By Reporter, The HighLand Times, Thursday August 21 2014
Before there was aircon, Andalucían peasants kept their cool in homes cut out of the rock. Now visitors can do the same. Lesley Gillilan finds new life in old caves
We arrive at dusk, while it’s still light enough to tell that Malutka’s Andalucían Grotto has a spectacular view. The street is on a ledge of rock, high above the town of Baza. From the terrace, we look across the scorched flatlands of the Altiplano de Granada towards the hazy hills of the Sierra de Castril. The air is scented with jasmine. There are tortoises in the garden. Fairy lights dangle from a vine.
Malutka herself is there to greet us, dressed in a flowing peasant frock, hair pinned and plaited (think Wilma Flintstone meets Pocahantas) and trailing a husband and two little dogs. One of them, a cross-dressing chihuahua called Orion Moonstone, is wearing a blue lace tutu. Husband Colin is in a flashy Hawaiian shirt. It’s quite a welcome – and that’s before we see inside the cave.
We open the front door and step inside the hill. First is a tiny rock-cut salon, bright with tiles and glass and mirrored textiles. Beyond is a little dining room, an old-fashioned parlour with a fireplace and a small kitchen. We think at first that there’s only one bedroom, but when I open a vividly painted door which I thought was a cupboard, I find two more.
All the rooms have been scooped out of the rock. They are whitewashed and womb-like, with low ceilings, Arabic arches, carved niches, bumpy walls and pick-marked surfaces. As a welcome, Malutka has lit dozens of lamps and candles. The whole place glitters with colour and flickering light.
A ladder leads up to two terraces: one a shaded sitting area, the other with views of Cerro de Jabalcón – a mountain of limestone that erupts from the plains to the west of Baza – and a rooftop bath for cold-water dips. The weather is sultry, with daytime temperatures above 35C, but here’s the beauty of cave houses: the rock-cut rooms remain deliciously cool even in the hottest of summers. During the Altiplano’s chilly winters, they are snug and warm. No wonder so many of the locals still choose to live in them.
Malutka’s Grotto is an unusually flamboyant example, but this rocky area of northern Andalucía is riddled with manmade cave houses. They owe their existence to the region’s curious geology – these weird eruptions of sandstone were formed from sediments of a prehistoric ocean – and they cover a huge area, 100 miles or more, from Granada all the way up to Huéscar. They began as humble peasant homes, and though many lie in ruins, thousands are still in use.
In the Barrio de las Cuevas in nearby Guadix, where crowds of camera-wielding tourists arrive in a Noddy land-train, a troglodyte museum provides some figures: there are 334 occupied caves in Baza, 1,398 in Guadix, 144 in tiny Gorafe. The list goes on. Holiday caves, snapped up by “foreigners”, are a fairly recent trend.
During several trips to the area, I have become a bit of a cave spotter. Driving off the road into remote villages and towns, we find Cappadocia-like hillocks of sandstone riddled with caves and pocked with windows and doors. Baza is a traditional Andalucían town that boasts 13th-century Arab baths among its underground assets.
West of here, the aforementioned village of Gorafe sits in a spectacular red-rock canyon reminiscent of Arizona, among megalithic tombs, a hot-spring spa and the remnants of an ancient castle. Benamaurel, on the other side of Baza, offers cliff walks and amazing views from abandoned 12th-century cave dwellings.
But curious rock-cut houses are not the only reason to visit this area. We swim in Lake Negratin, a vast blue reservoir to the north of Baza, and my husband cycles up and down the empty roads that zig-zag the Sierra de Baza, Sierra Castril, or the mighty Sierra Nevada (the area is surrounded by mountainous national parks).
We feel part of the real Spain: in many bars, generous plates of tapas come with every glass of wine. Local markets are vibrant with fresh vegetables. The Alhambra and the rest of Granda’s sights are an hour or so away. In the other direction are the “badlands” of the Tabernas desert (where many spaghetti westerns were filmed back in the 1960s).
On the outskirts of Baza, in a village that doesn’t seem to have a name, we stay in Cuevas Al Jatib – a cave hotel with a restaurant, hammam and pool. Many modernised caves (including Malutka’s) have house-like front extensions, but this terrace of troglodyte dwellings are just as they would have been a hundred years ago. Hollowed out of a low cliff, they have windows cut from the rock and chimneys poking out of grassy rooftops; the white-painted facades are dazzlingly bright in the hot sun.
Al Jatib has four hotel rooms, each with a fireplace, a sculpted Flintstones bathroom and a window in the roof (if you are imagining dark, dank spaces, you’re wrong: these caves are drenched with light) but we stay in one of six cosy self-catering cave houses. Simply furnished in a modern-rustic style, it has a little courtyard garden and dreamy views over the whispering grasslands of the Altiplano. As we retire to our room for the night, I’m very glad not to be in an air-conditioned hotel.
I love the naturally cool air, the silence, the rough-hewn walls and the sense of being inside the landscape. I’ve never slept better.
• Accommodation was provided by Under the Thatch (0844 5005 101,underthethatch.co.uk), which has three Spanish cave houses, including Malutka’s Andalucían Grotto (from £170 for two nights), and by Cuevas Al Jatib (aljatib.com, cave rooms from €49). Flights were provided by British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com), which flies to Granada from London City airport from £122 return. Car hire (four days for £46) was provided bycarrentals.co.uk