Málaga Province - Cuevas del Becerro

The village of Cuevas del Becerro, 733 metres above sea level and sitting quietly beside the Ronda to Campillos road like a retired highwayman dreaming of his fiery youth, is living proof that in the hills of Andalucía there is always more to the landscape than meets the eye.

To be frank, few casual eyes fall upon it. Most of the traffic passes by without even acknowledging its existence, and those travellers who do wander aimlessly into its streets are invariably unimpressed. It has the depressing air of a barrack town, thrown together with utility, rather than community in mind. This impression is reinforced by the plain and primitive nature of the church of San Antonio Abad, which is of no great age, and dates in its present form only from the 19th Century. There is an aqueduct, still carrying water from a nearby spring, but the mill it once served is in ruins. Stumble on the village on a day when the skies are grey and heavy with rain, and the illusion is complete. It is a rare visitor indeed who steps out of the car. Most peer through their windscreens for five or ten minutes, and then drive on.

And yet Cuevas del Becerro, which calls itself the gateway to the mountains - la puerta de la serrania - does bear investigation. The village is the focal point of one of the smallest municipal districts in the province of Málaga - covering just 16 square kilometres. First there is the puzzle of its name. Any scholar with the time, inclination, and an inexhaustible supply of dogged determination, could devote a lifetime of study to the mystery of place names. It is true that place name evidence is often a valuable clue in the quest to read and understand the landscape. If a piece of barren high ground is known as Castle Hill it is a good, though not necessarily always a safe bet, that a castle once stood upon it. But for every straightforward and apparently descriptive reference there are at least two which appear inexplicable, and open to any number of equally plausible or unlikely interpretations.

Time passes, and people forget. Certainties fade, to be replaced first by faulty memories, and then by theories fuelled by guesswork and ingenuity.

When Cuevas del Bec erro (Caves of the Yearling Calf) was given its name, whenever that may have been, those who chose it knew why. Today we can only wonder. There are two chief theories, each deriving from local legend. The first is that at some indeterminate point in the past, a huge golden figure of a calf was discovered somewhere in the vast cave complex which surrounds the village. It is not impossible. Although the pueblo itself does not appear to be ancient, there is certainly evidence in the hills of human habitation as far back as Neolithic times. It would be a rash commentator indeed who dismissed outright the possibility that at some point in those numberless unchronicled centuries some craftsman created such a calf, that it was used ritualistically, or deliberately hidden in the caves, and that long afterwards somebody found it.

But while legend speaks confidently of the statue's discovery, it is silent on its fate. If such a statue existed, and its existence was known even to the point of naming a pueblo in its honour, where did it go? And when? Was it stolen? Destroyed? Melted down? Large golden statues do not disappear. At least, if they do, their disappearance is generally noticed and investigated. Rumours spread. Fingers are pointed. The thunderous silence surrounding the disappearance of so wondrous an object reminds us of Sherlock Holmes' pertinent observation on the singular case of the dog that did not bark in the night. We must conclude that the existence of the golden calf is at best unproven.

Unfortunately, the second major theory of the naming of Cuevas del Becerro, though widely accepted, is even less convincing. This holds that on some otherwise long-forgotten day, a villager out grazing his cattle lost a yearling calf in the caves, but found it again by following the sound of its lowing.

The very mundanity of this story is its own undoing. Such incidents must have been common. It is difficult to envision a farmer experiencing such a banal, everyday adventure, running down the mountain into the village square excitedly waving his hat in the air and crying, Eureka! And the existence of a villager presupposes the existence of a village. If the village existed at the time, it must already have had a name. It is even more difficult to imagine the population cheering themselves hoarse and deciding there and then that in view of the Miracle of the Lost and Rediscovered Calf, it must forthwith be changed. Yet in essence, that is precisely what the story implies.

Both tales have the ring of stories concocted later to explain what had already been forgotten.

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The village had certainly acquired its name by the year 1330, when it makes its first entry into the written historical record. In a victorious sweep against the Moors, Alfonso XI "liberated" it along with the neighbouring settlements of Teba, Ardales, Cañete, Ortejícar and Priego. Though it lay only 23km away, the chief prize of Ronda was to remain in Moorish hands for another 155 years, during which time Christianised villages such as Cuevas del Becerro were in the front line separating the two cultures.

Such, anyway, is the simplistic view left to us by history. The truth must have been far more fluid and infinitely more complex. The interaction and mutual dependence of nominally "Christian" and "Moorish" areas must have been considerable. There is, for example, no record of the "liberated" enclaves requiring massive defensive measures to prevent them falling back into Arab hands. If the accumulation of the territory was not in truth the result of an under-the-table deal between Alfonso and the Moors in Ronda, it is at least clear that the loss of it was not considered a cause worth fighting for.

Alfonso died nine years later of the plague, while laying siege to Gibraltar.

There are no records in the local church older than the 18th Century, but in these, and in the municipal records of 1867, the nucleus of the community is given as the finca del Mayorazgo, a former Moorish homestead which was owned by the marchioness of Cuevas del Becerro y Benamejí. The seat of this formidable lady's estates lay across the border in the province of Córdoba.

Evidence of the village's illustrious past are few, but not difficult to find. Standing atop the 905 metre mountain of Vijan is the prominent ruin of a defensive tower erected by the Christians. This is actually within the neighbouring municipal district of Cañete la Réal, but was nevertheless an integral part of the defences of Cuevas del Becerro. Vestiges of the walls of the castle which once guarded the entrance to the village are also visible to those who wish to climb the 800 metres needed to reach them, though the real reward will be the views across the valley to the fortifications of Torre de Vijan and the torrecillas of Teba and Ortejícar.

Though hardly a prominent destination for tourists, the village is beginning to attract the more adventurous for whom the beaten track is increasingly well worn and predictable. Here they can peel away a thin sliver of the years and look beneath to a past that is hidden, but only just.