Friday, June 29, 2012

Smooth Getaway Postcard From Sedella Spain

Sedella is typical of los pueblos blancos – a jumble of little white houses crowded together on a hillside, with narrow, twisting streets giving sudden views of mountain and sea. Yet, apart from its undeniable prettiness, Sedella is unremarkable. It has nothing to compete with the splendid Mudéjar towers of nearby Salares and Árchez. The only record of its Moorish past are traces of wall painting on the tower house near the church. Sedella's claim to fame is more nebulous.

There was once a battle here of such proportions that the great barranco below the village is still known as The Valley of the Slaughter. Legend has it this was mentioned to Queen Isabela and she replied with the immortal words: "Sé de ella" (I know of it). Thus, the town acquired its name.

There is a more prosaic explanation. This village was once at the centre of a thriving silk industry and the Spanish word for silk is seda. However, locals are proud of the royal origin tale, so it would be churlish to throw doubt on the story.

We were recently reminded of other lore about Sedella’s past. Some friends of mine bought a house and were told that an important general stayed there. Later, they heard it was the famous film star Yul Brynner. After enquiry, it turned out the famous visitor was travel writer Gerard Brennan. Indeed, he does mention Sedella in his book South from Granada, but doesn't give it very good press.

While trekking on foot from Granada to the coast, he arrived in Sedella needing accommodation for the night. He was directed to a home where a wrinkled old crone gave him a meal and room. The bed was riddled with fleas and the food looked and tasted revolting then left him with dysentery that no doubt played merry hell with the rest of his hike. I hasten to point out that Sedella's current hostelries and eating establishments are up to a high standard, so the tourist is most unlikely to repeat Brennan's experience.

In fact, Sedella is well-placed for tourism, with dozens of fascinating walks close by, ranging from short strolls between villages to day-long hikes up a mountainside, past ravines, waterfalls and remote springs with wonderful names like ‘The Footprint of the Child God.’ The other enduring attraction of Sedella is its stubborn reluctance to change. The influx of foreign residents and seasonal tourists has had little impact on the lifestyle here.

Structurally, the village hasn't changed for hundreds of years. There was considerable rebuilding and refurbishment in recent times, but it has been carried out with taste and consideration for local tradition. We lost the old bakery, but the washhouse and fountain near the village entrance remain in perfect working order. Old men still gather every day on the opposite wall to chew the fat and watch the world go by.

Twice a day, the goat herds pass through and below the village on their way to and from pasture. It's rare not to see at least a couple mules too. The people here still farm their land the old-fashioned way. Although they do use diggers and mechanical ploughs, you're just as likely to see a horse or mule ploughing the land. The harvesting is still done by hand (or, more accurately, by stick). At weekends and everyday during harvest time, whole families come out in the countryside to plant and prune and dig and pick.

Nets are spread under the trees, which the old men thrash with poles and little children clamber up to get the last stubborn fruit. Meanwhile, women pack the olives and almonds into sacks then load them onto a mule or the ubiquitous white van.

In the early evening, people go out for a stroll, the traditional paseo so beloved in the Mediterranean. There is now a preponderance of old people, but the paseo still thrives, as do many ancient traditions. It would be easy to blink and imagine yourself a hundred years in the past. Still, take a closer look. Many of the houses sport satellite dishes, children walk by with mobile phones clapped to their ears and youth are more likely to clatter through the streets on motorbikes than horses.

Will this generation be satisfied with subsistence farming and goat-herding? Almost certainly not. Already, the young go to Málaga or even further afield to live and work. The demographic structure is changing and we may be seeing the last of the old ways. Nothing illustrates this dichotomy so plainly as the village festival of San Anton. This takes place mid-January and kicks off on Saturday evening, when the band turns up in immaculate uniform to play a few numbers in the plaza.

There is a programme with a designated time for the procession, but this is just a rough guide. The event happens when there's a general feeling the time is right. When this moment is deemed to be present, the band makes its way through the streets up to the chapel above the village. By this time, walkers have gathered behind the band, tagging on to the procession as it passes their houses. Everyone congregates by the chapel, then the saint is brought out on his throne, gorgeously dressed and illuminated with candles.

