From Washington Irving to Trivial Pursuits
There are some fascinating Nerja stories and legends related to this pretty Costa del Sol holiday town, some true – and some that are almost true.
Washington Irving stayed in Nerja in 1828
Washington Irving (1783 – 1859), was an American short story writer, biographer, and historian, best known for his short stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, as well as several histories of 15th century Spain, including ‘Tales of the Alhambra’. As well as being credited as the first American writer of note, and the first to earn his living solely as an author, Irving also served as the US Ambassador to Spain from 1842 to 1846.
Irving travels to Nerja…
The small party reached Nerja at 7 o-clock in the evening on Wednesday, March 26, 1828. But after a twelve-hour day on horseback from Motril, punctuated by a noon brunch in a seaside venta at La Herradura, there was little cheer to be found at the posada (inn). Perhaps because it was the lead up to Semana Santa in Málaga, the only room available was, in the words of the American among them, ‘small, damp, and squalid’. He was looking forward to fish, but had to resign himself initially to eating ‘cold, hard eggs’.
Such was the welcome that awaited Washington Irving when he arrived in Nerja during a five week trip from Madrid to Gibraltar via Córdoba, Granada, the Alpujarras and what would later become known as the Costa Tropical and Costa del Sol, (see the map below of his journey). It is not recorded if the landlady of the posada knew that she was playing host to the author of a recently published book on the life and travels of the explorer Christopher Columbus. She could certainly not have known that she was sheltering a man who would go on to achieve lasting worldwide fame for works including The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, Tales of the Alhambra, and the Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada.
Nerja’s reputation for hospitality was salvaged when the mayor was asked to find better lodgings for the author and companions, who included two officials of the Russian consulate in Madrid. Goaded into action, ‘Our Landlady of the Posada’, as Irving waspishly called her, immediately bestirred herself to lay on ‘an excellent supper’ of fish, tomatoes, rice and milk, Irving wrote. The mayor, ‘a stout pleasant looking man’, found the foreigners beds at a friend’s home, where they were greeted by the family and friends, shown around, enjoyed a smoke and a chat, then slept ‘luxuriously’ in three clean beds in a room with an alcove. In the morning, their host brought them three glasses of brandy as a bracer against the day. Bidding farewell to him, to the mayor in his shop, and to some local politicians who had also turned up to see them off, Irving’s party headed off.
On their way to their next destination Irving reported that the countryside was ‘pleasant with sugarcane’. They saw a brigantine ship at sea, stopped at a sugar factory near Torrox, and eventually reached Vélez-Málaga, where they stayed at a posada owned by a Frenchman – ‘the best we have met with in Andalusia’ – then enjoyed a good dinner before visiting the castle. Irving described the town as ‘a miniature Naples’ because of the way it nestled in the lap of its castle-crowned hill. After an altercation with the town commandant over their passports, they returned to the inn and found it busting with pilgrims making their way to Málaga for Semana Santa: ‘women talking all night,’ noted Irving. And so on to Málaga…
Resident unearths Nerja’s lost link to Irving…
Rob Stokes, a Nerja resident with a passion for history, was the one who made the connection between his adopted hometown and this literary giant. He discovered the links in an obscure edition of Irving’s journal of his 1828 journey. [Right: statue to Irving in the grounds of the Alhambra, Granada].
“Many local villages have remained unaware that Irving Washington passed their way nearly 200 years ago. Until now. My chance discovery while delving into Irving’s life during his 1826-29 and 1842-46 experiences of Spain, means that many more places than before can rightfully boast, ‘Washington Irving stayed here’ on the basis of his spring 1828 excursion.
In Málaga province, they include Nerja, Vélez-Málaga, Málaga itself, Ronda, Gaucín and Yunquera. In Granada, they are the coastal towns of Adra and Motril, and the Alpujarran village of Cádiar. Córdoba province’s Andújar, and Alcalá la Real in Jaén province complete the additions to Irving’s stopovers. Other places have a lesser, though by no means uninteresting, claim to fame by association. Irving visited a sugar factory near Torrox, and in Granada province passed through Lanjaron, Orgiva, La Rabita, Almuñécar and Salobreña.
The details of Irving’s trip are in his travel journal. Covering only March 1 to April 6, 1828, the original journal languished out of sight in a private collection for nearly 110 years before it was published in 1937 in a slim, limited edition intended for academic use. Stanley Williams, the American editor of the 1937 volume had spent months in Spain searching for Irving’s ‘lost’ journal only to hear that it had turned up in the private library in Ohio, USA. It was published when Spain was in the throes of a civil war and its attention was focused inwards. Small wonder then that the journal’s existence and contents seem to have escaped the notice of local historians and modern tourism authorities in Spain.
When I learned of the 1937 work, I ordered a copy from an antiquarian dealer and was amazed to learn that Irving had stayed in many places that appeared to have no inkling of his passage. It is a conceit to presume to speak for the dead; but I feel sure that Washington Irving would be tickled to death to see his Spanish legacy turned to the advantage of the not-so-sleepy hollows of modern Andalucía.
As for where Irving dined in Nerja, there is now a Mexican restaurant on the site of one old posada in Calle El Barrio, but I don’t know if that’s the one from 1828.”
Tall tales of the Balcón de Europa
When asked what they visited in Nerja, most people that have stayed here for any length of time reply: the Balcón de Europa. It is certainly emblematic of the town, and deservedly so. However, over the years there have been a number of – erm – exaggerations about it, to put it politely.
