January 3rd, 2012
For my sins, I have lived in a town in England that showed me first hand what life must have been like when cavemen ruled the planet.
The name of that town will remain a secret, in order to protect the innocent. Suffice to say that I know what it is like to live among trogolodytes. Albeit the modern day version.
And yet, in and around that mystery town, I never saw a cave. I never did find out where such outdated men lived.
In Spain, meanwhile, I have seen many caves – but not a cavemen in sight.
In Spain people actually do live in caves. They work in caves. And they perform in caves.
Going underground in Spain has a totally different meaning to elsewhere. I am a big fan of cave buildings in the country. And I am full of admiration for those who live in them, or run thriving businesses from them.
Guadix is well known as a capital of caves. A town many people only see from the neighbouring motorway that runs between Granada and other distinctive destinations such as Almeria and Murcia.
True, you can see cave homes and cave hotels without leaving the autovia. But that is just a taste of what is on offer.
You should leave the motorway and spend a little time in Guadix.
Every Saturday there is a big and lively market held there. It may not be as smart a set up as the more flash and famous markets in the country, but it is a very authentic weekly market.
I have been often and always come back with some local food. The cheese from Guadix is both famous and tasty. Among the best I have sampled anywhere in the country.
Of course it keeps very well in the cool caves dotted around the town.
The restoration of caves is a never ending process here. Indeed, some residents of existing inhabited caves have had to move out last year when it was discovered that some of their homes were collapsing in on themselves following days of heavy rain.
It has occurred to me previously, while standing on the top of some cave homes, that I might one day fall through the roof and end up in someone’s sitting room!
There are some typically touristy caves that the coaches head for. Places where a man will show you around what he claims to be his own home (it isn’t), and holds out a collection dish for the tourists as they leave.
I understand that this is the only chance some short term visitors will have to see inside a cave home. It is a pity that they are not as fortunate as I am in having a friend who lives in one.
Richard lives not far from the smashing, and too often bypassed, city of Alicante. He lives in a modernised cave building not far from the motorway near Elda.
A fairly constant ambient temperature of around 22 celsius means his family are never too hot in summer, nor ever too cold in winter.
It does take a while to get used to a relative lack of natural light, that’s for sure. But I have really taken to cave living and I think it is, in every sense of the word, cool. Light walls make up for the lack of windows and this cave home at least is very airy.
On Richard’s doorstep are some superb Spanish locations. And some other notable landmarks.
A must visit destination for those with a fettish for shoes. There is an abundance of quality footwear at much more reasonable prices than those available in the shopping centres. You can see the shoes being made, if you wish, and then buy a pair, or several.
Do have some comfortable footwear before wandering the wonderful gardens in Elche, El Huerto del Cura.
This horticultural gem is tucked away in a residential area of the town but is a must see place. Some of the older specimens of Palm tree were lost to a disease a few years ago but, fear not, there remain many superb specimens that will have you looking upwards.
I love this place as much as for what it is not, as what it is. This is a real, living garden. Not a tourist destination that has lots of plants and trees. Many a time it is quiet and a joy to walk around. Take your time. Savour the splendour of this tucked away, easy to miss, green space.
You cannot miss the Peñon de Ifach. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It is connected to the landline of the Costa Blanca by an isthmus. The limestone mass penetrates one kilometre into the sea and is the tallest rock along the Med.
The Peñon towers over this part of the coastline and experienced climbers venture to the top where, from over three hundred metres, they can experience some of the more glorious views available in southern Spain.
The rock is visible from the nearby popular resort of Benidorm. Back in the nineteen seventies and eighties the Spanish thought this place was occupied by cavemen every summer. Union Jack wearing, beer swilling cavemen. But that is a thing of the past. Benidorm today is a very different place.
Many enterprising people run businesses from a cave in Spain.
In Orce, for millions of years, only prehistoric animals wandered here. In those days Orce was a lake and little more. Today it is home to Iain McDonald and his partner Gayle Hartley. Iain was the son of a farmer in Northumberland before his move to Spain, so perhaps he was destined to like this Spanish countryside.
He says: “I always say that Orce found us – we did not find Orce. I enjoy the mountain views and the clean air. The local produce is organic, the lifestyle healthy and the village is a genuinely friendly place to be. The choice of property is by no means conventional either. We live in a cave house. They have had a huge revival in Andalusia.”
Gayle was born in Newcastle but speaking Spanish has been crucial to the success of their business selling serrano ham and traditional terracotta and ceramic kitchenware which they sell to clients worldwide.
One location popular with friends of mine is at Baza, beyond Guadix.
