Río de Manilva; Roman Baths; Sierra de Utrera – site location & directions

This site is located in the province of Malaga, although only a few miles from the Cadíz province border, so very slightly ‘out 0f area’, but it is such an interesting place I’m including it here. It is also a definite ‘Nightingale Trail’.

This is a unique site that offers diverse habitats and exploration opportunities in a relatively small area of around 3000m sq. In just a few hours you can take the trail along a peaceful valley that is rich in wildlife and wonder at the strangely beautiful rock formations of the Sierra de Utrera, then wander around the site of an ancient Roman Bath, taking a dip in the mineral-rich waters if the fancy takes you. The valley, river and surrounding hills attract a wide range of birds all year round as well as butterflies and other insects. There are wildflowers and plants too, and photographers will find plenty to interest them throughout the site.

The Romans discovered this peaceful valley with its sulphurous springs some 2000 years ago and built a Bathhouse here in order to enjoy the reputed health benefits that the water bestows; amazingly, this facility has been maintained and is still available today, completely free of charge. You can take a peaceful walk and simply admire the fascinating naturally sculpted limestone formations of the gorge that cuts through the Sierra de Utrera, or if you’re feeling more energetic, tackle the rocky path that climbs upwards and through the pass to the other side.

The río de Manilva passes through the site and is fed by underground springs in the area of the Baths, so although the first and last sections of the river dry up after prolonged dry periods, this middle section flows all year round. The reliable source of fresh water, the vegetation – natural and cultivated – abandoned buildings, surrounding farmland, proximity to the Straits of Gibraltar and the crossing points of migrating birds combine to make this a year-round haven for wildlife, particularly birds and insects.


ACCESS

Travelling on the A-7 (previously N340) from either direction, head for the town of Sabinillas: from the Malaga side you reach a roundabout located just before the before the km145 marker, (where a Lidl supermarket is situated), turn right there, or from the Algeciras side, continue through Sabinillas to the roundabout, which is about 100m past the km 145 and turn left. The road has no number and is simply marked on the road sign for the roundabout as ‘camino’, but many people know it as the road leading to the permanent site of a Sunday market and the Roman Oasis restaurant.

Travelling from inland, from the direction of Casares, Gaucín etc., take the road to Manilva and turn left just before reaching the town, beside a large quarry. There is a sign indicating the Roman Oasis restaurant here; following that and subsequent similar signs will guide you to the site.

Assuming now that you are travelling from the A-7 direction, the road passes between agricultural land to your right and a small industrial/commercial area on the left. After about 700 metres, the road runs parallel to the river, although a screen of very tall reeds often obscures its presence. Continuing on you pass the market site on your left, then around 3 kms from the main road, on the right, you can see the remains of a Roman aqueduct.


Roman Aqueduct

This 100m long stretch of a multi- arched bridge is what remains of an aqueduct that is reputed to be of Roman origin. It does not span the whole valley but was used to drive a large water wheel as part of a mill complex. A white painted house now stands on the foundations of the previous Roman/Moorish mill house. Roman brick can be seen incorporated into the structure. Water to power the mill was almost certainly channelled off by aqueducts at the Roman baths, which kept the water elevated until it reached the mill.

Part of the remains of the aqueduct

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AP-7 bridge that frames the town of Manilva

A further 500m along the road from the aqueduct, you see the Roman Oasis restaurant on your right. Turn onto the track here where it passes beneath a modern-day viaduct carrying the AP-7 road overhead. It is supported on towering concrete columns that frame a view of the town of Manilva.

You will see a recently installed wooden signboard informing you that this is a public green space that is under the auspices of Manilva Town Hall. “Charca la Mina” is a bit tricky for my level of Spanish to translate well-charca generally means pool and mina, mine, so maybe something like ‘The Underground Pool’?

There are no further signs to guide you, but as there is just one main track serving the site, which is not a through road, there’s little chance of getting lost. The track is quite narrow but with a few passing places and is in a reasonable state of repair, although a bit bumpy in places. There are no allocated parking areas, which is not a problem if you are visiting on a weekday, but this is a popular spot with families to spend a day outdoors, especially at weekends and during July and August when the site can get busy and noisy. Birdwatchers or anyone seeking peace and quiet may prefer to visit here during the autumn or  winter months.

