The brilliantly whitewashed villages and towns of inland Andalusia are called Pueblos Blancos. These are archetypal towns and villages that dot the steep slopes of the mountains, which extend north of Gibraltar. They occupy that part of Andalusia that is between the Atlantic in the west and the Mediterranean extending eastward. One of the most traveled routes through the towns is the road that stretches from Arcos de la Frontera all the way to Ronda in the east.
Many towns have "de la Frontera" as part of their name, an ancient reference to the frontier towns that formed a boundary between Christian-held territories and Muslim towns and villages during the Middle Ages. Although the Catholic troops eventually triumphed, it is often the Moorish influence that makes these towns architecturally interesting, with their labyrinths of narrow, cobblestone streets, their fortress-like walls, and their little whitewashed houses with the characteristic wrought-iron grilles.
If you take the drive we've outlined below, you'll pass some of the great scenic landscapes of Spain, various thickly wooded areas that are often the home to some rare botanical species, including the Spanish fir, Abies pinsap, which only grows in four locations at more than 1,000m (3,281 ft.). As you drive along you'll approach limestone slopes that might rise as high as 6,640m (5,000 ft.). Castle ruins and old church bell towers also form part of the landscape. For those who have been across the sea to North Africa, much of the landscape of the Pueblos Blancos will evoke Morocco. The white towns sprawl across the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga, east of Seville, which is often the gateway for tours of this landscape.
The ideal time to drive through the Pueblos Blancos is spring, when all the wildflowers in the valleys burst into bloom. Fall is another good time. Allow at least a day for Ronda, covered in detail at the beginning of this chapter. You can pass through the other villages on this tour, admiring the life and the architecture and then moving on. The best hotels and restaurants along the entire stretch of the Pueblos Blancos are found in Ronda and Arcos de la Frontera. Elsewhere accommodations and restaurants are very limited, although we have included some recommendations along the way.
These whitewashed villages are fairly close together, so driving times, as indicated below, are fairly short. From Seville, you can begin your tour by heading to the Pueblos Blancos along A-4, which becomes N-IV. Continue southeast along N-IV until you come to the turnoff for C-343. At this point our first stopover on the tour, Arcos de la Frontera, will be signposted. Follow C-343 south into Arcos de la Frontera. The first part of the tour from Arcos to Ronda can be done in 1 day, with an overnight in Ronda.
The second part of the tour, from Ronda to Jerez de la Frontera in the west, can also be done in a day. However, those with more time can extend this tour to 3 or 4 days. In the towns along the way, we have recommended the best places to stay and dine: If you find a place that enchants you and your schedule allows it, you can stop over rather than pressing on to Ronda.
Arcos de la Frontera
Along with Ronda, this old Arab town is a highlight of the Pueblos Blancos and the center of the best inns along the route. Now a National Historic Monument, Arcos de la Frontera was built in the form of an amphitheater. The major attraction here is the village itself. Wander at leisure and don't worry about skipping a particular monument.
Once under the control of the Caliphate of Córdoba, Arco's period of glory came to an end when the kingdom collapsed in the 11th century. Arcos fell to Seville. By 1264, the Catholic troops had moved in, signaling the end of Muslim rule forever. Nearly all that interests the casual visitor will be found in the elevated Medina (Old Town), towering over the flatlands. The Old Town is huddled against the crenellated castle walls. You park your car below and walk up until you reach the site built on a crag overlooking a loop in the Guadalete River.
Pick up a map at the Tourist Office (tel. 95-670-22-64; www.ayuntamientoarcos.org), at the main square, Plaza del Cabildo. Hours are May to October Monday to Friday 10am to 2:30pm and 5 to 8pm, Saturday 10:30am to 1:30pm and 5 to 7pm, and Sunday 10:30am to 1:30pm; off season Monday to Friday 10:30am to 2:30pm and 4 to 7pm, Saturday 10:30am to 1:30pm and 4 to 6pm, and Sunday 1:30am to 1:30pm. Start your visit at the Balcon de Arcos, at the same square. Don't miss the view from this rectangular esplanade overhanging a deep river cleft. You can see a Moorish castle, but it's privately owned and not open to the public. The main church on this square is Iglesia de Santa María, constructed in 1732 in a blend of Renaissance, Gothic, and baroque styles. Its western facade, in the Plateresque style, is its most stunning achievement. The interior is a mix of many styles -- Plateresque, Gothic, Mudéjar, and baroque. Look for the beautiful star-vaulting and a late Renaissance altarpiece. Check with the tourist office to see when it will reopen after renovations.
