Nestled into the sunny folds of Spain's southern mountains, the tiny town of Gaucin is so laid-back that, as one friend put it, "even the flies take a siesta." Old men with leathery faces and bamboo canes cut from nearby forests sit on ancient street corners smoking and chatting as local youths occasionally zip past on motor scooters. The white-washed village perched high on one of Andalucia's many spiny ridges looks south over 100 kilometres of green, undulating hills, past the jutting Rock of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco, where Africa's ragged northern shore leans closest to the promise of Europe.
Golden sand blown on dry winds from the Sahara smudges a hazy orange band on the horizon, where warm sky meets cold ocean, marking the dividing line between two continents. In the foreground, narrow streets coil around clusters of sun-bleached houses with red-tiled roofs. Gaucin, I decide, is the ideal place to spend an early-summer break decompressing with three friends after several months of relentless work.
Located less than two hours' drive from either Gibraltar or the tourist centre of Malaga, Gaucin has none of the crass commercial trappings of Spain's fabled Costa del Sol, where so many sun-deprived Brits and Germans flock in tour groups to drink and bake themselves into a vomitous stupour.
Gaucin offers little hint at all that tourism is the nation's leading industry, or that Spain is the third most visited country in the world after France and the United States. In 2001, Spain attracted 49.5 million visitors (more than the country's population of 40 million), earning it a record $50-billion. With the number of visitors expected to reach 100 million by 2005, places such as Gaucin are being gently altered.
Canadian Darryl Laurin and his Finnish wife, Marjukka, are part of an active Gaucin expat community that has revitalized the local economy and influenced municipal policy, blocking plans to build an ugly cement factory and helping nix a mayoral proposal to build 200 residences on a nature reserve beside an old Roman castle that stands sentinel over the town.
From 1900 to 1980, the town's population plummeted to 900 from about 4,800, as younger generations moved away in search of work. But foreigners have recently bought property and are building, renovating and creating jobs while the government is changing planning laws to combat corruption at the local level.
"Spain is cleaning itself up," Laurin says, noting that Gaucin's population has lately returned to about 1,800. "Of course," he adds, "the young here complain that the foreigners have driven the price of property so high that they can never hope to buy in the village. But an old-time resident pointed out that 20 years ago there was no work and they couldn't afford anything then either. So nothing has changed."
Laurin and his wife moved to Andalucia in 1985 after touring the region by motorbike. They bought and renovated an old Moorish olive mill, creating several gorgeous and fully equipped apartments tastefully decorated with clay tiles, original arched doorways, an open courtyard and a private swimming pool that remains face-up to the sun year-round. Now, at El Molino del Carmen, they cater comfortably to like-minded souls in search of escape and relaxation.
Driving inland from Gaucin takes us along narrow, winding roads lined with cork trees looking as though they have been stripped from the waist down. The bark from the holm oaks, as they are called, is harvested every nine years for cork, in a long-standing tradition. But the introduction of plastic bottle stoppers and the dying out of older generations who perform the corking ritual has raised concern that the forests may be cut down if they cease to produce revenue.
In typical European fashion, our rental car is little more than a sewing machine on wheels. Its engine screams in protest as we race along lurching roads through tumbling mountains to the town of Ronda, famous for several things, including being home to La Maestranza, one of Spain's oldest bullfighting rings, built in 1785.
The city is also renowned for straddling the Tajo Gorge, a plunging 300-metre ravine spanned by a bridge. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway calls Ronda the perfect place, "... if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone."
In summer, the city is often packed with tour buses from the coastal resorts dropping off the culture vultures looking for a few minutes of "authentic Spain." During midday hours, hordes of sunburned tourists with sun hats and video cameras roam the streets in search of meaning, knickknacks and ice cream. Our little group is more interested in finding a secluded vantage point on which to open our bottles of red wine and enjoy the warm afternoon light unfurling across the landscape.
We find a spot not far from the tourist centre, near the top of a sheer drop where one side of the city comes to an abrupt halt. At the cliff's edge, a tiny spring shoots coin-sized pearls of water into the air. Suspended between the tug of gravity and a rising wind, hundreds of individual droplets catch the sunlight high above the valley floor. Like schools of silver fish riding currents of air, they dance back and forth in unison until they are pulled away.
One thing about Spain: There's no need for an alarm clock. The entire country is apparently under construction. Even in tiny Gaucin, a man with a small bulldozer spent more than one long evening re-arranging large piles of dirt. The trusty neighbourhood cock begins his rousing chorus at about 4 a.m. daily and continues erratically until around noon. Perhaps his internal clock has been rattled by all the construction, which, it seems, is the modern reason why Spaniards require afternoon siestas.
No matter. The early mornings inspire us to get out and see more of the countryside. Another spectacularly vertical drive takes us to the mountain town of Ubrique, where high-end leather handbags, coats and other goods are manufactured before being shipped to famous brand-name stores in Paris, Rome and Milan.
Following the coastal contours mirroring Morocco's adjacent shore, we arrive at Tarifa, the windsurfing capital of Europe. A steady gale makes a scenic 10-kilometre stretch of beach unappealing to sunbathers, except those that like having their skin flayed by flying sand. Spain has harnessed this invisible yet valuable natural resource by erecting forests of windmills along coastal ridges. Each one stands stories tall, its enormous, power-generating blades churning hypnotically.
On the days when we're not exploring villages, hiking old smugglers' trails or sampling cafés, we prepare food bought from the Gaucin market. Over dinners consumed while enjoying the expansive view from our veranda, we realize that a few weeks are hardly enough to do everything we want in this corner of Spain. For all the quiet roadside cafés and hidden restaurants we sampled, there are thousands more where we have yet to taste the wine or spend late-afternoon hours in the warm shade, watching life crawl by. There are still more hills to wander, more local markets with unpredictable hours to discover, more overgrown Roman ruins to stumble across, and more curling mountain roads with spectacular views to drive -- all far from the madding crowds Spain is steadily attracting.
We decide we'll have to come back.
Or, better yet, jump on the bandwagon and buy some property.
If you go
The best way to reach Gaucin and explore the surrounding countryside is by car. Rentals are inexpensive in Spain and if you stay at Molino del Carmen, the owners will get you a discount with a local company. Bike rentals and horseback riding can also be arranged and allow you to explore the region at a slower pace.
Málaga airport has the most international and domestic connections. From the airport to Gaucin it is a scenic two-hour drive along the coast.
WHERE TO STAY
Molino del Carmen: phone: 34 (952) 151277; Web:
La Fructuosa : phone: 34 (617) 692784; Web:
Shops, restaurants, public services and markets in Andalucia are often closed on Sundays and during mid-afternoon siesta hours. Be sure to plan accordingly.
There is a helpful tourist office in Gaucin that can help with finding accommodation. Web:
Other useful Web sites include and .