Returning to One of Our Favorite Places

Nine years ago, with Melissa on crutches because of a badly sprained ankle, we came to the southern Spanish village of Grazalema in search of pretty scenery for her to recuperate in. We were charmed by this compact white village of 2,000 people, perched high on a shelf above a rolling green valley and ringed by gray, pine-covered peaks. We dreamed of returning someday when Melissa could do more than hobble around.

2017 is our personal Year of the Mountain. So as soon as we landed in mainland Spain from Mallorca, we headed straight to Grazalema for a two-week stay. Would the village be as wonderful as we remembered? Happily, the answer is yes.

Grazalema is much the same as we described and photographed last time. The shops, restaurants, hotels, churches, and beautiful views are still there. So is the little leather workshop where Melissa bought a bag last time, with the same artisan, Fernando, making beautiful things by hand. Once again, he showed us all his wares and rubbed our palms with ambergris (a waxy substance derived from whales that he uses to make leather supple). Melissa bought a glasses case this time, made to measure.

Leatherworker extraordinare Fernando in his little shop in Grazalema

Some things have changed in Grazalema in nine years. The funny cropped trees in the central plaza are a little taller. The clock above the town hall keeps the right time now. And there’s a new statue celebrating the village’s heritage as a place long associated with the festival of roping a bull and running it through the streets.

The biggest change, though, is in the food scene. Back in 2008, Grazalema had two kinds of restaurants: bars where you could have a convivial time but dull food and fine-dining establishments good for a large traditional meal (heavy on the pork, boar, venison, and fish). Now, though, the village also boasts two very popular “gastrobars” whose chefs turn out delicious modern takes on traditional tapas. There’s also a wifi cafe that specializes in cakes, cookies, coffee, and Spanish hot chocolate (a cross between cocoa and pudding). It’s the sort of place where we can happily pull out our laptops and work for a few hours when we want a change of scenery. And best of all, smoking inside restaurants is now illegal in Spain, so no longer do we have to huddle outside in all kinds of weather because the interiors are too smoky to breathe! (Now it’s the smokers who have to do that.)

One of our favorite restaurants, Gastrobar la Maroma (a maroma is a rope tied around the horns of a bull)

It’s colder than it was this time nine years ago (or maybe the difference is that we’re staying in apartments now rather than a hotel). We’ve gotten a lot of practice building fires to keep warm inside, and we’ve discovered another man named Fernando who, for 7 euros, will deliver a giant bag of firewood up the stairs to your living room. Communicating with him by phone in Spanish is one of my proudest linguistic achievements of this trip.

We’ve developed a wonderful routine here: work for several hours a day, linger over a big midday meal (as the Spaniards do) for a couple of hours, and hike for a few hours in the beautiful hills and valleys around Grazalema. A network of trails starts near our apartment, and Melissa has been thrilled to boldly walk in places that she could only look longingly at last time.

In many ways, Grazalema seems to us like a perfect village. While many rural communities are dwindling, it appears to be thriving. There are residents of all ages (not just old folks) and lots of visitors, drawn by the hiking, the views, or just the great fresh honey and payoyo cheese (made from the milk of local goats and sheep). The village has some new businesses, as well as established old ones, and all of the necessities for daily life (grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops, banks, a school, a library, a post office, a municipal pool and sports complex, a few local industries, and a health clinic). And it’s just 45 minutes by bus or car to two larger towns (Ronda and Ubrique) and only a couple of hours to the big cities of Malaga and Seville.

Grazalema is the sort of place we could imagine putting down roots, except that we’d miss our loved ones in the United States too much for that. Still, we hope to come back in future years for longer stays. So when we leave it won’t be adios (goodbye), Grazalema, it’ll be hasta luego (see you later)—or, as villagers tend to say, mumble-mumble-waygo.

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