Living where we do just outside the village of Sedella in the Axarquia region of Andalucia, this mountain is what we’re looking up at every day.
I know! Believe me not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars that I live in such a beautiful part of the world.
It’s called La Maroma and at 2,065m is the highest peak in Malaga. Or so I’ve been telling everyone who’s come to visit for the past three years. I just looked up the exact height now and in fact strictly speaking the peak itself lies just over the border in Granada province. But that’s getting technical. If you’re in Malaga and you want to climb the highest mountain around, then La Maroma is your man. We love to climb mountains. And we live just under it!
The kids are fascinated by “our mountain”. Whenever we leave it’s the big friendly face we can see from half an hour away to welcome us home. But the big question in our house lately has been “What’s behind the mountain?” So last Sunday we decided to go see for ourselves.
Maroma is part of a huge range, or series of ranges – the Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama – that stretches across the Axarquia region, not exactly hugging the coast but coming very close at some points. These sierras are one of the reasons that the south of Spain enjoys “the best climate in Europe”, so the locals love to boast. They shelter us from the worst of the rain and the wind in winter and in summer we benefit from the cool Mediterranean breeze that the interior misses out on.
Climbing Maroma is not an option yet with the young uns, so to get to the other side we followed a route that has been used since prehistoric times, heading northeast and crossing the sierras through the naturally formed massive U-shaped gash in the range known as El Boquete de Zafaraya (The Zafaraya gap).
El Boquete de Zafarraya
As you can see it’s fairly dramatic, we would literally be driving through the clouds.
Although it looked so close, it took almost an hour to reach the gap, switchbacking back and forth slowly and relentlessly uphill all the way from Alcaucin. Normally we’d be getting a lot of “Are we there yet?” from the back seat but instead there was a steady build-up of excitement as we neared it with lots of “We’re almost at the gap!”, We’re about to go through!”, “We’re inside the cloud!” etc.
This pass is steeped in history. The famous “man from Zafarraya” remains were discovered in a cave here in 1983, which are the oldest and best preserved remains of Neanderthal man in the world, dating back 30,000 years. Early man used it as a hunting ground to prey on animals crossing the mountains. Later it was used as a trading route between the city of Granada and the coast. During the Moorish reign it was a strategic high point of attack and communication – there’s lots of ruined watch towers still dotted around that connected the coast with the interior.
Once through the gap we immediately found ourselves in the outskirts of the small town of Ventas de Zafarraya. Ventas means local inn or place to stop for food or shelter. This is the market garden of the region, the town a distribution centre for the produce of the vast fertile valley below. Compared to the south side of the mountain, here it’s surprisingly flat and heavily planted with corn, peppers, artichokes and lettuces.
With rumbling bellies now we motored through and headed east, past lush vineyards, golden wheat fields and ripe almond trees rolling over the hills to our left; to our right aromatic pine forests climbed the slopes up the north face of Maroma.
Alhama de Granada
We pulled in at the ancient spa town of Alhama de Granada. The name is derived from the Arabic al-hammam meaning “hot water” and refers to the mineral-rich springs just outside the town that emerge from the earth at a toasty 47 ° C. This was a favourite holiday destination for the Romans, who developed the baths to treat their rheumatism, arthritis and other diseases. Later the Moors added beautiful Arab arches and skylights. But apparently the golden age of this resort was in the nineteenth century when spas became popular all over Europe. It is funny to think that just over a century ago, this town was THE holiday destination for the jet setters of Europe while the south coast of Spain only an hour away, now known as the “Costa del Sol”, was an unspoilt stretch of sand visited only by fishermen.
There is a ton of buildings and ruins of Roman, Moorish and Christian origin here which would definitely merit a proper explore, but we had only one thing on our minds – food. We quickly located the main square where there’s a cluster of friendly looking bars and restaurants, ducked in to the atmospheric Bar Ochoa and within five minutes were tucking in to a delicious plate of local speciality berenjenas con miel (fried aubergine drizzled with honey) that were served with our drinks. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten we’re in Granada province now, so free tapas with drinks. Nice!
Once fed and watered we made a beeline for the previously mentioned hot baths of Alhama. There are two spa hotels in the town where you can enter the baths, but we opted for the al fresco option by the river near the Hotel Balneario which is totalmente gratis.
It was a twenty minute walk from the town. From the lower square, you take the road to the left, pass the feria ground and follow the river down to the main road, then take a left and it’s another 300m to the springs. We did a quick change in the hotel loos, which the staff didn’t seem to mind, and slipped in to the piping hot pools with the river Alhama trickling past our elbows.
Hotel La Seguiriya
Freshly hungry again after the baths and the uphill walk back to town, we went for dinner at a small family-run hotel that had been recommended to us – La Seguiriya on calle Las Peñas. We knew nothing more about it than the food was excellent and from the moment we entered it was clear the service was too.
Even though Spanish restaurants are always so incredibly welcoming to families and small children, there’s still that awkward moment when you burst through the door into a hushed dining room of couples quietly enjoying their meals lugging your all-terrain buggy and three little people trailing behind you, wondering if you’re going to end up ruining everyone else’s night. Thankfully both the diners and especially the staff couldn’t have been nicer to us, despite the kids non-stop chatter. At one point Ray knocked her chair against a glass display unit. There was no damage, but it was incredibly LOUD. And still everyone just chuckled and smiled at the sweet little angel. Ah Spain!
I have to mention the terrace. The waiter came over while the kids were out on the terrace with Ivan and urged me to go too. It was fully dark by then and the others were huddled at the balcony gaping down in silence at this:
This isn’t my photo, it’s an aerial shot I found, but you can imagine the dramatic view from one of those little buildings clinging to the edge of the gorge, one of which is the Hotel Seguiriya.
I was too hungry by then to think of taking photos. I wish I had because the food was really superb. We shared a house salad which was fresh and delicious with thin slices of their speciality loin of pork scattered on top and so big that by the time my steak arrived I could only eat half of it. The meat was from Asturias and was cooked to perfection in a creamy Jerez sauce.
All the while as we ate a stirring flamenco music played. I’ll admit I know nothing about flamenco music, except I can tell the really awful stuff from the good, and this was really good. And all the while the owner of the hotel who had been pottering around all evening polishing some forks here, flicking through some bills there, would stop at a certain phrase in the music, clap his hands, discreetly stamp his foot. You could tell he was really in to it, lost in it at times.
And eventually as my growling belly filled up I clicked that the flamenco singer in the photographs on the wall opposite looked like the owner, except maybe younger… so I asked the waiter. Yes indeed! We were in the company of the great Paco Moyano, now retired, he informed us. He clearly had huge reverance for this man. I Googled him as soon as I got home and indeed he is quite the legend in flamenco circles. You can listen to his music here.
So not bad for a day’s road trip – beautiful landscape all the way, a tasty tapas lunch, the afternoon spent at a spa (for free!), a delicious relaxing dinner and the discovery of a musical legend of Andalucia. We came away from Alhama that night with a really warm feeling, already planning our next trip back.
Driving back in the dark was a different experience. The flat uninhabitated plains rolled away in to inky darkness and all that could be seen was The Gap’s sheer rocky walls facing each other in the distance, dramatically lit up at nightime, growing bigger and spookier as we approached.
It was 11pm by the time we purred through Ventas de Zaffaraya, as still and eerie as a ghost town and entered the jaws of The Gap, like some fierce beast presiding over the mountain top. But what a view on the other side! Lights twinkled from houses and pueblos all over this much more populated valley all the way down to the sea, the perfect scene for three exhausted children to enter dreamland.