7 Picturesque White Mountainside Villages to Visit in Spain
One of the most visited and photographed sites in Spain’s southern provinces, mainly Cadiz and Malaga, is a series of whitewashed towns and large villages. Some are glued rather precariously to steep mountain sides, but all are distinguished by their white walls, their often blue or green painted window and door frames, their red or brown tiled roofs, an abundance of balconies overflowing with pots of flowers, steep and narrow alleys and small squares of the city dominated by a church or a town hall.
These spectacular towns and villages stand against the dramatic backdrop of the Sierra de Grazalema mountains in the Sierra Nevada and the foothills of Las Alpujarras. It’s not just the gleaming white houses, though. Some towns, such as Arcos de La Frontera, have been classified as a national monument since 1960. Many historic buildings, such as the fortress, have become posters of the charms of Andalusia – such as Frigilania – a photo of which you can see on just about any poster promoting Spain. The village has won many awards due to its beauty.
I visited about twenty of the multitude of white pueblosor “white villages”, as they are called in Spanish and have selected those with outstanding characteristics. Almost all of them have memories of Spain’s Moorish past and it’s a joy to wander the narrow streets, discovering unexpected historical and modern treasures, local art and, last but not least, little cafes and restaurants. These restaurants are where you can enjoy the famous tapas and a glass or two of the local wines, sitting outside under parasols in the mild southern climate.
Frigiliana is located approximately 50 kilometers inland from Malaga and Andalucia’s famous Costa del Sol. The city is divided into a more modern lower part and a Moorish upper part. Just take a walk, but be aware that the streets are very steep and also have lots of steps. Admire a Renaissance palace, El Torreon, which is a former granary in the upper part. Be guided along the way by the ceramic plaques of the old town which tell the story of the Moorish part. Stroll along the tranquil river and, if you wish, hike through the Sierra de Tejeda Natural Park. For those who want a good overview but don’t like steep climbs, there is a small, colorful tourist train that takes you everywhere. The Frigiliana Archaeological Museum gives insight into the town’s history and is well worth a visit. So too are the many arts and crafts shops that offer colorful ceramics, from plates and mugs to frogs and geckos; the living run happily around the cafes. There are also the remains of a Moorish castle at the top, but not much remains of it.
2. Arcos De La Frontera
Arcos de la Frontera, easily accessible from Jerezde la Frontera or Seville, is located opposite the pueblos blancos of Malaga and is also one of the most spectacular white villages in Spain. Perched on the edge of a cliff and overlooking the Guadalete River, the town is criss-crossed by very narrow and steep cobbled streets, so a visit is not suitable for those in wheelchairs or with disabilities. There are many vantage points and a highlight is the gothic church in the central Plaza Cabildo. Another highlight is the Town Hall and the 11and-century Castillo Ducal, but it’s not open to the public; you cannot go further than the front door. If you are looking for an extraordinary thing to do, find the convent of the mercedarias and see if the front door is open. If so, you can go inside, ring a bell and enter a small room where, behind a window, the nuns are selling sweets and pastries made by the nuns themselves (cash only). Avoid visiting Arcos other than early in the morning or in the evening, the heat can be terrible.
Nerja is located a few kilometers from Frigiliana and a larger pueblo blanco. Nicknamed by King Alfonso XII the “Balcony of Europe”, this charming seaside resort with pretty beaches has a huge platform overlooking the Mediterranean, steep cliffs below as well as the rather turbulent sea. On a clear day you can see the coast of Africa, hence the nickname “Balcony of Europe”. Narrow, romantic streets wind through the old town lined with whitewashed houses and many beautiful arts and crafts shops. Among them, there is one who designs nothing but an essential Spanish accessory: the fans, all painted by hand. You can admire several churches and a huge 19andaqueduct of the century which rises on five floors. The biggest attraction are the nearby caves of Nerja which were discovered by chance when boys were hunting bats through a crack in the rocks.
The caves are an amazing row of chambers, one of them featuring the largest stalactite in the world. They are themed based on the appearance of the stalagmites and stalactites and easily explored via comfortable walkways and staircases, all well lit. The acoustics are so good that concerts and performances take place in the largest hall. Be sure to follow the signs and instructions not to touch anything and not to stray from the designated paths. Wear good shoes, not sandals, the constantly running water can make the trails slippery in places.
Casares is spectacularly perched atop a sheer cliff from which whitewashed, red-tiled houses crumble in tiers. It was “discovered” by Julius Caesar who appreciated the healing powers of sulphurous and alkaline waters to treat skin diseases. He ordered the construction of the village, including a villa for himself which today is one of the most important historical monuments in Casares. The village is located 105 km south-west of Malaga, about 1h30 by car on the AP7, exit at Manilva.
There are several monuments and ruins from Andalusia’s Moorish past to see in Casares. Among them is the Castillo Hisa at the top of the mountain, original Arabic gates along Arrabel Street, and a small museum – Museo Ethno Cultural – with exhibits on rural life of the past and Roman artifacts and jewelry. The museum is open to visitors on Mondays and Sundays.
There are many good restaurants in and around Casares to sample typical Andalusian food and wine.
Ubrique is located a few kilometers further north from Casares, which means you can easily combine the two on a day trip from Malaga. Or, if you are interested in hiking and nature walks, you can approach Ubrique from Cádiz as it is located between the fabulous Sierra de Grazalema and Los Carnales natural parks. These areas are teeming with wildlife such as eagles, vultures, mountain goats and wild boar. But, you will be lucky if you actually see them.
Ubrique is one of the white villages but it is perhaps not the most photogenic, as it is a working town. This fact, however, is well worth a visit because the fame of Ubrique is leather. Leather production and tanning has been vital in the city since well before Roman times. Later Italian immigrants refined the production and today Ubrique leather is used by world famous designers like Gucci and others. You can see the houses of leather workers through the centuries and a very interesting leather museum, which explains the history of the industry, is located in the pretty white Convento de Capuchino – located at the foot of the medieval part of the city. Grouped around a courtyard you will find superb embossed leather panels, presses and cutting machines used since the 19and century. On the top floor you see hundreds of products made from Ubrique leather. However, the whole process is shrouded in a heavily guarded secret, which is why you won’t see a single word of explanation in any language.
Located in the province of Cádiz about 24 km from Arcos de la Frontera, you come across another white village, Algar, which faces the vast reservoir of Guadalcacín. The village is a maze of narrow cobbled lanes leading past whitewashed houses and up many fairly steep steps. You will find lovely craft shops selling clothes and local products such as cheese, honey, rabbit and pheasant pâté.
7. Mijas Pueblo
The famous resort of Mijas Costa is located about 40 minutes from Malaga. Mijas is divided into two parts: Mijas Costa and, at a distance of 25 km inland and by a very winding mountain road, the white village of Mijas Pueblo. You will love discovering this charming village with white houses, abundant flowerpots, small shaded squares to rest around a drink, and the many galleries and interesting art shops. This village has attracted many painters and sculptors who have made it their home studio. In the past Mijas was known for allowing people to get around on mules, there was actually a mule parking lot next to the tourist office. Animal protectors, however, ensured that this type of transport was replaced by guided walking tours or electric tuk tuks.
Mijas also has a handful of museums, the most interesting being the Casa Museo Municipal, an ethnological museum that shows, among other things, wine presses and explains the process of making wine.
When you visit Mijas, especially in summer, don’t forget sunscreen and a hat, the sun in the mountains is fierce.
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