Spain’s brilliant white villages sparkle in the sunshine as you drive through Andalucia’s wild landscapes. They’re a sight to behold as they shimmer in the distance – timeless and mesmerising.
These ‘Pueblos Blancos’ are white-washed villages built in traditional Moorish style, often perched on imposing hill tops overlooking the Spanish plains.
They have mysterious names like Zahara, Setenil or Benamaboma, and look invitingly cool in the sweltering summer heat. Here are my top travel tips for a tour of these small Spanish towns.
Vejer de la Frontera
A good starting point for exploring the White Towns is the picture-perfect village of Vejer de la Frontera, a short car ride from Cadiz.
This classic white village is perched high on a hilltop above the Barbate gorge and enjoys fabulous views across the surrounding countryside.
This is the ideal place for a quiet walk with lots of time spent chilling out in charming cafes and restaurants in between strolling around the historic sights.
The Plaza de Espana is often described as one of the prettiest village squares in Spain – and it’s hard to disagree. Look out for the odd, traditional fountain with ceramic Andalucian frogs which spout water into the air.
The walled town is a maze of small, cobbled streets which lead upwards to the old Moorish castle which stands at the highest part of the old citadel. The castle combines Muslim and Christian styles and is reached through a horseshoe arch.
The big disappointment is that the castle is closed to the public because it’s a private residence, but you can visit the castle’s patio which has great views.
If you stroll along the perimeter of the old town, you’ll see the impressive fortified walls, the original towers and four imposing medieval gates. Look out for the Divino Salvador, a 16th Century church rebuilt in a former Mosque.
Vejer’s tourist attractions have very long lunch breaks which can be frustrating if you only have a few hours to spare. Despite waiting ages at some of the most popular, they never opened on time – so we gave up the ghost and headed to a bar instead!
On the edge of town, it’s worth seeking out a group of brilliant white windmills which have been preserved as they would have been in the 19th Century. They look like a landscape straight out of Don Quixote.
Go inside the windmills to get a closer look at how they operated back in the day. Some of the best preserved mills are found in San Miguel, nicknamed the ‘Three Hail Marys’.
These cramped spaces comprised a warehouse and flour room with a spiral staircase up to the grinding room where the stones ground the wheat.
The classic traditional dress for the women of Vejer was a long, black cloak with a veil which you’ll see during religious processions and festivals.
It’s easy to mistake for a nun’s habit with its shroud-like robes. I’m told that the women of Vejer used to wear these costumes until relatively recently. They look not only uncomfortable and hot but very unsexy.
Look out for the striking black statue of a woman wearing the robes which overlooks Vejer’s lower town.
For those who love modern art, take a short detour to a new sculpture park – the NMAC Modern Art Museum, a stone’s throw from Vejer in the grounds of the lovely Dehesa Montenmedio.
This impressive open-air museum features works by top-notch international artists including Marina Abramovic, James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson.
One of the most striking exhibits is an equestrian statue of Franco half-buried in the sand, a seething commentary on Spain’s most famous dictator.
‘Secondwind’ is a striking installation featuring a domed centrepiece in brick surrounded by water by American artist James Turrell.
Turrell loves looking at the way we beings perceive light and how humans use space – and this large creation has a meditative, spiritual quality.
It’s everything we’ve come to expect from this master of visual wizardry – you could spend half an hour sitting inside it. It’s one of the star pieces on display at the sculpture park.
But the sculpture park isn’t just about the great outdoors – it also has a number of indoor galleries with equally impressive displays of photography, installations and video.
My favourite installation was a video about the ‘Dancing Dogs of Vejer’ by Spanish artist Cristina Lucas. Who could guess that dogs dancing on their hind legs, as Spanish housewives go about their daily chores, could be both hilarious and heart-warming!
Dog lovers won’t want to miss this choreographed canine treat – with an underlying feminist message.
If dancing dogs aren’t your thing, the medieval village of Setenil de las Bodegas on the road to Ronda has something much stranger to offer the visitor – cave dwellings.
This ancient white town is renowned for its streets of cave houses which cling to the overhanging ledge of a gorge carved out by the nearby river.
Walking around the cave dwellings is like visiting a strange troglodyte village. But these are the homes of normal people – with the oldest houses dating back to prehistoric times.
It’s a strange and unexpected sight, especially when you discover a number of cave houses with olive groves and strange vegetation growing on their roof tops.
Walk into the centre of town and you’ll discover the pretty village square which is also carved into the rock face.
I can recommend a cake and coffee at the village bar-restaurant where you’ll get a bird’s eye view of life on the edge – quite literally. Watching the cars teeter up and down the steep hills is entertaining, as they narrowly miss hitting buildings and bystanders.
Walk down the narrow stairs to the far end of the village for a different view of the upper town from the River Trejo… and look out for wild birds including raptors.
The back streets of Setenil are full of odd sights including a number of very squat-like cave dwellings and old wine cellars or bodegas cut into the rocks.
Setenil was once a wine-producing village until it was hit by the phylloxera plague in the 19th Century when its vines were destroyed.
Today, it’s almost like a ghost town with a splattering of interesting historic monuments including the ruins of a Moorish castle and a Gothic-Mudejar church.
Arcos de la Frontera
If you’re looking for a larger, authentic hill town, Arcos is the perfect choice. Less touristy than Vejer and more bustling than Setenil, it is a relaxing place to spend a couple of hours.
