Málaga Province - Istan

Local old men in the Istan village square. © Michelle Chaplow
Local old men in the Istan village square.

Istán is one of a number of villages of Moorish origin which owes its survival to its distance from the coast. After the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 15th Century, Arabs were barred from living within a league of the shoreline in order to prevent them from communicating with their kinsmen across the straits in Morocco. Istán, 15 kilometres inland, was allowed to remain while the coastal Arab settlements were depopulated and frequently destroyed.

That is not to say that the mountain villages were unmolested and left in peace. The post-reconquest years were turbulent ones which frequently erupted into violence which resulted in harsh and unforgiving repression for the remaining Moors. Istán was lucky. Two associated villages - Arboto and Daidin - were erased from the landscape so effectively that their precise locations are no longer known. Even so, the Arab population dwindled, and was largely replaced by Christian settlers from Castile and Murcia. So many came from the Murcian village of El Cristo de Panocho, that the people of Istán acquired a nickname - panochos - which has survived to this day.

The village is tucked away beneath the Sierra Blanca at the head of the valley of the rio Verde, close to the Serrania de Ronda hunting reserve. To reach it, leave the N-340 coastal highway on the A-7176, 5 kilometres south of Marbella just beyond the Hotel Puente Romano.

As with so many mountain villages, creations of a time and place in which the only practical means of transport was the mule and the packhorse, Istán's streets are narrow and unsuited to the motor car. The only sensible way to experience it is on foot.

There are four à la carte restaurants in Istán, Troyano, El Baron, Rincon de Curro, Entresierras and the new Las Harales in the Rural Hotel at the entrance of the village. There are also bars that serve an excellent selection of tapas. It does boast one hotel, though it had to wait until 1998 to acquire it. Whether that heralds an influx of foreign visitors who may become the nucleus of a large expatriate community remains to be seen, but for the time being Istán remains closer to its roots than many of its cousins.

The village aptly echoes night and day to the sound of water running constantly from its drinking fountains. Aptly, because it stands close to the huge reservoir created by the Presa de la Concepción dam, which was built in 1972 and provides drinking water to towns all along the coast. The water feeding Istán's fountains, however, is the pure, unprocessed mountain variety which was much prized long before the coming of the dam. Just outside the village, where it cascades freely from the rocks, motorists often stop to fill their jugs and cans.

Very little remains of Moorish Istán, merely the crumbling remains of a tower hidden in a side street, but at least there is some, and the village still has the timeless air that outsiders find so appealing.

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