THE VILLAGE OF CÚTAR
The name Cútar denotes a region as well as a village. Look across the valley and you can see its history - a cycle of prosperity and destitution etched into the landscape. In the distance, that great bite out of the mountain skyline is the Zafaraya pass, the route of migrants and invaders from Neolithic man to Bonaparte’s armies, the route south for invading moors and Christians, the route north for Franco’s fascist rebels. In the middle distance is the Peña de Hierro, a great rock thrusting into the skyline - in antiquity a massive geological fort. There is evidence of prehistoric settlement here. On the ancient route south through the pass towards the sea, prosperous trading communities grew with enough surplus resources to build a substantial necropolis (a city of the dead). Coins and ceramics from both the Romans and the Christian Goths that succeeded them have also been discovered here.
The age of the Berber Arabs who ruled this region from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, was the golden age for Cútar and for the whole of Andalucía, a beacon of light in a Europe benighted by the superstition and cruelty of medieval Christianity. Muslim Arabs bought sophisticated agriculture and irrigation, and with it the muscatel grape, orange, lemon and pomegranate. They brought all the wisdom of the classical age – its mathematics, architecture, astronomy, medicine and rational philosophy - previously and later suppressed by Christians as “pagan”. It also laid the foundations of the flourishing town of Cútar by building a large farmhouse protected by a fort, which quickly grew into a thriving Muslim community with its own Mosque. The houses of all of the villages were lime washed by law to prevent disease. Thus “pueblos blancos” - white villages were created
At this time Cútar, with Almáchar, El Borge and Moclinejo, was part of the “Tahá de Comares”. Tahá is an Arabic word meaning “administrative district” of Comares, being overlooked by that village where the army was based. During the Muslim period, Cútar was much bigger than it is now. It enjoyed great economic prosperity for two products that are still harvested and continue to enjoy international fame. The first is the olive, which yields the highly prized “Verdiales” oil, smooth, green and delicious. The second is the muscatel grape, valuable fresh or dried as raisins. For centuries it was an ingredient in the famous Málaga sweet wines, which, unlike table wines could withstand long sea voyages in barrels without spoiling
Although this period was one of great prosperity in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative harmony, it was not without wars and conflict. The Moorish castle at Cútar was destroyed by Rahman III to suppress the revolt of Ibn Hafsun.
At the very end of the protracted struggle for dominance of the region between Moors and Christians, Cútar was the site of the Battle of the Axarquia. In March 1483 at Cútar, El Zagal's Moorish army led by Muley Hacen fell upon and slaughtered troops from Castile led by the Marquis of Cadiz, who was on his way to conquer Málaga.
Granada eventually fell to the Christians, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. Muslims had a stark choice: expulsion or conversion to Christianity. Those who stayed were known as “Moriscos” and were harassed and persecuted by the inquisition. Cútar became impoverished and depopulated. By 1494 there were only 120 inhabitants.
Christopher Columbus sailed in 1492 and it is said that his ship passed those of expelled Moors and Jews. He was trying to become the first Christian to replace the Muslim spice traders. He failed to sail east, but his discoveries yielded the potato and sweet potato, the avocado, the sweet pepper, and the hot pepper that was a temporary substitute for black peppercorns. He also discovered chocolate, mixed for the first time by the Spaniards with sugar to create an elixir that they kept secret for a hundred years. All this added to the richness of regional cuisine. For their part the Spanish Inquisition contributed a new eating experience designed to exclude Jews and Muslims forever when they established grants for pig rearing.
The struggle was not over. The year 1569 saw a general revolt against Christian authority by the Moriscos of Almáchar, Cútar, Benamargosa, Competa, Sedella, Daimalo and other villages in the Axarquia. The rebels made their final stand at El Peñon de Frigiliana, where they were finally defeated by the governor of Vélez-Málaga, Alvaro de Zuarzo. This defeat was followed by harsh repression and clearances. Rebel land was confiscated and given to “Old Christians” (those who had never been Muslim). A further revolt, centred on Ronda in 1560 was followed by the definitive expulsion of Moriscos from the area. Many of those expelled hid in the inhospitable highlands and became known as “Monfi” (outcasts). That region of the Axarquia became, and was to remain, “bandit country"
Nineteen years ago, builders restoring a house in Calle Horno (Oven street), came across some books hidden in the middle of a mud and stone wall one metre wide. They included a Koran from the 13th century (the second oldest in Spain) and a book of Muslim laws, from the troubled sixteenth century. A "Monfi" Museum, has recently been opened in the village.
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, notorious robbers and killers lived in these hills where it was easy to disappear. From the days of the Monfi, who would cut the throats of innkeepers and priest informers, to nineteenth century brigands such as “El Bizco” the cross eyed bandit of El Borge, who was gunned down western style by the Guardia, the Axarquia was country dangerous to travellers
During the Spanish Civil War the region largely supported the elected government of Spain against Franco’s fascists, but when the rebels won, many defeated republicans carried on a guerilla war in these hills, expecting that once the victorious allies of the second world war had dealt with Hitler and Mussolini, they would come for Franco. They did nothing of the sort and Franco continued to murder his opponents until his death in 1975.
