Málaga Province - Teba

The charming white village of Teba. © Michelle Chaplow
The charming white village of Teba.

High on a rocky saddle in the mountains east of Ronda, some 15km north of Ardales, the small (pop: 4,000) town of Teba has one of the most extraordinary historical connections of any of Andalucía's pueblos.

Like many of its neighbours - although Teba doesn't have that many neighbours in this wild, semi-agricultural mountain region - Teba has a history stretching back to Roman and Neolithic times. Its true to claim to fame, however, is in the events of 25 August 1330. In the thick of the Reconquest, that year Teba was under siege by the armies of King Alfonso XI of Castilla, determined to take this important strategic site from the occupying Moors.

That day in 1330, Alfonso's forces received unexpected police backup from the army being led to the Crusades by Sir James Douglas, or Black Douglas, a fearsome warrior whose name was invoked against misbehaving children for centuries afterwards. Douglas had helped Robert the Bruce defeat Edward II and the English at Bannockburn in 1314. When Robert the Bruce died in 1329, his heart was cut out and placed in a small silver casket, said to be one of the king's favourites, and was taken by Douglas on his Crusade, ostensibly to give cheer to the soldiers.

En route through Spain, Douglas encountered Alfonso's army, and presented himself and a letter of introduction from then King Edward III. The bloodthirsty Crusader eagerly threw his forces behind those of Alfonso's, and in an attempt to inspire his men into even greater bravery hurled the locket containing Robert the Bruce's heart into the fray, plunging in after it.

The locket was retrieved but, alas, Black Douglas wasn't. The locket was returned to Melrose Abbey, where the new king, David II, son of Robert, wanted it buried. During archaeological investigations in 1996, a small container was found in the alleged site of the burial. It was found to contain a small conical casket about ten inches high by four in diameter at its base, tapering to a flat lid at the top about one and a half inches across. Although worn with age the casket was still in good condition and bore a legible inscription: 'The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty's Office of Works.' The casket containing the heart was not re-opened on this occasion, but buried again during a private ceremony at Melrose Abbey on 22 June 1998.

This was by no means Teba's only unlikely collision with Scottish history. The Moors repelled Alfonso and the unfortunate Black Douglas that year. A later passing Scottish Crusader army, led by the Earl of Selkirk, also engaged Teba's Moorish rulers, leaving behind a one-ton slab of Dumfriesshire marble, which is nowadays a commemorative plaque in the town's central Plaza de España, renamed Plaza de Douglas in the Crusader's honour. Alfonso's force s finally took the town in 1389.

Teba's earlier history is less dramatic. There is evidence of Neolithic settlements here and nearby in the Pilarejoarea and in the Palomas caves. The Romans considered it an important settlement, building the first defensive settlement at the hilltop site they called Attegua but now known as Teba la Vieja (Old Teba). It is said to have been the site of a famous battle between Julius Caesar and Pompey. In the 8th century invading Moors reinforced the Roman site with a walled interior precinct, or bailey, but shortly after the Moorish invasion the settlement was moved below the abandoned castle, and the settlement renamed Ostipo.

In its remote situation, Teba 'sat out' much of post-Reconquest history, perched above vast, dramatic sweeps of largely uninhabited farmland owned by the so-called latifundistas, basically, absentee landlords. Its wealth can be seen in the many mansions and handsome town houses lining its streets.

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As well as its castle, it also boasts the impressive 18th century parish church of Santa Cruz, with three naves and towering columns of red marble quarried from the El Torcal region, and intricate gold and silver artefacts in the sacristy. Near the main alter there is also a rare gold plated cross, dating from the 16th century, donated by Ferdinand and Isabel, and said to be only one of two of its kind in Spain. With time, also seek out the nearby 15th century convent of San Francisco.

Teba has some of the most remarkable vistas in the entire region. Sitting above the Guadalteba river, with views down over the Guadalteba-Guadalhorce dam below, Teba has views in almost every direction. The rich olive and cereal plantations of the surrounding Sierra Penarrubia undulate to the horizon. Nearby, just 3km away, the Garganta ('throat') de Teba is a gorge cut through the mountains by the Rio la Venta river. The gorge, known as the Tajo del Molino, is a prime site for butterfly and bird enthusiasts, and its remote setting makes it perfect for spotting eagles and other raptors.

Teba has three major annual festivals. On 15 May, a pilgrimage in honour of local saint Isidore Labrador leaves the town in the morning and winds down to the shores of the Guadalteba-Guadalhorce dam. The summer feria is short, usually only from 10-12 August. The biggest one-day event, however, is 7 October, the day in celebration of the town's patron saint, the Virgin of the Rosary.