Heading off-piste

After hurtling along a semi-deserted road cutting across rural Andalucia (the A384 to be precise), we turned off to plunge through vertiginous switchbacks leading south. Nothing new there – just typical Andalucian sierra. But our destination was unique – Setenil, a pueblo blanco cascading down a hillside from a Moorish fortress to a river, all of it interlaced by limestone cliffs pockmarked with caves.

One big stony frown hangs over a row of cave houses

Over the centuries dozens and dozens of tiny whitewashed houses have been built into the cliffs to front the caves – rather like the more famous Guadix just east of Granada, or Turkey’s sculptural Cappadocia. But Setenil’s cave houses are even more surprising. Some have virtually no light due to huge slabs of rock blocking the sky outside, others crouch below overhangs that look distinctly menacing. The jig-saw character of the urban fabric feels theatrical, yet its history goes back a long way.

The maze of Setenil

Watch your head! along calle Cuevas de la Sombra

From prehistoric cavemen to vintners

Setenil de las Bodegas (its full name) was once a flourishing town of wine-producers (hence ‘bodegas’) and before that a Moorish stronghold seized by the Castilians in 1484, just eight years before the fall of Granada. Rewind fourteen centuries further and it was peopled by Romans, a few thousand years more and Setenil was part of a regional network of cave-dwellers. 

Today, although the bodegas disappeared due to the phylloxera disease of the 1860s which destroyed so many of Spain’s vineyards, plenty of agriculture remains. Local almonds, olives, honey, goat cheese, pork products and pastries are among the offerings in grocery shops beside a line-up of tempting tapas bars and cute restaurants. Many spill out onto the pavement following the bends of the rio Trejo. In classic bullring style, the sunny bank of the river is Calle Cuevas del Sol, the shady one Calle Cuevas de la Sombra. Take your pick according to season – there are several footbridges.

The main drag of Calle Cuevas del Sol – tapas bars for troglodytes

Uphill struggle

A climb through this steep town is tough but not to be missed, despite the lure of the riverside bars. Quaint chapels, a late Gothic church, immaculately maintained houses, spectacular views, pant-inducing steps and tortuous cobbled streets finally bring you to the remains of a 12th century Almohad wall and torreón (tower/keep) crowning the town. After negotiating a scarily cramped staircase to the rooftop, your pay-off is sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Skip the main hall – there’s little to see other than a reconstructed Moorish interior and a damp cistern way below.

Next door, however, there lurks another beauty inside the compact Casa de la Damita de Setenil. Here, proudly displayed among a handful of local archaeological finds, is a tiny, rudimentary figure of a woman estimated to be 5,000 years old – proof that life existed in Setenil a long long time ago.

Setenil’s austere keep – all that remains of the 12th century Almohad fortress

Beware the Setenil hordes

As Setenil is only about 30 minutes drive north of Ronda along a much straighter road than the one we used, this urban curiosity heaves with day-trippers. Some come from as far as the Costa del Sol and at weekends throughout the year it’s the domestic variety that dominates. The result is that on Sundays tapas bars cater mainly for long, lazy, boozy lunches, before packing up in the early evening. A few also close mid-week. But don’t despair, you’ll never go hungry in Setenil.

The northern flank of Setenil with Hotel Villa de Setenil on the far right
Carillada ibérico – Iberian pork cheeks hit the spot at the Restaurante El Mirador

Sweet dreams

One place that is open daily is the excellent Restaurante El Mirador, part of the Hotel Villa de Setenil at the top of the town. Their innovative menu showcases local produce – just what you want – while large windows frame the sierra and a row of cave-houses across the valley. It’s impossible to forget where you are. All very dreamy at night too when just a few pinpricks of light flicker in the darkness.

Although the hotel sorely needs a facelift (its style is basically 1980s ‘modern’), many of the spacious rooms have large terraces and – a big plus – it stands directly above the only public car-park. That means more uphill steps – but is ultra convenient for drivers.

Otherwise you can test troglodyte-living yourself by staying in a cosy cave-house. Setenil’s tourist office lists dozens of them and will also arrange visits. In the end though, however you arrange your stay, you certainly won’t forget this extraordinary, very memorable town.

Calle Cabrerizas across the valley to the north – another stony frown and another place to eat