Two strips of the AP-7 curve away high overhead where we park beneath a dizzyingly tall flyover and make our way down a dirt track, not all that sure if we’re in the right place. Tired legs make the uncertainty that much more tiresome but there are promising signs as we make our way – a couple of cars pass by and there are people coming the other way who carry towels and wear bathing costumes. A kitsch restaurant where the track begins proclaims itself The Roman Oasis.
We walk for ten minutes or so, reassured – once we’ve asked someone – that we’re not lost. Finally, on our left, we pass an abandoned old pension, or perhaps a spa, with the words Baños Romanos de la Hedionda on its façade and then, on our right, a path that descends to the river.
We’re near Manilva, just four kilometres or so inland from the Costa del Sol, the coastal strip of hotels, resorts and retirement communities that stretches in a great concrete swathe from La Linea to Málaga, then more quietly eastwards. There’s no sign of any of that here but it’s hardly deserted – preserved Roman baths may not have much appeal amongst the Costa clientele but they are very popular with the local families who come here each Sunday during the summer months.
We don’t have any Roman history in Ireland; I don’t think they had the stomach to pick a fight with us. My first thought as I take in the squat, white structure that houses the baths is that if we did – if we had some baths like this, we’d have encased them in glass to prevent anyone using them and made a museum of them we could overcharge for. Here though, just the opposite: the bare minimum has been done to preserve the structure, covering it with whitewashed concrete that, though not ugly, is certainly not pretty and the baths that were baths when the Romans were here are baths now, teeming with toddlers and exuberant teenagers, competing to dive the farthest or splash the most.
We bypass the little building for the moment and walk down to the stream. The place isn’t manicured – mothers with their buggies have to struggle through long grass, over gravel and above all through the mud that lines the river in lieu of sand. You’d think it would be a deterrent but in fact it’s what brings them – across the stream a line of people are queuing for a chance to scoop out some distinctively grey earth from the wet wall of a grotto and plaster their bodies with it – there are grey-faced people, grey-legged people and people grey from top to bottom. The water of the stream itself is grey with the stuff and low pebble walls have been constructed to organise the flow into stepped pools.
Then it’s back to the baths for a rinse. Local boys are monopolising the entrance for their dives but step aside so that we can descend the few wooden steps and dip ourselves in the covered pool. The vaulted ceiling overhead makes it cool in here and an archway at the back, barely thirty centimetres above the water now, leads to another chamber lost in darkness at the back. The water is around a metre and a half deep and another low archway, which leads a small uncovered pool, lets a sliver of sunlight in across the surface of the opaque water, lighting up the porcelain, powdery blue liquid. It’s like bathing in electric milk.
When K and M get out of the bath, and when the boys aren’t splashing too much, I take the shadowy space in for a moment. They say Julius Caesar bathed here. I wonder if he had bad skin; these are sulphur baths, the rotten egg odour hangs over the water and clings to the skin afterwards. As good as it’s supposed to be for the skin, today the cool water is a welcome balm to our tired limbs –we’ve spent the early part of the day high above here, in the heights this water flows from and the bizarre limestone topology that makes the sulphur baths possible.
Between the Roman pools and the mountain town of Casares, five kilometres to the north of them, a limestone ridge provides vistas of the famous holiday coast, but those aren’t the views you’d go up there for. After a steep but relatively short hike from another little dirt track by the side of the Casares road, it isn’t the distances that fascinate – it’s what surrounds you at close quarters.
Even from below the rocky nature of the ridge is apparent but it isn’t till you’ve scaled the slope and clambered through a stretch of undergrowth – the ground at your feet increasingly strewn with small to medium boulders – that the nature of the place reveals itself.
Known in geekier circles as a karst landscape, eons of erosion have resolved the rock into cathedral spires, caves and gullies, mushrooms, poised orbs and teetering cubes, steps, arches, shelves and windows. I’m not going to lie to you – one or two of the massive weathered structures look like penises, to me. We don’t go in for that sort of thing in Ireland, where our own karst – the Burren – is generally flat and sexually unprovocative.
By all accounts, the people who built the baths were not as repressed as we Irish and it’s easy to see how, to a pre-christian sensibility, this strange place would have exuded power and mystery; it certainly does to my own, post-christian eyes. I don’t doubt for a moment that some of these towering shapes would have been given names or made the subject of stories, particularly since it is these rocks that filter the health-giving waters below.
Although we pitch up down there on a busy Sunday afternoon, they say the baths are pretty much deserted during the week, even in the summer months. In one way it seems shameful that such a treasure could be so neglected with seventy per cent of Andalusia’s hordes of tourists staying so nearby, but then again, it makes it tempting to return here on a weekday and have it all to ourselves. I’ve heard talk of nudity and although that is not the Irish way, you know the old saying: when in Manilva, do as the Romans do.