5 November 2017

Spain on the Edge

For many, Spain is and forever will be associated with its beautiful coastline and beaches and that is certainly where most tourists head.  However, there is an altogether steeper side to this larger than you might have thought country on the Iberian Peninsula.  This is Spain on the edge.

Our first stop is Malaga to the town of Ronda which dates back to Neolithic times.  The town of over thirty thousand people is built either side of a dizzying ravine.  There are three bridges which span the gap between the sides.  First there is the Puente Romano or Roman Bridge. There is the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge, and then comes the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge – which is the name it was given when it was completed in 1793).

Puente Nuevo towers 120 meters (almost four hundred feet) above the floor of the canyon and together they give the city its brand – it is these bridges that people most remember.  Over the course of history, it is said that many people have, as punishment for their crimes or being on the wrong side in times of civil strife, been thrown off these bridges.

The reason for the ravine?  Over millennia the river Guadalevín has carved out the El Tajo canyon, which at its deepest plummets one hundred meters.  The town itself is high in the mountains at 750 meters above sea level.  The city itself perches precariously on top of the canyon.  It is unlikely that any of its inhabitants suffer from vertigo.

Ronda is not the only place in Spain where people live on the edge (as it were, and without making the country sound like a single, giant, Almodovar movie).  If we move towards the French border and visit the Catalan town of Castellfollit de la Roca.

Many years ago there was a volcanic eruption.  Two lava flows became overlayed and the result was a magnificent 50 meter high crag.  What better place to live in terms of defense than a place where you can survey all the land around?

Nestled in the province of Girona, the town is bordered by two rivers which flow between its base – the Fluvià and Toronell.  As the rivers have flowed they have worn away the basalt around, leaving the crag in the center.  Incredibly the town itself is very small – it is built upon an area of less than a square kilometer which makes it a small, but precipitous town.

Let us take a diversion for a second, away from populated areas.  The Spanish have a head for heights – this much has been established already.  Yet even they must shiver a little at the sight of El Caminito del Rey (or The King’s Little Pathway in English and it is located, like Ronda in Málaga.

Hydroelectric power plants were built at the nearby falls at the beginning of the twentieth century and getting building materials to them became an issue.  The result was the pathway which also doubled up as an inspection platform for the channel below.  Taking four years to build it was opened to much pomp and ceremony in 1905 and now wonder.  It is quite a feat of engineering.

However, it is mostly the brave or foolhardy who attempt to traverse it these days.

Sometimes it makes sense not to establish a settlement atop a gorge but to mould one’s buildings along it instead.  So it is in Andalucia where the incredible town of Setenil de las Bodegas which has its modern roots in the fifteenth century although there is evidence of habitation for millennia before that.

People flock to the village because there is, quite simply, nothing else like it in the world.  It looks like something from a fantasy novel – an urban situation of size set within a gigantic gorge.  The dwelling places were created by the excavation of the base of the mountain and the addition of an external wall.

The village follows the flow of the river Trejo and is home to over three thousand people.

To give you a better idea of the size (as well as the height!) of Spain, our next stop is Cuenca.  This mountain town is in the eponymous province of Cuenca.  The province itself is huge – almost as large as the country of Slovenia.

Although there was no settlement in Roman times at Cuenca the invading Arabs of the eight century realized its strategic importance and built a fortress which they called Kunka.  Cuenca as it became known became a prosperous town and the center of the local agricultural and textile industries.

There are many beautiful sites in and around the city but our focus of attention are the famous hanging houses - Las Casas Colgadas. Dating back to the fifteenth century these dwelling places were built perilously overhanging the Huecar River Gorge.

Today they are home to a restaurant and a Museum of Abstract Art (in which Spain has long led the way).

Sorbas in the Almería province also has houses which hang – seemingly with millimeters to spare – along the edges of a cliff.  Known here as casas colgantes.

The historic center of the present town of Sorbas, is located on the promontory of Amesetado, serving as a silent witness to all the cultures that settled in the Peninsula over time.  Suspended over a chasm, one can only wonder at what they have seen over the years.

Our final visit is to the city of Arcos de la Frontera in Cadiz in the south of the country.  The ridge upon which the town is built is not the product of volcanic activity – it is made from sandstone and it is located on the side of the Guadalete river.

During the thirteenth century the Spanish and Moors fought long and hard over land and the town gets its name by being the frontier of the country’s battles with the Moorish invaders during this time.

It had been an independent Moorish principality during the eleventh century but by the reign of King Alfonso the Wise in 1252 this era was drawing to an end. He was responsible for the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain and built a cathedral on the high ridge of the town to mark thism which is famous for its ten bells.

So, Spain is not all about sand and sea. It is a country of rich geographic diversity which we hope we have demonstrated here.  If you belong to a community which you feel has been unfairly left out here, please get in touch and we can include you!

First image Credit Papalars