From Romans to royalty, and from wayfarers to warriors
Although the village feels typically Moorish there is no direct evidence of a Moorish settlement here.
However, there is evidence of ancient human settlement, as Neolithic remains have been found in the Sabar Gorge along the banks of the Palancar and Morales streams that flow through there.
These watercourses come together at the south of the village to form the river Sabar. (Right and left: photos of the Sábar Gorge where these settlements were discovered).
Some evidence of settlement during the Mediaeval period has also been discovered in the area known as the Castillejo de Alfarnate, which may well have been of a defensive nature to protect the natural border that exists here.
The name ‘Alfarnate’ may derive from the Arab word ‘Al Farnat’ which means ‘flour mill’.
Indeed, the first written reference to Alfarnate and the neighbouring village of Alfarnatejo, dates back to the 10th century during the Moorish period of rule, when it is described as “a busy flour-producing farmstead”.
Wheat crops are still grown in abundance in the area, as can be seen in the photo on the right.
There is actually evidence of Moorish farmhouses and outbuildings nearby which support the theory that although there was no village, the Moors were living in and farming the countryside in this area – see Cortijo de Aula.
El Puerto de los Alazores
The existence of the La Venta de Alfarnate Inn (see below), the oldest of its type in Andalucia, suggests that the village may have been a main stop-over or resting point for people travelling along the ‘Camino Real’ (Royal Road) between the inland towns and villages of the Málaga and Granada provinces.
Indeed, the area known as El Puerto de los Alazores (photo left), which is on the Sierra de Jobo mountain four kilometres to the north, literally signifies that it was an ‘inland port’ for the caravans of people and goods travelling between the provinces of Málaga and Granada; something probably going on since Roman times. The ‘port’ is actually situated on the boundary between the provinces.
Whatever gave rise to its foundation, it is certain that the village we see today developed after the Reconquest of Spain. In February 1487, according to various sources, the troops of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, crossed through here on their mission to reconquer Vélez. The area was then repopulated by colonists from other parts of the region between 1489 and 1490.
In the 17th century, as the importance of this passage increased, it is known that there was a dispute between the bishoprics of Granada and Málaga put before the Royal Chancellery, concerning who should receive the tithes paid from crops grown locally. Reflecting the area’s proximity to Granada, the high court ruled that the Archbishopric of Granada should receive the majority of the tithes.
The present alignment of the Camino Real was ordered in the 18th century by King Carlos III, part of a new road joining various settlements in the Andalucian interior with the ports of the Mediterranean. It started in La Carolina and then passed through Jaén and Granada to Malaga. However, the section from Alfarnate to Málaga wasn’t properly finished until the early 19th century, with the workforce being supplied by the prisons of Málaga! During this time there was also a plan to link Granada and Malaga by train going through the Sábar Gorge, another indication of the importance placed on this passage through the mountains.
The village was linked with its neighbour Alfarnatejo for hundreds of years until the 19th century, when they became separate municipalities.
Legend of the lever-bearers and the badgers
Alfarnatejo, being linked with Alfarnate for so long, share an unusual legend that is derived from their respective nicknames, ‘los palancos’ (the lever-bearers) from Alfarnate, and ‘los tejones’ (the badgers) from Alfarnatejo.
The story can be traced back to the old horse track that used to link the two villages, where a huge stone was considered to mark the boundary between them.
Legend has it that a heavy storm caused this stone to roll, coming to rest right in the middle of the track, rendering it impossible to use. In order to unblock it, so the story goes, the people of Alfarnatejo used shovels and picks to dig underneath it like badgers, while their neighbours from Alfarnate carried sticks with which to lever the stone, so that it would roll away. Alfarnatejo’s method finally prevailed and the stone rolled down to the river, on whose bed it is still believed to lie.
The story is commemorated in Alfarnatejo’s official coat of arms (pictured above). Certainly, this mountainous limestone country is strewn with boulders (photo above taken near Alfarnatejo), so the legend could well be based on a real incident.
La Venta inn and the 'bandoleros'
The passage through the Alazores saw many great figures of Spanish history pass through it, from Romans to Royalty, and from wayfarers to warriors, but it is also famous for less reputable characters. It was in the 19th century that the area became famous, or infamous, for the bandits who assaulted the caravans that crossed it.
