Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Mijas Pueblo

Off to the garage The Beast goes
Nestled into the foothills of the Sierra de Mijas is one of Andalucía’s well-known pueblos blancos or white villages. Just 8 kilometres from Fuengirola the village of Mijas has become a popular tourist destination. We had planned to arrive in the relative cool of the morning, take in the sights and then move on to the lesser visited but just as interesting Coín, but fate intervened. With steam issuing forth from the bonnet of The Beast I had no option other than to pull over and wait for the grua (Spanish equivalent of the AA/RAC but not as speedy and less likely to fix your vehicle) to tow my sickly vehicle to the garage. As luck would have it a friend was passing by and after waiting for help we were ferried to Mijas in a working car (many thanks Jan).

There was a settlement on the site of modern Mijas in prehistoric times. It became known as Tamisa during the Roman occupation and was a stopping point on the trade route between Málaga and Cádiz. Later Mijas came under the rule of the Moors and resisted the Catholic Kings attempts to remove the Moors from the peninsula and restore the country to Catholicism during the siege of Málaga in 1487. Eventually surrendering, and with many of the inhabitants sold as slaves, the village changed its allegiance and stayed loyal to the crown earning the title of ‘Muy Leal’ (very loyal) during the Revolt of the Comuneros a few years later. Evidence of all these parts of Mijas’ history are still there to be enjoyed along with the more modern industries of papermaking and of course tourism.

Fería decoration 
Dropped off at the entrance to the village we passed through a garishly decorated turreted arch that was a leftover from the village’s fería of the week before when the patron saint, Virgen de la Peña, was celebrated with flamenco, music and a party atmosphere. It was to her shrine that we made our way, past the burro (donkey) taxis. As with all legends there is conflict over the dates of discovery, miracles and attendant acts concerned with the shrine but the general consensus is that for five centuries an image of the Virgin Mary was hidden within the outcrop/hermitage/tower only being discovered when two shepherd boys were led there by a dove. It is now an intimate place of worship.
Shrine of the Virgen de la Pena

Donkey at rest
When tourism first hit the village of Mijas the men who returned from work on their burros were often stopped to have their photograph taken and the tips were generous compared to the daily wage they were earning at the time. With an entrepreneurial spirit they set up the Donkey Taxis which have become a tourist favourite. In recent years, after complaints of sick and maltreated donkeys the Refugio del Burrito (Donkey Sanctuary) have become involved and now monitor the well-being of the donkeys. I am all for seeing working animals worked so long as they are well-cared for.

Past the Miniature Museum, which houses a collection of miniatures once owned by a hypnotist known as Professor Max, we reached the Plaza de la Constitucíon. The fountain and benches were created from marble rocks that were deposited in the village after the flood of 1884. Restaurants and shops line the edge and walking through the shopping area we were stood at one of the viewing points of the village. The panaroma of the town and port of Fuengirola below with the Mediterranean Sea stretching out before us is worth taking the camera for. Sadly it was a rather hazy day on the coast so our pictures were not as effective as they could have been.
Plaza de la Constitucíon

I made a fatal mistake as far as my waistline is concerned by stopping in the chocolate factory, Mayan Monkey Mijas, which sits in the Constitution Square. Eli, the proprietress is knowledgeable and enthusiastic and as well as chocolates (of which you must try) there are smoothies and ice-creams and other chocolate influenced products to enjoy. If you want to avoid the sun for any time there are also short courses where you can make your very own chocolates that you get to take home; an interesting alternative to some of the more run of the mill activities on the Costa. With taste bids tingling from a ginger and chilli chocolate we climbed up the slope to the Plaza del Toros.
View of the Bullring from the 'sol' side 

