in a morning, plus a variety of shops and bars. You may be surprised to discover perhaps, that in even quite remote villages it would be very unusual not to get good quality coffee, wine or beer and a good range of tapas or more substantial meals – often at a cheaper price and with no interruption from the sunglasses/fake DVD sellers you encounter down on the coast.
Many villages have their own speciality produce, for example Periana has delicious 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). Some areas around the village of Cómpeta are well known for their sweet Moscatel grapes, most of which are used to produce the local wine, but many are dried in large open-air drying beds under the late summer sun and sold as pasas, which are large juicy raisins.
During recent years, many people from other parts of Europe have discovered these inland areas and, for some, seeking this kind of life has resulted in many white villages now have quite substantial cosmopolitan populations.
For the largest expat communities here in the Axarquía (usually, but not exclusively northern Europeans), 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 I said they were looking for a more authentic Spain, it might make it clear what is meant.
The English language is not as widely spoken as down on the coast, so 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 (even if you make lots of mistakes), you will find that your efforts are appreciated. You will be rewarded by friendly neighbours, 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.
One thing common to life in Spain is noise. Not unpleasant or offensive, but the commotion of life that the Mediterranean races generate. Motor bikes (motos) are one such source, but just as common is any excuse for a fiesta or the setting-off of fireworks. How the Spanish love their fiestas and, living so close to your neighbours, you can’t help but join in to feel a real part of the community.
Families and friends might stop to have a chat or admire a baby, and if that happens to be in a shop doorway, then so be it – you wait. Deliveries have to be made by vans and trucks where 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 – you wait, 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 more later”.
Life here is very civilized and public mis-behaviour is a rarity. Maybe this is because children and teenagers never get the run of public places, like they do in the UK. 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.
You’ll never find any 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. Most people will say hello as you pass them.
There is a strong sense of community, with everyone coming together to celebrate fiestas, carnivals and religious events. Family bonding here is, in many ways, like stepping back in time – by fifty years.
Life is simpler.
You might need to bear in mind that 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 mornings.
Not so long 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.
As I mentioned in my previous article about the coastal region, most major Spanish supermarkets, shopping centres and the cinema are nearer to the coast and as far as public transport from the inland villages goes, there may only be a couple of buses each day, down to the coast or Málaga – so it’s probably better if you have access to your own car, or at the very least, know the bus schedules before you make your decision.
This kind of authentic lifestyle suits many expats and visitors, where money tends to go further when buying or renting property than on coast.
Pretty much anywhere in the Axarquía is less than one hour to Málaga airport, and half an hour at most from the beach. Good roads mean that within a couple of hours you can be in Granada, Ronda or Córdoba and there is a constantly developing range of rural activities being offered to visitors including horse riding, cross country expeditions on motorbikes and bicycles, hiking and much more. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and usually accessible for walking.
Even if you would still prefer to base yourself near the coast, you would be missing a great deal of what I 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.
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I receive a lot of messages from East of Málaga readers, either on the blog or over at my Facebook page. It seems that many folks think I know pretty much everything there is to know about Spain!! It’s absolutely not true, of course, but I have lived here in the Axarquía region, to the east of Málaga city for almost ten years, so I guess I do know a few things.
However, another frequently asked question is about where is the best place to rent or buy a house. This week I received the following message:
“We’re all booked for 10 day holiday to Cómpeta in October, viewing properties in Malaga, Torre del Mar and Cómpeta. So this week I’m searching the internet and organising viewings. My problem is we can’t decide where to buy – countryside, city or seaside! I was hoping for some guidance.”
It’s a valid question – so let’s see what I can do to help.
As you might imagine, life can be very different, depending on your choice of location. Worth bearing in mind from the start is that almost all of the Axarquía region, and Andalucía in general, 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.
Even though it’s an over-simplification, but let´s say, for the sake of argument that there are three main choices of area – the coastal zone (la 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” I will explore each in turn, to give you a flavour of what you can realistically expect in the various landscapes. Who knows, I might even get around to writing about what it’s like to live in the city of Málaga, too!
First, let’s look at what is perhaps the most obvious choice for many, and particularly for first-time visitors, the coast. It would probably be more accurate to describe it as the coastal fringe, as many of the hills plunge right down to the sea with wider, flatter areas in between, where valleys run down to the coast.
In times gone by, most coastal villages and towns were fishing communities, given that the Mediterranean Sea provides a plentiful and varied supply of fish and sea food. Fortunately this tradition continues today, with a substantial fishing fleet at the port of Málaga as well as in nearby Caleta de Vélez, situated between Torre del Mar and Nerja.