You can head down the main street out of Plaza del Cabildo to Iglesia de San Pedro, with its baroque bell tower. It is on the other side of the cliff and approached through a charming maze of narrow alleys evocative of Tangier. You can climb the tower, but there are few guardrails. It's not for those with vertigo. Paintings here include Dolorosa by Pacheco, the tutor of the great Velázquez, and works by Zurbarán and Ribera. It's open Monday to Friday 10:30am to 2pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 10am to 2pm. Admission is 1€ ($1.60).
Another panoramic lookout point is Mirador de Abades, at the end of Calle Abades.
Zahara de la Sierra
From Arcos de la Frontera, take the A-383 northeast, following the signs to Algodonales. Once you reach this town, head south at the junction with CA-531 to Zahara de la Sierra, the most perfect of the province's fortified hilltop pueblos. Trip time from Arcos is about 35 minutes, and the distance is 51km (32 miles).
Zahara is in the heart of the Natural Park Sierra de Grazalema, a 50,590-hectare (125,000-acre) park. An important reserve for griffon vultures, among other creatures, the park is studded with pine trees and oak forests. The Parque Natural Information Office (tel. 95-612-31-14; www.zaharadelasierra.es) is at Calle San Juan (the eastern end of main street). Hours are daily from 9am to 2pm and Monday to Saturday from 4 to 7pm. It dispenses information and maps for those who'd like to go for walks in the park. There are five major routes in the park, and for most you'll need to seek permission at the office, which also organizes horseback riding, canoeing, and bike trips.
The white village of Zahara itself zigzags up the foot of a rock topped by a reconstructed castillo. Houses covered in characteristic red tiles huddle up to the ruined castle. Count on a 15- to 20-minute climb to reach what was once a 10th-century Muslim fortress constructed on Roman foundations 511m (1,676 ft.) above sea level.
Zahara was, in fact, so prized by the Moors that the ruler, Abu al'Hasan of Granada, recaptured it in 1481 from the Catholic troops. But with the fall of Granada at the Reconquista, Zahara once again fell into the hands of the Catholic monarchs. You can visit the Moorish castle, which is always open, offering panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
The cobbled main street, Calle San Juan, links the two most important churches, Iglesia San Juan and Iglesia Santa María de la Mesa. The latter is an 18th-century baroque church worth a look inside if it's open. It displays an impressive retable with a 16th-century image of the Madonna. The best time to be here is in June for the Corpus Christi celebration (annual dates vary). Streets and walls seem to disappear under a mass of flowers and greenery.
From Zahara, return to CA-531 and follow the signs north to A-382. Once on A-382 head northeast to the village of Olvera. The distance between towns is only 24km (15 miles), usually taking only 15 minutes for the transfer.
Declared a national monument, Olvera was another Moorish stronghold. It played a major role in the defense of Granada, until it too fell to troops of the Catholic monarchs. Its two chief monuments are its castle and its cathedral, but even better is the view of the town and the surrounding countryside. Olvera comes at you like an explosion of little whitewashed houses tumbling down a hill crowned by the twin towers of its church and ancient castle. Climb the hill by walking up the town's long main street.
In the town's Muslim heyday, El Castillo de Olvera, Plaza de la Iglesia 3, was one of the most impregnable fortresses in Andalusia. But even such a mighty bastion fell to the troops of King Alfonso XI in 1327. After the citadel was conquered, the castle and the surrounding village became part of the feudal estate of Pérez de Guzmán, a local nobleman. As late as the 19th century, the castle was still in private hands, the home of the dukes of Osuna. The castle is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30am to 2pm and 4 to 6pm. Admission is 2€ ($3.20) and tickets can be purchased at the tourist office.
