Sexy Iberian Village of the Week: Montefrio

Montefrio's fortress: like a steam train charging off a mountain top

Packed in between a river lined with ruined windmills and olive groves on one side and the prehistoric burial chambers of the gloriously named Peña de los Gitanos on the other, Montefrio is one of those Andalusian pueblillos you'd like to think is some secret gem only stumbled upon by you, Washington Irving and Laurie Lee's violin.

It's a fiendishly odd-looking place at first glance. Above a choppy sea of whitewashed houses, its emblematic fortress-church is so precariously perched on the limestone heights it can look like a steam train charging off the edge of the mountain. At least, that's what it looked like to me the first time it appeared on the horizon through my dusty windscreen, having erroneously turned off the A-92 at the wrong place, some ten years ago.

Gone are the days of glorious, picturesque isolation. Now, partly thanks to an article in the National Geographic a couple of years ago, it's a popular day-trip from Granada (50 km away), and you're likely to see visor-wearing Japanese tourists hugging the monuments of the Plaza de España.

But, forget about all that. Climb the hill up to the Iglesia de la Villa, a 14th Century Nazarite-Moorish fortress reconfigured into a Franciscan church by the reconquesting Catholic Monarchs, and you'll find yourself overcome by one of the finest views in all of Granada province, with the sweeping expanse of olives multiplying into the distance, the cave-houses chipped out of rocky promontories and a tapestry of tiled rooves below.

Make sure you bring up a slab of the pungent queso de cabra (Montefrieño, recognized as the finest in the world in the 2012 World Cheese Awards in Birmingham), a hunk of bread and a pitcher (must be a pitcher) and indulge pleasing fantasies of being a wandering local shepherd pausing for a breath on his daily round.

While you're up here, take a turn around the fortress. The building is a reminder of a time when Montefrio was one of the last Muslim-held towns along medieval Spain's religious frontier. One of the so-called legendary 'siete villas de Granada', Montefrio was conquered by Christian forces in 1486, shortly before the fall of the nearby Nazarite capital, making it one of the last bastions of al Andalus and therefore of Moorish rule in the peninsula. This romantic, traumatic period is excellently interpreted by the museum within the fortress, called La Centinela.

Back down in the winding streets of the Casco Antiguo is the early 19th Century Iglesia de la Encarnación, its huge dome - impressively illuminated at night - modelled on Rome's Pantheon, with a ludicrously good churrerira out front called Cafeteria Elena. The other religious building of note is the handsome 18th Century Convento de San Antonio, whose monk's quarters were recently turned into rather a good panaderia.

In a village full of spectacular miradores, the other look-out point worth climbing up to is the Mirador de las Penas, reached via the Calle de Agua beyond the Ayuntamiento and situated on the southern slopes overlooking Montefrio.

If you have a whole day, it's worth hiring a bike and hitting the Illora Road to the east. For, just five kilometres from the village along this road is one of the most absorbing and undervisited historical sites in Spain. The Peña de los Gitanos gets its name from the Civil War Period when groups of Gypsies camped in this area to escape the conflict, but the area has been settled and farmed for over 6000 years and offers an extraordinarily unspoiled (and underexcavated) cross-section of civilizations. Spread over six kilometres of beautiful holm oak groves, there are neolithic dolmens and tombs, the remains of an Ibero-Roman settlement - El Cerro de Castillejos, which offers an eagle's eye view of the whole Peña de Gitanos conjunto - and Visigothic necropoli.

A pueblo blanco blessed with an unusuallly rich assortment of discreet historical riches in a uniquely picturesque setting, Montefrio is worth the detour from Granada. It's The Visigoth's sexy Iberian village of the week.

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