At the far Eastern reaches of the Costa del Sol, lies Nerja. Once a tiny fishing village, Nerja is now a cosmopolitan town combining Andalucían history with marvellous scenery, welcoming visitors in their thousands from all over the world. During a recent trip, I heard American, French, German, Scandinavian and of course English spoken just walking along the Balcon de Europa. The Balcon was once a fortress but today forms a fantastic centrepiece to the town and is loved by visitors and locals alike. High arches form wonderful viewpoints to the cliffs and beaches below while horses take shelter in the shade awaiting passengers for their trips around the town. Ancient canons still stand guard pointing out to a sea which once spurned pirates and invaders; today they simply add a touch of history to many a photograph.
Unlike most of the Costa del Sol, the mountains of the Sierra Almijara, which lie directly north of the town, finish abruptly at the Mediterranean in Nerja, and the magnificent cliffs form natural coves and bays that stretch for miles along this part of the coast. East of the Balcon de Europa is the little Playa del Salon, still flanked by little fisherman’s cottages, followed by the lovely two-kilometre stretch of Torrecillo and Playazo. In the opposite direction you will find the beaches of Chorrillo, Carabeo, Carabeillo and perhaps one of Nerja’s most famous: Burriana. I met local fishermen on Playa Carabeillo who sat mending their nets before taking to the waves in search of their night’s catch. The fact that the beaches of Nerja are still shared by both locals going about their business and sun-seeking tourists is a result of years of careful planning by the authorities to ensure that Nerja retains its local heritage and local industries as well as benefiting from the influx of investment brought by foreign visitors.
As Nerja has grown, the local authorities have once again been careful to ensure that building regulations are strictly adhered to. Many new developments have been built to cater to the ever-growing number of tourists and new residents, but unlike other areas of the Costa del Sol where tower blocks reign supreme, most of Nerja’s new building projects are built to resemble Andalucían villages and combine traditional concepts with up to date leisure facilities. In the town centre, a maze of blindingly white streets wind their way to the cliff tops; packed with shops, cafés and restaurants to cater to the eclectic mix of people wandering through them. Many of the shops cater simply to the tourist trade but more and more are seeing the benefits of year round resident trade. Restaurants serve up French escargot, Greek souvlaki, Italian pizza, Mexican fajitas, English fish and chips and of course the Spanish paella – in fact, take a trip down to Burriana beach and you will see the paella in all its glory – cooked in huge pans on red hot fires.
Wander along Calle Carabeo and look between the houses to the Mediterranean. Many of the houses sport hanging balconies that jut out over the cliffs. Owning a piece of this paradise doesn’t come cheap these days but with historical houses still keeping many of their original features and simply their superb location, it is no wonder the street has become highly desirable. For most of us, we have to be satisfied with a wander around the Hotel 34 which has been lovingly restored by its English owners and is a great example of old time Nerja architecture.
Perhaps the most famous of Nerja’s landmarks are the Nerja Caves, located just outside the town. Attracting thousands of visitors every year and hosting a world-renowned festival each summer, they were only discovered in 1957. The caves have helped historians piece together Nerja’s early history and it is a long and interesting one. Remains have been found in the caves which date back to the Paleolithic period, (some 30,000 years ago) providing evidence of human inhabitancy even since pre-historic times. Neolithic, Copper, Bronze and Iron Age artefacts have also been found.
The Romans lived in the area and built a town called Detunda, located close to Maro, and pottery, coins and even burial places have been unearthed throughout the municipality. Parts of an old Roman road, which originally linked the provinces of Jaén and Almería and an old Roman bridge, can be found on the outskirts of the town. This is not to be confused with the Aguila Aqueduct located on the road which heads out towards the caves. This amazing five-storey construction was built in the 1800’s to supply water to the local Maro sugar factory and is not Roman as many claim.
It was the Moors however who placed the area firmly on the map. They lived farther inland and their settlement, called Narixa, was named for the large number of natural springs, streams and rivers: literally translated Narixa means “abundant spring”. Many remains of this settlement have been found alongside vestiges of a fortress on the Frigiliana road. Due to agricultural and silk production, Narixa, like most of the Axarquía, enjoyed great prosperity from the tenth century onwards. Unlike some other settlements in the area, however, no resistance was offered to counter the conquering Catholic monarchs of the fifteenth century.
In 1509, the castle on the cliffs was re-built and only then did Nerja as we know it begin to take shape. The local population, by then made up of re-located Spaniards from the north of Spain, began to build houses and other buildings around the fortress and along the coast. A full defensive system comprising castles and watchtowers spanned the coastline at this time and protected the coast by lighting fires which in turn warned the next watchtower along of the impending danger. These remained guarding Nerja until both castles were destroyed by the English in 1812 to prevent them from falling into the hands of the invading Napoleonic army. Later that century, Nerja was to witness two local disasters; one, the phylloxera plague which destroyed the vines and the second, a powerful earthquake which affected much of Málaga and Granada provinces. It wasn’t until the arrival of the tourist boom in early 1960’s that Nerja once again prospered.
Nerja caters well to the myriad different cultures that now descend on the area and the summer festival held in the caves attracts world famous artists and thousands of spectators. Local societies and groups offer a huge range of pursuits for those foreign newcomers trying to get their feet on the ground and local sporting and leisure facilities abound. Water sports are of course a big favourite but tennis, golf, football and a whole range of other sports are available to those who wish to participate. International schools as well as local clubs keep the kids occupied and evening entertainment in many different forms can keep you up all night if that’s your thing. The atmosphere in Nerja is very relaxed and down to earth. The old town is a joy to wander around, the beaches are gorgeous and the overall feeling is that of old and new striding forward hand in hand quite comfortably.
For many who break free of life in Northern Europe, the wish to live the “real Spain” means they head for the hills and to the quaint white washed villages of the Sierras. One of these is Frigiliana. Like Mijas is to Fuengirola, Frigiliana is to Nerja. Set on the tourist route and well known to foreign property buyers, the place is still a quiet backwater compared to the coast. Located just six kilometres from Nerja, Frigiliana is surrounded by the cultivation of tropical fruits and vegetables and fields of vines from which excellent local wine is produced – both sweet and dry.
The village itself consists of two adjoining population centres: one ancient and of Moorish origin, the other built more recently although it retains the structure of a typical Andalucían village. On entering the village, two buildings demand your attention – one an old Pósito or granary built in 1767 and the other a 16th century Renaissance mansion, now converted into a Molases factory. The posito houses a shop selling locally made pottery, baskets and produce.
The historical part of Frigiliana, despite the influx of foreign residents and tourists seems to continue as it has done for centuries. Pots of plants and flowers are everywhere, crowding doorways and stairways whilst cats laze in the sunshine filtering down from above. Old people sit outside their houses knitting or simply passing the time of day and as you walk up the steep little streets, there is a calm not often found on the busy coast. If you are interested in history, ceramic panels tell the tales of old and although written in Spanish, translations in several languages are widely available. Like Nerja, Frigiliana has seen human settlement dating back to pre-historic times, followed by the Phoenicians and Romans. It was, once again, the Moors who brought the village much prosperity and even built a castle – the ruins of which still crown the highest point of the village.
Despite having shared much of the same history, Nerja and Frigiliana have grown up worlds apart. Both attract foreign residents but offer different ways of life. One is a cosmopolitan resort town packed with amenities, the other a typical Andalucían village nestling in the mountains offering a quieter, more traditionally Spanish life. One thing is sure, both will continue to attract attention and as infrastructure and facilities continue to improve, will do so for many years to come.