“You haven’t seen the Holy Chestnut tree?” our friend Rafa exclaimed and immediately offered to bring us there. Somehow his spontaneous kindness did not surprise us, as this is not the first time we have experienced the heartfelt hospitality of the Andalucíans.
Two days later, our friend Mamen, her son Dawda, plus my husband and I were bumping along in Rafa’s jeep, following the narrow unpaved road chipped into the mountainside. After the takeoff from the San Pedro highway, it was just us and nature. There are no stores, fuel stations or inns along the way. Only the Junta de Andalucia who repairs the roads and handful farmers who have livestock in the area regularly use the route. Which was just as well, as the turning points were few and far between.
Once in a while, we stopped to take in the view, hear a story about a nearby mountain range, investigate an abandoned cortigo or admire a predator in flight. “I might get lost in town, but I know these roads like the back of my hand”, grinned Rafa, gesticulating with his hands while avoiding fallen boulders by steering centimeters from the unprotected edge, which wispy grasses separated us from the valley deep below.
We were on what they call a Via Verde, a 45 km long walking route between Ronda and San Pedro de Alcántara. We had often thought of setting out on this 13-hour stroll, which for thousands of years was the main connection to the sea used by fishermen, nobility, explorers and thieves alike.
En route, we hear the story of the historically important, yet hard to find Castañó Santo de Istán, just 37 kilometers from the bustling Costa del Sol.
The surrounding forest area was the place of Moorish rebellions in the 16th century. In the year 1501, King Ferdinand held a mass under its sacred branches. According to legend, they prayed that the sunset would be delayed to allow the safe return of the Catholic troops to Marbella. 69 year later, more than one hundred people was present when D. Luis Ponce de León, also known as the Duke of Arcos, held a mass here to give thanks after putting an end to the Moorish rebellion of September 1570. The fact that the tree was that important 444 years ago speaks for itself…
The Castañó Santo de Istán is an enormous, ancient chestnut tree situated in a forestall zone called Sierra Real de Istán. The name Istán may reflect the importance of the Arab settlements in this area for eight centuries. Istan or stān (spelled ـستان in Perso-Arabic script) is Persian for ‘place of’ and the word also means ‘place’ or ‘homeland’ in Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit. Could not be a coincidence, could it?
At a fork in the road, an unassuming hand-carved sign indicated the Castaño Santo and pointed us in the direction of the friendly giant. The tree is on private grounds, but thankfully the public is still allowed access. Not that there were a lot of us. Other than the distant bell-sound from of a herd of sheep or goats, we detected no other humans or animals. Rafa jokingly said that if we would meet a wild boor, which actually do frequent the area, we must run and climb up a tree. But no such luck… The trail itself was worth the drive, leading us through an enchanted forest of ancient cork trees, some covered in thick layers of moss and large spider webs.
And then, there she was, the sacred chestnut.
She stands alone in a clearing, without information posts, visitor’s benches and other guest facilities. The tree is believed to be the oldest in the entire province of Málaga, with an estimated venerable age of between 800 and 1000 years. It is Spain’s 22nd oldest tree and 4th biggest when considering size. Her colossal trunk is at least five meter in diameter, with a circumference that in some places exceeds 22 meters. The tree is about 25 meters high, with the projected area of the spectacular leafy crown covering 510,02 m2. What magical potion does the underground water contain to grown such giants?
Due to it’s special growing power, in the past, visitors would dig out and bring with them some of the earth surrounding the tree, leaving the impressive network of roots exposed to the elements. Therefore, stone terraces had now been built to protect the roots and the tree for future generations to enjoy and admire.
There is a special reverence in approaching a near thousand-year-old giant. At first I watched her from afar, letting my co-explorers revel in her magnificence. Surprisingly, though her bark was like dark veined and weathered skin, her leaves were a shade of almost spring-like green, even in late July. Slowly, I approached her and finally put my hand out to feel the pulse of this living giant.
Once touching, I did not want to let go. Almost thousand years old! How many hands have touched exactly this gap of the weathered trunk? How many have climbed into her welcoming arms? What changes have this tree not seen and felt? Every piece of its bark and limbs was like a diary, telling stories of storms, drought and floods, thunderous nights, wars, abandonment, abuse, care, and love. As one can imagine, many weddings have been celebrated under her magnificent crown through the ages.
Though the sources are unclear, some say that the Castañó Santo de Istán has been declared a Natural Monument. I have found no official information to support this fact. Other sources claim that since there has been an application to consider the sacred chestnut as a natural monument, it is assumed that it has an inherent official protection. Rafael, who is Ronda’s elected environmental representative, told us that though the tree is listed and catalogued amongst Andalucía’s unique trees and forests, it does not have any means of protection, being on private land.
As the sun started setting and we bid her our good byes, I wondered how long our giant will be allowed to grow, unguarded and unprotected from vandals and land-developers. Most similar giants around the world are located in national parks, having designated visiting hours, ticketed entrance fees, mountain rangers ready to escort away anyone who poses a threat to the giant and signs telling visitors to ‘DO NOT TOUCH!’
Yet here she stood, alone and magnificent. And one can only hope that the Castañó Santo de Istán may be protected by the centuries of pilgrims and nature lovers she has allowed into her graceful, green and enormous embrace.