At the crossroads of Andalucia, around Antequera you will find landscapes of striking beauty that have inspired generations of artists …
Antequera lies in the very heart of Andalucía, 46 kilometres inland from the Costa del Sol, just off the motorway network which links Sevilla, Málaga, Granada and Córdoba. With Ronda and Marbella also close at hand it is, truly, the "Crossroads of Andalucía".
A very pretty town, it is much more than just another sleepy, sun-soaked 'pueblo' of Southern Spain. Hugely rich in history, culture and heritage, it retains an almost medieval air.
Inhabited since the Bronze Age, there are fascinating monuments everywhere: tombs which date back to 2,500 BC, Roman baths, a 13th Century Moorish castle, Baroque churches and Renaissance palaces remain to pay tribute to the strategic importance of Antequera in days gone by.
The town, and the vast fertile valley which spreads out beyond it to the north, are overlooked by an almost vertical, 800 metre high, limestone outcrop, La Peña de los Enamorados, "The Lovers' Leap", where legend has it that two young lovers, a Christian man and a Moorish woman, hurled themselves from the top rather than renounce their illicit love.
To the south, southeast and southwest of Antequera, deep in the heart of the Province of Málaga, some of Andalucía's most striking scenery and pretty villages are to be found.
Thirteen kilometres to the south of Antequera, the landscape changes dramatically as the rolling hills and fields of cereals, sunflowers and olives suddenly give way to the Sierra de Torcal, a massive, Mars-like mountain of heavily eroded rock formations.
The imagination plays tricks as giants, monsters and castles seem to appear before your eyes.
Unique in Europe, this dreamy, surrealistic landscape has inspired generations of artists and film makers as well as climbers, walkers and nature lovers. Rare birds of prey, Spanish ibex and wild orchids are just some of the attractions.
The sunsets are a bit special too.
To the south-west lies an area of mountains, pine and eucalyptus forests cut by wide river valleys, of which the Río Guadalhorce is the most well known, a land of small farms, fertile fields and rural villages. This is the region known as El Chorro and the Lake District of Ardales.
At the heart of the region lies the white town of Álora built on three hills rising above the river. The scenery in the higher reaches of the valley, just to the north of Álora, is dramatic.
Garganta del Chorro is a huge natural gorge, 180 metres high, three kilometres long, spanned by an ancient iron bridge. It offers some very challenging rock climbing, walking and hang-gliding and is a favourite place for the extreme sport set.
Perhaps the most spectacular feature is The Kings Way, a precariously narrow catwalk which follows the length of the chasm, high up on the sheer rock face and, thankfully, now closed.
A dam at the head of the gorge has created Andalucía's very own Lake District, three turquoise blue lakes bordered by pine forests. This is an altogether more tranquil retreat, a place to swim, fish and canoe or just to picnic by the lake shore or enjoy a glass of wine and a bite to eat at a local taverna.
Wonderful terrain for walkers, too, with shaded paths through oak forests and olive groves and gentler, scenic routes along the shores of the lakes.
To the north west of Antequera, the flat agricultural lands yield up to Andalucia's largest natural lake, Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, also know as "The Pink Lagoon" because it is the only inland breeding ground of pink flamingos outside of Africa.
It's a shallow, salty lake, six kilometres long by three wide. Every January sees thousands of these most elegant and exquisite birds arrive to spend the Spring and Summer months in the all consuming activity of breeding.
It's a spectacular sight as the flamingos stalk through the water, grunting and trumpeting, while others glide, dive and splash down again, landing almost on top of each other.
It's also a race against time, as the water in the lake gradually evaporates through the Spring months. In a dry year the lake is often bone dry by mid-summer and predators sometimes arrive before the young can fly.
To the south and west of Antequera, La Sierra de las Nives (literally, the mountains of the snows) is, some would argue, the most beautiful National Park in all Andalucía. It is certainly one of Spain's richest natural enclaves, now protected by UNESCO with Biosphere Reserve status.
It is not particularly high, averaging 1,100 metres, with Mount Torrecilla the highest peak at 1,919 metres. Once best known as a refuge for highwaymen and outlaws, the lack of human activity and endeavour within the National Park has paid rich dividends for nature: it now boasts an impressive array of both flora and fauna.
It's most prized treasure is the Spanish fir tree, an almost extinct relic of the Ice Age. Some 2,000 hectares of these magnificent trees are to be found in La Sierra de las Nieves. There are many others: Andalusian oak, yew, maple, ash, chestnut and pine. It is also home to a wide variety of animals including chamois, roebuck, wild cat, otter and Hispanic goat. Golden eagles, sparrowhawks, kestrel, falcon and vultures circle in the skies above.
There are a considerable number of caves within the Park, and it is even more famous for its potholes. One of these, GESM is the third deepest in the world, a mere 1,098 metres! Along with some of the others here, it is still not fully explored and continues to offer a real challenge for the world's best potholers.
Although there are no towns within the Park itself, its perimeter is dotted with pretty villages, Alozaina, Casarabonela, Tolox, Guaro, Istán, Monda, Ojén and Yunquera. Of Moorish origin, they retain their narrow, winding streets and their Arabic-inspired handicraft skills. They provide good starting points from which to explore the landscapes and walking trails within the National Park.
With Ronda and its mountains beyond to the west and Marbella and the beaches of the Costa del Sol to the south, this is an area of splendid natural beauty and ancient heritage which offers much for the visitor to enjoy.
Another beautiful, thickly wooded Natural Park, situated just to the north of the city of Málaga and bordering on the east with La Axarquía, Las Montes is remote and peaceful, a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle of the coastal capital which is just kilometres away.
It's a gentle, hilly area (the highest peak, La Reina is only 1,032 metres) criss-crossed by streams which have carved small valleys, now extensively replanted with pine trees to protect Málaga from the disastrous flash floods which used to devastate the city.
There are many ancient Mediterranean species too, holm oak, corks and carib trees, making it an ideal habitat for the chameleons and other protected species of wildlife and birds of prey which reside here.
The lovely scenery, and some great views of the city and the Mediterranean Sea below, can be enjoyed on any one of numerous walking routes through the Park.
Your day will only be enhanced by trying the excellent local dishes at one of the country restaurants here, washed down, of course, by a glass or two of the famous sweet Málaga wines which are grown here. So, too, will your cholesterol level!
If you tire of all this rural bliss, try Estepona and Marbella on the Costa del Sol. Estepona is a little quieter than most of the Mediterranean resorts and still retains some of its old, fishing village character.
The same cannot be said of Marbella, but if you want to check out what the beautiful people are doing, with their designer shops and jet-set marinas, or just enjoy the sparkling sun, sand and sea, this is the place to be.
Towns & Villages
At the crossroads of Andalucía, historic Antequera is both medieval and modern. It epitomises what "Real Spain" is all about. A real, work-a-day town with a population of 45,000, the main industry here is olive oil, not tourism, so it still retains its essential Andalusian soul …
At the meeting point of east and west Andalucia, this thriving little town of around 9,000 people is easily accessible and yet still picturesque and tranquil. The economy still depends to a large extent on the olive groves that surround it which yield a very high quality oil.