Cheap Spain

Cheap Spain

Mr Henderson’s Railway Part 5:

We drive along the valley to the village of Cortes de la Frontera. Why this place was ever on a frontier goodness knows. It is a small village. The railway line runs through it, and it is at the bottom of a valley and cant possibly have had any strategic importance, and there is certainly no castle.

We stop for a coffee. There is a small cafe by the railway line. A coffee is 75 cents. I rather fancy a tapa. There are several tapas in trays on the counter. One is a rather nice salad, with the usual scattering of tuna, plus some quail eggs. The barman scoops up some, and some more, adds more eggs, and hands me a substantial portion, and asks me for 80 cents. Wow! Maybe we should come to live here. This is seriously cheap.

If you want to live in a charming valley at a slow pace, yet less than an hour back from Marbella or Gibraltar, then this is the place to be. It’s beautiful, it’s sheltered, it’s quiet, but to get out again is another matter. I tried one road, and it went nowhere. I tried another. It ended in a cul de sac.

We drove back to the bar. “How the heck do I get out of here?” I shouted to my new friends sitting at one of the tables.

“You have to drive to the top of the mountain where you meet the main road,” they said. And so we drove until we met the main road from Ronda to Algeciras, turned right, and drove back to Gaucin.

Gaucin Station

I really like it in these valleys. Things are quiet, the scenery is magnificent. The food is dirt cheap, living is simple and calm. Yet three quarters of an hour away is Algeciras, and Gibraltar to the south, and Marbella to the East, and it’s only half an hour to Ronda in the north. And I bet you could buy a hideaway dirt cheap here.

And on the way home we passed a rather unusual stork home. Usually storks live singly in a nest on top of an electricity pole or the like. Occasionally you see a couple together in the same pole, but we passed what amounts to a block of flats; four of them on one pylon.

Stork Nests

Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Prehistoric Cave Paintings

I got lost and found myself in the wrong valley, miles from the river and the railway line, and so it was some months later that, on my next visit to this neck of the woods I came to Mr Henderson’s railway from the north. I was driving down from Osuna, and every time we hit a tiny village we had to wait, wheels on one pavement, while the oncoming traffic negotiated its way down the high street which is simply not wide enough for two.

Eventually we came into a wide valley where you can see across a large, well populated basin that lies directly to the north of Ronda. There’s a general strike on, so village after village is closed down. There are people lining the sides of the road, sitting, talking, doing nothing. I have never seen the villages so full. Oddly, not a single bar is open.

Luckily the service station on the Ronda bypass is open and we stop for refreshment. We are now almost at the point where Mr Henderson’s rail line meets the Madrid line, and we can work our way back down the line to Gaucin, where we left it last time.

We turn off the main road as it curves round to the bottom of the valley. Once again we are following the river and the railway line. We zoom along until we reach the Cueva del Gato.

There is an interesting restaurant overlooking the railway line. There is rabbit, deer, partridge, and all kinds of interesting dishes on the menu. Maybe next time I will stop here for a meal.

We cross the line and wind our way down the valley to the village of Benaojan. This is where things start to get interesting. Approximately four kilometres south of here the road passes a small parking area leading to a set of roughly made steps. These steps climb steeply up the mountainside to a small cabin and a set of wooden benches. Beyond the cabin is a metal door leading to a cave; the Cueva de la Pileta.

This cave was only discovered about a hundred years ago by a farmer who was trying to rescue one of his sheep that had slipped on a rock, and got stuck in a crevice. That crevice led down to a shaft that in turn led to a cave. With help from a neighbour the farmer widened the shaft and crawled in.

Inside the Cueva de la Pileta is a whole galaxy of interconnecting caves that were hollowed out millions of years ago by a river. Obviously the course of the river changed, and eventually the caves were discovered by primitive man and used as a home.

It is estimated that at one time about fourteen people lived together in the caves about 30,000 years ago. Habitation continued until about 3,000 B.C. There is evidence of fires set underneath gaps in the roof for the smoke to drift up and out of the cave. There are remains of primitive tools, bones, and even what appear to be evidence of some kind of religious rites. Most of these finds have been transferred to a museum in Malaga. What’s left are the paintings on the walls.

Cave Drawing of a Horse

La Cueva de Pileta drawings

There are marks which look as though they are some kind of calendar, where people have crossed off days. There are several paintings of horses, and a rather fine picture of a fish.

La Pileta de Cueva Fish
The caves wind around for several kilometres, and in places they double back so that there is a top cave, a floor about four metres thick, with another cave below.

Pileta Horse Painting

The caves are open throughout the year, but I would not advise anyone with a disability to try to get in. The steps up to the cave entrance are only for fit people, and there are many steps inside the caves.

