With our wing mirrors judiciously tucked in, we drove gingerly up through the impossibly narrow one-way system of the ancient town of Arcos de la Frontera.
Our destination, the scenic Plaza del Cabildo, was in view, when around the corner appeared an elderly Spanish gentleman on his mobility scooter. Waving and smiling broadly he trundled towards us and stopped in front of our car.
As a local, he was fully aware that he was heading in the wrong direction down the street, but was clearly determined to test the resolve of the humble foreign tourists! He made absolutely no attempt to turn and drive his vehicle 20m back to the Plaza, so we reluctantly admitted defeat and reversed (somewhat irritably) for over 200m back down the hill, thankfully escaping to the main road without scratches to the paintwork.
Our second attempt was more successful and we were soon enjoying the splendid sights of the Plaza including the imposing Basílica de Santa María, the old Moorish castle and the Parador Hotel with its decorative Andalucian courtyard.
Arcos has an ancient history, founded by the Romans, expanded by the Moors and later conquered by the Christians. It is dramatically positioned on a hilltop with many of its buildings worryingly perched on the edge of crumbly cliffs.
There are spectacular views to the south over rolling agricultural country of wheat and sunflower fields, vineyards and fruit orchards. It is the most westerly and one of the most striking of Anadalucia’s white towns. We wandered through the shady streets admiring the several palacios with their delicately carved facades and the baroque bell tower of San Pedro church.
The town is said to have once had a more sinister side, with madness, interbreeding, covens and witchcraft. However, there was no evidence of its creepy past as we dined that evening amongst cheerful Spanish families in one of the excellent street restaurants, serenaded from above by a chattering multitude of swooping swifts and swallows.
The following day we drove east through rolling hills, to Ubrique, famed for its leather work, and then towards the fertile and verdant Parque Natural de Sierra de Grazelama. The picturesque village of Grazelama is perched defiantly below a rocky crest and proved to be the perfect place for lunch on a very hot day.
The town is filled with the sound of bubbling fountains, which hint at the aquatic abundance of the climate – Grazelama is the wettest place in Spain! Spectacular rocky mountain scenery and a great variety of vegetation make this a popular centre for hiking and climbing.
Our time was limited, so we confined ourselves to admiring the pretty village centre with its balconies and porches overflowing with pots of colourful flowers. The residents visibly take immense pride in their environment and the shops were brimful of homemade products and attractive woollen carpets.
A pleasant journey through an undulating landscape with dense oak forests brought us to Ronda, the largest of Andalucía’s ‘Pueblos Blancos’. Ernest Hemingway said in his book Death in the Afternoon, “Ronda is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever run off with anyone”!
Set astride the awesome 80m deep El Tejo gorge, the beautiful city features high on the must-see list of all visitors to the region. Most tourists start exploration in the Plaza del España at the busy heart of the modern town next to the gorge and close to the famous bullring.
From here, it is a short walk over the ravine by the spectacular Puente Nuevo Bridge into the original Moorish part of the city where the really interesting monuments are located. However, a much easier access option is to use the car park on the south side of the old city, from where it is just a short stroll into the charming historic centre.
We began our exploration at the church of Santa María la Mayor (once Ronda’s principal mosque) before learning about the region’s long history at the Museo Municipal, set in the Palacio de Mondragón, Ronda’s most beautiful mansion with its fabulous patio courtyards. We relaxed with our morning coffee in the pretty gardens of Cuenca listening to live guitar flamenco music before marvelling at the architecture of the Casa de Don Bosco with its colourful garden and superb view of the El Tejo gorge.
Our favourite place, however, was the Casa del Rey Mouro, on the peaceful northern side of the city. Here, the chief attraction is La Mina, an impressive staircase of 232 steep, slippery steps leading downwards for 80m through the rock to the river below. There are various rooms and vaults carved in the limestone to explore on the way down which make the expedition even more atmospheric.
At the bottom there is a small platform, a magical place where we dangled our feet in the cool, clear tumbling waters of the river and looked back up at the town. It is believed that in Moorish times, a human chain of slaves was employed to bring up water to the city by this route.
There are many more ‘Pueblos Blancos’ to discover in this spectacular part of Andalucía. Their neat white-painted houses appear to literally hang from the mountains and, as we discovered in Arcos, their narrow winding streets are often best negotiated on foot!
A whole range of accommodation is available from comfortable B&B’s to luxurious Paradors, and it is an easy drive from the Algarve. We can heartily recommend a gem of a guesthouse called La Cazalla, situated in a stunningly beautiful and secluded wooded valley just outside Ronda. (www.lacazalladeronda.com) Here after a day exploring the sights of the city, you can relax your tired limbs by the enchanting swimming pool before relishing a glass of local wine and a sumptuous dinner on the shady terrace.