Ancient baths in a dramatic location
By Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb
Photos courtesy Costa Del Sol Tourism
Sometimes it helps to follow your nose.
For days we’d heard rumors about ancient baths located just below Casares, in southeastern Spain. But reliable information was hard to come by. The tourist brochures made only passing reference to them, and even the directions that we finally did get were vague to say the least: head down the mountain and through the quarry, turn onto the foot path, then walk toward the water. Precisely how far we should go and which of the half-hidden paths we should take remained a mystery, though.
So on we plodded in Andalusia’s autumnal sunshine dodging killer cacti and recalcitrant donkeys, until we smelt it — the sulfurous pool that first brought the area a measure of fame more than 2,000 years before.
According to legend, Julius Caesar stumbled upon this same spot in 61 BC, when he was merely a provincial administrator with a nasty skin condition, and was so impressed by the pool’s medicinal properties that he became a frequent visitor. The Roman-built structure that encloses it (known as Baños de la Hedionda) is a simple dome with a sheltering wall around the perimeter. Rising about eight feet above ground level, it is broken only by two low arches through which you enter directly into the water by way of either a rough wooden ladder or a stone ramp. Taking the plunge can be unnerving. Darkness makes the depth of the pool difficult to determine, and two subterranean vaults add to the sense of foreboding.
WATER IS DIVINE
Caesar, however, was absolutely right: the water is divine and warm enough for swimming well into the fall. For him, its healing power seemed miraculous. For us, on the other hand, the real miracle was that the baños—despite their proximity to the Costa del Sol, one of Europe’s most congested tourist strips—have no signs, lines or admission fees. In short, they’ve yet to be invaded by the hordes of vacationers who have overrun the Mediterranean coast from Malaga to Algeciras. The same can also be said of Casares, the pueblo blanco or “white village” reputedly named for Caesar that overlooks the baths. And it, too, can seem rather daunting at first.
In part that’s because of its dramatic location: set 1,425 feet up in the Sierra Bermeja Mountains, Casares’ sugar-cube buildings perch precariously on twin plateaus and tumble into the deep crevice between. But it is also because of the quiet. You see, the village is a study in serenity, which is unsettling for those who’ve come to equate holidays with site-filled itineraries and Amazing Race-style activities.
The truth is that, save for the late afternoon (when children take to the soccer field) or dusk (when adults tread the cobbled pedestrian-only streets on their nightly paseo) sounds here are as muted as the almond blossoms that enliven the landscape, which is precisely why Casares is a perfect place to rediscover the lost art of lounging.
The first step, literally, is to stroll over to Plaza España where you can browse shops bordering the square and watch locals play pétanque beside a centuries-old fountain. Afterwards, you might putter about in Casares’ small ethno-history museum or pay homage to Blas Infante, the “Father of Andalusian Nationalism,” at his restored birthplace.
SATISFY YOUR HUNGER
Next, having satisfied your curiosity, you can concentrate on satisfying your hunger. It’s a pleasant prospect considering Casareño eateries dish up simple fare prepared with Andalusian flare. Specialties include morcilla de chivo sausages and artisanal goat cheese accompanied by dense brown bread. Hearty soups are harvest-time favorites, and game (most notably rabbit rolled in wild herbs) is popular in season.
If you’d like to enjoy these with a side order of scenery, the best bet for dining is Bodeguita de en Medio, which has a rooftop terrace offering views of the ruins that stand guard over the village. The very presence of these, of course, proves life in Casares hasn’t always been quite so peaceful. Its strategic position made it a popular hideout for bandoleros in the 19th century. Before that it was favored stop for armed forces, from the earliest Iberians through to the French who attempted a takeover during the Napoleonic Wars. Those who succeeded left an indelible mark that earned Casares recognition as a National Historic-Artistic Site in 1978, and their legacy is nowhere more apparent than at this isolated spot.
Fortified by the Romans, it was further developed by Moors who gained control of the region in 711. By the 13th century, they’d erected a castle on the seemingly impregnable promontory. Within a few hundred years, Queen Isabella’s Christian soldiers had put an end to Arab domination, and the Encarnación church was built atop it. Now that, too, is an empty shell, and the evocatively decaying structure reaches heavenward with a different purpose: aerials have been attached to it to improve television reception! Contemporary life has brought other changes as well. The climb to the ruins admittedly remains steep. The sweeping views – up to the mountains, down to the sea and across to the northernmost reaches of Africa – are as magnificent as ever.
ROCK OF GIBRALTAR
But while the ancients could only gaze out and imagine these distant locales, today’s visitors can easily reach them. Estepona, the closest of the Mediterranean resort towns, is just 25 minutes east by car, and a morning’s drive west through the clouds will take you to Ronda, the stunning gorge-straddling city that has been dubbed the “Birthplace of Bullfighting.” The iconic Rock of Gibraltar, situated an hour south, promises Barbary Apes plus a quick taste of the British Empire. Even Tangier — Morocco’s infamous, undeniably exotic port city — is accessible to early risers, thanks to the packaged daytrips sold all along the seaboard.
Closer to home, Paraje Natural de Sierra Crestellina now beckons ramblers, and diehard duffers are welcome to hit a few balls at a new area golf course. Remember, though, the true beauty of this place is that you don’t have to break a sweat to enjoy it. When you allow yourself to fully surrender to Casares’ laconic spell, simply sitting on a deck chair can provide ample entertainment. It’s easy enough, after all, to idle away hours watching farmers tend the olive and cork groves below, or marveling at the belled goats that graze at impossible heights on the rocky outcroppings above. Once you’ve had your fill of that, you can always soak up the atmosphere in Baños de la Hedionda. Trust me, the water’s fine…
The Fine Print: If relaxing is your primary goal, choosing where to stay is as important as deciding where to go. So while you can bed down in a basic room Hotel Casares for about €60 a night, renting a vacation home is a more restful, and budget-friendly, alternative. We booked ours through Just Casares, a local company which lists traditional white-washed townhouses starting at €300 per week in autumn. Those off-season rates kick in September 1, even though the village hosts two favorite ferias (or fairs) during that month: one honoring La Virgen del Rosario, the other El Cristo. These run respectively the first Saturday in September and over a long weekend in mid-September to coincide with the end of the summer harvest.