Setenil de las Bodegas: famous cave dwellings

Setenil de las Bodegas is a white town (pueblo blanco) in the province of Cádiz, Spain, famous for its dwellings built into rock overhangs above the Río Trejo.

Practical information

Named after its once flourishing wineries – bodegas – Setenil is probably unique among the pueblos blancos, white villages, of Andalucia. Where most pueblos blancos were built on protective bluffs and pinnacles, this town grew out of a network of caves. It is famous for its dwellings built into rock overhangs above the Río Trejo, north-west of Ronda. These interesting cave-dwellings nowadays attract many tourists.

This small town is located 157 kilometres (98 miles) northeast of Cádiz. It has a distinctive setting along a narrow river gorge. The town extends along the course of the Rio Trejo with some houses being built into the rock walls of the gorge itself, created by enlarging natural caves or overhangs and adding an external wall.

SETENIL DE LAS BODEGAS cave dwellings

Setenil cave dwellings serve as restaurants and shops.

The town of Setenil de las Bodegas it is located beneath a giant rock. The natural caves of Setenil turned out to be ideal living quarters because rather than needing to build entire houses to keep out the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter, all they needed to build was a facade. Its blinding white houses seem to emerge from the rocks, and some have rock roofs and even olive groves on their roofs. According to the 2005 census, the city has a population of 3,016 inhabitants.

Setenil houses huddled under a large rock.

Setenil houses huddled under a large rock.

Setenil houses huddled under a large rock.

Setenil has a reputation for its meat products, particularly chorizo sausage and cerdo (pork) from pigs bred in the surrounding hills. As well as meat, it has a reputation for producing fine pasteles (pastries), Setenil’s bars, restaurants and food shops are widely regarded as being the best in the region. Its outlying farms also provide Ronda and other local towns with much of their fruit and vegetables.

There has been a human settlement here since at least the Arabic Almohad period in the twelfth century. Given the evidence of other nearby cave-dwelling societies, such as those at the Cueva de la Pileta west of Ronda, where habitation has been tracked back more than 25,000 years, it is possible that Setenil was occupied much earlier. Most evidence of this however has been erased in its continued habitation. It was certainly occupied during the Roman invasion of the region in the first century AD.

Modern Setenil evolved from a fortified Moorish town that occupied a bluff overlooking a sharp bend in the Rio Trejo northwest of Ronda.

The castle dates from at least the Almohad period in the 12th century.

The historical monuments tower over the village

The historical monuments tower over the village

The site was certainly occupied during the Roman invasion of the region in the 1st century AD. Setenil was once believed to be the successor of the Roman town of Laccipo, but it was subsequently proved that Laccipo became the town of Casares in Malaga.

Tradition holds that the town’s Castilian name Setenil came from the Roman Latin phrase septem nihil (‘seven times nothing’). This is said to refer to the Moorish town’s resistance to Christian assault, allegedly being captured only after seven sieges. This took place in the final years of the Christian Reconquest. Besieged unsuccessfully in 1407, Setenil finally fell in 1484 when Christian forces expelled the Moorish occupants. Using gunpowder artillery, the Christians took fifteen days to capture the castle whose ruins dominate the town today.

Due to the strategic importance of Setenil, the victory was celebrated widely in Castile and was the source of several legends in local folklore. Isabella I of Castile is said to have miscarried during the siege with the ermita of San Sebastian being built as a tribute to the dead child, who was named Sebastian. However, there appears to be no historical basis to this story.

The full name of Setenil de las Bodegas dates from the 15th century, when new Christian settlers, in addition to maintaining the Arab olive and almond groves, introduced vineyards. The first two crops still flourish in the district but the once flourishing wineries—bodegas— were wiped out by the phylloxera insect infestation of the 1860s, which effectively destroyed most European vine stocks.

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