View from the 'sombra' side, the Presidencia seat,
of the Church of the Immaculate Conception
Built in 1900 the bullring is a rather cosy affair and boasts of being unusual in having an oval form rather than the standard round ones. Fights are still staged there (I shall not get into a discussion of the whys and wherefores of bullfighting here, that is for another day) with tickets available for sol (sun) or ssombra (shade), and attached to the ring is a similarly small museum of bullfighting. Looking at the size of the matadors costumes these chaps are also on the small side. The view from the president’s seat in the bullring takes in the village rooftops, the Shrine of the Calvario which is on the side of the mountain and reached by a walk through thick woodland and the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the old defensive walls that sit next to the ring.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception is the Parish Church of Mijas and was built on the site of the Moorish castle. Three naves are supported by columns at the top of which are what looked at first glance to be copies of pictures stuck on as added decoration but are in fact frescoes of the apostles dating back to approximately 1632, a year after the church was completed. The frescoes were re-discovered during renovation works in the 1990s. We took lunch by the fountains outside the church in the shade of the trees. The central fountain has a changing display which made for a pretty spectacle with the dappled light dancing off of the water spumes. A bird poo-ed on us as we ate which, despite meaning I had to forego some of my pate on toast, I took to be a sign of good luck (which indeed it was as only a water pump had to be replaced on my car rather than a whole engine which was feared).

We wandered along the old walls past numerous scraggy cats afflicted with all sorts of mange, back through the Plaza de la Constitucíon and to San Sebastian church and the surrounding streets. The streets are cobbled and narrow giving a true feeling of the village as it would have been. With little time to spare as we needed to catch the bus and get back to the garage for a diagnosis on the car we were unable to view the Caves of the Old Forge or the Casa Museo (Folk Museum) both of which give an insight into the Mijas of old.

We caught the bus from opposite the town’s Ayuntamiento (town hall) back to Fuengirola, they also go to Benalmádena and Torremolinos, for the very reasonable sum of €1.45 each. I enjoyed returning to Mijas, a village that continues to embrace new ventures whilst still retaining some of its old world charm. There is something for everyone here and if the timing is right you can enjoy free Flamenco dances in the Plaza Virgen de la Peña (usually on a Tuesday) or purchase some of the local pottery and leather goods that are available in many of the shops. It is a pleasant change from the beach and more obvious tourist traps of the coast.


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Saturday, 15 September 2012


One of Ronda's iconic images - Puente Nuevo

 Pine trees gripped onto the orange boulder-strewn sides as we curled up the mountain. The sea, once a hazy ribbon, became a memory hidden behind the peaks. As we snaked around the valleys into the Serranía Ronda the trees thinned to be replaced by shrubs amongst which could be seen the odd sheep grazing. The rocks took on a greyer hue as we neared the town of Ronda in the Andalucían province of Málaga, with areas of flat land dressed with weathered rocks. Life became more evident with a few small hotels and restaurants grouped at crossroads as we approached the outcrop of rock on which Ronda sits.

A billy goat chewed nonchalantly on a shrub next to a shrine, impassive as the bus sailed past him. Then in front of us the sprawling white town of Ronda, larger than I remembered from previous visits, sat perched as if a spaceship had landed and remained. On the outskirts a huge hospital is being built, or at least the shell is there but no workmen were evident and I wonder whether there is money enough to finish it, and housing estates have sprung up like mushrooms. The other side of the road remained farmland with farmsteads dotted about the land.

Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with origins in Prehistory. The caves of Pileta are one of the most significant monuments from prehistory with its Stone Age art whilst other megalithic monuments are scattered about. Closer in history are the Roman remains which can be found dotted around the area including the town of Acinipo. There was not time enough, restricted as we were by bus timetables, to hire a taxi to take us to the town but there are the remains of the theatre that make it a worthwhile excursion if already in the Ronda area. It was under the Moorish influence that Ronda attained its status and some of its most impressive architecture. Ronda became one of the capitals of the five coras of Al-Andalus.

Convent of Mercy
The walk from the bus station took us through the new part of the town past the seventeenth century Church of La Merced which is said to house the ‘incorrupt hand’ of St. Theresa de Jesus and to the 19th century Alameda del Tajo Park. Consisting of tree-lined avenues the views from the balconies are worth a look. Along one avenue there is a celebration of 75 years of the Sur newspaper. It was interesting to see the front page coverages of the end of the Second World War, man landing on the moon and Franco’s funeral. From there it was only a few yards to one of the greatest symbols of the romantic era of Ronda – the Plaza de Toros.

The bullring has been recognised as the first purpose-built spaces for the fighting of bulls in the world. The first bullfight took place in 1785 in the ring that is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of Tuscan columns. The bullring also hosts museums of Antique firearms, harness and livery collections as well as to bullfighting and the riding school and stables of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda. The bull is not forgotten. A sculpture of the magnificent beast stands outside one of the puertas. Next to the bull was a chap with his horse (which looked bored beyond belief) ready to take money from tourists willing to shell out €2 to sit on his horse, waving his hat in the air, whilst their travelling companions took a photo. He did a relatively good trade during the early hours but when we returned in the early afternoon sun, when most sensible people were sat in the shade or taking lunch, both he and the horse looked as if they would rather be anywhere else.

The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most recognisable of the Ronda monuments as it spans the depth of the gorge. It is quite an extraordinary feat of engineering. The first attempt at a crossing at this part of the gorge, there were already two earlier bridges one from Arab times and the second from the seventeenth century (the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge), was begun in 1735. It consisted of one large arch and took eight months to build but only lasted for six years. The second and remaining attempt was started in 1758 and was finally completed in 1787. The opening of the bridge changed the nature of the city with the Muslim medina being replaced by the modern Mercadillo with life revolving around the Plaza de España which sits next to the Puente Nuevo. For €2 you enter the bridge where there are displays on the history of the bridge and the birds that live in and around it. It is also good to get another view from the bridge though understandably one is not allowed to open the windows to take a picture.

Over the Puente Nuevo and a cobbled street leads down towards the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King), the Arab Baths, and the Old and Arab bridges. The Casa del Rey Moro was described on our tourist map as containing “Impressive Islamic work” which I took to be tiles, arches and decoration as well as the stylish gardens that one can see at palaces like the Alhambra in Granada and Alcazaba in Málaga. I was disappointed. The casa has fallen into serious disrepair with foliage growing out of the roof, the majority of the windows smashed and broken and little sign of anything remotely Islamic from the outside. This is because it is a fraud. It had never been the home to a Moorish king having been constructed in the eighteenth century when the time of the Moorish kings was but a distant memory. The gardens are even more modern having been designed by the Frenchman Forestier in 1912 along Moorish lines. They are quiet gardens offering shade in which it is pleasant to take a rest from the hot sun but the whole affair is tired and crumbling. The part of the gardens which is truly Moorish is La Mina Secreta but it requires lungs and legs that do not mind descending and then ascending a steep winding staircase of uneven steps that is poorly lit. One lady who was catching her breath at the top informed us that there were 194 steps to the bottom. I took her word for it as I concentrated on not breaking my neck as I made my descent (I am not goat-like in surety of foot).
Casa del Rey Moro
The descent

La Mina Secreta, a place to reflect
At the bottom of the steps is part of the river Guadelevin which barely flows but resembles a small lagoon from the bent and rickety metal platform upon which you stand. The water has a green turquoise hue to it with fish and crayfish living in its shallows and only the calls of the birds nesting in the gorge’s walls to disturb a time of quiet contemplation. Here you dream of a Moorish harem enjoying the cool waters or a princess enjoying time away from the court but the reality would have been something different. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Ronda was caught in the crossfire between the Christians of Sevilla and the Moors of Granada and was frequently besieged. In the hot mountains of Andalucía the first target would have been the water supply. It is rumoured that the Moorish king Abolmelic used Christian slaves to cut the original steps down to the gorge in order that water could be brought up. The name La Mina Secreta, Secret Mine, would intimate that the stairway was a secret but as the Christians were known to say that “In Ronda you die carrying water skins” it must have been a very open secret.

