“troglodyte……from the Greek deriving from trogle or hole and dyein for get into”
If you’re idea of a caveman is an animal skinned Neanderthal dragging clubbed women back to his lair then think again, for in Guadix, near Granada, half the population live as troglodytes. Four thousand caves hewn over centuries from the bizarrely shaped countryside form the biggest concentration of inhabited caves in Europe.
Guadix itself is an eclectic mix of the old and the new and has been around since nearly the year dot. A former Paleothitic settlement, Julius Ceaser built a roman town here to mine the silver found in the surrounding hills. It was the Moors who put the town on the map however, and it is from them that Guadix gets its name. In those days Guadh-Haix, meaning ‘River of Life’ was an artistic town renowned throughout the conquered lands for its poetry and beauty. The Moors developed an important silk industry and revived the fortunes of the town which even rivalled Granada in its hey day. Around the 15th Century though, those pesky Christian Kings arrived and drove out the Moors. They fled to the hills and became almost invisible by burying themselves in the mountainsides, thus beginning cave culture in these parts.
La Barriada de las Cuevas is situated in the northern part of the town and entering the district is somewhat like entering a set for a Star Wars movie. Every hill sports a bright white washed façade, a little front door and one or two windows. Behind, white chimneys protrude randomly on the rising hillside, evidence of the underground abode within. It may sound odd living in caves but there are fantastic advantages. For one, the caves stay at a constant temperature year round, this seems to vary depending on whom you ask but suffice to say they are a very comfortable 20°C, summer and winter. I figured the small differences reported may be attributed to the depth of the room in question for I noticed in most of the caves, hollowed out of the wall, a natural larder, which stays a couple of degrees cooler than the rest of the cave. This ability to create space is also another advantage. Think about it. When a new child arrives or a family requires a bit more room, simply hack into the hillside a bit further and voila, a larger home! I wondered did people ever inadvertently end up in the cave of their neighbours around the hill? It would lend a whole new meaning to ‘dropping in’ wouldn’t it?
Señora Purificacion Serrano Gomez, is 83 years old and has lived her entire life in the caves, in the same cave no less, even born in it. I was nosily photographing the bright red peppers hung up to dry on her terrace wall when she emerged and invited me in to closer inspect her home. Entering Purificacion’s cave, the room seemed like any other. Built away from the rock face a part has been added recently for as with most of the cave dwellers here, she was subsidised by the Junta to build the extra rooms. Gas is forbidden in the caves by law, also water pipes, so many people have their kitchens and bathrooms in the outside rooms. Obviously very cave proud, Purificacion took me deeper into the cave itself, the box like rooms giving way to bright white textured walls, domed ceilings and the odd window set back nearly a metre from the inside wall. Purificacion pointed out members of her family in the framed photographs that covered the walls; her beloved, late husband in full military uniform and sons and grandsons on their wedding days, most of whom still live in the Barriada de las Cuevas.
I spent hours wandering around the district and spoke with many of the people there; Julia, whose family has lived in the caves for over 200 years, Antonio, laying his almonds out on the terrace of his sister’s cave (his was being used for some other agricultural pursuit) and little Javier playing miniature pool with his friend in a rough storage cave next to their home. His aged grandmother, Francisca, looked on and told me that their family have also lived in the caves for generations. In the local Barriada bar, the locals were enjoying their mid afternoon vino and watching Cuba thrash another team in the Olympics (women’s’ basketball fans every one, nothing to do with the tight very short shorts!). They don’t like the non-cave part of Guadix, it’s too busy, too hectic, they told me. I left the boys to their game and walked as far as it seemed you could go up the mountainside, and discovered old abandoned caves, the doorways and ceilings so low I had to crouch to enter. I tried to imagine life here when the moors hid from the Christians in these very hills, unseen and unheard in their caves.
I quite fancied the idea of getting a cave of my own so asked the ever-helpful Aaron, – who was a veritable font of information – what the local real estate market was like. Whilst showing me around his family’s cave he explained that until a few years ago, a reasonable two or three bedroom cave with all amenities would go for a mere 3,000 euros. He grinned as my mouth fell and told me that nowadays it will cost you 18,000€. You wouldn’t get the drip tray of someone’s fridge freezer on Marbella’s Golden Mile for that.
The following day I drove to Paulenka. Only minutes from Guadix, Paulenka is a tiny hamlet, made up of caves built into a cliff and the surrounding hills. With a view of the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada at one side, the town of Guadix on the other, the weird Star Wars mountains all over the place, its picturesque little church and of course it’s caves, Paulenka is stunning. The pace of life here is laid back, tranquil and like the Barriada in Guadix, very rural. Sweetcorn and peppers are hung out to dry on the outside walls, chickens and goats cluck and bleat about the place, old men with caps compare tomatoes in the sunshine and mules stagger under their loads down the steep hills.
In Paulenka I met Mateo and Maria who also invited me into their home to have a look. Theirs had no outer rooms, simply a doorway into the cliff face; a semi-circle of white paint to create the façade of their home. Simple and well kept, I felt privileged to be invited into these peoples’ homes. How many of us would let a camera toting stranger into our house? Encarna and her husband, who I met later, told me that they had a cave for sale and, still coveting one, my eyes lit up. It was the highest cave of the village, easily visible from where we were standing, 8 rooms that needed some work and the electric installing. If you want to reach me from here on in, just ask for Jax in Paulenka, top cave on the right, I’ll have the peppers hung out by next week.
Guadix is situated on the A92 road from Granada to Almeria and in itself is charming with old streets and buildings and the dominating Cathedral spires which are (excusing the pun) inspiring. The town is famous for its pottery, especially for the Jarra Accittanas, the ornate terracotta vases used for the guests at a wedding to place their gifts for the newlyweds. In the Barriada, you can watch the delicate process of making the Jarras at Taller Alfareria Jose Balboa where you can also purchase pottery at give away prices.
Guadix is also slap bang in the middle of three national parks, is a drive away from the imposing castle at Calahora, the hot springs and spa of Alicun de las Torres, the wild and wacky countryside of Benalua and numerous smaller villages where cave dwelling is still de rigour.
One of the best things about visiting the caves of Guadix is that you can actually be a troglodyte for a night yourself. I stayed in the Cuevas Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, just a little way out of town. This apart-hotel is a series of caves transformed into charming, rustic style ‘cavapartments’ complete with one or two bedrooms, living area, bathroom and kitchenette. There are even suite-caves equipped with their own Jacuzzi and a restaurant and swimming pool are also amongst the cave complex.
Tel: 958 664 986
Also a little out of town the other direction are the Cuevas del Tio Tobas. Uncle Tobas is the grandfather of Manuel Aranda Delgado the owner of the hotel and like the caves of Alcaron, Uncle Tobas’ caves are fully self-contained and are each decorated differently and some featuring narrow low ceiling tunnels connecting the rooms.
Tel: 958 698 350 / 956 835 901
In the Barriada de las Cuevas itself Chez Jean & Julia at Calle Ermita Nueva 67, have caves sleeping up to six people and also rooms for rent.
Tel: 689 369 800