April 24, 2013. Day 8. La Hoya to Carmona.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, and a who’s who of those travelling.
We left Fuente del Sol reluctantly, wishing we had another day there. Our destination today was the beautiful old town of Carmona, about 60 kilometres east of Seville. Most of the route was along secondary roads, via Alora, Campillos, Osuna and Marchena.
We departed early after a good buffet breakfast at Fuente del Sol. It was a beautiful day, with wisps of cloud drifting high in the sky.
We think spring is the best time to visit Andalusia, with the countryside clothed in green and sparkling with wild flowers, and the temperature warm and comfortable. In the summer you can expect temperatures in excess of 40 centigrade, the vibrant colours are muted, the green turns ochre and even high in the mountains you’ll be looking for shade.
John: We reluctantly left the village of La Joya and drove the back roads to Carmona along the A343 and the MA444. If you have the time, this is a beautiful drive. The road is a windy one that takes in a number of elevations, but the views are well worth the extra time. We were there in April and the wild flowers were in full bloom. When the windows are open, the smell of Spanish Broom is intoxicating.
As we left Fuente del Sol, we noticed how prosperous the area appeared to be despite the poor economic condition of Spain in general.
The cortijos (farms) seemed to be flourishing with shining, whitewashed buildings, and some with new, modern additions. There were several new houses dotting the landscape, and the village of La Hoya had an air of well-being with the streets clean and well-cared for.
On the picturesque road to Alora, we passed fields of winter corn and whitewashed cortijos gleaming in the sun. As we approached Alora, the crops changed to aromatic lemon and orange groves carpeted with wildflowers. We were now going through the appropriately named Valle del Sol (Valley of the Sun).
Suddenly Alora came into view, the ruins of its 14th-century Moorish castle silhouetted dramatically on a hill above the whitewashed town.
We bypassed Alora, turning sharply right in the outskirts and started our way up the fertile Guadalhorce valley towards the village of El Chorro.
Fairly quickly the valley narrowed, the mountains closed in and the road twisted and turned. We were approaching the Garganta (i.e. neck) del Chorro (also known as Desfiladero de los Gaitanes) a narrow gorge carved out by the Guadalhorce river. In the gorge, I felt trapped by the sheer 180 metre (600 feet) walls rising above us and nothing would induce me to take a walk for which this chasm is famous among rock climbers: El Camino del Rey/ The King’s Path.
The “camino” refers to a catwalk clinging half way up one side of the gorge which the king, Alfonso XIII, walked along in 1921 to officially open the Guadalhorce dams to power a local hydroelectric station. The catwalk is now in a dilapidated state and is definitely not for the faint of heart.
(Google el chorro camino del rey and you’ll get lots of pages. I found http://www.rockclimbingspain.com/El_Camino_del_Rey-El_Chorro.html with video very informative. December 2105. The Camino is to reopen in January 2105, after substantial renovation. See http://www.iberianature.com/spainblog/2014/11/the-caminito-del-rey-el-chorro/ According to an article in the Spanish newspaper, El País, on January 15, the opening is now set for February. The article is accompanied by 29 spectacular photos, well worth looking at. See: http://verne.elpais.com/verne/2015/01/14/album/1421237887_436544.html). March 27, 2015: There is a very good article in the Guardian newspaper by Ami Sedghi, according to which the Camino is opening on March 28 (finally!!). Spectacular photos. See: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/mar/27/caminito-del-rey-malaga-path-reopens-spain-hiking#img-4
The drive through the gorge was spectacular, although if driving you have to have your wits about you since the road is very narrow in parts and meeting oncoming traffic can be daunting. (Fortunately for us, John is an excellent driver.) From the gorge, the road winds its way up past pines and eroded rock. Suddenly, we came to a sign I was looking for: Bobastro. We veered left following the sign and rose some 610 metres (2000 feet) through more pines for 6 kilometres (3.5 miles) until we came to a roadside booth to our right: the stop to get to Bobastro. Bobastro was headquarters of the 9th-century rebel Omar Ibn Hafsun. Hafsun, a Muwallad (Christian convert to Islam) apparently dissatisfied by his treatment from his Moorish overlords in Córdoba, rebelled and withdrew into the mountains surrounding Alora. He overcame all attempts to defeat him and converted back to Christianity and built a church in Bobastro. This is what we wanted to see.
After winding our way between trees and rocks, we suddenly came across the church, not a building but an open-air site with a sanctuary hewed out of a massive, grey limestone rock. It’s hard to believe that there was any building here, since all signs of walls and pillars have completely disappeared. In fact, I wonder if there ever were any walls or pillars at all.
What’s interesting of what’s left is the horseshoe arch in the centre of the carved rock. This may have been influenced by the horseshoe arches from Córdoba’s Great Mosque (the first part of which had already been built) but it more likely harkens back to the horseshoe arches of Visigothic churches, which predate the mosque in Córdoba. In fact, it has been argued that it belonged to a Christian community that survived in this isolated mountain spot of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) after the arrival of the Moors; others feel it was built by Ibn Hafsun after his conversion to Christianity and is therefore a Mozarabic work (Mozarabs were Christians who lived under Moorish rule).
