The lane leads down to the lower part of the town, which comes into view once we take a bend – the tall church against a backdrop of dark green mountainside, laden with low-lying cloud on this misty, wet morning. An elderly man is on his way up and about to pass us by, all flat cap and whiskers. We know he’s going to say hello because everybody in this place says hello.
“You’re in the hotel, are you?”, he asks. There’s only one twelve-room hotel in town and he hasn’t seen our faces before.
“Yes. You’re from here?” I reply.
He might not have understood me properly.
“I’m from here,” he announces.
“It’s very quiet,” I point out to him.
“It’s too quiet,” he says. “Out for a bit of a walk, are you?”
“Down to the river, is it?”
We have no intention of going all the way down to the river; we just want to stroll around the tiny town up here on its height and freshen up a little after last night’s wine. He takes his leave of us with a cheerful declaration in incomprehensible andaluz and we continue on our way. It’s early (for Spain) on a Sunday morning and we don’t bump into anyone else as we explore the miniature pueblo, eventually passing by the heavy wooden doors of the taberna we spent the previous evening in, warming our feet by the log fire. The dueña there was friendly too.
“You’re in the hotel, are you?” she asked us.
“Yes. Is it usually this quiet?”
“The children are singing up in the square. Everyone’s up there. It’s carnaval, and there’s a food festival on, you know.”
“Yes. That’s why we’re here. We came two years ago. Seemed busier then.”
“The crisis. People aren’t spending (la gente está fria).”
With that an old lady she knew came in for a drink, then a succession of locals and the evening livened up. We spent it by the fire, glad because we’d been kept away from the one in the hotel by other guests, and had one of those meandering but cleansing conversations we seem more capable of away than we are at home. A little mutual support, a stuffed mushroom, bit of bickering, beautiful jamón, hake fritters, happy memories, sad ones and serious talk.
I think this is my favourite of the pueblos blancos, of the ones I’ve seen to date. You have to get off the mountain road between Gibraltar and Ronda, the old camino inglés, and drive along a winding country lane for a few kilometres to reach it. It’s a rural town; it has none of the pretensions of places like nearby Gaucín or pueblos further afield that know their own pulling power with the tourists, and work it. Charm though, it has. White-washed alleyways, the obligatory historical church, cobbles, cockerels and weathered old men – the whole bit.
Back at the hotel later we got to continue our fireside chat – everyone else had either had an early night or were across the way in the restaurant at dinner. We opened a bottle of Ronda wine and sat there drinking it from the glasses we’d found in our bathroom, our only company the night watchman who looked at the tv on mute or played with his phone. Later we moved outside, wrapped in blankets on our balcony, the mountain view a beautiful black void in the night.
The conversation, these days, often gets round to dreams of country living. Simple souls or misanthropes – either way we think we’d be happy away from the cut and thrust of the world. A steady diet of silence and space. Long walks and lazy living, if we can help it.
In the morning we paid peanuts for a filling breakfast, the table next to ours noisy with young men in protección civil overalls – local lads drafted in to guide visitors into parking spots and getting a free breakfast for their trouble. I hoped they’d be busy later. It would be a shame if the crisis put an end to the festival – another lifeline lost to this vulnerable place. Then we came for our stroll.
The little town is draped across a mountainside on two levels; once we pass the taberna we find ourselves walking uphill towards the upper part and its square. Views to the north of the Genal valley and at its far end, rocky, snow covered summits. The food festival people are setting up for the day in their marquee on the square. Bodegas and bakers, cheesemakers and chocolatiers. I get a few shots and try to ignore how desultory it all seems this time round. Fingers crossed for them.
Back at the hotel we’re already checked out and our stuff is in the car but I linger for a few minutes with the camera. Across the valley the sun is bursting through a break in the heavy cloud and splashing across the forested slopes. A white house gleams here and there in the sunbeams. It’s the kind of back lighting Charlton Heston as Moses would look good in and I try to capture it, but the camera doesn’t really do it justice.
We get in the car and head out of the town which, by the way, is called Benarrabá – a name which calls to mind its Moorish beginnings. It isn’t particularly easy; there’s only one way through the narrow streets and not enough room for two lane traffic, so when we encounter another couple of cars coming our way, a few minutes of tetris-like (rubik-like for the even older) manoeuvring ensues.
When we get to the patch of waste ground that passes for a car park on the edge of the pueblo, one of the protección civil guys waves us past, nodding as he recognises us. In a place like this it’s no surprise that he knows us, and even a little about us – that we’re visitors, that we’re leaving now, that we’ve had a good breakfast, that we’ve been in the hotel.
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