In the quiet Andalucían town of Setenil de las Bodegas, a series of houses are built into large rock caves along a river gorge. It’s a stunning sight, but one that tourists are yet to discover.
Not many people know about Setenil de las Bodegas. Even fewer visit it. In the province of Cádiz, near the Spanish south coast, the town’s inhabitants have for centuries lived quiet, agricultural lives, liberated from the relentless tourism drive in nearby cities. Instead of showing off their houses, built into rock overhangs along the Trejo River, which runs through the city, the 3,200 inhabitants – or ‘Setenilenos’ – thrive off wineries, fruit, vegetables and meat production, which is sold to nearby villages. Strangers make a rare sight. In fact, throughout the entire town, there are only two hotels.
Some may wonder how residents can live in such solitude when their homes appear at risk of being crushed under huge mountain cliffs. Even the visitors who do visit these unusual buildings could be forgiven for suffering claustrophobia as they are sandwiched between tonnes of rock. Do house owners ever fear the worst? “Yes,” says Juan Gutiérrez, of the Setenil tourism board. “But they prefer to go on living without thinking about that.”
The roots of this unusual settlement are ancient. Although the town’s oldest building, the castle, which overlooks the city, hails from the 12th century, archaeological evidence from nearby cave-dwelling societies such as the Cueva de la Pileta, which was occupied 25,000 years earlier, suggests the area was seized long before that. In fact, researchers say the town was occupied during the Roman invasion of the region in the 1st century A.D., and that evidence of a settlement was destroyed with the continued habitation.
What so for today’s buildings? They took shape after the Roman period, when the Muslims had conquered Spain. After the castle was erected, the need for better housing and more protection became apparent among the Moorish. As such, in the 15th century, houses were constructed inside the rock caves along the river gorge. The move made sense; the caves were used for natural refuge in ancient times and, at the time, the region was threatened by Christian armies who sought to capture these types of villages.
As it happened, the houses played a key part in the town’s resistance to a series of hard-hitting attacks. The Christians were keen to capture it due to its strategic importance in the region, but needed no less than seven attempts throughout the 15th century before finally managing to oust the Moorish, the breakthrough coming in the 1480s. The attack stretched across 15 days, with Christian armies peppering the town with gunpowder artillery, making ruins of the castle, and other buildings, that dominate the town today. Legend says that many of the cave interiors are still coloured black from the sooth from the artillery.
According to tradition, part of the town’s name, ‘Setenil’, is believed to originate from the Roman phrase ‘septem nihil’, which translates as ‘seven times nothing’ – a correspondence to the many attacks needed to capture the town.
Following the Christian Reconquista, Setenil de las Bodegas started growing into a more modern, functional town. The new rulers developed an agricultural base of olives and almonds – which still flourishes on the mountain cliffs hanging above the houses. It also became renowned for vineyards, and the second part of the town’s name – Bodegas – stems from its many flourishing wineries. However, few remain, with most wiped out by the phylloxera insect infestation in the 1860s that destroyed several European wine stocks.
But that doesn’t hinder the town from being a self-sustainable community. Exports such as olive oil, cupcakes and pastries are valuable, while its renowned meat production sector thrives on chorizo, sausages and cerdo pork made from pigs bred in the nearby hills. What about tourism? The potential is great, particularly due of the remarkable cave houses, but also because the town is located on a row of popular Andalucían ‘white towns’ or ‘pueblos blancos’. But the local tourism board is cautious about promoting it. “We want to do it step by step,” says Gutiérrez. “We prefer a few people every day than a lot of people in summer. That is one of the reasons why Setenil is not famous.”
The thinking behind this strategy is based on a fear that an overdependence on tourism can ruin the local economy, particularly in the current financial climate. “Tourism is like building industry more or less,” he says. “We prefer something complementary to local economy, instead of depending only on tourism.” That approach may be for the best. While the cave houses are worthy of more attention, reckless exploitation will benefit no one. “There is an Asian proverb,” Gutiérrez says. “’Tourism is like fire; you can cook your dinner on it, but you can burn your house if you are not careful’.”
Photos: Francisco Javier Gil, Neftali [both via Shutterstock.com], Manuel Flores V.