A day trip by coach from Málaga to Nerja and Frigiliana is a journey through beautiful Andalusian landscapes, views that stretch as far as Africa, a visit to the Cathedral of Nature and walks along steep, winding streets of whitewashed houses.
– The Andalusian white villages are whitewashed to keep out the heat of the strong Mediterranean sun, says the guide, first in Spanish, then in English and then German.
I’m sitting, morning-weary, in a tourist bus on the way out of Málaga. Together with 10 other passengers, I hopped on one of the many tourist buses offering guided day trips to Nerja and Frigiliana.
This is the first time I’ve tried a guided day trip. Normally I prefer to travel on my own, but as I don’t have a car, I decide to try a guided day trip to Nerja and Frigiliana (the agency calls it a half-day trip, but it lasts six hours). Then I can just sit back and enjoy, without having to think about planning, public transport and waiting. On the other hand, I also have to challenge the part of me that can’t stand walking in a crowd, to say the least.
I wake up slowly on the beautiful ride through the Andalusian countryside. The guide, who has to translate into both English and German every time he speaks to us, is relatively silent during the process, and I’m glad of that. We get some info on the Andalusian produce as we pass olive and lemon groves, but otherwise he lets us wake up in silence.
Nerja’s balcony overlooking Africa
Our first summit is Nerja, and we start with a short walk from the bus stop, through the town’s narrow streets, still shrouded in dawn, to a wide promenade with palm trees and an arched passageway. At the end is Nerja’s biggest tourist attraction, the Balcón de Europa (Balcony of Europe) on a cliff.
– The Balcón de Europa was built in 1885 as part of a reconstruction project after a major earthquake struck and destroyed large parts of the city. At the end stands a statue of King Alfonso XII, and he was so captivated by the view, which reaches to Africa, that he said: This is the balcony of Europe, and since then the balcony, and its name, have become associated with him, says the guide.
Like floating over the sea
We now have two hours on our own in the city, and I immediately head to the viewpoint, where tourists are busily taking selfies on the site of a 9th-century defensive watchtower. It almost feels like floating above the sea. It’s easy to see why tourists have flocked here for more than 100 years. Here, the mountains of Morocco loom on the horizon. On the left, the view stretches from Calahonda beach to the town of Maro and the Almijarra mountain range in the distance. To the right, there is a view of beaches with a rocky mountain.
I walk down the steps to Calahonda beach, where a few fishermen work on their brightly coloured fishing boats, a father takes a morning swim with his son and a few pensioners sunbathe on the sunbeds. I continue around the balcony to see its round shape from the sea side before moving up into the city.
Church time, narrow streets and lots of cork
Back, at the beginning of the promenade, is the small church, El Salvador, from the 17th century (the original church was built here in 1505). Here are some nice frescoes from it 18th century, and the church is incredibly popular with both local and foreign brides and grooms, who are happy to wait a long time to get married here.
There are only a few other visitors in the church, so I enjoy the silence for a while before heading down the narrow streets of Nerja.
– Don’t you need a new hat, asks a female clerk in the doorway of a small shop filled with hats and shoes made of cork.
I soon discover that the cork shops take up a lot of space among the many souvenir shops on the main street. If you’re bringing home a local souvenir, it should be made of cork. However, I skip it and find a café where I have a late breakfast.
As I eat my bread with tomato and drink coffee, I notice that many of the other guests – in the café and on the street, speak with a British accent. Later, the guide explains that Nerja is a city where a lot of British citizens move to.
I don’t have much time left before I have to meet up with the group again, so I only manage a quick walk through the narrow, cobbled streets with whitewashed houses, where there are a multitude of shops, cafés and restaurants. On my short route, the majority of the streets and businesses are clearly laid out to satisfy the needs of the city’s many tourists.
The Cathedral of Nature in Nerja
– The dripstone caves here were discovered on 12 January 1959 by five boys hunting for bats. On the tour discovered one of the natural entrances to the caves. After the boys’ discovery, archaeologists began digging and found that the caves have been inhabited from 25,000 BC. Kr. and up to the Bronze Age. This is known because tools, jars and skeletons have been found, says our guide.
The group has reunited and we have driven eight kilometres outside Nerja, to the town of Maro, where the stalactite caves of Nerja(Cueva de Nerja) are located. Here we have entered a wondrous world of long underground caves of great cultural significance. The Nerja dripstone caves cover 140,000 square kilometres and are one of the country’s most visited attractions.
