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Málaga province boasts many sweet pueblos that retain a traditional feel despite being close to the over-built coastline. the Guadalhorce reservoirs and distant craggy hills topped by other white hamlets. On a pocket-sized square in front of the church, a few kids play fútbol. At a fountain, a man waits as his mule drinks deeply. As they tromp off home, the man invites us along to see his warren-like home. He leads the mule in through the front door, down a dark hallway to a cave-like stable, where lunch and a siesta await the animal, too. Further along the backstreets, there are blooming almond trees, and backyard farms with horses, goats, chickens and pigs ­ some of whom will not survive the Fiesta de la Matanza (Slaughter Festival) in February. With its festivals, markets and small museums, Ardales has attracted visitors for centuries. They have also come to see the huge Ardales Cave with its labyrinths, stalactites and stalagmites and paintings from 20,000 years ago. The highlight is the Ardales Deer, with a large red spot marking its heart. After several weeks of exploring towns across central Andalucía, Ardales seems to be the heart: the perfect balance of warm, timeless village life, elegant architecture, nature and history ­ without the pushy, polished tourist offerings of the better-known pueblos blancos. THE MOOR'S LAST SIGH Andalucía's triangle of white towns stretches from the Sierra de Algodonales mountains to the Atlantic's Costa de la Luz and the Costa del Sol. While Málaga province is best known for the latter strip of beach resorts, it does boast many sweet pueblos that retain a traditional feel despite being close to the over-built coastline ­ sometimes within half an hour's drive. From the top of each sugarcube-like village, you can usually see at least one more, sometimes several, most of them topped with Arabic castles in varying states of decay. This region was Muslim for almost eight centuries, longer than it has been part of Spain. Now the long-hidden Arabic world of al-Andalus is being rediscovered amid immigration 50 BLUE WINGS OCTOBER 2008 and increasing interest in Islam. New mosques are springing up in towns that have not had them for centuries. For almost 300 years, towns with names ending in "de la Frontera" lay along the border between Christian and Muslim empires. The Moors were finally pushed southward in the late 15th century. The latest invaders are European retirees and expatriates, led by the Britons, who are moving further inland in search of affordable properties, setting up pubs and crèches as they go. A few years ago, Álora was the hot spot, more recently Antequera and sleepy Ardales, where new developments could bring thousands of new homes, a hotel, golf course and climbing centre. The decade-long real estate boom has peaked within the past year ­ and not a moment too soon, say those who fear the genuine old Andalucía was being trampled by speculators and developers. The pueblos closest to the Costa have naturally been most affected by mass tourism. Mijas is the nearest and the most calculating, a classic tourist trap, its tidy streets lined with souvenir shops and indistinguishable ­ and undistinguished ­ restaurants offering identical tourist menus. Mijas does have great views of the Mediterranean from a park where cats, chickens and peacocks strut around so professionally one wonders if they are on the tourist office payroll. Just behind the gardens is a bullring with separate booths selling tickets for seats in sol (the sunny seats) or the pricier sombre seating in the shade. RONDA IS GORGES The bullring is also a main attraction of Ronda, inland from Marbella. Best known of Málaga province's white towns, Ronda is not a place for the faint of heart ­ especially those who dislike heights or blood sports. In the ninth century BC, the Celts established the town at this spectacular location, 700 metres straight up from the rolling bottomlands below. Parts of the towns are connected by three bridges, with the "new one" completed in 1793 after almost half a century of work. Around the same time, the bullfighting arena was established here as an addition to the Royal Equestrian Academy, which was founded two centuries earlier. One of Spain's oldest, the arena was immortalised in Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. He praised Ronda as "the ideal spot to watch a bullfight for the first time" and "the perfect place to visit with a girlfriend or to spend a honeymoon." Another passionate fan of Ronda's bullfighting scene was Orson Welles, whose ashes are buried nearby.

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