Day trip to magical Zahara de la Sierra and a few notes on rural travel with octogenarians

The advantage of calling Andalucía home is that we live a short distance from some of the world’s most amazing cities, such as Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla. With Ronda as our chosen base, we also have the added bonus of near proximity to Andalucía’s famous White Villages or Pueblos Blancos. Picturesque, peaceful and pristine, they are often favoured by day-trippers from the Costa del Sol. But are these rustic mountain towns suitable for elderly travellers? Planning the forthcoming visit of my mother, we decided to preview the village of Zahara to ensure that we could conquer it with a sprightly Norwegian 88-year-old in tow.

Not to be confused with the coastal fishing town of Zahara de los Atunes, or the Sahara desert (which admittedly is inching its way further north), Zahara de la Sierra is located in the northernmost corner of Cádiz province. The town appears like an apparition, perched on a rocky knoll on the Ronda to Sevilla road. The hilltop town has the jagged peaks of the UNESCO Biosphere Sierra de Grazalema as a dramatic backdrop, while facing a more tranquil valley and the turquoise water of the Embalse de Zahara-el Gastor reservoir. As far as mind-blowing settings go, there is hardly a more stunning sight in all of Andalucía.

Travelling with octogenarians and nonagenarians in rural southern Spain, there are things one ought to be aware of. The village streets are mostly cobbled and tend to be quite uneven. There might not be sidewalks, or if there are, walker and wheelchair users might find that ramps are lacking. This said, one can almost always count on a friendly local willing to help a stranded traveller. Thankfully, my mother only needs her trusted collapsible walking poles to move about, and of course a bench now and then. She is happy to sit down in the shade with a cappuccino (she won’t order Café con leche, even if that is what she will be served…) while writing postcards to all her widow friends back home in the fjords.

Since we were on a scouting expedition, we parked where the farm fields ended and the white houses began, and continued on foot. Zahara does have vehicle access into the village centre, but the few potential parking spots tend to be taken long before one gets there. If double-parking by a fire hydrant is the only option, the alternative is to leave one’s globetrotting granny at a café in the main square and rid oneself of ones vehicle farther away from the centre.

Choosing the narrowest calles and most charming alleys, we proceeded upwards at a steady incline, meeting some of the local Zahareños en route. Zahara is after all a living pueblo with approximately 1500 inhabitants. Like many other White Villages, the main industry is tourism, though the local population still run small businesses, contribute to the cork trade, produce olive oil, wine or Payoyo cheese or sell locally made baked goods.

Speaking of Zahara, there is some dispute as to the origin of its name. Those in the know agree that it is derived from Arabic, but the consensus ends there. Some suggest it comes from the woman’s name Zahra, possibly referring to the wife of an Emir back in the day. Others say it has something to do with the Azar, the orange blossom, which are abundant in town, or that the name refers to the huge rock upon which the town sits. I however, vote for the forth theory (there are more…) where Zahara means beautiful, bright, shining or brilliant, all of which aptly describe this magical little town.

Ronda is also considered a Pueblo Blanco, but Zahara’s houses are whiter than white, certainly on a spring day when the sky is brilliant blue and when the deep green leaves of the orange trees that line the streets are loaded with fruit. I can see why the Andalucian flag is white and green. But why are these villages called Pueblos Blancos, other than the obvious fact that the houses are all painted white? The reason for the white is the locally available limestone traditionally used to whitewash the homes.

We only detected two exceptions from the all-white theme – a stone castle and a pink church. Like many settlements in the sierra, Zahara is crowned by an impressive defensive tower dating from the time the Moors ruled Spain. The 13th century Nasarid castle was built on top of an earlier 8th century watchtower. Due to Zahara’s strategic position, many battles were fought here, until the Christian forces under Rodrigo Ponce de León finally conquered the village in 1483.

Even for those who do not care one iota about history, the view from the top of the tower is well worth the climb. When the time comes, my mother will probably let us ‘youngsters’ ascend while she will enjoy watching village life from below. She is wiser than I will be at her age, as I will surely head to the top only to get stuck in a crack and need to be winched down or picked up by a helicopter, my legs flailing about in the air-born harness. That is if I am still around at such a ripe old age…

Zahara’s second coloured edifice is the 17th century Santa María de la Mesa Church. With its pink façade and marble Baroque portal, it stands out against the dark cliff and the surrounding white houses. Upon entering, there is a painting of the Christian re-conquest of the town more than 500 years ago, when soldiers climbed the cliffs, which nowadays have comfortable walking paths. Santa María is lovely example of rural Andalucian churches, with a hand carved pulpit and choir. As it is  located in the main square right across from the town hall, visitors can easily can stop by and light a candle here.

One does not have to visit battlements and churches to enjoy Zahara, which was declared a Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1977. There is a true charm in wandering around the handful streets that compose the village centre, peaking into windows, admiring the abundant flowers in pots on walls and terraces, and stopping to try some of the specialties of the region. One might not get the latest haute cuisine, but you can always find a hearty, heaping comida casera (home-cooked meal), whether you want a lake or a sierra view. You probably will have to share the lovely vista with other tourists, otherwise such villages would not survive, but you can still find a quiet street where you can observe the Zahareños hanging off their balcony sharing local gossip.

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