Giovanna Dell'Orto, The Associated Press, October 31, 2013
SETENIL DE LAS BODEGAS, Spain (AP) — As dusk light slanted across this southern Spanish hamlet, the whitewashed houses and the cliffs they're carved into turned golden.
A gaggle of boys perched on a low wall, smartphone cameras at the ready, while clusters of animated old men converged where a minuscule one-way alley merged with a sharp, uphill right corner into a marginally larger street.
Stuck in that corner, brushing the ancient stone houses on both sides, was an incongruous cherry-red rental minivan. At the wheel, enjoying neither the beauty nor the Old-World camaraderie, sat I.
A driving tour to Andalusia's pueblos blancos, or white villages, is a highlight of any trip to Spain — as long as you don't try to drive through them. (Note to self: Learn to drive a stick shift so you are not saddled with giant vehicles with automatic transmission.)
During two trips in late January and early June, I took a few days off from the big stars of the region — the stunning cities of Seville, Cordoba, and Granada — to roam the countryside.
I explored seven pueblos blancos: Some are hidden in fog-shrouded mountain valleys, others look out to the Mediterranean, others still rule the farmland from atop rocky hilltops.
From the road, all look like the perfect incarnation of the whitewashed southern European village fantasy, sprinkled with pale pink fruit tree blossoms in winter and bright purple bougainvillea creepers in summer. Within their cool, hushed alleys lie centuries-old monuments, many reflecting the region's history as the last stronghold of Islamic domination in Europe before Christian armies reconquered it.
And within them also lies Andalusia's bounty: that most prized of hams, jamon iberico de bellota, all manner of fried seafood and marinated olives, and the dirt-cheap hoppy beer I badly needed after untangling the unscathed rental from its 1.5-meter-wide (5-foot) street grip.
The cliff-top pueblos I visited, Arcos de la Frontera and Zahara de la Sierra, represent opposite ends of the spectrum as tourist destinations.
Arcos, a short hop off the main freeway connecting regional capital Seville with the spruced-up port city of Cadiz, has a long list of impressive churches and palaces huddled inside its walls. I spent a morning climbing up its steep stone-paved alleys, lined with flower pots and wrought-iron grilles, and more than a smattering of tapa signs in English.
The dark castle of Zahara, deep in the olive-studded countryside, looms over a handful of tightly packed houses hanging to the rocky outcrop jutting into a man-made lake. The village is so tiny, and the roads so remote, that I found plenty of villagers taking their afternoon paseo, or stroll, along the main highway.
Ronda and Setenil are the equivalent extremes for the canyon-hugging pueblos. The latter slithers deep underneath the ledges of river-eroded rock, its cave-like homes and grocery stores evoking a contemporary version of the native dwellings in the American Southwest.
The ancient part of Ronda is separated from the new by a vertigo-inducing 100-meter (328-foot) river gash called El Canon del Tajo, which tongue-in-cheek locals call the canyon of a common Spanish profanity that escapes many first-time visitors when they peer into the abyss from the 18th century bridge.
I crossed it, on foot, one January evening, before a deep mist rose from the roaring river below. A short walking tour took me past many ornate churches, balconied buildings and palm-and-plane fringed parks to two major examples of the mixed Islamic and Christian style that characterizes Andalusia.
The top attraction is the solid, twin-towered Palace of Mondragon, which was the residence both of Muslim rulers and then Christian conquerors. But perhaps my favorite stood solitary in a tiny square — a 14th-century brick minaret turned bell tower with a typically Islamic horseshoe arch.
Also tucked away, in the new town near the celebrated 18th-century Plaza de Toros that many consider a cradle of Spanish bullfighting, was my other Ronda favorite: the tavern Bodega el Socorro.
In the spattering rain, I followed there a steady stream of hungry faithful that emerged from a packed, incense-filled Mass with the visiting bishop. Like them, I made a serious dent into the forest of overhanging hams from acorn-fed, black-hoofed Iberian pigs.
In the mountains south and west of Ronda is a profusion of isolated pueblos, including an unusual azure one, Juzcar, which was painted that way in 2011 as publicity for a Smurfs movie.
My pick was Grazalema, fitting snugly in the crag of a fir-covered, fog-shrouded mountain. I reached it by climbing more than 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) on twisting roads that looked more Swiss than Spanish.
Between the two 17th-century churches that bracket its nucleus of terra cotta-roofed homes are many reminders of its long history, including a water fountain with two wide-eyed faces as water spouts, said to date to Visigoth times.
For my last stop, I visited two pueblos keeping watch over a spot where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet, waters that once brimmed with pirates.
The first, walled Vejer de la Frontera, winds itself like a conch shell around a hilltop castle and even boasts a couple of windmills.
The latter, the former Islamic stronghold of Frigiliana, looks out over Nerja, a popular, pretty beach resort town, and hills covered in avocado plantations.
Potted flowers, brightly painted door and window frames, and scores of ceramic shops give bursts of color, but keep looking down: The intricately black-and-white pebble mosaics that pave its alleys and steps are the true standout and just as beautiful as the celebrated ones in Italy's Riviera, some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) east along the Mediterranean coast.
I watched the sun set from an outdoor cafe at the bottom of Frigiliana's cliffside historic center, sipping a beer and munching tart green olives — for a total bill of less than $2 — while I waited for my ride.
For my last pueblo blanco, I left the driving to the public bus.
If You Go...
ANDALUSIA, SPAIN: http://www.andalucia.org/en/.
GETTING THERE and AROUND: The region's most convenient airport is in Seville, where you'll find major car rental companies. I used the online broker http://www.pepecar.com, which was significantly cheaper through prepayment.
WHERE TO STAY: Ronda makes the perfect base for a driving loop through the region, with many choices for hotels and restaurants, http://www.turismoderonda.es. Rooms and restaurant terraces at the Don Miguel hotel — http://www.hoteldonmiguelronda.com/ — look into the gorge and toward the bridge. In Nerja, I stayed at the seafront Paraiso del Mar — http://www.hotelparaisodelmar.es — whose terraces cascade down to a wide beach lined with paella eateries.