Out in the countryside to the east of Málaga city we found the Axarquía (Ax-are-KEY-ah) region, a refreshingly authentic part of southern Spain. To explore this bucolic land of almond, olive, and vine planted hillsides, we made four separate day-trips to Frigiliana, Cómpeta, Alfarnate, and Riogordo, all pretty whitewashed villages from the Moorish era.
The Moors were nomadic Muslim people from North Africa that occupied southern Spain between 711 and 1492 AD. The nearly eight centuries of Moorish influence in the Axarquía left an especially strong impression, most notably in the restored town of Frigiliana.
Frigiliana is exceptionally well-maintained, with freshly whitewashed walls, neatly painted pastel doors, well-tended flower pots, and spotless cobblestone alleyways. Given its preserved Moorish architecture and pristine condition, Frigiliana was voted by the Spanish tourism authority as “the prettiest village in Andalucia”.
The Moors also designed and installed an ingenious irrigation system of water wells, channels, and reservoirs to support their agricultural efforts throughout the Axarquía. To observe this still-active water delivery system, we visited the village of Cómpeta, and followed a well-worn rural footpath to the neighboring hamlet of Canillas de Albaida.
Remarkably, the irrigated terraced slopes of poor basic soils around Cómpeta yield an abundance of sugary Muscat grapes. The grapes are hand harvested, and most are dried in the sun to produce moist and meaty Málaga raisins. The remaining are squeezed to make Muscatel, a pleasantly sweet dessert wine.
Another exceptional cultivation of the region is the exquisite Marcona almond. Around Málaga city, street vendors sell the skinless and lightly salted treats in white paper cones. To see the almond trees in full bloom, we went for a winter walk between Alfarnate and Alfarnatejo, the two highest villages of the Axarquía.
Stepping off the bus at an elevation of 3,000 feet (915 m), the air was noticeably cooler. On the brisk hike through the verdant countryside, the profuse pink and white almond blossoms and steely grey dolomitic outcrops stood out against the canvas of olive-green.
Grey-green grids of twisted olive trees envelop the Axarquía hills. Because Spain is the world’s leading producer and exporter of olives and olive oil, we came to the town of Riogordo to walk through its olive orchards and attend an olive oil grinding festival.
The small festival was really just an expanded open house for the local ethnological museum and an excuse to partake in some sensible day-drinking. Besides olive and olive oil tasting, the festival also included an olive pit spitting contest and a demonstration of traditional olive grinding using a blindfolded mule.
From the silly to the sublime, our trips into the countryside east of Málaga were welcome getaways from the crowded unnatural city and superficial tourist beaches. In the original ancient villages, bona fide hill and mountain landscapes, and genuine local delicacies, we discovered the real deal in authentic Axarquía.
Feature Image: Clifftop dwellings of Cómpeta