Adjoining the castle is Iglesia de San José, an 18th-century church with a clock tower. It is open only for Mass.
The village is known for its handicrafts, and you can see little shops on the narrow streets selling esparto and other hand-woven straw products. Foodies may want to stock up on Olvera's pure virgin olive oil. Its aceite de oliva virgen is among the best in Andalusia.
You can stop in at the Oficina de Turismo, Plaza de la Iglesia s/n (tel. 95-612-08-16; www.olvera.es), for what little information is needed. Hours are Tuesday to Sunday 10:30am to 2pm and 4 to 6pm. It can be open at other times as well, so check locally.
Setenil de las Bodegas
From Olvera, follow the signs to CA-4222, which will take you southeast for 14km (9 miles) to Setenil de las Bodegas. This winding road stretches for 13km (8 miles), taking you by olive groves and farming valleys. You'll pass through the town of Torre Alhaquime after 4km (2 1/2 miles). Allow 15 to 30 minutes for this trip.
Setenil is one of the most bizarre of the Pueblos Blancos. The Río Trejo carved itself through the tufa rock to make room for the town, which is literally crammed into clefs of rock, its cavelike streets formed from the overhanging ledge of a gorge. Houses rise two or three floors, using the natural rock as their roofs. One street of town is actually a tunnel.
Other than the town itself, there are no specific attractions. The 16th-century Gothic church, Iglesia La Encarnación, is on a rock in the center of the village next to an Arab tower, and the ruins of a Muslim castle are nearby. Another building, the Ayuntamiento (town hall), boasts a magnificent Mudéjar artesonado ceiling. Of all the streets in town, Calle Herreria is the oldest, its houses wedged into the massive rock.
Chances are you'll press on and not spend the night. However, if you do, there is one place to stay, the Hotel El Almendral (tel. 95-613-40-29; fax 95-613-44-44; www.tugasa.com). This is a little pensión (boardinghouse) nestled under rock ridges. The small rooms are simply furnished with wooden pieces, including decent beds. The on-site restaurant serves simple meals. The hotel is at Carretera Setenil-Puerto del Monte, 1169 Setenil de las Bodegas, has 28 units, and charges 63€ to 70€ ($101-$112) for a double room.
Continuing on to Ronda
To reach Ronda, the capital of the White Towns, return to CA-4222 and head southeast following the signs. The route will become CA-4211 as you continue south by the town of Arriate then change to MA-428, which takes you into Ronda. In all, this is a distance of only 18km (11 miles), taking about 15 to 20 minutes. Spend at least 1 night in Ronda before continuing the driving tour the next day. Or you can end the tour in Ronda if you feel you're going blind from seeing too many white villages glistening in the bright Andalusian sun.
After visiting Ronda, head to the village of Grazalema by taking A-376 northwest. At the junction with A-372, follow signs southwest to Grazalema. Travel time for the 33km (20-mile) drive is about a half-hour.
This is the whitest of the White Towns -- perhaps a pueblo blanquísimo (extraordinarily white town). It's also one of the best centers for exploring the Parque Natural of the Sierra de Grazalema. This charming village nestles under the craggy peak of San Cristóbal at 1,525m (5,003 ft.). As you wander its sloping, narrow streets, you'll pass house after house filled with summery flowers.
Towering limestone crags overlook the town. For the best view, climb to a belvedere near the 18th-century chapel of San José. From here, you're rewarded with a panorama.
The town has two beautiful old churches, Iglesia de la Aurora on Plaza de España and the nearby Iglesia de la Encarnación. Both date from the 17th century.
Grazalema is also known for its local products, especially pure wool blankets and rugs. You may want to spend some time shopping here. The best place to purchase blankets is Artesanía Textil de Grazalema, Carretera de Ronda (tel. 95-613-20-08), a 5-minute walk from Plaza de España. It also sells souvenirs, handicrafts, and traditional gifts. At this small factory, open to the public, you can buy blankets and ponchos made from local wool using hand-operated looms and antique machinery. It's open Monday to Friday 8am to 2pm and 3 to 6:30pm. Closed in August.
