A Moorish eagle’s nest is how Richard Ford, the English traveller described Zahara de la Sierra as he trotted by. He was on a horse en route from Seville to Ronda and travelling in the mid 19th century, collecting notes for his Handbook. A perfectly-formed pueblo blanco, Zahara wraps itself around a vertical rock face, the highest white houses petering out in pines, all topped by crags, prickly pears and a Moorish tower visible for miles around. It is beautiful. Oh yes it is.
The ‘Tourist Office’ is generally closed, but on the one day it opened during July and August, I picked up a leaflet explaining there’s a Roman necropolis somewhere, but that Zahara is more associated with the Moors who arrived in the 8th century, made Zahara a frontier town and battled to protect it against Christians – particularly from the 14th century onwards, before losing the final in the 15th century, and retreating to somewhere warmer. (Moors and Christians battles, complete with horses and face paint but without fatalities, are vigorously reenacted each summer).
The fundamental layout of the village therefore is labyrinthine; the tall, narrow streets, zig-zagging up the shady side, designed to repel invaders and the sun. What I see from the lower side of the uppermost street is tiled roofs, sunsets, the top of the hills beyond and, often, a cat. I can also see the smooth white tower, the Torre de Reloj, from which announcements about road repairs and the day’s events are relayed through megaphones. Leaning out over the balcony I can see whether the sun has reached the tables outside the two cafés (white tables, orange tables) in the church square, and if it has, will sometimes go out to get warm.
The immaculate house, like its street, is sun-proof and heat-proof. At least, it is in winter. Only mausoleums have more marble. The thermometer tipped 50 degrees centigrade at the tail end of August. To be honest, I don’t think it works, but the fact it has been under 10 degrees for the last two weeks, has got to mean something. We went to Jerez, not for sherry or flamenco, but to a vast mall to buy as many gas fires and electric fires we could fit in the car. Most nights we buy olive wood for the log-burner from the chain-smoking grocer, but whatever we do, nowhere is ever as warm inside this house as it is on top of it.
Now we have two chairs on the flat roof. The view from this happy spot is up to the pines and the 13th century moorish Torre de Homenaje. You can hike up there in about 15 minutes from the plaza, and occasionally I see the glint of binoculars from people who have. The air is sharp clear and the sky is always navy blue *. Standing up there drinking coffee in bright sun today, I watched an eagle soar the length of the village and disappear over the mountain without a beat of its wings.
* Two weeks ago the sky was actually dark grey, and it rained.