The great escape

LAST UPDATED: 28 Nov, 2010 @ 15:08
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The great escape

TOWERING over the rolling hillsides and jagged rocky peaks of the Sierra Gaditana, it is difficult to imagine the lawless past that idyllic Olvera once possessed.

For this picture-perfect white town – reminiscent of an extravagant wedding cake from a distance – was a notorious outpost for some of Andalucia’s most-feared outlaws just 200 years ago.

Incredibly, the-once isolated settlement granted asylum to criminals if they pledged to take up arms in its defence.

And the arrival of bandits to this remote frontier post soon gave rise to the adage ‘Kill a man and go to Olvera’.

Nowadays, fortunately, time has moved quickly and the 9000-strong town is now making a name for itself for all the right reasons.

Officially part of Cadiz, it is perfectly positioned on the cusp of Malaga and Sevilla provinces, within easy reach of some of the region’s main cities.

Yet, standing at 643 metres above sea level, Olvera is still far enough away from these lively hubs to ensure its parochial feel has remained intact.

“If you take away the cars parked in the narrow streets you could be living hundreds of years ago,” explains resident of three years Anne-Marie Kingsnorth.

“It is so easy to live here, everything I could ever want is just a short walk away, I enjoy such a great quality of life.”

Surrounded by sunflower-lined hills, lush olive groves and arguably Andalucia’s most inspiring scenery it is easy to why Olvera is now a magnet for expatriates looking for their own slice of authentic Spanish heaven.

“As you drive towards Olvera, it is impossible to ignore the amazing scenery and incredible views,” explains Zoe Males, from Olvera Properties.

“It is just so pretty and often convinces any prospective buyers looking to invest before they’ve even stepped foot inside.”

But Olvera is not just any Spanish white town, it is in fact the landmark start of the ‘Pueblos Blancos’ route that snakes its way south through the ensuing Malaga province.

Yet it stands head and shoulders above its white counterparts for one obvious reason, its majestic twelfth-century Moorish citadel that keeps a watchful eye on its territory.

It served as a seemingly impenetrable defensive garrison but was eventually breached by Christian reconquistadores fighting for King Alfonso XI in 1327.

The Castillians then proceeded to strengthen the fort as it assumed its present-day glory.

But now the most action the impressive castle witnesses is the endurance-boosting treks up its ramparts by visitors.

And the short climb is well worth the effort as its conquerors are rewarded with inspiring panoramic views across Andalucia’s virgin countryside.

A mere 700 years later, despite another invasion – this time of the expatriate nature – life in Olvera is defined by a more heart-warming theme.

A stroll up the high street, Calle Llana, leads to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, home of the popular Pepe Rayas tapas bar.

There, both expatriates and Spaniards while away their lazy afternoons in perfect unison – a common sight in the estimated 99 bars and cafes that line the town’s streets.

Once the ratios are calculated, there is apparently one bar for every 91 lucky residents.

“There are so many great bars and restaurants that you are always greeted by new faces” continues Zoe, who moved to Olvera five years ago.

“This town is a real place of integration for everyone, it has such a great atmosphere.”

“Yet, most importantly for me, is the fact that you still feel like you are living in Spain.

And these positive sentiments are shared by Cristobal Gomez, still only 22, but already running the popular PC Planet, computer shop in town.

“There is so much going on here, we are lucky to have cheap food, good bars and lots of local business,” says Gomez, who grew up in Olvera.

“Above all, on Friday and Saturday nights there is a brilliant atmosphere.”

“Everyone knows each other and there are never any problems.”

And this great vibe is set to reach fever pitch on the second Monday after Easter (April 12) when the whole town decamps to the fields on the outskirts to celebrate Romeria Day.

It is in the open land around the charming Sanctuary de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios church where townsfolk congregate to give thanks for the rain.

Ironically, this year – after enduring Andalucia’s wettest ever winter – people would surely be forgiven for celebrating an end to the Biblical-like torrents.

Nevertheless, excitement is already growing for this tradition which impressively dates back to 1715.

For one day a year Olvera resembles a ghost town as the masses enjoy music, drinks and barbeques up on the open hills.

“Don’t come and visit the town as there won’t be a soul about!” says interpreter Anne-Marie.

“It’s a great day out, you will find most people relaxing under the shade of olive trees eating some delicious paella.”

But if the town party is missed then it is well worth ascending the town’s streets, aiming directly for the Moorish fortress where – just a stone’s throw away – lies the hugely impressive, Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnacion.

The neoclassical church – completed in 1843 under the orders of the Duke of Osuna – dominates the skyline almost as much as the Arab garrison adjacent.

Indeed, its sheer size and architectural quality is often likened to that of a cathedral.

Inside, it boasts an interior clad in Italian marble and it is regarded as one of the finest churches in Malaga province.

Sadly, in 1936, Republican revolutionaries burnt a number of church icons, images as well as the part of the interior during the Spanish Civil War.

And the ‘years of hunger’ that ensued after the three years of national infighting affected Olvera as much as its neighbouring white towns.

Its peoples headed for the coast in search of opportunities and prosperity, temporarily stunting the town’s growth.

Yet agriculture remained a crucial job creator and Olvera’s olive co-operatives are well known across the region.

Furthermore, the town also lays claim to the fact that more Iberican pigs are raised in Olvera than in any other part of Spain.

They are reportedly nurtured for their first three months before being sold to other breeders across the country.

Coincidentally, the importance of open spaces in supporting Olvera’s primary job sector is now paying dividends for its tourist industry.

One of the town’s key modern-day tourist attractions is the 38km via verde – one of Andalucia’s most popular walking and cycling routes.

Along its beautiful trail, it boasts half a dozen viaducts, more than 20 tunnels and – most importantly for food aficionados – two restaurants en route.

It runs alongside an abandoned railway line which was built between 1927 and 1930.

The brief dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera declared that Olvera would be a crucial station on the line between Almargen and Jerez de la Frontera.

Although the railroad company went bust in the 1930s at least this failed political plan has led to some modern-day good.

Just next door to the Via Verde lies the Centro Ecuestre Platero, a horse riding and tourist centre, that provides lessons as well as an inviting bar.

However, the less adventurous are still well catered for in Olvera. For those with a flair for design can chance their arm at Artesania del Prado’s pottery classes.

And window shoppers are also be in safe hands at Amazoe’s Moroccan Home Décor boutique located in the heart of town.

No doubt about it, green walkways, lashings of both ancient and modern culture, as well as a great social vibe to boot, Olvera delivers on a large number of fronts.

In fact, it is no surprise that once discovered by expatriates, they soon realise how lucky they were to have settled in the picturesque enclave.

“I have lived in many places across the globe, but this is definitely the best place I have ever settled in,” adds Anne-Marie. “I could end up staying here forever.”

Just two centuries ago, Olvera was home to Andalucia’s most feared bandits and outlaws.

It certainly has come a long way since then.

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