To be fair, much of it can be explained away by the fact that the records of Nerja’s past are understandably scant. But no doubt Nerja’s tourism department long ago also decided not to let the facts get in the way of a good tourism-encouraging yarn…
Yarn 1 – It was named by King Alfonso XII…
In 1884 a serious earthquake destroyed much of the town over Christmas. The earthquake affected many villages in the provinces of Málaga and Granada, and over eight hundred people were killed, though Nerja’s populace fortunately only suffered injuries. Many of Nerja’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the Ermita Angustias church.
The damage in the Andalucian provinces was so bad that the King of Spain, Alfonso XII, visited many of the affected villages to show his support – including Nerja. However, the legend that he walked onto Nerja’s promontory and was so impressed that he described it as “el Balcón de Europa”, (the Balcony of Europe) is an ‘urban myth’. Here is what really happened…
After visiting the province of Granada, King Alfonso went to Torre del Mar, where he arrived on January 17 of 1885. In the following days he visited various affected villages in the Axarquia and on January 20th – not the 12th as written on the brass plaque on the Balcón (photo, left) – then went to Torrox and Nerja. The royal party arrived in Torrox in the morning and came to Nerja in the afternoon, met the mayor, walked around a couple of the damaged streets then – an hour later – returned to Torre del Mar.
In fact, there are historical documents at Nerja town hall that attest to the name Balcón de Europa being used as long ago as 1839 to describe the views from the promontory! Indeed, it seemed to start being used after the rubble of the old castle (Castillo Bajo) that was blown up during the Peninsular War, was removed in about 1832.
Yarn 2 – It was blown up by a British ship…
It is usually claimed that the Castle on the Balcón (known at that time as either Castillo Bajo or La Bateria) and the tower situated on La Torrecilla (Torre de las Guardas) in Nerja were destroyed by the British during the Spanish Peninsular War against Napoleon in 1810. Unfortunately, this is where we have to bust another local myth! [Left: profile of Castillo Bajo in 1730].
According to a convincing thesis published by Doctor Francisco Capilla Luque, Historian and Coordinator of the Advisory Commission of the Nerja Museum, as well as a respected local author, Castillo Bajo was not destroyed by British ships during the Wars of Independence. Luque’s report was published in April 2017 using recently restored Nerja archives and the Archivo General Militar de Segovia.
While it is true that in early May 1812, the Termagent, one of three British ships sent to flush out the French from along the Spanish coast, fired on a Nerja fortress, in all probability it was the one at La Torrecilla, (we know from the Royal Navy biography of Thomas Usher, that one certainly was). There are two reasons behind this.
One. According to local records, the castle on the Balcón was actually blown up the previous year, by putting dynamite into the ovens! In all probability it was done, Luque suggests, around October 4th, 1811, the date when apparently the British had landed in Nerja. In fact, as well as blowing up Castilla Baja in order to prevent the Napoleonic forces getting hold of it, the British also handed out 6000 rifles to the local militia! The records go on to say that the wood from the destroyed castle was collected and sold, with the money going to buy food for the local freedom fighters (guerrillas).
Two. At this point in history La Torrecilla no longer looked like a watchtower, but after the modifications a century earlier, like a fortress in miniature, (see plan on right of similar tower constructed in Mijas at this time). This is the reason why it could not be ignored by the British ships that were concentrating their firepower on castles along the Spanish coast, rather than on defensive structures like watchtowers. They couldn’t afford to let fortified structures with cannons installed in them, get into the hands of the French army.
Thus, given that Nerja’s records suggest that Castilla Baja was blown apart in 1811, and the Royal Navy records suggest that there was one, not two, castles fired upon by the Termagent, then in all probability it was La Torrecilla (a prime target anyway), that was destroyed in 1812.
Trivial Pursuit game born in Nerja?
For a time, there were those who lived in Torrox who claimed that the Trivial Pursuit game was invented by a couple of idle sun worshippers on the beaches of Torrox Costa. Others said it was in Nerja somewhere. But over the last few years there has been more coverage in the local press about the game and its origins, to the point that the local council is considering publicising Nerja’s connection to it.
The originators of the game, Canadians Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, spent an inordinate amount of time in a certain Nerja bar in 1979 looking – and acting – like a pair of hippies. They had come up with the idea for a new game while playing Scrabble, and were road testing it on the bars residents. The basis of the game was in answering questions – and they had 5000 of them to try out on the poor regulars.
However, they needed money to launch the game, and so they asked the bar owner if he’d like to invest. They also asked anyone around Nerja who would give the scruffy pair the time of day, but they all said no. Apart from the bar owner that is, who thought it might be a way to pay off the enormous bar tab they had built up over the previous weeks. All those that had ridiculed Chris and Scott were to eat their words and rue the day they refused to invest in their game – now called ‘Trivial Pursuit’. The pair went on to become multi-millionaires. And the bar owner certainly didn’t do too badly either.
Some have even claimed that the ‘star’ pattern at the end of the Balcon de Europa inspired the spoke design of the Trivial Pursuit board…
Fuente de la Doncella (little maidens fountain)
One very traditional Nerja story or legend took place at what is known today as the Tetuán estate near Burriana beach there was a fountain where a young girl used to drink as it offered relief against an illness she had been suffering since childhood.
On the way there and back she used to see a handsome young man who also went to the fountain to enjoy the water. After some time they fell in love and the man asked the girl to marry him. Because of her illness, she did not accept his proposal. But the young man was not deterred and remained faithful to her until death.
Cuesta del Barranco de Melí (hill of Meli’s ravine)
Situated between Nerja, Frigiliana and Torrox, folklore tells of the Moor called Meli who lived there around the ninth century. One of the many things this character would do was to hide and frighten everyone who passed by, pretending to be a bloodthirsty bandit. Apparently he eventually converted to Christianity but the hill has always been named after him.