The first things that hit you as you drive into Arenas are the colourful murals depicting life in the town. There is even a mural route and clearly marked route maps are available at the town hall, which is at the entrance to the town if you’re coming from Vélez-Málaga. The smaller cream and green plaques, of which there are 12, carry quotes from songs which were sung or dances that were danced by the young people of the village, presumably long before the Balcones de Bentomíz discoteca was built (see below). Young people would gather at different locations in the village to sing traditional songs, accompanied by the zambomba, a traditional Malaga instrument, or circle dances (bailes de rueda).
The enormous Balcones de Bentomíz is actually a large events venue and is popular for weddings, which may explain why it’s so well signposted around Arenas. In fact it’s the only thing that is signposted, as Michelle and I discovered when she decided to drive up the narrow, windy roads through the town instead of going along the wider road which appeared to circumnavigate the place. We eventually got out but did make friends (or enemies) with a few surprised locals who were probably rightly thinking “more lost foreigners thinking they know it all” as we asked for directions. Our unplanned route did take us past the town’s olive oil company, Cooperativa Agricola Santa Catalina Mártir, which has been in the town since 1970.
What Arenas is probably most well-known for though, is the Betomíz tower. It’s one of the Axarquía’s examples of Islamic fortresses, similar to the one on Vélez-Málaga and Comares. However, the Bentomíz castle claims to be the biggest in Malaga province. Nowadays it is little more than a ruin, standing on a hill, 711 metres above sea level, just outside Arenas itself.
Out and About in Arenas with The Directory Axarquia magazineMore evidence of the area’s importance during Islamic rule can be found at the Santa Catalina Mártir church, which stands on the site of a mosque. A church has been there since 1505 and it was a mosque between the 12th and 13th centuries. The church was rebuilt after a fire devastated the building during the 1920s and the original Mudéjar design and features were incorporated into the new building. The existing church was built in 1942 and is home to the statues of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth and Our Lady of the Dolores which are processed through the streets of Arenas during Easter week.
The villages of Daimalos and Corumbela also belong to Arenas and the church of Our Lady of the Conception in Daimalos, which dates back to 1700, also incorporates Mudéjar architecture. At the end of the 20th Century a series of 18th Century frescoes were discovered on the walls of the church, which can be seen today. A walking route connects Arenas and Daimalos, along which a series of Islamic fountains can be seen; La Fuente Grande just outside Arenas, La Fuente Pintada, half way along the route and La Fuente del Amor in Daimalos.
While among the population of just under 2,000 people (Arenas, Daimalos and Corumbela) there are a few foreigners, especially living out in the ‘campo’, most people who live there are Spanish and many of the residents rely heavily on agriculture and the traditional Axarquía crops of muscatel grapes, almonds and olives which harvested in the fields around the town for income.
Arenas’s Feria (fair) always takes place over the second week of August, around 10 to 12th and is in honour of Santa Catalina and San Sebastián, but the biggest event in town is undoubtedly the ‘Feria de la Mula’ (mule fair) on 12th October. It’s so important that it has been declared an event of touristic and cultural importance by the Junta de Andalucía and there is a statue of a mule in front of the murals at the entrance to Arenas.
At just 12 kilometres from Vélez-Málaga, Arenas is easy to get to and the short journey is a pretty one. Once there you’ll be hit by the sea of colour from the murals. If you have time, you should try the walking route to Daimalos or up to the Bentomíz tower and Arenas is also the start of the Mudéjar architecture route, which also takes in Corumbela, Árchez, salares, Sedella and Canillas de Aceituno. Pick up some local olive oil and take in the tranquillity of this agricultural town or practice your Spanish by translating the quotes on the murals dotted around the town.
Written by Jennie Rhodes
Photographs taken by Rob Bell Photography