There is nothing spectacular to see, but for those who like this sort of thing it is certainly worth the visit. It is indeed interesting to see what primitive man called his home and his castle.

It’s warm inside. I went in on a blustery cold day, and we were all quite comfortable inside without jackets. In summer it is probably cool. There are guided tours roughly every couple of hours during the morning, and then again late afternoon. (Remember siesta time.) The tour takes over an hour, and parties of up to 25 can take the tour. You trek through the caves carrying a battery powered lantern. There is no electricity here. It’s an adventure. After all it is a cave-man’s home. It doesn’t sport modern comforts.

The Railway Part 3

Mr Henderson’s Railway -3

The road winds gently along the bottom of the valley, roughly keeping alongside the river and the railway line, but we are coming into the mountains. In Spain there are so many mountain ranges. They leap up all around you. Ahead we have to navigate around the foothills, and try to follow the river and Mr Henderson. It’s proving difficult.

We drive through Los Angeles. Across the valley is Jimena, another white town, set on a hillside, facing south-east. The main street is quite steep, as in so many of these white towns of Cadiz. And again, like so many of these little towns, the high street is all. Turn off into a side street and the pot holes lurk to catch you unawares, the pavement disappears, and the view leads down a steep incline, across the valley bottom, and up to the rolling foothills of the sierra.

Jimena de la Frontera

Everywhere the fields are full of cattle. This is a rich agricultural region. Where the land is flat are fields of low rise cotton, the small white fluff blowing in the wind. A lorry roars along in front of us. There is no tarpaulin over its load, and parasols of cotton fly out from the back and scuttle across the road in front of us.

Cotton Field

We pass through the village of San Pablo. But just before the village is a rather fine restaurant, with an interesting menu. We sit under the awning, and while away a pleasant hour or two, swapping notes with the folks next door who are eating dishes that I have not come across before. Rabo de Toro (bull’s tail) I have eaten many times before, but not cooked in this strange black sauce. It looks rather good. Then there is something that looks like a soggy milk pudding, but is a kind of pesto, which I have eaten up in the mountains at Tragacete at the source of the River Tajo (or Tagus). However, once again, this version is totally different, as it has been puréed.

On my second trip through here we stop again. It is a weekday and instead of day-trippers up from the coast there are delivery men, and locals, plus the occasional tourist. We have four large tapas, a pudding, a coffee, an orange juice, and two glasses of rioja; the bill is eleven euros.

Gaucin Station
The road is really starting to twist and turn as we approach Gaucin. This is a long straggling village, and it is where we briefly hit the railway again. The station is well to the west of the main village. It is very picturesque. Everywhere is green. There are trees, small fields, brightly coloured flowering trees and bushes tumble over outbuildings, with long fronds of pink and red.

Spring flowers
As I wander among the rail tracks there is a blast from somewhere down the line, and a few moments later a long white train appears from out of the trees, and rattles past us, and disappears around another bend, further into the mountains towards Ronda.

We head up the wrong road, going the long way round to Cortes de la Frontera. The road almost immediately goes over a cattle grid into an ancient forest, which, according to the inscriptions on the tourist wall maps outside Gaucin station, is part of the last great rain forest of Europe. How far back this was all rain forest the text doesn’t say.

I quote: “there are many protected nature reserves… Los Alcomocales, the last Mediterranean rain forest; La Sierra de las Nieves, home of the Spanish fir….” (This fir seems to have a much longer leaf structure than the usual fir tree) “…and La Sierra de Grazalema, with a striking landscape caused by the exceptional rainfall; it receives more rain than any other region of the country.”

Well, that’s what it says, but somehow I find it hard to believe that this area receives more rainfall than the coastal regions of Galicia, and the mountainous area of Asturias.

The main tree is the cork oak, and there are great stacks of cork drying in a field. Then we are onto a twisting road that pushes its way through the trees with their orange-brown trunks, naked up to the first branches, which are themselves still clothed in the deeply rutted cork bark.

Cork drying
The trunks are stripped of the bark about every nine or ten years. In Portugal the trunks are numbered. Here no-one bothers. I have in fact wondered about the numbers in Portugal. Surely over the years they are covered by the new growth of bark, so that when the essential time for stripping it off again comes around they are not visible.

Cork Forest
Back down in the valley are the caves with prehistoric paintings, but we’ll reach them next week.


Mr Henderson’s Railway Part 2

Mr Henderson’s Railway Part 2


From the main road turn right, over the level crossing, then turn left, and there is this new town. It looks rather nice. As new towns go I wouldn’t mind living there myself.

