Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Route of the Caliphs

The town of Alcala la Real is dominated by the La Mata fortress. Photos by Vickie Kelber

The town of Alcala la Real is dominated by the La Mata fortress. Photos by Vickie Kelber

By Vickie Kelber

The Route of the Caliphs (rulers) traversing mountainous interior Andalusia, Spain between Granada and Cordoba is dotted with a string of fortified hilltowns that served as the first line of defense during Moorish rule. They are characterized by watchtowers, castles, and glorious vistas. There is a northern and a southern route; part of it passes through Sierras Subbeticas Natural Park, with elevations that range from 1,000 to 5,000 feet. To explore this area, we had a choice of renting a cortijo (farmhouse) in the countryside or an apartment in the cliffside town of Priego de Cordoba; we chose “city” living. Our apartment in the well preserved Moorish center with its distinctive narrow alleys, cool whitewashed buildings, colorful patios and profusion of potted geraniums was within walking distance of restaurants and shops. We parked our car in a garage a few blocks away as the “streets” in our neighborhood were far too narrow for vehicles.

Priego de Cordoba has a wealth of Moorish and Christian treasures, including the remains of a castle and richly ornamented churches. Every Saturday at midnight, one of the churches is a starting point for members of a black capped, musical instrument playing brotherhood procession through town. The el Adarve, a promontory which once served as a natural fortress for the town offers a quiet stroll and glorious views of the surrounding hills and olive groves.

Two dozen towns have been identified along the Route of the Caliphs; each one offers picturesque remains, churches, plazas, restaurants, and striking scenery. Zuheros, a small, sleepy town nestled into the side of a mountain was one of our favorites. A ninth century Moorish castle built on top of a rock can be explored; in the plaza beneath it enjoy refreshment while basking in the surrounding view. Nearby are the Murcielagos caves offering guided visits. Although Zagrilla is not an “official” stop on the Route, this charming white hilltown is worth a visit. Comprised of two tiny villages, there is a natural spring there from which villagers still take water. A restaurant located in the tranquil main plaza is a good place to fortify yourself for the

The doors of the La Mata fortress in Alcala la Real open to reveal the surrounding olive groves.

The doors of the La Mata fortress in Alcala la Real open to reveal the surrounding olive groves.

steep, curvy trip back down to the main road. For both of these towns, it is best to park at the entrances and walk; the streets are narrow and one way.

Baena, with its Roman antiquities, Moorish ruins, and churches is a center of olive oil production. There is a Museum of the Olive Tree and Oil which offers tours and tastings. Alcalá la Real, a larger town and once the main fortress on the frontier, is an as yet undiscovered treasure. La Mata fortress with its alcazaba (fortress) and church overlooking the town as well as the ongoing excavations provides an interesting tour; we found it as entrancing as Cordoba and Granada. Artifacts have been found that date to prehistoric times. The bustling lower town offers a variety of restaurants.

Cabra has a charming old quarter and a church built on the site of a mosque, its red marble pillars reminiscent of the Mezquita in Cordoba. If you miss Baena, there is a lesser olive oil museum in Cabra. The imposing hilltop castle of Espejo is visible along a good part of the Route of the Caliphs; the characteristic town, narrow streets filled with whitewashed buildings, offers some restaurants and a wonderful bakery.

Yes, the Moorish fortifications are impressive, the scenery spectacular, but, the food! I’ve heard a Spanish meal described as an “event”….and it truly can be.

Local olive oil serves as the base for most dishes and seafood is abundant.

For breakfast, we frequented the local chocolatería for churros, fried dough pastry, tostadas, similar to “Texas toast” drizzled with olive oil (con aceite) and a thick fudge-like hot chocolate. The big meal of the day is lunch, usually served from 2:00- 4:00PM. Many restaurants offer a very reasonable fixed price multi course meal, often with wine.

Alternatively, at local restaurants, it is quite acceptable to make a meal of just starters and tapas or raciones. Both are “small plates”, similar to what we might think of as appetizers. The term tapastends to apply to those plates served in or at a bar while raciones are larger portions ordered at a sit down meal. Salads are large and often

The tiny hilltop town of Zagrilla provides a tranquil oasis among the olive groves.

The tiny hilltop town of Zagrilla provides a tranquil oasis among the olive groves.

put in the center of the table for sharing. One of our lunches was a very filling meal consisting of just a salad and two raciones. Raciones include various grilled and fried vegetables and seafood; tortilla espanola is a potato omelette. Gazpacho, cold tomato soup, and salmorejo, cold tomato, bread, and garlic soup are served everywhere. In addition to seafood, pork is popular, especially jamón serrano, mountain cured ham.

A popular drink in Andalusia is tinto de verano, literally, “red wine of summer”, a mixture of red wine and lemon soda; in some places it is also called “vargas”.

As we traveled throughout Andalusia, we found the people to be wonderful and had many kindnesses extended to us. One of those kindnesses came from a man in Lucena, another town along the Route of the Caliphs. My husband wanted to attend a bullfight and we knew there was a big one coming up in Lucena. Assuming we could buy tickets at the arena which seats 8,000, we drove there days before the event. Of course, it was deserted. Luckily, someone who appeared to work there drove up. He spoke no English. Armed with my high school Spanish, I inquired about tickets. He showed me a seating map of the arena and pointed out where the best seats were; he then encouraged us to follow him as he drove a few miles to the ticket agency. He called ahead to the agency to alert them we were coming. When we got there, they informed us that tickets didn’t go on sale until tomorrow, but because that kind gentleman turned out to be the brother of one of the ticket agents, he sold us tickets to two of the best seats in the arena.

Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.


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