As a result, all of the coastal areas have a large number of chiringuitos, which are beachside restaurants, often constructed right on the beach. Chiringuitos always offer a great range of fish and seafood on their menus, which would typically include fried pieces of cod (bacalao) in a lovely light batter, Dorada (gilt-head bream) cooked to perfection over a wood fire, as well as the local Málaga speciality of sardines (espetos de sardines). Don´t be put off by those dreadful tinned sardines they sell in Britain – these are the real deal – skewered on bamboo spikes and cooked next to a blazing wood fire. You might also like to try Rosada a la plancha, which is a succulent grilled fish, often flavoured with garlic. Absolutely delicious and one of my favourites!
Chiringuitos are also the place to try out the world-famous paella. Everyone knows of this flavoursome Spanish dish which, even though it originated in Valencia, is cooked to perfection all along the coast of the Axarquía. Even though most people will have heard of paella, dishes do vary from one place to another, some leaning towards chicken or pork as the base meat, but mostly on the coast you can expect plenty of fish, large prawns (gambas) and shellfish. I’ve never had one I didn’t like!
There are bars and cafés on nearly every corner in towns and villages, in fact all along the eastern Costa del Sol you will never be far from a bar. Fortunately, bars and cafés as well as tapas bars and chiringuitos, are largely interchangeable. It´s unusual to find people going into a bar merely to drink. Beer, wine, fino sherry or coffee are just one part of the combined eating and drinking culture, and luckily the Spanish and most long-term residents seem to have this well-balanced. It is rare to see things get out of hand.
A typical “snap-shot” view almost anywhere along this relaxed coastline is likely to be of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, rarely more than gently rolling waves, sandy shores with plenty to do, sun beds for hire with the usual sun-shades in all the tourist areas, many wonderful places to eat freshly-prepared food of consistently high quality and a climate which is reputed to be the best in Europe.
Talking of climate, something that you might not have thought of when you are considering where to visit or live is that the temperature can differ by a few degrees from the coastal areas to some of the inland villages. This is not surprising really, given that some of the villages in Andalucía are situated more than 700 metres above sea level, but it might be an influencing factor to your decision about where to live or visit if you knew that a particular village was colder in the winter or hotter in the summer than the coast.
No matter whether you spend your time at the coast or inland it is as well to know that the major supermarkets are usually situated along the coastal area. Both Spanish and German chains are represented, for example with Eroski, Mercadona and Supersol from Spain, as well as Aldi and Lidl from Germany, each one having their own appeal.
As well as supermarkets there is a larger range of shops near the coast than elsewhere and substantial indoor shopping centres are available on the outskirts of Torre del Mar and at Rincón de la Victoria, with cinemas and other entertainment options at each location. The Axarquía’s only Carrefour supermarket can be found at the shopping centre at Rincón de la Victoria.
On the topic of shopping and extra facilities, you should not overlook the provincial capital city, Málaga, also on the coast. There is the recently refurbished city market, Mercado Central de Atarazanas, as well as large branches of the Spanish departmental store, El Corte Inglés. Naturally, the city is also home to a fantastic range of tapas bars, sporting facilities, art galleries and entertainment.
One thing you should be aware of is that although May to October is the main holiday season, the seaside in this part of the world can, and often does, provide really warm sunny days all year round – in fact, around 320 of them!. We enjoy lovely sunny days in January and February, although the weather is not quite as dependable around this time of year. A common feature during the winter months, not only on the coast but also inland, might be to have a couple of days with rain and some wind, after which the weather reverts to clear sunny days once again.
The main beach resorts east of Málaga are much more low-key than some on the western Costa del Sol, but make no mistake, they each have their charms, and are worthy of a visit, though they do still tend to get crowded in July and August.
Have a look on a local map and you will see Rincón de la Victoria, Torre del Mar (which is very popular with Spanish tourists), and Torrox Costa, a lovely smaller town (very popular with Germans). Near to the easterly limit of Málaga province is the delightful town of Nerja, with few high-rise buildings, still retaining its quaint narrow streets in the centre, and popular with British holiday makers.
Fortunately, all the towns and villages along the coastal strip are easy to travel between, due to two excellent and largely uncongested roads running roughly parallel with each other – the N340 coastal road, and the wonderfully named Autovía del Mediterraneo, which is the motorway. Each of these roads connect the coastal region of the Axarquía direct to Málaga and the airport. If you don´t have a car available to you, there is a frequent (an inexpensive) bus service run by a company called ALSA, to get you back and forth if you choose.
Another thing to bear in mind about the coastal areas is that the land is flat. As I mentioned at the start of this article, the Axarquía is generally a mountainous area with beautiful valleys running down from the inland mountains to the coast. By the sea, there are lovely flat promenades and public gardens along many of the coastal towns and villages, which might be important to you if you have any problems with mobility.
Family holidays or a place to live, along a beautiful coastline, without rowdyism, with great facilities and fabulous food – East of Málaga is as good as it gets.
Next time I’ll look at the inland villages in more detail.