by Daniel Mac Auley
Danger, not beaches, drew 19th century tourists to southern Spain. Andalucia was one of the notorious bandit areas of Europe, where encounters with latter-day Robin Hoods added drama to the romantic landscape. The remote mountainsides around La Alpujarra, Serrania de Ronda and Sierra Morena provided shelter for these desperados.
The best route to the region was over the Pass of the Despenaperros, crossing the only gap in the Sierra Morena's 500 kilometre wall. It divided La Mancha's dull plains from the rolling, fertile valleys of Andalucia beyond. But first, explorers had to negotiate gorges and cliffs - where physical threats were the least of their concerns. From here, in 1828, 'El Tempranillo' (the Early Bird), Spain's most famous bandit declared: ''The King rules in Spain, but I rule in the Sierra." Although more a robber than a ruler, history paints him as a noble figure.
At 13 years of age, he killed a man while defending his family's honour, joining outlaws to escape punishment. With a price on their heads, they holed up in a cave above the Despenaperros road, swooping upon travellers and making them pay for their passage. As they targeted mail and gold wagons travelling between Madrid and the coast, El Tempranillo earned respect for his politeness towards his victims and his generosity to the poor. As his popularity grew, King Ferdinand VII dutifully granted him a pardon and a state job. Not all bandit tales ended so happily. Murders and violent robberies were commonplace in Andalucia's highland areas, which became no-go areas for merchants and nobility. Marginalised by hardship and a feudal system that kept them hungry and helpless, the local peasants glorified the rebels who opposed greedy landowners and often shared spoils among the needy.
Writer Gerald Brenan compared the situation to that of Fenian Ireland: ''The bandit . . . for centuries had acted as a safety valve for popular dissent. In the eyes of the country people he was a hero, the friend of the poor and its champion against its oppressors." Attempting to restore law and order, authorities created the Guardia Civil, which proved effective as a police force. From their fortified barracks, patrols travelled out to engage the highwaymen.
The last Andalucian bandit, Pasos Largos (or Long Steps), terrorised the region until he was shot dead by agents in 1932. Largos was born in Ronda, which straddles the Tajo canyon. Despite its spectacular bridges and ornate Muslim centre, it's easy to imagine crooks trawling the same bars Pasos Largos frequented all those years ago. That's because they still do. Today's bandits are not friends of the poor, or the environment. They are property developers, hell bent on ravaging the beauty of a city supposedly protected by Unesco. Having concreted the coast, they're transporting ecological destruction inland. The outskirts of Ronda resemble a theme park, with gated communities nuzzling against golf courses despite dwindling water reserves.
In a country with more than three million unsold and uninhabited homes, why build several hundred thousand more in Andalucia? As the snowline recedes and the ski-season shortens with the rising temperatures of the Sierra Nevada, why the need for a cable-car from Granada that can ferry another 3,000 people every hour to slither down disappearing ice? Because the speculators will have made their money before realisation dawns. At a top level, there is no political will to stop development; corruption is a word that litters newspaper headlines. But Spaniards do care, and some backlash must come. Whether in the ballot box or in the courts, like upon those lonely mountain passes of old, I feel some reckoning is at hand.
As I concluded my tour of Ronda's Bandit Museum, I couldn't help imagining it in a hundred years' time. What illegitimate mayors and ministers would adorn these walls? We live in what Eduardo Galeano calls a looking glass world, which ''teaches us to suffer reality, not change it; to forget the past, not learn from it; to accept the future, not invent it. In its halls of criminal learning, impotence, amnesia and resignation are required courses."
Previously published in Ireland's Sunday Business Post.