If I were asked to define the mythical Eden, it would be a place of natural beauty with abundant native flora and fauna, where wild and domestic animals roam freely, nature is managed sustainably and people live in harmony with their surroundings. Not many places fit these criteria anymore, though there are still a few Edens on earth. One of these is El Centro Algaba de Ronda.
Algaba is an educational centre, research facility, nature camp and residential retreat located an hour inland from the Costa del Sol. The centre was created for the conservation and diffusion of the historical, cultural and natural heritage of the rural environment of the Serrania de Ronda.
With its entrance just off the Ronda to Algeciras road, the gate is usually tied up with a piece of string, more to keep livestock in than unwanted visitors out. Continuing down the unpaved lane surrounded by crooked oak trees, one might run into horses grazing, seemingly without a worry in the world. Crossing a cattle guard, watching out for free-range hens pecking in the dirt, you find yourself in an enclave of traditional lime-washed buildings where the centre’s activities are based.
The original Andalusian farmhouse has been expanded and converted into a an aesthetically pleasing and impeccably executed Centre for Education and Conferences, including a reception area, library, kitchen, conference and lecture hall, and communal areas for dining and leisure activities.
Visiting Algaba gives an impression of arriving at a carefully and lovingly cultured wilderness. The property includes 60 hectares Mediterranean moorland of ancient gall, holm and cork oaks, with undergrowth of hawthorn, broom, wild roses, herbs and mushrooms. Situated on the bird migration paths between Europe and Africa, the zone is of great ornithological interest, homing eagles, buzzards, owls and various woodland birds. Other wildlife includes toads, lizard, snakes, martens, badgers, foxes and deer, as well as jabalíes, the native wild boars, who rototiller the land at night looking for tasty morsels underfoot.
Visitors are invited to meander through nature trails, surrounded by traditional cement-free piedra seca stone fences, while sunrays filter through the canopy of branches above. No wonder that the centre is named Algaba, the Arab word for forest or indeed oasis, either ringing true for this Mediterranean nature-lovers paradise.
However, La Algaba offers much more than nature appreciation. Being at the forefront of sustainable farming research, the cooperative includes a team of professional investigators and educators in areas such as agro-ecology, geology, ornithology and experimental archaeology. The estate has dedicated pockets of land for planting traditional non-GMO cereals, using the methods available to the zone in the Neolithic era. La Algaba also incorporates a Centre for Apiculture with organic production from more than one hundred beehives. Algaba offers workshops based on sustainability, innovation, quality and future longevity, using its natural resources for training, promotion and production of ecological agriculture and breeding.
The organic animal husbandry programmes are dedicated to the protection and recovery of traditional breeds in danger of extinction. Rare varieties of native livestock are raised on the estate, including the endangered Cardena cattle, merino sheep from the Grazalema region, donkeys and various types of Andalusian chickens. However, the rarest breeds are the blonde and golden Andalusian pigs. These species are officially considered extinct, though there are still some hundred animals living happily in Algaba, the very last ones in the world!
Perhaps the most unique part of Algaba’s work is its Centre for Experimental Archaeology. This 4,000-square-metre reconstruction of a prehistoric Neolithic village is based on Copper Age settlements from 3,200-2,600 BC in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. El Poblado as it is called, is an on-going, full scale, archaeological experiment, exploring the relationship between prehistoric settlers, technologies and environments. To share this knowledge, visiting groups can participate in hands-on, open-air classroom workshops in experimental archaeology, flint knapping, pottery, esparto grass weaving, work with leather hides and use of medicinal plants.
Located in one of the areas in Europe with the highest incidence of tourism and urban growth, Andalucía is facing progressive abandonment of traditional forms of production and disappearance of popular culture. Therefore, the work of Algaba is vital in conserving the heritage of the region.
The Centre collaborates with the University of Cordoba Department of Veterinary Sciences, the Prehistory Departments of the Autonomous University of Madrid, University of Malaga Environmental Studies and University of Granada Department of Archaeology. Algaba has received several awards, including the Europa Nostra Award in the categories of Education and Heritage and the Junta de Andalucía prize for best tourist initiative in the Malaga province. It is acknowledged by the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism.
While last time we were there, a class of Montessori children had come up from Málaga for a day camp, Algaba is becoming increasingly known as a retreat centre for groups of international yoga, pilates and meditation practitioners, as well as complimentary health practitioners. Algaba offers accommodation in rustic cottages, serving traditional food made with locally grown and organic produce when available. Cultural workshops and tours are presented in Spanish, while English or French tours are available upon request.
To be sure, La Algaba is not a hotel. It does not offer the luxury of king-sized beds, room service and flat screen TVs. What Algaba offers is something much rarer – the exclusivity of sharing a natural sanctuary, whose patrimonial wealth the Algaba custodians aim to defend and protect for all humanity.
For more information go to Algaba de Ronda