Article by Victoria Wood.
One of the many benefits of Marbella’s location is that in very close proximity you have mountainous regions which are host to some of the most picturesque white villages, Pueblos Blancos, in the whole of Spain. Nestled neatly in the mountain sides, these villages are incredible sights in themselves and are home to some of the most authentic Spanish restaurants serving typical traditional dishes that their ancestors would be proud of.
You’ll find countless little museums, plaques on buildings, and historical tales lining the walls of the villages, as well as churches and homes of important figures of the town’s (and country’s) history. You’ll stumble across tiny shops (often without a sign on the door!) selling local cured meats, cheeses, olive oils, breads, eggs, of which you’ll never find the same flavour anywhere else in the world. Walking trails in these mountains are second to none, the views are outstanding – from some the coast of Morocco can be in full view on a clear day.
It is good to have an idea of what to look for, although wandering around aimlessly and getting purposely lost can also be just as rewarding. Despite that romantic idea, here is a basic guide to three of our top white villages easily reached, and utterly worthwhile visiting, on a day trip from Marbella.
Distance from Marbella: 46km
Time of travel From Marbella centre: 45 mins
Strategically positioned in the Sierra Bermeja, you’d be forgiven for wondering how on earth this incredible little village was first put together, with its little white houses seemingly piled on top of each other at the edge of a cliff! They’re all neatly stacked beneath the ancient Moorish castle which crowns the village at its peak. Within the town you’ll find two main plazas where most of the action happens; one adorned with a water fountain at the centre which the locals use to fill up their bottles. The fountain was built in 1785, under the reign of Carlos III; a project that was carried out throughout the eighteenth century to channel the water from the springs and wells located in Puerto de las Viñas and bring it to the centre of the village. You can spend a good few hours ambling the hikes and walking trails surrounding the village and experience the beauty of the natural countryside as well as spot the famous vultures that populate the sierra.
Within the walls of the town you’ll find plenty of cultural highlights such as the aforementioned castle; up a steep but worthwhile walk, the birthplace of the important Spanish figure Blas Infante (Spanish Andalucista politician, Georgist, writer, historian and musicologist, known as the Father of Andalusian Nationalism) as well as a cultural centre dedicated to his life and work.
And once you’re done with the sightseeing there are plenty of little local, hole-in-the-wall tapa bars, or a full range of gastronomic delights just outside the village. Grab a coffee and a tapa at La Casita de Maria in the main square with the fountain, and watch the world go by or try a montadito (small tapa on bread) at La Tasca de Los Niños just opposite to keep you going. For my favourite spot head to Bar de Lo Piko where you’ll be greeted warmly by the mother and son team that own the quaint little restaurant/bar. The son runs the bar and mama definitely runs the kitchen. The chalkboard outside will let you know what she has decided to cook that day, and that is that! Try the Serranita sandwich – it is incredibly good, or the Croquettas de choco, you’ll never look back. For something more substantial, and great views over the village, head up the stairs to La Bodeguita de En Medio, where you’ll find traditional dishes including locally caught game.
A little outside the town you can go on the famous gastronomic route that has been cast as exceptional fare by many international food critics; on which there are at least three restaurants that are absolute “must visits”. My personal favourite is Restaurante Arroyo Hondo for its gorgeous setting, impeccable service and outstanding menu and quality of dishes. The food here NEVER disappoints, and the menu is more a fusion style than traditional Spanish, something to really tickle the taste buds. The second I would recommend is Venta Victoria for beautifully put together Spanish food. The family run restaurant is cosy inside, almost feeling like parts of it are someone’s dining room at home, and the vine-lined terraces sport florals and niches all over as well as an amazing view of the countryside stretching towards the Mediterranean.
Close by to Casares you’ll find the incredible Roman Baths, where you can literally immerse yourself in a piece of ancient history. You’ll smell the sulphur as you near the open air baths and wander the surrounding countryside, and if you’re feeling like you’re in need of a refreshing and rejuvenating splash in the healing waters, then you can go right ahead and jump in!
A beautiful white village with a gentle and welcoming community who are culturally respectful of their history, yet open-minded to tourism and modern advances. If you are lucky enough to catch a live performance of the native Fandango (a form of Flamenco) music that originated in the region, you will really feel the essence of Casares.
ZAHARA DE LA SIERRA
Distance from Marbella: 96 km
Time of travel From Marbella centre: 1 hour 30 mins
This has got to be one the most incredible places of beauty in the whole of Andalucía, white village speaking and otherwise. Built above the Zahara-El Gastor reservoir which provides epic turquoise waters, with, again, a 13th century castle being its crowning glory, Zahara de la Sierra is truly a sight to behold. The little white-washed village sits at the foothills of the Sierra del Jaral, and boasts incredible views over the Grazalema Natural Park in the province of Cádiz. Take a walk around the area and literally smell the orange blossom as you take in the sights of this important outpost in Spanish and Moorish history. After numerous battles and heavy losses, Christian forces under Rodrigo Ponce de León, the Marquis of Cadiz, finally conquered the village in 1483, with Rodrigo receiving the title Marquis of Zahara. A steep walk up to the ruins of the castle is well worth the little trek, the views do not disappoint.