Often we have left our vehicle parked opposite the ‘Venta de la Alamo’, which is just inside the site and then continued on foot; there is a rough stony area here at the bottom of an open, rocky slope leading up to a rocky cliff face.  There are sometimes Griffon Vultures to be seen circling overhead here, and Sardinian and Fan-tailed Warblers and Stonechats frequent the scrub around the venta. During the migrant passage periods of March to May and August to October there may be both Northern and Black-eared Wheatears and Whinchats on the rocky slope and cliff face. During the breeding season look out for Woodchat Shrikes and Bee-eaters while regular winter visitors are Black Redstarts, Meadow Pipits and Rock Buntings.

The riverside

The Río de Manilva has its source in the hills near the village of Casares from where it flows for about eight kilometres to the sea on the northern outskirts of Sabinillas. For much of its course through the site its banks are bound by thickets of tall dense reeds, the aptly-named Giant Reed, and other shrubs, which obscure sight of the water but provide habitat for Cetti’s Warblers and Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers at appropriate times of the year. In the spring Nightingales are highly visible as the males sing out their wonderful songs to declare their territories and attract a mate.

Damselfly-Agrion virgo by the river at side of venta

The Sierra de Utrera

Continuing along the main track until it turns sharply to the left and then right, then on your left you will see a signboard marked ‘Ruta No11’, Ruta- El Canuto de la Utrera at the bottom of a track (describing the route in Spanish). This is the beginning of a peaceful and scenic trail along the valley that passes through the Sierra de Utrera that roughly follows the usually dry bed of a stream.

The exposed rock formations are both fascinating and beautiful

The vegetation along the valley mostly comprises cacti, shrubs and small trees; oleander, lentisc, cistus wild olive, gorse & spiny broom predominate; this is fairly dense in parts and provides excellent cover and seasonal food for resident birds,  Sardinian Warbler,  Fan-tailed Warblers, Blackcap, Blackbird, Serin, Wren etc. and for passage migrants such as Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Song Thrush and more. During the breeding season, Woodchat Shrikes and Bee-eaters may be seen and regular winter visitors are Black Redstarts, Meadow Pipits and Rock Buntings.

The track passes close to the exposed rock wall of the valley, which are always fascinating, even if there is nothing much else around to look at.

A well-camouflaged Blue-winged Grasshopper

Grasshoppers, mostly of the Blue-winged species explode from the pathway like miniature firecrackers, sometimes in such numbers that each time you make a step several leap off  simultaneously, scattering in all directions. The blue wings are a clever device to confuse predators who register the colour of the fleeing insect and chase it, but fail to see it on the ground where with its wings closed it is superbly camouflaged.

The limestone rock formations have been sculpted into stunning forms

Blue Rock Thrushes may be heard and perhaps spotted as they sing from high perches on the cliffs. If you are fortunate enough to be there at the right moment, the haunting sounds of their tuneful songs echoing around the gorge will be a memorable experience.

The valley narrows and the track continues upwards along a rocky path; it has been made quite safe and the recommended route  is indicated with painted marks, but it is a bit of a scramble and- according to my other half – hard going for anyone with bad knees, especially the descent.

Griffon Vultures frequent the skies above the site and may be seen flying low over the rocky cliffs of the gorge

To access the rest of the site, including the Roman bath, it is necessary to retrace your steps along the valley, then back at the sign board, turn left onto the main track and pass the tiny church, the Ermita de San Adolfo, towards the Roman Baths.

Roman Bath

Approximately half way along its course, in the area of Hedionda, the river passes the remains of a Roman site, which includes a well-preserved, enclosed Bath and a viaduct. The river is fed by underground springs in the area of the Baths, so although the first and last sections of the river dry up after prolonged dry periods, this middle section flows all year round.

In Spanish the area is known as ‘Los Baños Romanos de La Hedionda’, which translates as ‘the Roman Baths of the Stinking Place’, which at some times of the year is definitely apt. The odour that pervades the area is due to the sulphurous water flowing from underground springs supplying the mineral-rich waters for the baths themselves.

The area was formerly a popular holiday resort with Spanish people who would come to holiday in the peace and tranquility of this secluded, shaded valley and to partake of the water of the baths, which are reputed to have health-giving and curative properties.The buildings and gardens that once provided the accommodation for the resort are still standing, although long-abandoned and decaying; nowadays several species of birds take advantage of the sheltered sites to nest and raise their families in.

