There’s something strange, fascinating, almost exotic about the Axarquia, the poorest part of Spanish Andalucia. Stand on the beach and you can see Africa. Look hard enough at that sixteenth century village church and you can see the Islamic mosque it was built on and even the Roman foundations beneath it. Turn north into the hills and you are immediately in “bandit country” – the name given to the region by Franco’s police, as they hunted down and exterminated the last democratic resistance after the civil war.
In earlier times during the fifteenth century, Jews and Muslims who had been driven from their homes by the conquering Christian armies or who had been forced to eat pig in the street to demonstrate that they had really converted to a belief in “the lamb of God”, hid in the impenetrable hills of the Axarquia and descended to the villages only to cut the throats of priests and landlords who had betrayed them.
Real bandits have also felt at home here. Travellers in the nineteenth century were warned away from the mountain tracks for fear of kidnap or robbery. In 1889 “El Bizco” the cross eyed bandit was gunned down at the olive mill in El Borge “OK Corral” style by a posse of Guardia on horseback.
There’s even an exotic feel to the name. The letter X in Axarquia was common to old Castilian (like Don Quixote) and Xarquía meant “territory to the east of a great city (Malaga) and dependent on it”. The Arabic word for Axarquia – “Sarqiyya”, meant “oriental or eastern territory”. Oriental indeed in the days when the world was a much larger place and a trek from the City of Malaga to the depths of the Lecrin valley might take several days by donkey or mule over unforgiving terrain. The Axarquia consists of rugged mountainous foothills defined by natural barriers – the Mountains of Malaga to the west, the Sierra Tejeda and the great Mount Maroma to the north. Even the coastal strip is an obstacle course of cliffs and coves only recently penetrated by tunnels and viaducts to make an almost finished coastal motorway.
Indeed roads are the biggest thing that’s happened to the Axarquia in the last hundred years. In the old days the road systems used to fan out, one path per village. Those were the days before you could pass through a village to get somewhere else as you can now that villages are connected by ring roads. Before these, each community was so isolated that it developed its own culture and even had its own version of Spanish. Doctorates have been written on the distinct vocabulary of Almachar for example. The traditional way to travel before roads was to walk along the dry river bed. Villagers in Cútar still remember carrying invalids along the river track actually in their beds to take them to the hospital in Velez-Malaga.
The region is relatively unspoilt, though you quickly discover that wherever the landscape is pretty or the view spectacular, some immigrant from northern Europe will have pulled down his trousers and taken a dump there, in the form of an ugly cortijo or urbanisation. The pristine whiteness of the buildings, established because the Moors required all houses to be lime washed annually against disease, makes the illegal builds stand out like sores on the landscape. Half built houses look like broken teeth. Unplanned excesses around the village of Alcaucin for example at the foot of Mount Maroma and set in natural parklands, now look as though a giant seagull flew across the mountain and shat down the side of it. When the village of Frigilliana won a prize as the prettiest village in the Axarquia, developers immediately moved in, clotting the landscape with jerry built urbanisations that you have to burrow through to find the old town. The landscape around Competa now looks like a Barratt housing estate.
The financial crisis in Spain has mercifully slowed the gluttonous building trade down sufficiently so that the law has a chance to catch up with it. Planning permission has now been taken away from village mayors and must be ratified in Seville, meaning that papers are less likely to be signed off by an official taking a bung from a local builder. The passing tourist may wonder why so many hills in the Axarquia have flat tops? Well they have been bulldozed and are waiting for planning permission to build. Hopefully they will have a long wait. Indeed this “crisis” may have saved the Axarquia. The authorities now know from experience that it’s very easy to allow greedy speculators to cover a beautiful landscape with random unplanned rubbish and very hard for them to remove it. Anyone who doubts this should look west towards Marbella.
In spite of the worst excesses of the “something for nothing” brigade, the Axarquia remains one of the least spoilt stunningly beautiful landscapes, still populated by rural communities whose agricultural practices, because of the steep and difficult terrain, have changed little since the time of the Carthaginians.
Tourists who visit the region will usually jet into Malaga airport, one of the biggest and best known airports in Europe. Following refurbishment that has doubled its size, Malaga expects to handle more than 20 million passengers in 2015, and with some justification it describes itself as “Gateway to Europe and Africa”. The tourist who picks up a hire car and heads south to the coast would be well advised to not to turn right to the west, to toll roads, more McDonalds per square mile than anywhere in the world, and shopping arcades where a Spaniard needs an English dictionary to buy a coffee.
Better turn left instead and head east, to encounter the slow – low rise Spanish resorts, and after them the little bays and coves of the coastal nature reserves sometimes complete with coastal nudists and geriatric hippies. Anyone looking for an authentically slow Spanish experience, however, should drive east along the coast for half an hour, turn left again and strike north into the hills and the white villages of the rural Axarquia.
You might stay in one of the villages and live among the rural farmers, who are always friendly helpful and nosey. A little Spanish goes a long way there because no one speaks anything else, but if you only have a dictionary you can get by with gestures, drawings, hugs and loud laughter. People are patient . . . what’s the rush?
Take a holiday cottage and cater for yourself. That way you patronise the local shop and the bar, which makes you popular and you meet the people you are living with. Hint that you are interested in buying a house and you won’t be short of a drink.
The best and cheapest way to eat is as the locals do. Our neighbour, for example, takes a chamomile tea with half a shot of brandy at about 8am when he starts work. That takes him through to 10.30am, when he might have a hot bread roll, split and topped with macerated tomato and delicious local olive oil. Lunch is at 2.30pm. Lunch is the main meal of the day and here you get a three course meal and a drink for seven euros – the cheapest eat out in Spain. The first course is a potage or soup or paella, followed by a salad, followed by meat or fish with or without chips, then fruit or rice pudding or some sort of custard. If two people ask for a glass of “tinto” (red wine), they leave the bottle on the table.
Siesta follows. A little tapas before work starts again and a little more tapas after work at around 10pm and that’s it.
You will find restaurants but they are really for tourists and ex-pats. In fact the measure of the “authenticity” and “Spanishness” of a village is that it doesn’t have a restaurant. The traditional eating house here is the bar.
If you must dine out finely in the evening it’s quick and easy to drive to a resort or an ex-pat village. There you will find excellent restaurants, but isn’t it better value to sit on your terrace and barbecue something light fresh and tasty while you watch an old man prune his orange trees or a young man train his beautiful Andalucían horse as dusk falls at the far side of the valley?
The tourist board here is reassuringly incompetent. It has created a number of “routes” for those travellers incapable of planning a day out. For example, I live on the “Route of the Raisin”, which in Spanish is “Ruta de la Pasa”. Spanish adolescents have scrubbed out one leg of the R on “Ruta” to make it “Puta de la Pasa” or “Whore of the Raisin”. You can also experience the “Whore of sun and avocado” “The whore of sun and wine” the “Whore of the Moor” or “The whore of olive oil”. Only the board could turn a rural idyll into a Turkish brothel. How very exotic.