Further uphill there are faint ruins of a small fortress, which suggest that the area also had a defensive role. It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it would be for an army to attack successfully any fort in these mountains. The spot looked virtually impregnable with views everywhere that would quickly betray the presence of enemy forces.
After returning to the road, we decided to continue uphill to look for the fortress; it was one of those inspired decisions. The mountain flattened out and we were treated to incredible views. In one spot, we ran into a Welsh expat couple dismantling their short wave radio: they had apparently been talking to relatives or acquaintances in New Zealand. Small world! They and I were from South Wales and inevitably we had a conversation about our respective areas. After leaving them, we continued our way to the very end of the road where we found, to our delight, a bar-restaurant dramatically perched on the edge of a precipitous drop. We had lunch outdoors at Bar La Mesa (as it was called): a hearty, cholesterol-loaded plate of pork, sausages, eggs and thick potato quarters, all swimming in olive oil.
We needed a walk after that lunch, and went to find the fortress nearby. There was hardly anything visible, only traces of foundation walls engulfed by undergrowth and flowers.
It was exhilarating there, on the mountain top, although we had to be careful not to sprain an ankle on some stones hidden in the long grass. If you are anywhere in this area and have transportation, don’t miss out on this side-trip to Bobastro and Bar La Mesa.
On our way up to Bar La Mesa, we’d noticed to our left a large reservoir. At Bar Mesa, we were told that its water tumbled down the mountain in a huge pipe to generate power for Málaga. In an area so steeped in ancient history, this modern construction looked out of place.
John: Bobastro: While the structure itself was interesting, the drive up the mountain and the views that it provides makes this side trip well worth it. If you have gone this far, don’t return until you have gone to the very top. From there, you can see straight down at the Garganta del Chorro and there is a little restaurant, Bar La Mesa, where you can get old style Spanish country cooking. I can recommend the Spanish tortilla.
From Bobastro our road took us almost to Ardiles, where it joined the A 357 heading for Campillos. For several kilometres, we skirted two (of the three) reservoirs created by the Guadalteba-Guadalhorce dam. Approaching Campillos, we could see, silhouetted in the distance to our left, the castle of La Estrella perched above the hilltop town of Teba. Soon we were bypassing Campillos, an agricultural and leather manufacturing centre. The town seemed to be prosperous, with new buildings and (rather unattractive) row houses, but whether they were occupied is another matter. The construction boom that collapsed in 2008 left thousands of buildings unfinished or empty as contractors ran out of funds or buyers were simply unable to keep up payments.
After we turned left towards Almargen, we were into rolling hills with olives and vineyards, and wildflowers colouring the roadside. At Almargen, we turned north on the A441 towards the historic and former university town of Osuna.
I’m sorry we had no time to stop at what one travel writer has recently described as “one of the most beautiful small towns in Andalusia [and] one of the best preserved […] as yet scarcely … affected by tourism” (Jacobs 318).
From Osuna, we quickly made our way on the A 92 (Seville highway) across wheat fields to La Puebla de Cazalla. Here we turned North West on the A 380 to Carmona via Marchena in the wide, fertile Guadalquivir valley.
Approaching Carmona, we could see the town rise dramatically on a bluff overlooking the valley. Dominating the view was the ancient castle transformed by Pedro the Cruel into a sumptuous residence in the 14th century. Now part of it houses the very popular state-run Parador de Carmona, where we had reserved accommodation for two nights.
It was late afternoon when we checked in to the Parador.
Our accommodation overlooked the valley we had just crossed, but we were unable to appreciate the extensive views at first because both rooms were permeated with strong air-freshener. We had to leave windows and doors open for a cross breeze to get rid of the smell, which fortunately didn’t take long.
After settling in, John, Leslie, Andrew and Alex opted for a walk in the old town; Margaret and I felt a cup of tea on the terrace would be just the thing. We had stayed at the Parador on two previous occasions during which we had strolled through the beautifully preserved town.
John: As we drove into Carmona on the A380, we could see the Parador dominating the plain. It is an old palace built by Pedro the Cruel and it is very beautiful. You park in the courtyard beyond the massive stone walls of a ruined castle and you can just feel yourself going back in time. Our rooms looked out over the plain as opposed to the city, but I would say that the best views were out over the pool and beyond. The pool itself is situated below the restaurant and looked gorgeous, unfortunately, despite it being very warm, the pool does not open until May.
We had dinner at the Parador, talked about what we had seen on our trip from La Hoya and the drifted off to bed. Tomorrow we were off to Seville, and as the Sevillanos say, “Quien no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla,” “Who hasn’t seen Seville, hasn’t seen a marvel” (Afraid the English doesn’t rhyme as well as the Spanish!)
A good and lively introduction to Andalusia is Michael Jacobs A Guide to Andalusia New York: Viking Penguin 1990.
Image of Camino del Rey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caminito_del_Rey_4.jpg