The Roman Bath seen from the higher track

The small building housing the baths is located almost at the bottom of the valley and set into the stony slope: if you didn’t know it was there it could easily be overlooked. There is no properly made pathway down to it, so it can be a bit of a scramble down once you leave the track.

The bathhouse is quite well maintained and is freely available all year round to anyone that fancies a dip. The bathwater, which has a natural deep blue-green colour, flows from a sulphur spring arising from a limestone outcrop above the valley. The sulphur-laden water maintains a constant temperature of 18° C and is deep enough to swim around in.

The first, outdoor chamber of the Bath

Four chambers of the original bathing complex still exist, although other adjacent water channels can be seen which suggest the complex was once much larger. A small first outdoors chamber leads via an archway and tunnel to a much larger inner chamber.An open entrance at the front of the building gives light and easier access to the large inner chamber and looking through it, you can see how beautifully built it is. Constructed from a combination of stone and bricks, the walls and roof form a perfect dome, rather like a large brick igloo, and are higher than you may expect. At the base of the walls on three sides there are arches that give access to the other chambers and through which the spring water flows to constantly replenish the baths.

The main inside chamber

Sulphur has long been renowned for its medicinal properties and bathing in sulphur springs to maintain or improve the condition of the skin, or to cure some epidermal complaint is an ancient tradition. (Pure sulphur is odourless, but combined with hydrogen to produce hydrogen sulphide it has the odour of rotten eggs.) Julius Caesar reputedly cured himself of a skin infection by bathing here sometime between 63 and 60 BC.

The curiously milky grey-green water exits the building beneath the floor of the enclosed ‘patio’ area flowing rapidly. It tumbles over a small weir constructed of large marble stones, then a few metres further on it meets up with the river on a bend in its course. Here there is another curiosity; a bank of grey-green mud which people dig out with their hands and smear over their bodies before entering the baths, presumably as an added source of minerals.

The milky blue-green spring water

The river & 'therapeutic mud wall'

Across the river from the baths there are ruins of 18th century farm buildings, which re-used Roman masonry: there is evidence that some kind of service settlement evolved around the complex. To find these follow the river downstream about 75m until you come to an old but recently restored single-arch aqueduct. This was used to help irrigate the fertile valley further down and its course can be traced for much of the way. This irrigation system is certainly Roman in origin but much of the infrastructure was rebuilt during the Moorish period.

The single-arched aquaduct

NOTE: At the time of writing following a recent visit to the site, it is not possible to walk along the riverbank as it is overgrown with tall reeds and other vegetation, but there is a rough pathway further back that allows you glimpse this lovely little bridge.

The area on the baths’ side of the river is a tangle of giant reeds, trees, shrubs & wildflowers. There are some huge eucalyptus trees and an enormous old carob tree; fruit trees, mainly apple, orange, lemon, olive and fig, are what remain of formerly cultivated gardens and native tamarisk, oleander, cistus shrubs, lentisc mastic and cork oaks are reasserting their rightful claims. The mature vegetation, the constant availability of water together with the bountiful supply of fruit and berries on offer attract many species of birds to the area, especially during the autumn months of September to November.

Resident birds you might see around this area include Cetti’s Warblers, Sardinian Warblers, Short-toed Treecreepers, Spotted Woodpeckers, and various finches & tits.

Roman Baths -September -Chiffchaff eating fennel seeds

NOTES & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

For the initial inspiration to visit this site and where and when to see birds, John R. Butler’s guide ‘Birdwatching on Spain’s Southern Coast’ (Santana Books – ISBN 84-89954-20-8 ) was invaluable.

Bear in mind the proximity of this site to the towns of Sabinillas and Manilva and that families love to escape into the countryside to picnic, barbeque etc. Although this is an interesting site all year round, in the warmer months of the late spring and summer, the area is popular with day visitors and can become busy at weekends and during the school holidays. The upgrades made to the site and marking of trails could well make it even busier, as could the re-opening of the venta. If bird watching or peace and quiet are on your agenda, it’s probably better to visit in the early morning or avoid those times when families may be out and about. The autumn and winter months are generally much quieter. 

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