From Grazalema, take A-374 southwest to Ubrique. From here, get on A-373 south. The route will curve east to Cortez de la Frontera. Once you reach this town, continue along the same A-373 south to Algatocin. At this point, connect with the A-369 and follow it southwest until you connect with the A-377 into Gaucín. (Look for signs.) Allow at least an hour for the 63km (39-mile) trip.
This whitewashed mountain town is perched on a ridge below a former Muslim fortress, which opens onto a panoramic vista of the countryside. Many expats, but Brits in particular, live here.
At the eastern edge of the village, head up to the Castillo del Aguila, the Moorish castle. From its battlements, you can look out over the countryside and on a clear day see all the way to the Rock of Gibraltar. It's open daily from 11am to 1pm and 4 to 6pm. Admission is free.
The best place to stay and dine is La Fructuosa (tel. 95-215-10-72; fax 95-215-15-80; www.lafructuosa.com) in the center of Gaucín. Its bedrooms are simply but comfortably furnished, each with a tiled bathroom. Rooms go for 88€ to 98€ ($141-$157) double. The hotel restaurant, serving meals for 21€ ($34), is open Thursday 8 to 11pm, and Friday to Sunday 1 to 4pm and 8 to 11pm. The style of cooking is typically Andalusian, and portions are generous. The hotel is at Convento 67.
Jimena de la Frontera
To reach this white town from Gaucín, take the winding A-369 out of town, traveling southwest for some 30 minutes, a distance of 23km (14 miles). Enveloped by Los Alcornocales Natural Park, Jimena was built 200m (656 ft.) above sea level. It is so close to San Roque on the Costa del Sol and its string of beaches that it gets a lot of visitors on day trips, especially from the exclusive golf and polo belt of the coast. Chic Sotorgrande, an upmarket resort, is just a short drive to the south.
You enter Jimena through a gateway of three arches. Over the years the town has known many rulers, from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Moors and ultimately the Christian armies.
It's a delight to walk the steep and narrow cobblestone streets of Jimena, one of the more stunning of the Pueblos Blancos. It takes about 15 minutes to ascend to the highest point, the castle-fortress built on Roman ruins. Today the Castillo-Fortaleza is in ruins but still impressive. Inside the castle enclosure, you can take in one of the most panoramic views of the Costa del Sol, including the Rock of Gibraltar and the port of Algeciras, where ferries depart for Morocco.
Visitors with more time will find that Jimena is the gateway to the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, stretching south to the Mediterranean and north to one of the white towns, El Bosque. The park is named for its cork oaks (alcornocales), which are among the largest in the world, but is also home to the gall and the holm oak as well as wild olive trees. Creatures such as the Egyptian mongoose, the royal eagle, eagle owls, lion buzzards, and the roebuck also inhabit the park. The park is one of the most heavily forested in Spain and will give you a sense of what Iberia used to look like before being deforested.
At one of the tourist offices in one of the Pueblos Blancos that actually has tourist offices, inquire about a booklet, Junta de Andalucía, detailing eight walks through the park, each ranging from 2 to 7km (1.25-4.35 miles).
From Jimena, take C-333 northwest until you come to the junction with A-375 heading southwest to the junction with A-381. Once on A-381 continue northwest into Medina Sidonia. This hour-long trip takes you across 86km (54 miles).
Medina Sidonia fell to Catholic troops in 1264 under King Alfonso X. It was an ancient hilltop Muslim fortress. In the Middle Ages it became a famous seat of the Duke de Medina Sidonia, a title bestowed on the heirs of Guzmán El Bueno who helped recapture the town from the Moors.
The title today is held by the Duquesa de Medina Sidonia, known as la duquesa roja (the red duchess), for her left-wing political views. She is a champion of the poor and downtrodden, and her politics have even landed her in jail.
This village has seen better days, but wandering its cobbled and narrow streets is still an evocative experience, a bit like stepping back into the Middle Ages. Start at the central square, Plaza de España. The most impressive architecture here is the Renaissance facade of the 17th-century Ayuntamiento (town hall).