– Dripstone caves occur where the bedrock consists of limestone and the lime content of the water droplets remains on the rock walls. Over the millennia, the drips have formed stalactites and stalagmites (cones formed from the ceiling and floor respectively), the guide explains.
It’s impressive to walk up and down the stairs in the narrow passages and study this huge natural phenomenon, which is impossible to reproduce in photographs. We must also not use flash in the caves, whose fauna is affected by the presence of so many people. To limit the damage, we are only let into small groups.
– The presence of humans is also the reason why there are no longer any bats here, the guide explains, when an alert member of the group asks about the flying animals.
Peering around corners and nooks, the dark caverns seem endless, and far from everything has been explored.
The highlight is the naturally created column of the Sala del Cataclismo which is 60 metres high, 18 metres in diameter. It is the reason why the dripstone caves are also referred to as “Nature’s Cathedral on the Costa del Sol”.
– One of the closed galleries hides a treasure of 589 cave paintings, estimated to be 43,000 years old and created by Neanderthals, the guide tells us, before we climb the many stairs again and step out of the chilly darkness into the baking afternoon sun.
After the tour, we have time for lunch at Cueva de Nerja’s restaurant, which also has a cafeteria, where I buy a sandwich to enjoy overlooking the sea.
Siesta in Frigiliana
As the bus struggles up the winding mountain roads, I can enjoy the view of the clusters of white houses that make up Frigiliana, backdropped by the Sierra Almijara. The famous Andalusian village, a 10-minute drive from Nerja, is our last stop on the tour.
Frigiliana is much loved by tourists and the cafés and restaurants at Plaza de las Tres Culturas, where the tourist buses stop, are packed when we arrive. The central square divides the old town from the new, and as we only have 1.5 hours on our own in the city, I immediately start climbing the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town.
Frigiliana is 320 metres above sea level and the streets with whitewashed houses are steep. I don’t go far before I’m surprised at how quiet it is. I meet more cats than people walking among the many flower pots with lush plants and flowers that decorate the streets. Occasionally, voices behind an open window or door reveal that there is life inside the houses.I’ve arrived in the middle of siesta, so few shops are open. The city’s galleries are not open here either, which I would have liked to visit. Artist Arne Haugen Sørensen is one of several Danes (and many other foreigners) who have fallen in love with Frigiliana and settled among its 3000 inhabitants. Here he runs Galería Krabbe, while he himself lives outside the city.
Artist Leif Sylvester also has a house in the town, and Lasse Thielfoldt, co-author of the book The Andalusian Dream, runs a bed and breakfast in Casa Doña Angela.
The closed shops and galleries mean I have more time to enjoy the architecture of the Moorish Quarter. It feels like walking through an African medina, where the labyrinthine streets regularly end in blind alleys. I get lost in the colourful doors (most of which are blue and green) and the many fine brass door handles and door hammers.
Frigiliana was under Muslim rule for 800 years and they left their mark on both the architecture of the town and the surrounding landscape. As I get higher up in the city, I can see the fields above the flat roofs that the Moors built with terraces to grow crops, and which are still in use. Olives, wine, almonds and sugar cane are grown here.
Coffee break with a view
At the top of Frigiliana I need a rest, so I sit down on the terrace of the restaurant, El Mirador, where I have a coffee with a fantastic view of the city and the countryside. At the restaurant, I once again become part of the tourists, because I’m not the only one enticed by the view from the first floor.
Here I could have sat for hours, but I have to go back to the bus. On the way down I notice that the shops have started to open again. I would have liked to pop into a few pottery shops and a wine merchant to shop for a few local souvenirs and taste the city’s sweet Moscatel wine, but I don’t have the time.
I understand that many people consider Frigiliana to be the most beautiful city in Andalusia, but on the other hand (at least in the old part of the city) it is also very well freshened. One might be tempted to think that the cats, painted windows, beautifully arranged potted plants and well-placed restaurants were organised for the tourists.
The trip goes back along the coast towards Málaga. I am very happy with the day. I saw what I wanted to, but I could easily have spent another hour or two in Frigiliana. It suited my temperament that we had so much time on our own. If you want to see all of Nerja and Frigiliana and have plenty of time to eat and shop, you should choose to visit the towns on your own.
You can book a half-day tour to Nerja and Frigiliana by bus, as it was on here. Departures are every Monday and Thursday, and the trip costs 59 euros per person. Entrance ticket to the dripstone caves included.