For a relatively small town Zahara has a lot to offer, as does the surrounding countryside. Within the village you’ll find plenty of monuments and historical sights such as the 17th century Santa María de la Mesa church, San Juan de Letran chapel built in the 1800’s, and the ancient clock tower. You’ll also come across the old Roman bridge – Puente de Palominos and the UNESCO-recognised old town centre and museum.
Another great spot for a swim or to spend the afternoon is La Playita, or little beach, which is situated in the Arroyomolinos Recreational Area. For a small entrance fee you can spend the day here splashing in the cool waters of the lake fed directly by a natural spring. The surroundings are a well-kept six hectares of gardens and barbecue areas as well as a restaurant and recently added treetop adventure park; fun for all the family! The park also offers horse riding, kayaking, sailing and fishing.
The hiking and cycling in and around Zahara is exceptional due to the bountiful Grazalema Natural Park in which it is situated. Try the walk along the Arroyo de Bocaleones or up Cerro Coros for two of the most recommended stretches, and for cyclists the Via Verde de la Sierra is exceptional, for the more discerning try the Puerto de las Palomas. You’ll be blessed with a plethora of birds as you roam the region and there are birdwatching tours available if that happens to be your thing. Just bordering the town of Zahara is the gorge of La Garagana Verde, a truly spectacular natural landmark, especially if you enjoy canyoning or climbing. As you venture though the ravine you’ll encounter moments where you’ll be river wading and splashing in incredibly crystal clear pools. Some of the sections may appear impassable but, for the more adventurous, there are ways to go forth and conquer!
When it comes to cuisine Zahara does not disappoint. You can find traditional Spanish, Andalucían, tapas galore, as well as a range of fusion-style restaurants all within close proximity. You’ll find outstanding views, quaint patios, and stunning cortijos within the vast range of restaurants available.
For elaborate contemporary Mediterranean-based dishes El Lago is the place to go. Regional seafood and select local meats are their specialty alongside tradition and innovation. Not far from here on Calle Fuente you’ll find the lovely La Posada de Abuela where you’ll encounter true Spanish food. These are humble, traditional dishes cooked as they ought to be and reasonably priced too. This is a comfortable, cosy place to sit and relax to enjoy a true taste of Andalucía. Bar Canijo offers similar fare at even more economical prices in a relaxed atmosphere with exceedingly welcoming hosts.
Again, making your own way through the cobbled streets and dipping into various little nooks is one of the best ways to experience the undeniable charm of these white villages. Limit yourself to a tapas or ration to share in each spot and you’ll take yourself on a gastronomic tour of the town!
ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA
Distance from Marbella: 145km
Time of travel From Marbella centre: 2 hours
Often described as the most beautiful town in Spain, Arcos de la Frontera boasts an intense history which is evident during a visit to the town centre (a Monument of Historical and Artistic Importance since 1962), as well as beauty. Resembling a rambling white staircase of houses leading up the cliff to the castle at the summit; the rocky ridge on which it clambers, La Peña, is simply striking. The charming, narrow, winding streets add to that beauty. The churches of St. Peter and St. Mary are further architectural and historical highlights of the town as well as the river Guadalete that surrounds the cliff face on which it stands. A strategically built town steeped in Muslim and Christian history of which you’ll find strong evidence of both within its walls.
The village is peppered with must-try gastronomic venues; one of our firm favourites which highlights the flavour of the village and its history, is the delightful Taberna Jóvenes Flamencos situated in heart of the historic centre of the town. Not only is the decor vibrant and glaring with Andalusian tradition, the food reflects the region to a tee. Local cheeses top typical regional dishes, the tortilla is homemade like abuela (grandmother) used to make it, and a range of meat, fish and vegetarian tapas frequents the menu. To add to the local taste of the place, all the ingredients, plus wine list, come from the surrounding area. You may even happen upon a live performances if you’re lucky.
A short skip up the same street and you’ll come across Bar La Cárcel, where you’ll find ‘proper tapas’! No frills, but certainly no lack of flavour, variety or tradition, this is a place to experience local dishes as they ought to be. Try the shrimp fritters with a chilled caña (small beer) and soak up the atmosphere like a local.
And for something reflecting the combination of cultural influences head to Restaurante Aljibe; here you will find Andalucian and Moorish fusion at its best. Situated in an 18th century building coated with antique typical tiles and deep hues of red and turquoise making the decor sumptuous and inviting. The homemade deserts and pastries are a must-have, as is the freshly baked bread.
Otherwise you can literally tapa-hop throughout the village and stumble on the many nooks and niches that frequent the side streets.
The sightseeing in Arcos is aplenty starting with the churches and of course the mirador, or lookout point, over the extensive breathtaking views. The 11th century originally Moorish castle atop the hill takes centre stage and also offers incredible views. From the renaissance we are presented with the Palacio de Mayorazgo whose facade is nothing but impressive, as are the patios, all of which can be visited. The convents here are also worth a look as they outline the history of the region as much as the churches and castle. In the Convento de Mercedarias you can even find home cooked cakes and sweets for sale made by the nuns there, a real authentic treat. You won’t see the nuns, you must order through a small hatch through which the goodies will be delivered; so romantic! There’s plenty to explore here, but you could easily get through it all in one day, unless of course you end up spending hours over lunch, for which we wouldn’t blame you at all!