Nearby is the town's second-most beautiful square, Plaza Iglesia Mayor. Here you can visit Iglesia Santa María La Coronada, open daily from 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm; admission is 3€ ($4.80). Built on the foundations of a former mosque, it is celebrated for its stunning retablo, standing 15m (49 ft.) high. The retablo depicts scenes from the life of Jesus and is a piece of master work in polychrome wood achieved by the artisans of the Middle Ages.
After the church you can visit the Roman Sewers (www.medinasidonia.com), entered at Calle Ortega 10. They're open daily from 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm, and admission is 3.50€ ($5.60). The sewers date from the 1st century A.D. With the same ticket, you can also see the ruins of a well-preserved Roman road nearby. More Moorish architecture is seen in a trio of gates, the best preserved of which is Arco de la Pastora, close to the Carretera de Jerez.
For information about the area, head to the local Tourist Office, Plaza Iglesia Mayor (tel. 95-641-24-04), usually open daily 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm.
If you find yourself in Media for lunch, consider stopping at Venta La Duquesa (tel. 95-641-08-36), along A-393 3km (1 3/4 miles) to the southeast. The food is good and well prepared, without rising to any spectacular heights. Try the loin of pork, which is well spiced and tasty, or a more local dish, partridge baked with onions and mushrooms. The restaurant is on Carretera de Jerez A-393, and main courses cost 11€ to 17€ ($18-$27). Open Wednesday to Monday noon to 4pm and Friday and Saturday 7:30 to 11:30pm.
Vejer de la Frontera
From Medina Sidonia, follow the C-393 south to Vejer de la Frontera, a distance of 26km (17 miles), usually taking 20 minutes. This is one of the more dazzling Pueblos Blancos. Like most of the other towns we've visited, this Pueblo Blanco also reflects its Moorish history.
Vejer, still partially walled, is in a deep cleft between two hills on the road between Tarifa (southernmost point in Spain) and the port of Cádiz, 10km (6 1/4 miles) inland. Dominated by its castle and a Gothic church, it looks like a town you'd find in the Greek islands.
For orientation, head to the Tourist Office at Avenida de los Remedios (tel. 95-645-17-36; www.vejerdelafrontera.es). Hours are June to August Monday to Friday 10am to 2pm and 6:30 to 8pm. In August it is also open on Saturday from 10:30am to 2pm. In other months, it keeps no set hours.
You can skip most of the monuments and simply enjoy the beauty of the town. Or else you can duck into Iglesia del Divino Salvador, the major church, in back of the Tourist Office. Open daily 11am to 2pm and 5 to 8pm. It's a mix of styles, including Romanesque, Mudéjar, and Gothic.
Castillo Moro or the Moorish castle is reached by heading down Calle Ramón y Cajal from the church. The castle keeps such erratic, changing hours it's best to inquire at the tourist office. Over the years it's been altered drastically, but as of 1000 B.C. it is known to have been some sort of fortress, standing watch over the fishing grounds and factories along the coast for the approach of an enemy vessel by sea. The site was also used by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians long before the coming of the Romans. Even if you can't see the castle, you can admire the panoramic view.
Continuing on to the Sherry Triangle
After your tour of Vejer, you can take N-340 northwest. At the junction with N-IV, continue northeast into Jerez de la Frontera. The distance from Vejer to Jerez is 62km (39 miles). The trip takes 45 minutes. Once in Jerez, you'll be in the center of the sherry-producing district of Andalusia, the Sherry Triangle.
Three cities make up this region: Jerez de la Frontera and the port cities of El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. If you have time to visit only one, make it Jerez because it has the best bodegas where you can see how sherry is produced and taste samples.
Jerez also gets the nod because it is a great equestrian center, known for its Carthusian horses, and it is also one of the best places to hear authentic flamenco.
Visitors flock to Sanlúcar de Barrameda for its beaches and also for its sherry bodegas. Those arriving at Puerto de Santa María find a dilapidated but intriguing little fishing port with lovely beaches nearby. Columbus once lived here. It deserves at least a day as you visit its sherry and brandy bodegas and sample its marisco (shellfish) bars along the water.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.