Castellar new town
And the station is just a hundred yards down the road.

The new station
But up in the hills is another Castellar, dating back to the old stone age, 25,000 years ago.

This neck of the woods has a rather ancient history. It is listed as the last great rain forest area in Europe. It also has a more primitive form of pine tree still growing in the mountains. Not only that but there is evidence of human habitation going back 30,000 years in this valley. And if you follow Mr Henderson’s railway line a little further north you can see the cave drawings.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s carry on up to the roundabout, and take the turning to old Castellar.

This winding road takes you through a raised area, and then skirts the side of a pinnacle of rock on which stands the old castle which is the guts of this very old village.

Village houses

Nowadays it looks out to the northwest across the new reservoir. However, the views are spectacular in all directions. Initially I felt quite giddy walking along the battlements of the old castle and looking out to the east across the sierra on the other side of a great valley, the floor of which was alarmingly distant.

Castle walls

As I said, human habitation goes back quite some way into pre-history, but the more modern history of this site starts with the building of the castle in the tenth century. It was enlarged during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This was civil war time with the Christians and Muslims at it hammer and tongs over control of southern Spain, with the frontier moving backwards and forwards throughout the whole period.

Village inside the castle walls
The castle formed the whole village as was common in feudal times. The main building was the military complex with the lord’s private quarters tucked away somewhere inside. Beyond the central military complex was a honeycomb of homes huddled together for protection within the castle walls.

Castle walls

Castellar was a complete ruin by the nineteen seventies, with only a handful of people living there. The government took possession of the whole area in 1983 and declared it an historical and artistic monument. A new town, Almoraina was built in the valley next to Mr Henderson’s railway, and a new station built. The new village had all mod cons, including running water and sanitation, and was altogether more convenient a location than the old castle-village.

What had been an advantage during the period of the religious wars was now a positive disincentive to living there. Eventually the houses were taken over by artists, and there are still artists there, showing paintings, glass work, artistic work using cork, and painted tiles.

There is even one of the houses for sale. Here are the telephone numbers if anyone is interested.

Village house for sale within castle walls

There is also a restaurant in one of the houses with an enterprising menu. The eating area is a small couple of rooms and is a bit cramped, and to my mind it doesn’t help to have canned music belting out in such close quarters. Please note restaurateurs, the piped muzak turned away a potential customer. Those of us (10-15% of the population) with tinnitus have problems with that particular racket. That means if we eat in muzak-drenched surroundings we cant take part in conversations, which is part of the reason for eating out. I know it may sound odd, but some of us come for the food, not for your crummy record collection.

With the wind blowing a gale and the clouds gathering we drove round and down to the main road, and turned towards Jimena. We’ll reach there next week.


Cheap in Spain

Cheap in Spain

If you are finding it difficult to make ends meet, maybe you should consider moving to Spain. Everything is cheaper. There are deals in the shops, restaurants and bars, never mind the cheaper petrol.

House prices may still be on the slide, but the interesting thing is that living costs are dropping rather than rising like there are in the UK and other less fortunate places. Yes, it’s like the good old days when everything was cheap in Spain.

I have just spent some time filming which means I have had to travel from Seville to Gibraltar, and from Antequera to Valencia, so I have covered a lot of ground. Wherever I went prices were down.

I stayed in a four star hotel with bed and breakfast for £21 a night just 5 minutes walk from Gibraltar airport. Cheap? That’s pretty hard to beat. I bought top quality white wines south of Cordoba for less than a fiver. In all the towns the old menu del dia is alive and well costing somewhere between €8.50 and €9.50. However, a sign of the times is the new crisis menu, which goes for €7. Cant be bad. Heck, there is even one restaurant in Algeciras advertising a three course meal plus drink for €4.95.

Tapas have got larger, and in the more upmarket places the ads tell us they cost no more than €2. However, it’s pretty easy to get them in town for €1.50. But the amazing news is that if you get into the valleys around Ronda you can find them for 80 cents. I kid you not. I had a particularly fine tapa last week that consisted of a salad, with the usual smattering of tuna, together with no less than four quail eggs, and yes, it cost me 80 cents. The coffee was less than a euro as well. They couldn’t manage a glass of rioja, but up the road we managed to scoff four rather fine tapas, two glasses of rioja, a fruit juice, a coffee and a pudding, and the servings were so large we were full. Price: 11 euros. And that was a weekday price at a restaurant frequented by the rich from Marbella.

With things so cheap in Spain, I think I’m going to sell up, move into that four star hotel, and have tapas for evening meal, and I reckon I can live very comfortably on €1000 a month, with no washing up, no shopping, gardening, repairs, or rates/electric bills. What a wonderful life!