We passed by a number of chambers built adjacent to the stairway including the Sala de Secretos (Room of Secrets), Terraza de la Conquista (Terrace of the Conquest) and Sala de las Armas (Armoury Room). Sadly I did not know at the time that the Sala de Secretos, which had formerly been another well, is a room in which a whisper made in one corner can be heard in the opposite corner but not by anybody stood in the middle; I like to try these things out for myself! The reason for not knowing: the only leaflets available were those in French and German and as between the two of us we can speak four languages we were rather unfortunate to be stuck with the only leaflets we could not understand.

The Learner Driver approaches the Philipe V arch
Down the hill to the arch of Philipe V and the Arab Baths we walked on a cobbled street so worn that the stones shone. Cars sped up the hill which they had no option to do as stopping would not be a wise move on a hill so steep, beeping at the corners to give tourists time to move out of the way. Incredibly a Learner driver was being initiated in the ‘driving with foot to the floor’ style of motoring, and unfortunately for her when she failed on the lower part of the hill to maintain momentum, on hill-start motoring as well. The learner smiled broadly as her instructor encouraged more power and an abandonment that would send UK instructors to the nearest asylum.

The Arab Baths were not worth their €3 entrance fee. 90% of the baths could be photographed from the road, informative signs were almost non-existent and the garden area that I assume was meant to resemble a Moorish garden was a forlorn example of horticulture with a couple of sad young almond trees, a few thriving rosemary bushes and plethora of dried and dying weeds filling the spaces between the pathways. A screen was playing a history lesson on bathing culture in one the rooms. The couple who stayed to watch it for a second time must have determined that they were going to get their money’s worth as well as take respite from the now beating sun.
Arab Baths, Ronda

Climbing the gorge, having crossed over the Puente Viejo, we were able to see the full extent of the dilapidation of the Moorish King’s house. I find it sad to see once elegant buildings fall into disrepair especially when money is coming into the coffers in some form or another. Having reached the Puente Nuevo once again we crossed over but this time made a right turn towards the Mondragón Palace past the Casa de Don Bosco. Our luck was in as it was a free entrance day into the palace which houses the headquarters of the Museum of Ronda.

Mondragón Palace

The building is an example of the Mudéjar style of architecture. Mudéjar is a symbiosis of Muslim and Christian cultures that is shown in architectural ways. The buildings were mainly of brick and interpreted Christian styles with an Islamic influence. The courtyards with their arches and galleries link the different areas of the palace and lead out into the gardens which also offer views across the plains and the gorge. The museum has displays on the history of the area, funeral rites and the Roman town of Ancipio. It is an informative and attractive palace to visit.

As the time drew near for us to start our walk back to the bus station we took the scenic route via Saint Mary’s Church. Dating from the fifteenth century it had been the principal mosque before being converted into a church by Fernando ‘El Catolico’.  The only remaining element of that time is the arch of Mirhab and part of its walls which is hidden behind the tabernacle’s altar. Part of the Gothic style of the original church is retained through the columns and arches (part of the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1580). We did not feel inclined to pay €4 each to enter the church and so missed the ostentatious altar of the Virgin that I remember from previous visits as being blindingly golden.

My thirst from walking up and down the sides of Ronda was suitably quenched as we neared the bus station and dipped into ‘El Purto’ bar. Clean, with good service and free from tourist prices (only €1 for a bottle of beer) with tapas available, I would highly recommend it to the weary day tripper.

Ronda has a lot to offer and we did not see many of the places open to us, so if you are tied down by the number of visiting hours available to you, select wisely and be aware that most sites charge at least €2 and you may not get to see very much for your money. A good pair of shoes is essential especially if descending into the gorge or walking up and down the cobbled streets that line its side.

The Ronda Tourist site has information available in Español, English and Deutsch. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Marbella - A Disappointing Experience

It had been over a decade since I last visited Marbella and my memory of the town was hazy to say the least.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Pompeii - Roof Collapse in the Villa of Mysteries

Once again there is damage to parts of the ancient city of Pompeii, this time a supporting beam collapsed bringing part of the roof of the Villa of Mysteries with it.

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