Axarquia, Costa del Sol, Andalucia, Spain

LAKE VINUELA

In the heart of Andalucía’s most spectacular scenery east of Malaga in Axarquia, lies Lake Viñuela. A man-made reservoir, Lake Vinuela serves the useful purpose of providing thousands of homes with water and, in an aesthetic sense, has become a determinate part of the local landscape. Before the area was flooded to create the reservoir, many sites were excavated providing finds dating back to the Neolithic as well as Roman eras. Today the area has become a favourite spot to get away from it all, the peace and tranquillity only disturbed by the twittering of little birds dashing around above you and perched high up in the pine trees surrounding the water.

Although work didn´t commence until 1981, discussions to build the picturesque reservoir, supplied by the waters of the Rio Guaro, were first muted in 1890. The lake is the principal source of water for the eastern part of the Costa del Sol and is fed by the Guaro and its tributaries, the Sabar, the Benamargosa, the Salia, the Bermuza, the Almachar and the Rubite. Lake Vinuela was built on the bed of the River Guaro at La Vinuela, which was left on its right bank, with the Barriada de los Romanes on the left. Covering 700 hectares of the municipality, it holds 170 million cubic metres of water and, apart from providing fresh water for the Axarquia, it allows the irrigation of more than 2,700 hectares of land.

Thankfully, as the lake is a reservoir, no motorised craft are allowed, just simple sailing boats and canoes sometimes disturb the usual flat calm of the surface. Scattered around the southern end of the lake are picnic areas, each table complimented by a barbeque and all with fantastic views of the lake and mountains behind.

Lake Vinuela The lake took its name from the nearby village of La Viñuela, which nestles in a valley supporting olive groves and lower down, cereal crops. The village was named after small vines found in the area when the village was merely a refreshment stop on the route from the coast to Granada. The inn which fed and watered weary travellers in the 18th Century is still there on the narrow main street and these days it serves as a meeting place and refuge for the old men of the village who meet for a game of dominoes and the local farmhands escaping the midday sun. Also of interest in the small town is the 16th Century church of San José containing a fine sculpture of the Pieta. Two tributaries of the River Velez, the Guaro and the Seco, run through the municipality of which the Guaro was dammed to create the reservoir that can hold 170 million cubic metres of water.

It is possible to tour around the lake in either direction. Heading northeast along a stunning road you arrive at the pretty white village of Canillas de Aceituno nestling in the foothills of the Sierra Tejada mountain range with beautiful views of the countryside and Lake Vinuela. Forking left, one reaches another one of the Axarquía’s treasures, namely, the village of Alcaucín. Its narrow streets are awash with colourful flowers which hang from every wrought iron balcony and the village is home to numerous spring fed fountains, still very much in use. One of these, the Fuente San Sebastian has been restored to its former Moorish glory and its five spouts jut out from an exquisite tiled background. Alcaucín¹s 16th Century church has also been restored and on the outskirts of the village, the little hermitage of Jesus del Calvario dating back to the 18th Century is home to the village’s cemetery. Dull you may think, but from here the views over the town and surrounding countryside are breathtaking.

Near to the village of Alcaucín are the remains of the ancient settlement of Zalia: a medieval town built by the Moors. A local legend describes how the village was attacked by a plague of vipers when a missionary from Málaga was spurned after failing to convert the local population. It is more likely that the local population were killed however, during the uprisings that followed the reconquista. Zalia’s fortress, along with those of Comares and Bentomiz nearby formed a defensive triangle which controlled this part of the Axarquía region.

Periana, situated at the northern reaches of the lake, has been inhabited for centuries, mainly because of the natural water supply and fertile soil. Prehistoric remains, Neolithic vestiges and Bronze Age artefacts have been unearthed and like most of the towns and villages of the Axarquía, the Moors have left an indelible mark. They built a bath house here, the Baños de Vilo where the sulphuric waters provided beneficial healing properties as well as cleansing ones! The village is probably most famous however for the earthquake suffered during the Christmas of 1884. The so called Andalucían Earthquake partially destroyed the town and killed dozens of people but with local and international aid a new church was erected along with housing for those who had lost their homes as a result of the tragedy. The River Guaro irrigates the land and enables the production of many citrus fruits and peaches.