The Cuevas Al Jatib is a slightly hidden away hostal that is ideal for all the troglodytes among you. Cool rooms, a restaurant, Arab baths and a teteria are among the attractions on offer. You don´t have to stay there to enjoy the facilities, so why not rent a property in the area.
In the world outside the cave you should explore the distinctive town of Baza itself.
And then, close by, there is the glorious Lake Negratin. I have never seen waters more turquoise. This is among the more serene of settings I have encountered on my long and distant travels around Spain.
One good spot from which to enjoy this sublime location is the outdoor thermal pool that overlooks the vast lake. It is particularly handy for the several British people who live in this atmospheric region where the landscape just reaches out and grabs you.
Lyn Stone lives near Baza, in a cave house, as it happens. She tells me: “I adore this area. Baza itself is a very traditional place that is totally unspoiled by modern day life or tourism on a grand scale. The coach parties go to Guadix and largely leave us alone.
“The lake is a must visit and we never fail to marvel at how calm and peaceful it is there. Visitors to our home love going to Negratin.”
And what about cave living itself?, I asked Lyn.
She replies: “People thought we were crazy buying a cave. Even for such little money back in 2001. But, ten years on, they are all converts. Friends and family come and are initially sceptical about staying in a cave. They go away big fans of living and sleeping underground.
“Myself? I could not now imagine living in a ‘normal’ house, above ground. I don’t mind my girlfriends calling me by the nickname of Thelma – after the wife of Fred Flinstone. I love living here and are truly having a “yabba dabba doo time!”
That’s good to hear.
Ten years ago local Spaniards were only too happy to sell their ruined, long forgotten about cave buildings to the invading British. Thousands were snapped up cheaply and the Spanish thought the buyers were crazy. But, once they saw the same buildings turned into comfortable homes, the prices being asked went up considerably. And some Spanish began following the example set by the foreigners.
In the city of Granada the part of the city known as the Sacromonte has become known as the place to go and see some gypsy style flamenco performances. Tourist style. You should walk around this area in daylight and see the cave buildings, but there are more authentic locations in Granada to experience the music and dance of flamenco.
What strikes me about some of the more attractive cave based tourist attractions is just how hidden away they are. Not so much physically, but in respect of how little Spanish tourism promotes these special places.
And yet they are so often easy to reach, located close to the splendid motorway network that criss-crosses this vast country.
Just off the motorway north from Granada towards another overlooked city, that of Jaen, is the so called ‘Windows Cave’ at Piñar, just beyond the town of Iznalloz.
Here you are in countryside full of olive trees, and in an area that produces the majority of the olive oil for which Spain is so famous.
Remains from Neanderthal and Neolithic times have been found here. These caves are fascinating, but not ideal for the more claustrophobic visitor. There is a narrow passage which leads into the Sala de los Desprendimientos, or ‘hall of fallen rocks.’ You walk on to the so called ‘hall of basin’ where you will see stalactites and stalagmites. The Barranco Grande, or big ravine, is around 20 metres deep and here you are safely perched on the edge of the ravine.
Later you walk over a bridge where you can see natural rock arches and cliffs that are as old as time. You are not left in the dark here. At times natural light pierces through and at other times there is electronic lighting that ensures you do not get lost.
It is humid down here in the Window Caves of Piñar. 100% humidity in fact. But the temperature is only 13 celsius. You will feel warm in winter and cool in summer. You can go to all the natural history museums you like. This is as natural as history gets.
The guided tour will take up to an hour of your time. It would be sixty minutes well spent. Amazingly this little known about tourist attraction is open every day, including on holidays when some other attractions opt to shut their doors.
This cave is always open!
Much more famous are the caves along the Costa del Sol at Nerja.
If you or your visitors are bored of the beach, or the sun takes a day off, then go a little inland from Nerja town centre and explore this magnificent site.
Nerja itself has been popular for decades. Now the home for many people from northern Europe, it is the place to rent a home or apartment should you want to holiday somewhere that offers the best of Spain, while also offering you places to dine that serve food from all over the world.
Somehow Nerja has managed to retain much of its original quaint feel, while still being a very popular holiday location. Out of holiday season, Nerja is a glorious place to stay. It has one of the best beaches on the Costa del Sol.
In summer the behaviour of some visitors can occasionally resemble that of cavemen, but the narrow lanes and hidden bays around the town allow you to escape the more vocal tourists. And there is a great walk to be had through the Rio Chillar, wonderful countryside just a short drive from the coast.
So you see, there is much more you can do in a cave than write on the walls or beat the ground with your club.
You can drink tea in one, dance in one, taste traditional Spanish food in one, dip your body into an Arab bath, or take a step back in time and get a feel for what it must have been like to live in the time of the troglodytes.
Or you could go and live in a certain town in West Yorkshire.
And no, I’m not telling!