There is fierce competition for the privilege of bearing the throne, even though it's tremendously heavy work. (Except for one memorable year, when the procession was delayed so long that everyone was too drunk to carry anything. According to one seditious source, the statue was seen to totter alarmingly and peep round corners at disturbing angles. The merry band then makes its way back to the square, where the saint is installed in the church. Then, the real party begins. Loud music thumps from the bandstand, while dancing and carousing go on until the small hours.

In the morning, there is a mass held where the priest comes out to bless the animals. This is when you realise just how many mules and horses are still around. The plaza is packed with horseflesh, many of them beautifully caparisoned with their manes and tails plaited and ribboned.

Some of the riders are resplendent in traditional riding outfits, hard-brimmed hats, boleros and high leather boots. There is something strangely moving about this ceremony, as one by one the animals are brought to the church steps and sprinkled with holy water.

Shortly after this, the scene degenerates into chaos, as riders offer lifts to the girls, who sit sidesaddle behind them while they gallop up and down the streets or even into bars. In the evening, there's a splendid firework display. Once again the bands start up, playing havoc with local power supply. Soon, it will be time for hungry horses and tired riders to hit the hay.

This fiesta, with its fascinating swings from ancient to modern, seems to me a microcosm of today's Spanish rural society, balanced between the old ways and the new. I feel privileged to witness it. We may be the last generation to enjoy the old Spain, before mobile phones and satellite TVs inevitably shoulder it aside.

Jenny Twist grew up in the British mill town of Heckmondwike but now lives in Spain. She studied history in Manchester and did post-graduate work at Oxford. Her novellas Doppelganger, Uncle Vernon and Mantequero have appeared in various literary anthologies, plus she authored the books Take One At Bedtime, Domingo's Angel and All in the Mind.


  1. Thanks once again for having me on your lovely site, Lyn. SUCH a pleasure to be here.

  2. You make a good case for those who want a semi-bucolic retirement home. The pictures that accompanied the article makes the place all the more intriguing. Of course, you didn't quite mention all the famous writers living or passing through Sedelia - There's still sweet Jenny.
    Enjoyed your travelogue

    1. Hi Bob. I don't think I QUITE have the fame of Gerald Brenner but I think I give Sedella a rather better press! The first couple of pictures are of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, an easy drive from here. It is absolutely breathtaking. Has to be seen to be believed.

  3. One thing is for certain, in any country you visit, there are celebrations created for entertainment, spirituality, socializing and the drinking of spirits fermente'. LOL I like the idea of blessing animals. They deserve our gratitude. Is it just horses and mules or can cats and dogs join in? It would seem hard to bless fish with holy water--or maybe they just swim in it.
    A lovely post, Jenny.

    1. Hi Sarah
      It's predominantly horses and mules, but you get a lot of household pets - I once saw a pet rabbit dressed up in a festival ribbon - and other farm animals - the occasional token goat, and once, unbelievably a wild boar piglet! The water is just sprinkled in their general direction. I have a feeling I DID once see fish, but it may be a false memory.

  4. Hi Jenny,

    What a fun place! Sedella sounds like it has a nostalgic bit of old to balance out the glossy new stuff. When I'm looking for places to go, that's the kind of place I seek out.

    I loved the blessing of the animals. Here in Georgia, different churches hold blessings of pets, but usually in early spring. Everyone brings their animal to a park and the priest walks around to visit them all.

    Thanks for an intriguing post!


  5. Looks like a lovely spot. I'll have to find it when I visit the country someday.

    1. Let me know when you come, William. Maybe we can meet up

  6. Hi.

    I´m from Sedella (Málaga).

    Really good article! If you need something contact with me. This is a little town but has a lot of history.

    One correction. The two first pictures aren´t from Sedella.

    Thank you for writing about Sedella.


  7. Hi Miguel. Realised your address is Twitter not an email. I've followed you, or you can email me on