Head north, almost to the edge of the Axarquía and then drop south, once again heading for the lake and you reach Riogordo, bordered to the north by the great walls of the Sierra del Rey and the impressive clefts of the Alto de Gomer. Descending from the Alfarnatejo plain is the Cueva Rio waterway, which like the Guaro river feeds the reservoir and gave the village its name due to the dragging of minerals, hence "fat river". The high mountains give way to smooth pasture and arable land and the contrast between the two creates a beautiful landscape. It is this landscape, in the natural corridor which separates the Antequera range from the Málaga mountains, which decided the village’s strategic situation. One of the oldest historical sites in the whole area is where tombs have been unearthed at the foot of the Sierra del Rey.

Named ‘Auta’ by archaeologists, the tombs date back to Phoenician times. Nearby, remains of Roman villas with intricate mosaics have also been unearthed although the mosaics are no longer in situ. Riogordo saw great prosperity after the 16th Century, well known for its livestock ground and latterly for the vines which produce the sweet wine famous throughout the region. Take a wander around the town, look up and on each house you will see one of the town’s odd characteristics. Niches atop the buildings house crucified Christs, Madonnas and Saints, some of which date back over 500 years.

Lake Vinuela Dropping down the eastern flank of Viñuela Lake you can make a short detour to Comares, another fantastic white village perched high atop a conical hill, and, like most in the area, it has deep Moorish roots. Built over Roman foundations, the ruined Muslim fort was one of the strongholds of rebel leader Ibn Hafsun (along with Bobastro) and the innovative tourist board have laid little tiled "feet" throughout the town to mark out a route where, as you walk beneath arches dating back to medieval times, boards tell the tales of old. Near the Ayuntamiento building, the mirador offers spectacular views over the whole Axarquía.

The final stop on our journey around the lake is Benamorgosa, situated on a river bearing the same name. The village is surrounded by orange, lemon and other subtropical fruit trees which cover the river’s valley and ascend the sides in carefully laid out plots. The Moors brought the fruit trees and here in Benamargosa they were known as "peace Moors". This did little however to stop them from being expelled in the 16th Century which left the village virtually uninhabited. Slowly it grew and detached itself from Málaga favouring instead Velez Málaga, the gateway to the Axarquía.

For sustenance during your trip around the Viñuela region, try out the local food. The gastronomy of the whole region relies heavily on olive oil and most dishes are prepared using liberal doses. Most of the villages serve up varieties of gazpacho, a chilled soup with a tomato base and ajoblanco, a cold garlic soup as well as hearty country stews in one form or another. Some villages have their own speciality however, around Viñuela, for example, game dishes are popular as a lot of hunting takes place in the area. Periana is known for its stews of kid and tripe and its delicate sponge and oil cakes whereas Benarmargosa’s cuisine is based on blended avocado and hot or cold tomato soup. As well as specialising in gazpacho, Riogordo is also famous for its snails served up in a spicy sauce. To wash it all down the area’s wines, mostly sweet Muscatels are a must and in Periana’s Ambique Inn, you can taste the delicious aguardiente liquor which is made following traditional methods in an old distillery in the town.

Handicrafts around the area are well worth looking out for, if you’re lucky you may even see them being created. Saddlery, an inheritance from when the region was an obligatory passageway between the coast and interior has survived time and is still practised in many villages across the Axarquía as well as the weaving of esparto grass into baskets and matting. In Comares, clothes are made for the Verdiales groups whose song and dance adhere to ancient folklore. Riogordo has a tradition of skin and leatherwork as well as forging and saddlery and in Alcaucín, there remains still, a cane workshop where furniture is produced. The obvious purchases are of course the region’s wines and its olive oil, available in most shops and particularly at the co-operative mills.

If all that travel has worn you out, then you know where to head - back to the lakeside. Rarely does the hand of man compliment Mother Nature so well. The calm surface of the lake reflects the mesmerising countryside and the pine trees shelter your table upon which sits a chilled bottle of Muscatel awaiting to quench the thirst of its owners.

Jaqueline Roberts, Words
Joanna Ramsay-Whale, Photographs

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