Poverty in post war Spain - the result of sanctions and political isolation - fell most heavily upon its poorest regions. Many of Cútar’s villagers had to travel to the north of Spain or to England, France or Germany to get work. Many elderly villagers still retain a little German or French from those days. The general slaughter of the men meant that women and children had to work rather than attend school and this state was encouraged by the Catholic church, which preferred rote learning to literacy. Cútar was again reduced to a quarter of its earlier population
Located off the main tourist routes, Cútar is a quiet, charming traditional village. In the shadow of the large church, the white houses and small narrow streets tumble down the hillside. Cútar is a pueblo blanco (white village), a legacy of the Moorish rule of the area. Because of the very mild semi-tropical climate, farmers grow mangos, avocados, citrus fruits, dates, figs, pomegranate, guava, sugar cane and the heavy, delicious Muscat grapes. The grapes are dried into raisins or made into the famous Malaga muscatel dessert wine
The village and its barrios
The village is a shadow of former self. Today it has between 200 and 300 inhabitants, the population rising steeply during the long summer school break when many dormer and holiday homes fill up. Cútar is perched on a hillside at 330 metres above sea level, and runs down into the valleys overlooking a landscape of mixed fruit farming dominated by vines and olive groves. The entrance to the village has gardens landscaped in the Moorish style. The Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation overlooks it. The church is of sixteenth century Mudejar design and construction, being built on the site of the old Mosque by skilled Muslim craftsmen kept on by the Christians who lacked their building skills. Calle Fuente (formerly Calle Franco) is the artery or main street of the village. It has a general store and a bar
Cútar is divided into four main districts: Barrio Alto (upper town) around the church, Barrio Bajo (lower Town) below Calle Fuente,,Barrio de la Fuente at the entrance of the town, Barrio de la Ermita on the valley side
Song and dance
The village is very proud of its folk music. Regional music is called “Verdiales”, the same name as the oil. The musical tradition is very strictly preserved, the musicians of Comares charged with preserving the traditions. Local craft work is a dying tradition here as everywhere. Basket work using cane and olive strips or esparto grass still exists, and a tradition of decorative brickwork using the flat “ladrillo” brick is still practiced. There are ceramicists among the villagers, and both ceramicists and artists among the small population of incomers. Statutory authorities are seeking to preserve the farming crafts and there are courses in, for example, the skills of viticulture.There is also a new art gallery run by four local artists, which displays local arts and artisan crafts as well as contemporary artwork by professional artists. The artists´ own work can also be seen at the gallery which is open every Saturday throughout the year.
All Spanish villages have their tradition of fiestas and ferias. The fiesta is usually a Saint’s day feast, the main one in Cútar being that of Saint Roque, the patron saint of the village. There is a gypsy fiesta the Romeria in spring, a summer feria and the autumn fiesta del Monfi with its fair, craft stalls and sales of local food and drink. Needless to say, all parties involve eating drinking and dancing
Food and drink
The local wine is a sweet brown pasero made from raisins. It should be drunk like sherry – before or after a meal rather than with it. Cheap commercial sherries abound. Cobos is a cheap dry that’s OK after a couple of glasses and very good in sauces stews and paellas, imparting an authentic Andalucían flavour to food. Experiments in table wine, both red and white made by freezing grapes before fermenting can be found in Juani’s bar next to the church in Almáchar.
Dishes typical of the region can be found in the bars that seem to spring up and die in the village. There is the ubiquitous paella, chorizo sausage with chick peas or beans, a rich stew of cabbage and pigs’ unmentionable bits, tortilla, fried fish and salad, grilled pork or chicken or meat “in sauce” and so on. At party time there is a medley of doughnut style pastries – enough to convince anyone still in doubt that the Mediterranean diet largely consists of sugar and fat. Also on sale are “pasas”. These are raisins or fresh muscatel grapes steeped in dry anis or aguagarde for a month or two. You dear reader can take some raisins home and soak some yourselves, though they don’t taste so good eaten in grey sleet as they do in the sweet Andalucian twilight.
Today Cútar remains a small, authentically rural Spanish community that demonstrates Moorish traditions in its customs and architecture. The streets are built for donkeys not cars. They are steep and often stepped. Much of the paving and cobbled pathways, in recent times covered in concrete, are now being restored, and the village is sensitive to the value of its Arab heritage. The Cútar Koran is the second most ancient in Spain and testifies to the antiquity and heritage of the village itself, as does the “fountain of paradise” and the sixteenth century church with its unique Mudejar frescos. There are wonderful views from the terraces which overlook the mountains and hills of the Axarquia. There is a pharmacy, a village shop, a bar and pizzeria, a medical centre and village pool open in the summertime. Banks, cash machines, supermarkets,
restaurants and medical service are 10 minutes drive away in the neighbouring village of Benamargosa.
This village is genuinely unspoilt - aspects of its history can be found in every part of it and yet it is still unknown to the tourist trade. It is one of the few remaining genuinely authentic secrets of the Axarquia.