Provence, of course, I knew well – I had driven around the villages in the footsteps of Peter Mayle, whose sardonic, yet affectionate look at life in those parts had left me wanting to worship at his feet. And the hillslopes of Tuscany, with their quaint villages, had come to be my secret “when I retire” place, thanks to Frances Mayes’ book ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ which is about finding home where the heart is.
So, why had no one told me about Spain’s pretty Pueblos Blancos, the White Villages dotted through the pretty Andalusian landscape? These villages get their collective name from the limewash paint used on the outer walls of homes to keep them cool in the scorching summers. I discovered this charming region in the south of Spain very recently on a road trip with the husband.
Ronda was the first major stop in this circuit, and after battling with the touristy hordes who insisted on photobombing my every image at Cordoba and Granada earlier, it was a welcome relief to see Ronda almost devoid of visitors.
This village is home to the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s second oldest bullring that has been immortalized in several of Hemingway’s books. And that is where we headed first, on the off-chance of watching an actual bullfight that evening. The season, however, did not start till after Easter, and so we had to settle for a tour of the bullring and the museum with its collection of fascinating objects that added a dash of romance to this otherwise gory sport.
Ronda’s other big attraction is the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) high over the floor of the canyon, connecting La Cuidad, the heritage part of town with El Mercadillo, the modern market quarter. We got a sense of this town’s history only when we learned that the “new bridge”- offering stunning views of the countryside for miles on end – was built in 1788. But more than anything else, the village itself was a stunning sight, clinging proudly and precariously to a clifftop, the shiny whites of its buildings a perfect foil to the deep browns of the land.
It was only the next morning, when we headed out of Ronda towards Seville, with the vague plan to “stop at a white village or two on the way,” that we realized how much time and attention this part of Spain deserved. The friendly tourism officer at Grazalema was shocked when we told him our plans; only two hours in his gorgeous village? he shook his head in despair before proceeding to mark out the most significant attractions on the map.
He then went a step further, plotting the rest of our day for us. Clearly, every single village was worth a detailed exploration but how were we ever going to manage that? Grazalema itself was a charmer, every corner throwing up a new vista of the lush limestone hills of the Parque Natural de Sierra de Grazalema that surrounds this village. Add to that an ornate cathedral here, a bustling square there, each and demanding attention like a particularly eager child
Spring was in the air, with clumps of wild flowers along the roads and homes sporting earthen pots of cheerful flowers on their tiny balconies. Every narrow alleyway held the promise of new and exciting finds – such labyrinths are characteristic of this region – a throwback to the time when it was under Moorish rule, giving it the name Al-Andalus.
After this, Arcos de la Frontera and Medina Sidonia – both boasting a checkered mix of Roman, Moorish and Christian origins – went by in a bleached blur. We stopped for lunch at the former, where preparations for Easter were on in full swing at the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria de la Ascension, rising tall amidst squat white buildings. Unfortunately, we reached Medina Sidonia when the village was enjoying siesta time and not a leaf stirred on its streets.
Another unexpected delight – we had read about it only a couple of days ago in our trusty guidebook – was Setenil de las Bodegas just before Ronda. Setenil turned out to be a unique detour, with its modern structure seeming to be hewn into the craggy rocks, or sprout from its ancient cave dwellings, depending on where you see it from.
Every whitewashed café and shop along the narrow lane I walked on, had an overhanging cave for a roof, keeping it cool even on that muggy afternoon. The ‘bodega’ in the name suggests that these caves were probably once used to store the local wines in moderate temperatures.
I could not think of a more fitting end to this drive than a pitcher of the regional Tinto (red wine). We settled down at an uncrowded bar to watch the sun go down on this ancient village, wondering what living there would be like.