What a World

The Spanish Fraggle Rock: Setenil de las Bodegas Is an Andalucian Town Built Under a Rock

Living in a cave sounds like a big adventure. But in Setenil de las Bodegas, it's been everyday life for centuries.

Mel Stuart/Corbis,Mel Stuart

Saying someone lives under a rock isn’t exactly a compliment. But for the 3,000 residents of Setenil de las Bodegas, it’s a simple fact of life. The Spanish town, one of Andalucia’s “Pueblos Blancos,” is built on a cliff with a rocky overhang. City streets are dotted with buildings that use the looming rock as roofs to cover their white-washed facades, and sometimes the entire road is covered by the rock’s shadow. This location has served the city well for centuries as protection from the sun and invaders.

The town owes its unusual geography to the Rio Trejo, which eroded the gorge that the town is built in. The town’s history can be traced back to neolithic times, with some evidence of pre-Roman inhabitants and visible remnants of Roman dwellers sprinkled around the region. Setenil de las Bodegas’s steep, rocky location provided protection that proved advantageous during the 15th century, when Christian forces battling the Moors unsuccessfully attempted to defeat the town six times, until overtaking its castle on the seventh—nearly 80 years after the first attack. The castle finally fell in 1484 after a 15-day siege and more than 700 years of Moorish rule.

The town’s name, “Setenil,” derives from a Latin word meaning “seven times nothing,” in commemoration of the epic holdout. The second half of the name, “de las Bodegas,” is thought to refer to the vineyards introduced by new Christian settlers after the town’s defeat. The wine storage units, or bodegas, were perfect for the cool caves. Unfortunately, the grape industry in the region was later wiped out in the mid 1800’s by pests.

The well-preserved medieval Moorish fortress still looms atop the gorge on which Setenil de las Bodegas was built, along with a church, old town hall, and two hermitages. As the hill slopes down, the cave-covered structures cling to the winding roads. The town, on the well-trodden route of the White Villages of Andalucia, is shady and cool, with rock insulating the covered houses and businesses. Home and business owners take advantage of the relative ease of building, digging into pre-made caves to make more room or simply inserting a front facade onto the ready-made, natural rock ceiling and walls.

A looming rock face isn’t the only thing that draws visitors to Setenil de las Bodegas. The Spanish countryside, full of stone ruins and curving green hills, is a perfect hiking spot. Just 30 minutes by car is the jaw-dropping ancient city of Ronda with its well-preserved old town and famous bullring where Ernest Hemingway is thought to have set his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And, of course, there are local Andalucian delicacies to be had in and around Setenil de las Bodegas. The rock-clad town is now famous for meat products like chorizo, along with olive oil, almonds, and jams.

There’s just one thing the quaint town doesn’t have as much of as its fellow Pueblos Blancos—terra cotta roofs.