Just a stone’s throw inland from Europe’s busiest stretch of coast is a crowd-free Andalucían region of whitewashed villages, rugged mountains, Medieval history and slow pursuits...
Let’s tackle the pronunciation first. It’s Axarquía: ash-ar-kee-a.
Next, let’s get our bearings. We’re driving – it’s the only way to go, I’m afraid – east of Málaga airport, leaving the likes of Marbella and Torremolinos far behind. As we near the town of Vélez-Málaga, 30 minutes later, the landscape opens up. The Med still glitters to your right, but now you’re in a land of mountains, trails, valleys and passes, all under the gaze of 2,000m La Maroma.
Here, just a smidgen from the most over-touristed stretch of coast in Europe, a very different kind of travelling experience is slowly springing up. For all its beauty, the Axarquía is a poor agricultural region where imported crops like mangos and avocados bake alongside almonds, olives and sweet-wine grapes. Tourism here is small-scale and fragile: think cooking schools, yoga centres, artist retreats and walking and adventure tours.
The hillsides are sprinkled with pueblos blancos, a chain of white villages that stretches along the hills of inland Andalucía. The highest sits 700m up a dizzying road in the west: Comares.
Here, the very street names tell stories. Calle del Agua leads down the Roman path to the aquifers below; Calle del Perdón is where the village’s Moorish inhabitants were forcibly baptised after the Reconquista. In the main square, the old olive mill is now a boutique hotel: Molino de los Abuelos. From its clifftop terrace you can plot walks into countryside scored with trails.
But all the inland villages here have their attractions: bustling Cómpeta, sun-baked La Viñuela (between La Maroma and the lake), the isolated mountainside villages of Sedella and Salares. It doesn’t matter where you choose for your base, once out on the trails, you’ll be alone.
The weather – apart from July and August, and the occasional day of fog – is perfect and balmy almost year-round. Spring, with its magical display of almond blossom is a particular delight; long, bright days to be enjoyed exploring away from the crowds cooking on the coastline.
For self-guided hikes, The Mountains of Nerja and Walk the Axarquía are handy guidebooks. If you want to tackle the highest mountain, La Maroma, consider going with a guide.
This 5km-long network of chambers, tunnels and speleothems and is open for tours. Standard visits include a 45-minute exploration; night tours and special discovery tours are also available. Concerts are held inside too.
There’s an ambitious plan to create a coastal path along the entire Costa del Sol. While you wait, explore the pretty whitewashed village of Maro and the quiet beach towns beyond bustling Nerja.
You wouldn’t think flamenco and Morris dancing have much in common. The first is sultry and passionate; the second, well, isn’t. But look more closely. Folklorists believe ‘Morris’ is a corruption of ‘Moorish’. And it was the Spanish Moors’ Arabic melodies and dances that created flamenco – and an equally ancient form of dance particular to the mountains of Málaga called the Verdiales.
Look at the tiled mural in the Plaza de los Verdiales in Comares and you’ll see the ribbons, bells, flowery hats and tambourines familiar from many an English fete. Comares is one of the places where the tradition is being enthusiastically revived.
There are now numerous pandas de verdiales (troupes of dancers) across the region and many villages have an annual Verdiales festival; the highlight is the Fiesta de los Verdiales, which takes place on 28 December just outside Málaga.
The number of square kilometres that make up Axarquía. One thing to note is that the five poorest towns in Málaga province are all in this region.
It's the year King Alfonso XII visited Nerja and announced ‘this is the balcony of Europe’. The seafront been known as the Balcón de Europa ever since.
Approximately 2,000 Iberian ibex are rumoured to live in the Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama Natural Park. Amazing, given that the species was nearly extinct 100 years ago.
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