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Southern Spain boasts many destinations worth exploring with everything from spectacular beaches along the sparkling Mediterranean Sea to ancient Roman ruins, Moorish palaces, flamenco performances, and incredible white villages. This is Andalusia, with rivers, farmland, and hills bordering the southern coast. The Moors ruled much of it for 800 years, from the 8th through 15th centuries, with their legacy still seen today in landmarks like Seville’s Alcazar, the grand Alhambra, and the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral. The twisting streets of its old cities and villages often resemble those of Morocco, with whitewashed buildings reflecting heat while narrow lanes maximize shade. A Muslim prince was the first to import orange trees here, with their descendants thriving in many courtyards today. The pueblos blancos, white villages, are a must-see for any visitor to this region as a significant part of this cultural corner of Spain, having played an important role in its history.

The History and Architecture of Southern Spain’s White Villages

Archaeological discoveries show that Southern Spain has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Most villages existed during the Roman era, occupied by the Moors until the fall of Granada in 1492 which marked the end of Muslim rule in the country. They’re usually built on the sides of mountains or on top of hills and fortified, characterized by traditionally whitewashed facades and red-tiled roofs, lined along narrow, winding cobbled streets, alleyways, and little squares. Ornate churches sit atop cliffs, while all provide views of the hills below. The villages were originally settled and built by North African Berber farmers who arrived between the 9th and 10th centuries, the peak of Moorish rule. Farmers worked peacefully in the valleys, but by the end of the 11th century, the Christian Reconquest started to topple Muslim kingdoms in the country’s north, causing farmers to head for the hills. They chose the highest vantage points and enclosed the streets with fortified walls, finding safety in the isolated villages. The Moorish influence is what makes them so architecturally interesting with the whitewashed homes and their characteristic wrought-iron grills. They have a distinctly Arabic feel, yet each one has at least one Roman Catholic church, revealing the victory of the Catholics over Muslims. While they were constructed to defend communities against invaders during centuries of conflict, they share more than attractive architecture and scenic beauty. The conflict has long passed, but the community remains, with residents young and old still bringing chairs into the streets, and spending time with neighbors and friends.

Ronda Spain

Ronda

One of the most beautiful and oldest cities in Spain, Ronda sits above a deep ravine surrounded by lush river valleys. Prehistoric settlements dating to the Neolithic Age are dotted throughout and include the rock paintings of Cueva de la Pileta, a cave discovered in 1905. It’s jam-packed with historic sites, including the Puente Nuevo and Puente Viejo, the two bridges that connect the ravine the town sits upon to the 13th-century Arabic baths in the old Arab quarter that are considered to be the country’s most well-preserved. The large cauldron used to heat the water is still visible and in good condition. 

Setenil de las Bodegas Spain

Setenil de las Bodegas

The roughly 3,000 residents that call Setenil de las Bodegas home live quite literally under a rock. Their dwellings were built into rock overhangs with the Rio Trejo below. The unique setting along the narrow river gorge is jaw-dropping, with the village extending along the course of the rushing water. Some were built right into the rock walls of the gorge itself, created by expanding natural caves or overhangs while adding an outside wall. The caves made perfect living quarters as they naturally helped to minimize heat in the summer and kept the cold out during the winter, requiring only the addition of a façade.

Arcos de la Frontera Spain

Arcos de la Frontera

Located in Cadiz, Arcos de la Frontera is balanced precariously atop a rocky limestone ridge. The pretty village with its stone castle walls and whitewashed homes comes to an abrupt halt with the sheer cliff face plunging down to the valley with the Guadalete River below. There are many reminders of its Arab past while churches, towers, and impressive viewpoints provide visitors with plenty to marvel at. A tangled maze of cobbled streets in the Old Town lead to the Castillo de Los Arcos which began in the 11th century as a Moorish castle before it was captured some 200 years later by the Christians.

Vejer de la Frontera Spain

Vejer de la Frontera

A classic hilltop white village, Vejer lies high above the steep gorge where the River Barbate flows through. It boasts one of the most picturesque village squares in the country, Plaza de Espana which has a magnificent old fountain with traditional ceramic Andalucian frogs while shaded by soaring palm trees. Entering the walled Old Town through an arch, you’ll discover tranquil cobbled streets, hidden patios, a jumble of secret corners, and lovely homes. The various architectural styles are still quite visible, revealing the Arabs, Jews, and Christians who resided here over the centuries, while the former Moorish castle sits at the highest point.

Grazalema Spain

Grazalema, Zahara, Linares de la Sierra

There are many other small white villages well worth visiting like Grazalema which sits on a rocky ledge deep within Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, surrounded by dramatic craggy mountains. One of the best ways to soak up the atmosphere is to unwind at a café in the main square, sipping a coffee while gazing out at the rocky monoliths overlooking the whitewashed homes with their red-tiled roofs. Zahara is near Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park and has a beautiful Moorish castle that sits on a vast rocky hill, visible for miles around. It’s a maze of narrow alleys with Moorish buildings splashed with colorful bougainvillea. The tiny village of Linares is one of the region’s most charming, fun just to get lost among its narrow streets, enjoying the scenic views of the surrounding hills and whitewashed homes. The most prominent building is the church that sits in the center with lush gardens.

Seville Spain

Seville, Granada, and Cordoba

As you explore the white villages, it’s well worth visiting Southern Spain’s magnificent cities too. Seville is not only a great place to enjoy tapas and catch a flamenco performance, but it’s home to many alluring attractions like the UNESCO-listed Seville Cathedral with its Moorish and gothic-style architecture, and the over thousand-year-old Alcazar dating back to Moorish times. Granada is one of Spain’s oldest and most stunning cities, home to the Alhambra, built primarily during the 13th and 14th centuries. Cordoba is a typical Moorish city with rich cultural and historical offerings that include the Mosque-Cathedral, the only one of its kind in Spain.

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This article was first published in issue seven of the Unforgettable Travel Magazine.

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