SOMEHOW I hadn’t spotted the double loop on the Michelin map of Andalucia I’d bought at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, a month before moving to Spain in 2002.
But this topographical quirk – half way up the A-7000 out of Malaga city – was to add at least 20 minutes onto what looked like a simple 30-kilometre drive to my first rental home in Comares.
It was up this road that I had headed when I first settled in Spain and it is easily one of the nicest ways to arrive in the Axarquia (pronounced Ass-Ikea), with your ears literally popping as it ascends into the Montes de Malaga national park.
The equivalent of circumnavigating a section of Scotland’s Western Highlands, make sure to stop for coffee or lunch at 400-year-old Venta Galway – which takes its name from an Irishman, who moved there when the British market couldn’t get enough of the area’s sweet muscatel wines.
From here you get the perfect lookout over the Axarquia, a ham-shaped wedge that cuts inland from the beach resorts of Torre Del Mar and Nerja and has much to offer in geography and culture, as well as increasingly in food and wine.Here, the Olive Press offers the perfect weekend escape into the Axarquia, dipping into a mix of restaurants, walks and sightseeing.
- MOORS LAST SIGH, COMARES
When the Moors finally handed over the keys to the Alhambra and Granada in 1492 they didn’t immediately head back to north Africa.
Understandably, they figured they could cling on in relative secrecy in the mountainous region of the Axarquia and the nearby Alpujarras.
One of the key locations was Comares, where in the claustrophobic Calle del Pardon, 30 families of Moors were later 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.
2. DOWN IN THE DIPS, RIOGORDO
Take the MA-3107 from Comares and, stuck in a dip in one of the region’s many folds, you will find Riogordo, a gritty town, full of run-down houses and troll-like men in caps.
You can really suck in the atmosphere of real Spain and, in particular, enjoy its excellent museum of antiquities, which gives a charming trip back in time to the days of sustainability.
3. BANDITS ALL AROUND, ALFARNATE
The Axarquia was famously the region most difficult for dictator Franco to pacify after he won the Spanish Civil War.
Dissected by deep ravines and criss-crossed with streams, it is easy to see how the rebels, known as the Maquis, were able to take advantage of its confusing pattern of rutted hills to hide out and escape from army patrols.
The region had previously been a haunt for bandoleros, or bandits, who preyed on traders carrying goods to Granada and 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.
One of the best ways to appreciate its violent age is to take a trip up to the high plains around Alfarnate. From Riogordo you can take the rugged A-7204 which links up to the MA-4102 and on to the Antigua Venta de Alfarnate – at 400 years old one of the oldest in Spain.
It was here where bandit El Tempranillo was finally captured after decades of terrorising the country and you can still find the cell they kept him in temporarily.
4. ROMANTIC VIEWS, ROMANES
After a leisurely lunch it is time to head for the coast.
Retrace your steps down the way you came until you turn left onto the A-356.
This will lead you to the picturesque village of Los Romanes, which has a couple of local spots to eat if you missed out on lunch at Alfarnate. It overlooks the stunning Lake Vinuela and is the perfect spot to just lounge and relax.
5. GEM OF A PLACE, VELEZ MALAGA
Continue down the A-356 and arrive at Velez Malaga.
It is one of the most underrated and little-visited places in Malaga province.
But like its big sister of Malaga it has a Moorish fortress rising above it with battlements, but unlike Malaga it also has 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.
6. CLIMATE CONTROL, NERJA
The Axarquia is said to have one of the best climates in Europe, in particular in its coastal towns of Torrox and Nerja.
Its fabulous microclimate – unlike anywhere else in Europe – offers the opportunity to grow mangoes, avocados and even bananas.
You can take the modern A-7 to reach these towns, or the old coastal N-340.
7. FABULOUS FRIG, FRIGILIANA
Once at Nerja – well worth a visit in its own right with its famous coves and Balcon de Europa viewpoint – head back inland on the MA-5105 to reach Frigiliana.
A stroll around the wonderful back streets of this mountain village with a distinctive Moorish feel is a must for anyone visiting the Axarquia.
Having rightfully won the prettiest village in Andalucia title on a number of occasions, it is a magical place to visit.
Surrounded by wonderful countryside, it has a nice mix of shops and restaurants, with several selling the sweet local wines.
Then it’s time to climb in your car and head back home after a weekend of sight-seeing in the beautiful Axarquia.
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