Known in Spain as Los Pueblos Blancos, these classic white villages are some of Andalucía's most beautiful …
Between the Atlantic coast to the west and the Ronda Mountains to the east are a cluster of some of Andalucía's most beautiful mountain villages.
These are known to the Spanish as, simply, "Los Pueblos Blancos", the white villages. Every year, once the spring rains have passed, their houses are meticulously whitewashed to a state of pristine splendour and the white provides a dazzling contrast to the brightly coloured flowers which fill the streets and the ochres of their rocky mountain perches. This annual white-washing is almost a pagan act, ushering in the season of growth and fertility and saying ‘hasta la vista' to the winter.
Many of these villages were founded by Berber tribes who settled the area during the eight centuries of Moorish presence. They were hill farmers and the land that they settled in Andalucía was similar to that which they had left behind in North Africa. Because of the constant threat of attack - the Reconquest was bound to come sooner or later - they chose sites which were high and easy to defend.
So, one thing that you are guaranteed in any of these villages is a spectacular, lofty location with wonderful views.
As was the case in other parts of Andalucía, there was a great rural exodus from these remote villages. But thanks to a vastly improved economy and the advent of rural tourism there is now new life and vibrancy in the Sierras. New hotels and restaurants have opened, mountain paths have been waymarked and the area is being touted as ‘the new Tuscany'.
There is masses to do if you are looking for an active holiday: you can walk, ride, learn to paraglide, wind or kite surf. You can visit Ronda, the sherry bodegas of Jerez, beautiful Sevilla and the wonderful shimmering white beaches along Cádiz's Atlantic coast, the "Costa de la Luz".
What makes the area a double treat is that few concessions have been made to ‘mainstream' tourism. These are villages that seem to demand that you slow down a pace or two. After all, one of the most popular sayings here is ‘how wonderful it is to do nothing and then to rest afterwards'!
Life tends to revolve around the local bar and the local sell-everything shops. Don't expect people to be in a rush to serve you but do expect to be treated with the grace and generosity that so marks the Andalusian character.
Grazalema is one of the classic ‘white villages' with its spotless white houses, cobbled streets and iron balconies.
Famous for its little wool factories which export their blankets around the globe, and also for its microclimate which gives it the rather dubious distinction of being one of the wettest villages in Spain (but don't worry, it gets more than 3,000 hours of sunshine each year too), it's as pretty as a postcard and its setting, in the heart of the Grazalema National Park, is dramatic.
All around are calcareous sierras of jagged peaks, gorges, chasms, faults and caves, underground rivers and deep canyons. The flora is enormously diverse, with thick forests of cork oak and Spanish fir (pinsapo) which is only found in the wild here and in the Ronda Mountains. In the skies, griffon vultures and golden, booted and short-toed eagles soar. The forests are the habitat of mountain goat, red deer and wild boar.
From Grazalema, a dramatic little mountain road winds and twists its way up through this terrain, finally descending to Zahara de la Sierra, another of the white villages of particular charm, crowned by a Moorish castle on the rocky crest above it, an impregnable fortress in days gone by.
Below the village are the wide, blue waters of the Embalse de Zahara (it's a reservoir but you would never know), where there you can swim or just enjoy the beautiful views all around from one of the little bars which open up in summer on the lake shore.
Named after its once flourishing wineries, Setenil de las Bodegas is probably unique among the pueblos blancos. Whereas most were built on protective bluffs and pinnacles, this town grew out of a network of caves in the cliffs above the Rio Trejo, north-west of Ronda. Its white houses seem to emerge from the rocks, some have rock roofs - and even olive groves on their roofs!
There are several more delightful white villages in the province - sleepy little places like El Bosque and El Gastor; picturesque Ubrique, Algodonales, one of the best places for paragliding in Spain, and Olvera, once so famous for harbouring bandits that the expression "'Kill your man and flee to Olvera" became part of Andalusian folklore.
To the south and west of the Grazalema National Park the landscape softens and the low, rolling hillsides form the backdrop for another area of outstanding beauty, Los Alcornocales, one of the world's largest forests of cork oak, handsome trees indeed, and home to many rare species of the natural paradise of primeval Andalucía.
And so, onwards and westwards, the plains becoming ever more burnished under the Andaulsian sun, to the impressive site of Arcos de la Frontera.
One of the prettiest towns in Spain, perched high above a precipitous gorge beside the River Guadalete, it looks over mile upon mile of vegetable gardens, olive fields, vineyards and bull and horse farms. An important stronghold of the Moors, it is full of history as well as old-world charm.
The people of the Province of Cádiz are justly proud of their villages and will move heaven and earth in order not to miss out on their annual ‘feria', a week of song, dance and of the two activities the Spanish love more than any other: eating and drinking.
Nobody knows how to party like the people of Cádiz and should you be lucky enough to coincide with one of these village festivities - almost a dead cert if you come in summer - you'll begin to see that, yes, its not just a cliché: this part of Spain really is ‘different'.
Towns & Villages
Most people would consider Grazalema to be the showcase ‘white village' of Spain. Given its spectacular location and immaculately kept whitewashed houses with windows covered by wrought-iron rejas and plant pots spilling over with flowers, it really is delightful …
Zahara de la Sierra is a delightful old-time village in a dramatic location. On the slopes of the Grazalema mountains with the azure-blue waters of the vast lake below, its Moorish castle perched on a craggy outcrop at the very top, its a fabulous situation …
Perched on top of its dramatic sandstone ridge and overlooking the meandering Rio Guadelete which flows around it on three sides, its location is enhanced by its low white houses and fine sandstone churches, giving the town a similar feel and appearance to Ronda …