Along with bullfighters in extraordinarily tight-fitting trousers and donkeys in sombreros, Andalucia’s white villages, whose Moorish whitewashed houses are perched on mountainsides like pyramids of sugarcubes, are iconic images of southern Spain.
Mijas, just west of Malaga, is the most famous and tourist-savvy, while Casares and Gaucin, both about an hour’s drive from Marbella, are equally prolific on picture postcards and so beautiful that few can resist grabbing the camera as you soon as they catch the first glimpse or whitewash.
Being the face of a million postcards has seen Mijas and Casares burst out of their seams and spread out down the mountain, spawning large areas of new development in Mijas
Costa and Casares Costa. And you try finding a cheap bolthole in these places or a restaurant where you can hear a word of Spanish.
But it’s not hard to find white villages where you can still wallow in all the charm and simplicity of traditional Spanish life, yet still be within 30 minutes from beaches, golf courses, inflatable bananas and all the other things visitors enjoy about the Costa del Sol.
Think Mijas 40 years ago, when restaurant menus were still monolingual and the donkeys are more likely to be hauling hay, not tourists, up the steep cobbled streets, and you get the picture. Ojen is just a five-minute drive from Marbella, pinned against a mountainside in the beautiful Sierra de las Nieves national park.
From the main road which runs through this village of 2,000 inhabitants, you peer south across the hills towards the sea you can just see the tip of a Marbella tower block to remind you that of what’s on the doorstep. But in Ojen itself, there is a wonderful sense of being in an authentic Spanish village, whre life is slow-paced, everything closes down in the afternoons and you can eat out for half the price it would cost down the road in Marbella.
Home to one of Julio Iglesias’s abodes and a wine museum (think bodega rather than National Gallery as this is a hands-on experience), few expats who live on the coast, and even fewer holidaymakers, ever discover Ojen – which is, of course, why it remains so authentic and charming.
Local life revolves around the small square, with the church, Moorish fountains, a market on Saturday and a few tapas bars dotted around. Leading off this social hub are narrow streets of typically whitewashed houses with yellow door and window frames, many of them spilling over with flowers.
Given its prestigious position next to Marbella, it’s no surprise that Ojen is expanding due to demand for property – up the mountain, in this case, where new apartments and townhouses are emerging up hills so steep that you will be struggling to get your car, let alone your legs, up them. Down in the valley, the terrain is kinder and Ojen feels like a rural village, with small farms and fincas dotted around the fields.
The Moorish white village of Istan, 15km inland from Marbella, is another little-known gem – though not for lack of attempts to publicise it. As you head west towards Puerto Banus, you’ll pass at least half a dozen signs inviting you to head to this village in the mountains, so it seems only reasonable to succomb and find out what all the fuss is about.
As you climb higher you will see the huge Istan lake and country park, with the nearby five-star Istan Valley Country Club and multi-million euro mansions with mountaintop views for miles across the valley and coast. Then, as you follow the road which hugs the mountain, you are afforded your first view of the village itself – a white cluster among the luscious green Sierra Blanca hills. Istan means ‘spring’, and you’ll see and hear them everywhere in this self-contained little village which you’ll need to explore on foot as only locals are allowed drive their cars down these narrow backstreets.
Visit Istan on a weekday morning and you’ll see old residents trudging up the hills towards the fish man selling his pungent fare from the back of his white van.
Few foreign visitors make it up here to the village itself, though upmarket new
developments such as Zahara de Istan and Sierra Blanca are opening up the area to investors. Or there is a palatial and secluded villa in the hills for sale through Lighthouse
Spain for 15 million euros. Properties in the village are still relatively cheap, however, with townhouses for sale from around 140,000 euros (£96,000).
Just past the town of Coin, 40 minutes inland from Marbella, Tolox is another truly Spanish sugarcube village set amid the stunning scenery of the Sierra de las Nieves nature reserve, famous for its spa water. The sounds of church bells and children in the school playground reverberate across the orange tree-filled valley which dissects the town. In the backstreets, the odd elderly resident has taken to selling the abundant local oranges from their kitchen.
This is a charming working town where life and traditions go untouched by the glitz and tourism on the nearby Costa
The best perch in Tolox is the large terrace of El Tajo bar as you enter the town. Here you can sit and gaze across the orange trees towards the sprawling pyramid of white houses. If you decide you never want to leave, property in Tolox is still very cheap, with large townhouses with panoramic views from their roof terraces for as little as 120,000 euros (£82,000).
And when the dry inland heat gets too intense, within half an hour you can be back on the beach and dipping your toe in the cooling sea.
About the Author
Zoe Dare Hall is the Communiations Manager for Lighthouse Spain, a unique service aimed at taking the risk and stress out of buying a property in Spain.