High in the remote mountains of the Serranía de Ronda, at the headwaters of the Rio Genal, you will find a group of villages, Igualeja, Pujerra, Júzcar, Cartajima, Alpandiere and Farajan. All appear very similar, pretty white villages perched on rocky buttresses or glued to the side of steep valleys, all with populations of less than 1000, all with an unrecorded history lost in time.
Even their modern history is similar. After the re-conquest in 1492, fearing that the Moors living on the coast would be able to contact their brethren in Morocco, a law was passed prohibiting them from living within a league of the sea. Many moved voluntarily and many more were moved more forcefully, to the inland villages in the remote Serranía de Ronda, no doubt hoping they would be able there to live in peace alongside the existing Moorish inhabitants. Unfortunately it was not to be and the persecution continued.
Many converted to Christianity and became Moriscos but even for them the end was in sight and they were eventually all evicted by Spanish Christians who took over their lands and houses. By 1610 the last of the Morisco resistance, centred around Júzcar, was over. Meanwhile each of the villages had benefited from the largesse of Diego de Deza, the Archbishop of Seville, who, in 1505, initiated a church building programme to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the expulsion of the Moors from the area.
Today the villages are a sleepy reminder of what once was. The local industry is centred around the chestnut, orange, lemon and cork trees that fill the valleys and, for the lower villages; grapes, olives and wine provide a little variation. The older folk gather at the one or two remaining bars and reminisce and grumble about the younger people who are increasingly attracted away from the hard life working the land to the brighter lights of the coastal towns. They are invariably friendly and innately curious about the stranger, yet quietly reticent, a legacy of their not so recent past.
Yet for all their similarities each village has had its moments of fame. Júzcar for instance was the site of the first factory in Spain. Founded in 1731, the Finca la Fabrica was a smelting plant built with the aid of German technicians. Locally known as the tin factory, the ore was brought from the surrounding sierras to be worked near a source of fast flowing water, the Rio Genal, and close to a supply of wood to make the charcoal to fuel the furnaces. Armour for the monarchs of Spain was made here and the factory operated until the early 20th century.
Cartajima also dabbled in metalworking. A munitions factory was built there in the early 19th century to turn the local iron ore into cannon. The village became so wealthy that it became known as Cádiz el Chico – ‘Little Cádiz’. Appropriately Cartajima looks down on all the other villages having been built at the remarkable altitude of 800 metres (2,500 feet). Why it was built that high is anybodies guess but there are tantalising clues. Greek style tombs found there contained coins along with human remains that hint at a very early history. The name itself is so akin to that of Cartagena, the Greek port established in Mercia, that it couldn’t not be accidental. Sadly all archive material was destroyed during the Civil War in 1936 so we will now never know.
Igualeja was the scene of, possibly the first, doomed attempt at egalitarianism. When Spanish Christians replaced the Moriscos, each family was given an equal portion of land sufficient to support a family. People in Ronda wrote a doggerel, ‘Los de Igualeja, todos iguales, todos iguales’, ‘The people of Igualeja are all equal, all equal’. Hardly Shakespeare but it gets the message across.
Alpandeire has a population of less than 400. Its church, built inevitably in 1505, is known as ‘The Cathedral of the Hills’. This immense and imposing structure dwarfs the entire town. Maybe it was this building, that dominates every other, that inspired Francisco Tomás de San Juan Bautista Marquez Sanchez. He was born there in 1864 and, at the age of 33 years, went to Granada and became a Capuchin monk. As Fray Leopoldo he returned to the Serranía de Ronda and spent the remainder of his pious life travelling between the villages performing miracles. He died in 1956 and within a few years was nominated for sainthood. His statue stands on a hill enigmatically looking over his flock.
All six of the villages, the one never more than 4 kilometres from the next, are connected by an intricate network of paths that lead you through chestnut plantations, across fast flowing mountain streams, through dark oak groves and along precipitous ridges that are now a delight for the modern walker but that once had a far more sinister purpose for they are the ways of the bandit, the bandoleros, their furtive passage hidden from the view of any observer on the main tracks, and it was in these villages that they had their lairs.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the Spanish feudal system broke down and resulted in many men who felt the only way they could feed themselves and their families was by becoming a bandit. Their exploits struck a chord in a romantic age and they were awarded attributes they never had in life to such an extent they gained the reputation of being modern day Robin Hoods. The bandits became a tourist attraction and each village had its hero.
Francisco Flores Arocha was born to an impoverished family in Igualeja in 1897. He was gifted with a fine intelligence that he used to gain wealth by doubtful means. He married Maria when he was in his twenties and immediately coveted her father, Salvador’s, finca, la Fuenfria. Fransisco first offered to buy the finca but Salvador was not after selling it. Fransisco returned to the negotiating table with a gun. Salvador still refused to sell and Fransisco pulled the trigger and shot and killed his sister in law, Anita. He took to the hills and became a bandolero. Despite becoming a legend in the hills, the life did not suit Fransisco and he decided to make a last attempt to gain the finca. He returned and killed everybody he found there, including his mother in law. A manhunt ensued and on New Year’s Eve in 1932 the Guardia Civil killed him in Arroyo Hondo near Benahavis.
Alpandeire too has its bandit, Antonio Barbaran Jimenez, known as El Barbará, who met his fate at the end of the Guardia’s rifles in 1851.
The bandidos became so notorious and so effective at their chosen trade that in 1844 the Guardia Civil was formed to suppress dissension in rural areas, with an emphasis on the bandoleros of the Serranía de Ronda. It took them almost one hundred years. The last bandolero, Juan Mingolla Gallardo, otherwise known as Pasos Largos or ‘Long Steps’ was born near Ronda in 1874 and took to the hills after killing a farmer and his son who accused him of poaching on their land. He was caught and imprisoned in 1932 but managed to escape and die in true bandolero fashion, in a shoot out with the Guardia Civil.