It may be slightly rough around the edges but the historic town has a great mix of building styles with Roman, Moorish and Renaissance treasures to explore.
Perched dramatically on a sheer limestone cliff, Arcos de la Frontera has a picturesque setting with dramatic views down to the River Guadalete.
A good place to start your town tour is the Plaza del Cabildo bordered by the castle, town walls and the 15th Century church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion.
Stroll around the town’s narrow alleyways and you’ll discover surprising treasures around every twist and turn. The old town is a labyrinth of cobbled streets leading up to the sandstone castle, the Castillo de los Arcos.
Sadly, like Vejer, the castle is privately owned and not open to the public but you can walk around the old town walls from where there are spectacular views.
One of the town’s most impressive buildings is the church of San Pedro, perched on a precarious rock face with towering vertical cliffs.
Once again, the Spanish curse of ‘weird opening times’ prevented me from seeing inside despite arriving 30 minutes before the official lunchtime closing time.
I was gutted to miss the undecomposed body of San Victor, a morbid experience which I was looking forward to with some trepidation. Instead, I had to be content with visiting the Holy Week Monument with its statues of hooded ‘Brotherhood’ figures in the nearby square.
Arcos is renowned for its festivals and fiestas which have great names like the ‘Feast of our Lady of the Snows’, ‘Hallelujah Bull’ and the ‘Day of the Horse’.
The ‘Brotherhoods’ lead the processions dressed in penitential robes with tall, pointed hoods and it’s well worth timing your trip to coincide with these medieval-style festivities.
This intriguing town is full of hidden gems including Belen Artistico en El Camborio, a strangely compelling series of tableaux depicting scenes from the Bible in a light and sound display. It’s not my usual thing but I was fascinated by these charming, beautifully crafted scenes.
Zahara de la Sierra – ‘Bandit Country’
As you move into the heart of ‘bandit country’, the landscape becomes wilder and more natural with many smaller fortified villages dotted around the hill tops.
Zahara de la Sierra is one of them. Its very name sounds exotic and mysterious… but this small town on the route of the Pueblos Blancos is a welcome antidote to more touristy towns on the trip.
We were going to skip this village but a chance conversation with a passing British cycling, who lived in the town during the summer months, persuaded us otherwise.
It’s a serious cyclist’s dream – if you like hairpin bends and steep ascents!
A spectacular road loops up to the hillside town, providing lovely views of the plains and the reservoir below before arriving in this sleepy place which time seems to have forgotten.
This picture perfect town is characterised by its white houses with red roofs which huddle around a church and ruined castle. The town is surrounded by olive groves and the countryside views go on forever into the far distance.
This once important Moorish town lies on a rocky outcrop and boasts more fine buildings than a community of its small size really deserves. The main square is lined with orange trees and plant boxes which provide the perfect contrast to the stark white houses.
A pretty 18th century Baroque church with striped red tiles towers over the village with a craggy, rocky outcrop behind it providing a fairytale setting.
Take a walk to the top of the town to see the small but interesting remains of the 12th Century Moorish castle with yet more stunning views of the countryside.
On the way out of town, stop off at the Embalse de Zahara y El Gastor reservoir which is a popular attraction for fishermen and kayakers. It also has an artificial beach which seems weird given how far inland it is.
Over the way, take a detour to Ronda la Vieja – not to be confused with the larger town of Ronda up the road. The town’s main claim to fame is its Roman remains including an impressive ancient theatre.
Off the beaten track
The scenic drive around the ‘Pueblos Blancos’ becomes more rugged as you reach the mountainous terrain of the national park of Sierra de Grazalema.
This is cycling and walking country if you’re keen on outdoor pursuits… but you’ll need to be pretty fit to get up the hills by bike.
Take your pick of the numerous small, whitewashed towns but I’d recommend Grazelema, El Bosque, Benamahoma and Benaocaz. Grazelema is one of my favourites with its tiny houses with window boxes bursting with brightly coloured flowers.
In its heyday, the town was famous for its woollen shawls, cloaks and blankets – and the town is still renowned for its textiles and crafts. But come prepared (with a cape) as Grazelema is the wettest place in Spain!
The Lunes de Toro Cuerdo Festival in Grazelema sees an angry bull running amok down the village streets as spectators taunt it and run around like maniacs. One lucky bystander was seriously gored a few years ago – you have been warned!
Tammy’s Top Travel Tips – Andalucia’s ‘White Towns’
Good places to start your driving tour of the ‘white towns’ are Ronda and Cadiz which both have bustling tourist centres and plenty of good accommodation.
It’s a good plan to take a circular driving route if you want to make the most of seeing the region. The longer route is around 120 miles which takes about a day depending on where you want to stop off.
Alternatively, take a series of shorter half day trips from Ronda to the nearby Pueblos Blancos. If you have to pick one archetypal pretty white town, a good choice is Vejer de la Frontera which has a relaxing atmosphere with lots of cafes, tapas bars and restaurants.
My personal favourite is Arcos de la Frontera which boasts exceptional architecture, fantastic history and an impressive location plus a lively shopping centre. Park in the underground car park at Paseo de Andalucía near the entrance to the town and walk up to the historic quarter.
When to go – late Spring or early Autumn are perfect for sightseeing when the weather is mild but warm.