The mountains of Málaga province are peppered with pueblos blancos (white villages), many of them renowned and hugely attractive to visitors each year – Gaucín and Grazalema to name but two, and that’s before you take a look at neighbouring Cádiz province and its spectacular white towns – Vejer, Arcos, Zahara de la Sierra and so on. Many of these places are sizable and in addition to being picturesque have become finely tuned to the tourist wavelength. Old mills have become art galleries, farmsteads have become weekend getaways, age-old family homes are now restaurants.
What many visitors may not be aware of is the sheer quantity of mountain towns around Andalusia that qualify as pueblos blancos but which, because of their small size perhaps, or their relatively remote locations, do not have the same pulling power as their more famous counterparts.
International visitors will rarely see these places but the more enterprising towns have been looking for ways to reinvent themselves, especially important in the face of rural decline as more and more of their young people head for the cities. The result is a string of festivals and events throughout the region, ranging from art to music to food, and although the target audience is predominantly Spanish, all are welcome and the events provide a precious opportunity to get into real communities and to support their enterprise while enjoying one of the most enchanting networks of mountain towns on planet Earth.
Probably my favourite pueblo blanco, Benarrabá is invisible from the nearest highway, the Camino Inglés, which twists and turns through the valleys that lie between Gibraltar and Ronda. It comes into view after 3km on a winding secondary road, an unpretentious little town that sits on a height so precipitous that it doesn’t have the room to expand even if it wanted to. Population more or less six hundred, this pueblo is vulnerable to rural decline as much as anywhere else and for some years now has been hosting an annual food festival, the Feria Gastronómia de la Serranía de Ronda, showcasing the artisan products of the area – wines, cheeses, cured meats – in an attempt to attract visitors.
This being Spain, a tiny town of six hundred people has seven or eight bars in it, and they cooperate each year to put on a ruta de tapas, or tapas trail, each establishment providing a free tapa with your first drink. Between that and the arroz – a traditional rice dish – served up in the square, along with musical entertainment, it’s a great chance for the more intrepid tourist to see something they normally wouldn’t, and an increasingly important lifeline for vulnerable, crisis-hit communities.
Robin Graham writes about Andalusia, Spain and some other stuff. His stories can be found,with accompanying photography, at alotofwind.com. He’s a private person but, strangely, doesn’t mind being followed: