FOR avid map readers and explorers alike, the double loop in the A-7000 above Malaga must hold some allure. This is the old road out of Malaga to the north and it should win awards for scenery, with your ears literally popping as it ascends into the Montes de Malaga natural park.
A verdant spread of coniferous forest planted two centuries ago to prevent flooding in the nearby city, here are dozens of fabulous walks, not to mention the best window onto the Axarquia region you are ever going to get.
Muscle onto one of the fabulous window tables at 300-year-old Venta Galway, where you can eat wild boar stew washed down with dusty old bottles of Rioja, some even stretching back to the 1970s. From here you can see around a dozen towns fading into the distant Sierra de Almijara range, where Malaga meets Granada.
Taking its name from an Irishman, who set up his stall in the 17th century when the British market couldn’t get enough of the sweet muscatel wines, you have a birds eye view of the Axarquia , or ham-shaped wedge that cuts inland from the beach resorts of Torre Del Mar and Nerja.
Not only spectacular in landscape, the Axarquia easily has as much to offer in cultural and accommodation terms and increasingly in food and wine.
It has not always been so visitor-friendly though and dauntingly, as one guidebook points out, the little-known region has only been physically safe for tourists to visit for the last few decades.
Indeed the Axarquia (pronounced Ass-Ikea) has long been fabled as one of Spain’s most inhospitable zones. Long known as a haunt for bandoleros, or bandits, who preyed on traders carrying goods to Granada, it was also a popular route for smugglers bringing contraband into Spain from Africa.
Such was its volatile nature (the coast was regularly attacked by Barbary pirates) that the area’s inhabitants built fortified villages, with watchtowers in the hills inland.
The region is completely steeped in a dramatic history of rebellion, resistance and renaissance. The evidence is all around: churches built on mosques, streets named after revolutionaries, inns dedicated to highwaymen.
Battlefields meanwhile litter the area and it was here – in Comares and Frigiliana in particular – that some of the last few battles were fought between the Christians and Moors during the Christian reconquest of Spain.
Later, it became a hotbed of republicanism and after the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s was one of the key escape routes and hideouts for left wing soldiers.
It was famously from here that they launched frequent guerilla attacks against dictator Franco’s victorious army until the 1950s.
Under the orders of Commander Roberto, the Maquis, as they were called, stealed into the coastal towns at night to attack the much feared Guardia Civil. Covering large parts of Malaga and Granada province they had thousands of soldiers, but inevitably a bloody and ruthless campaign by Franco’s troops – often involving the punishment of family members – led to their demise.
Dissected by deep ravines and criss-crossed with streams, it is easy to see why it was such a hard area to pacify. The confusing pattern of rutted hills means that journeys that look tiny on the map can, and usually do, take hours.
But that is very much pàrt of the Axarquia’s charm, a bucolic landscape of whitewashed villages and, due to a fabulous microclimate, plantations that include – unlike anywhere else in Europe – mangoes, avocadoes and bananas.
“It has a wonderful microclimate stretching all the way up to Periana,” says landscape gardener Lee Talbot, who has lived here for five years. “You don’t get extremes of weather and almost any plants will grow given water.”
Its mountainous borders – that include Maroma at over 2000 metres – serve a double purpose, protecting the region from extremes of temperature and also drawing in moisture to aid its agricultural sector, which is still thankfully strong.
“We get a lot of labourers coming in first thing in the morning for their coffee and anis before going to the fields,” says Richard Perkins, who runs Bar Triana, in Triana, with his wife Lisa. “They grow everything from grapes to lemons and even mangoes, which only grow here. But forget trying if you are in sight of Maroma. Even the mildest frost will kill the trees.”
First inhabited by the Phoenicians, who planted acres of vines, and later the Romans, it wasn’t until Moorish times however, that the region began to truly thrive. Part of the cultured kingdom of Granada, great fortified towns and palaces went up and it was here that the Moors made some of their last collective sighs, before being vanished, via the Reconquest, back to Morocco.