These ‘bandoleros’ are featured in numerous contemporary literary works, even in the writings of English travellers, all commenting on the abundance of robbers on these roads. In particular, there are plenty of references to La Venta de Alfarnate as being at the centre of much of it.
This famous country inn supposedly dates from the 13th century (though its deeds originate in the 17th century), and takes advantage of the numerous Andalucían and Spanish travellers passing through. Situated between the inland and the sea it was the perfect spot for travellers to change their horses, and, as mentioned before, mayhave well have been the original reason for the village’s settlement.
However, it is its guests that make this inn most notable. It has provided lodgings for the highest to the lowest in the land, from King Alfonso XIII who stayed there in 1884 when visiting the damage caused by an earthquake to the region, to various notorious bandits. In the 19th century those staying at Venta Alfarnate would have told tales of the famous misdeeds of the many bandits who roamed the hills of Andalucía. Bandits such as El Rojo, El Bizco del Borge and the famous El Tempranillo (picture, above). Read more about him and the inn here.
Alfarnate's tragic part in the Civil War
A few days after the outbreak of war, on July 15th 1936, defences were organized by the the Republican authorities in the Alazores and in Zafarraya against the Nationalist army column that was approaching from Loja. The area was deemed to have great strategic value given it was one of the main passes through the mountains linking Granada with Málaga.
Therefore, despite a shortage of materials, El puerto de los Alazores defences were prepared: barbed wire was installed, and a concrete bunker was constructed, on top of which were placed stones and vegetation to camouflage it from aerial attack.
In Alfarnate and Alfarnatejo a makeshift company of men was created called the ‘Aida Lafuente’ column, to help defend the Alazores pass. It was named after Aida de la Fuente Penaos, a militant communist who died during the 1934 revolutionary uprising that had been suppressed by the Republican Army; once the Civil War began, the Communist Party of Spain made her into a hero and one of its main symbols.
Alongside them were men called from other villages close by – Periana, Riogordo and Colmenar – and when the day came to fight, all the militias were instructed to assemble in the vicinity of the cemetery of Alfarnate.
Unfortunately, this defensive ‘army’ was comprised mostly of untrained militiamen like day labourers and peasants who were eager, as much as anything, just to receive the 10 pesetas per day payment. Barely 1500 men faced the Republicans who possessed nearly 12,000 men plus mortars and cannons. Nevertheless, the morale of the men was still high, and none could have foreseen the tragedy that was to follow.
Bombed by Spanish ships and German and Italian planes
Despite giving fierce resistance, it was hopeless; their positions were subjected to such a bombing from the ‘Legionaria Aviazionem’ (the Italian Royal Air Force), as well as from intense artillery and mortar fire from the advancing Nationalist column, that the villagers were unable to cope and the front was broken.
Everyone fled to the coast, warning all they passed that the Nationalist troops were hard on their heels. Panic spread everywhere. In the air, Italian planes bombed Alfarnate, Colmenar and Riogordo, trying to further intimidate the population. On the ground, the Italian motorized troops, tanks, and a seemingly endless convoy of lorries with Moroccan soldiers, relentlessly drove on. Villages practically emptied as people sought refuge and hid in the countryside, or in some abandoned farmhouse. Many decided to flee to Torre del Mar and from there took the road to Almería, which they thought was their only escape route, as Málaga has been occupied. Figures of somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people were displaced from the Axarquia and from Málaga, the largest exodus of people in European history until the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.
Tragically, thousands lost their lives taking this course, fired at by air and by sea. Even the British newspaper “The Manchester Guardian” recounted what was happening on the road to Almeria:
“The evacuation of Málaga began when the population learned of the difficulties the defensive fronts were having; but no one foresaw how this voluntary exodus would become one of the worst human cataclysms in European history, as the fleeing populace were bombed by Spanish fascist ships and German and Italian planes… The road was covered with death.”
Estimates of between 4000 and 6000 were killed, in one of the most tragic episodes of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, an incident known in Spain as ‘La masacre de la carretera Málaga-Almería’ or ‘la Desbanda’.
There are still vestiges of the brave republican resistance in the El puerto de los Alazores next to the road: remains of a reinforced concrete bunker (see photo above taken recently, and one at the top taken in the 1930’s), and some of the trenches dug by the defenders.
Alfarnate pages guide
Use the links below to explore what you can see and do in Alfarnate, what festivals take place through the year, and to read about the area’s fascinating history.