CASARES, Spain — Let's suppose you're on southern Spain's Costa del Sol, you've had enough of the touristy beachfront scene and you can get your hands on a car. This qualifies you for the side-trip treat of a lifetime: a visit to the village of Casares.
Spain is dotted with out-of-the-way places that get scant, if any, mention in guidebooks. They manage to function quite nicely for themselves and not for outsiders seeking souvenirs, entertainment, fancy cuisine and guaranteed comfort.
Casares is beautiful in its simple, unpretentious way. Its whitewashed bungalows hug the flank of an Andalusian mountain with ethereal charm. A fairy-tale aura hangs over the timeless scene.
14 Miles from Coast
Drive west on the seaside highway beyond Estepona, the last significant resort town on the Costa del Sol. When the Moorish Torre de la Sal appears on your left, you'll see the Casares road sign, indicating that it's 14 kilometers away from the Mediterranean coast. This means a gradual climb, for mountains, tanned by the sun, are an omnipresent backdrop to the beaches and villas that make the shore a vacationers' mecca.
The two-lane road winds past a power station, pastures grazed by drowsy cows, a few white farmhouses with smoking chimneys, tethered burros, cork trees and olive groves. As you reach higher altitudes, pine forests and clumps of cactus take the place of farmlands.
The climb becomes increasingly steep, with sheer drops alongside the road. Behind, the blue Mediterranean sprawls to the horizon, and Gibraltar looms in the westward haze.
It's difficult to gauge distance on such a twisting route, but in time you'll round a bend and suddenly, on the left, there it is.
The abrupt appearance of Casares, way up in lonesome, silent high country, is nothing less than sensational. Shaped by its mountain, the village is a cone of white, tile-roofed dwellings with spires and fortress ruins at its pinnacle.
When I arrived the first time the sky was a glorious blue, the whiteness of Casares was dazzling in mid-afternoon sunshine and hawks were gliding on air currents in the valley that separated me from the town.
The knockout view has been attentively stage-managed. One's immediate concern is to get out and take in the wonderful scene. Look about you and, presto, a parapet appears at the road's edge, making it easy to pull over and park.
The parapet is a commercial stratagem, for a large arts and crafts store looms just behind. If your first thought is to bewail that you've escaped the hundreds of little tourist shops on the coast only to find a big tourist shop upon arriving here, you'll realize later that this store is well situated.
It takes most of the handicraft and souvenir offerings out of the town and concentrates them here, at this outskirt with the panoramic view. That makes the town all the more pristine. The handicrafts that you will find on display in Casares at a few street corners and on random stairways--mainly knitwear of beautiful quality, hanging on the outside walls of houses--augment the town's appeal.
Once you tear yourself away from the view by driving on, you'll discover that the road descends in a loop, so that you enter Casares through its back door, so to speak.
On the way I invariably stop once more, at a turnoff beside a small restaurant. From there a second panorama brings the town into closer view from a slightly different angle, varying the formations of shadows that are so intense against those sugar cubes of absolute white.
Parking Near Center
You'll find parking spaces near the Plaza de Espana, the hub and commercial center of Casares. You'll sense the tempo. Clusters of men sit around the plaza or beside its statue, a monument to a native son named Blas Infante, who in the '30s led the Andalusians in a separatist movement that is still being debated, and which influenced current agitations for autonomy in Basque country far to the north.
The men discuss affairs big and small while the women, not at all in a hurry, go about their shopping errands. Casares seems to overflow with cavorting children, many of them bicycling and scootering down the steep, narrow streets and congregating in the vicinity of the plaza.
In control of things is an elderly policeman in a dumpy gray uniform and Sam Browne belt, visored hat cocked at a jaunty angle and armed with a whistle.
From this central point it's a matter of choosing an ascending street, then setting out on a leisurely exploration of the town. A few small, down-home cafes and restaurants are close to the plaza; you'll also find a grocery store or two nearby.
Whether you choose to stop or stroll on, chances are that everyone you come across will regard you matter-of-factly, even though you're so obviously a newly arrived stranger in this closed-in, practically private little place.
Wander at Ease