There is certainly much evidence of their civilisation, particularly in the main market town of Velez Malaga as well as Comares, where in the claustrophobic Calle del Pardon, 30 families of Moors, were spared their lives after publicly converting to Catholicism.
Indisputably the spiritual heart of the Axarquia, Comares straddles a hilly outcrop and has heart-stopping views. The magical white-washed village is a maze of windy alleys full of Arabic touches and has set itself up well for tourists offering a clever guided tour by footsteps etched into the ground.
Nearby, the tabletop mountain of Masmullar holds an atmospheric and distinctly moving excursion. It was here that the ninth-century palace of Ibn Hafsun was built and while all that is left are its cellars (albeit with ornate pillars still clearly visible), around it – somewhat eerily – lie the piles of stones, that were once his subject’s dwellings.
From here head towards Colmenar, a centre for bee-keeping, or Riogordo, a curious place, stuck in a dip in one of the region’s many folds. A gritty town, full of run-down houses and troll-like men in caps, it’s worth a stop to suck in the atmosphere of Real Spain. It has a half-decent museum of antiquities, and most importantly a great place to eat, the Lemon Tree in the heart of the town.
From here, it is only a ten-minute drive to the scenic villages of Alfanate and Alfanatejo, at the northern extremity of the region. Set against brooding peaks and often shrouded in cloud, bizarrely the thriving rural communities, while only a mile apart, have nothing to do with each other, never intermarry, nor socialise.
Apparently a legacy of the civil war, neither has any real sights worth mentioning, apart from the excellent Venta de Alfanate, said to be the oldest inn in Andalucia. Once the hangout of many of the country’s most famous highwaymen, the 13th century establishment these days serves up one of the region’s best spreads, although just for lunch.
Driving back towards the coast, you should certainly take a poke around Periana, perhaps stopping at Cantueso for lunch, or supper at Los Mayorales right beside Lake Vinuela, before popping into the hamlet of Vinuela, trying to ignore the ugly ribbon developments that have been passed by the rogue, and soon to be imprisoned mayor of nearby Alcaucin.
You should also certainly head for a bit of shopping in the curious, fast-growing settlement of Puente Don Manuel, a sort of inland Fuengirola, where hundreds of expatriate Britons, who live in the area, stock up on all their essentials.
There is fish and chips, a British dentist, English pubs and Arkwrights shop, selling everything and anything you might care to miss from Blighty. Thankfully, there is also a great place to get a coffee and lunch at Morenos.
Keep going and the road eventually leads through well cultivated, but interesting land, to the historic commercial town of Velez Malaga, a much underrated and little-visited place, which thrives on its market and excellent shops.
It also has a Moorish fortress rising above it with battlements, as well as a fascinating old medina, crammed full of interesting nooks to explore. Its old town has recently been given a special protection status and no less than 47 historic buildings have been specifically listed.
Even better, it is soon to have a parador, with the celebrated national chain having identified the town – and more importantly the key building, an ancient convent – where it is to expand.
For the time being though, there are two other fabulous new places to stay, the first a trendy hotel Palacio Blanco, run by an English couple and the second an incredible old building right in the heart of the old town.
The charming La Casa de las Titas has ten fabulous apartments, set in an ancient aristocrats house that still has its old patios and best of all a superb sunken pool and shady garden.
“Velez is changing rapidly,” says Lesley Vallence from Palacio Blanco. “Now we have a new tram system and parador on the way lots of rich Malaguenos are buying and renovating all the lovely old shops and buildings.”
Next up it’s the coast and if that’s your thing, well take your pick from the celebrated Nerja, the down to earth Torre del Mar or Torrox and its excellent beaches. But be aware, while there may be no more bandoleros, there are a good many more elderly tourists clogging up the hotel rooms, not to mention sunbeds.