The cave dwellings in the regions of Guadix, El Marquesado and El Altiplano are the province’s most original type of accommodation. Today there are more than 60 official cave hotels used as tourist accommodation in Granada’s Sacromonte district alone.
All of them comply with a high standard of service and environmental regulations too. This type of accommodation has enabled these interesting architectural structures to be restored and preserved.
These houses are dug out from the sandy rock and are a great example of the way in which man can live in perfect harmony with nature.
The accommodation in caves is typical of the Guadix and the Marquesado regions of Baza, Huescar and Granada’s Sacromonte neighbourhood. All of them comply with a high standard of service and environmental regulations too. You will feel completely at home here, because all of them have the comforts that more usual tourist accommodation offers.
Each one of the caves is unique. They give you the chance to understand how the popular local architecture is adapted to the characteristics its surroundings. The hard, parched soil is compact and waterproof, making it cool in summer and warm in winter.
If you choose to stay in a cave dwelling you are also helping the restoration and conservation of a unique architectural structure and a singular European tradition.
Excavated from the slopes of steep hills and gorges, the caves and cave dwellings do not follow a pre-established layout. Their design is determined simply by the topographical characteristics of their location and their position in relation to the sun. There are no streets as such, and the only urban delimitations are gullies and rivers or streams. More modern constructions, with adjoining façades and outbuildings, can be found next to older traditional ones. All the caves have slender whitewashed chimneys, ‘placetas’ (small open spaces or courtyards around which the caves are built), and porches. However, the only way to see what they are really like is to actually go inside and explore for yourself.
Underground architecture is the result of man’s search for a type of home well adapted to the surrounding natural environment. For this reason the characteristics of the terrain where these cave dwellings were built were essential. Sometimes it was possible to take advantage of the natural formation of the rocks, whilst at other times it was necessary to dig out the houses.
In Guadix, El Marquesado and El Altiplano caves are located in arid or semi-arid areas, near to rivers. They are never built in areas that are liable to flooding. Rather than occupying fertile land, they are usually situated on slopes, on the edge of gorges or on small hills. The best type of terrain for excavation is soft earth, which can be easily dug. However, the earth also has to be compact and impermeable to avoid water leakages and dampness. The most commonly used areas are where the soil contains clay, marl, conglomerate, soft sandstone, limestone, sand, tuffs, and loess.
For the construction of a cave the help of an expert “pick master” is needed. First a vertical cut is made into the rock forming the façade, leaving a horizontal flat area in the front. Depending on the topography of the terrain, it was sometimes necessary to make two other vertical cuts at the ends serving as buttresses.
In the middle of the façade an arch shaped doorway would be created. The doorway would be 1 – 1.5m thick depending on the load it head to bear. From there, the first square room would be carved out, which would be 2.5-3m² with a barrel vaulted ceiling. Next, the other the rooms would be dug out in the form of a gallery. The number and size of the rooms, and their internal layout would depend on both the size of the hill and the economic resources and needs of the owner.
The topographic features (bends, shapes, and slopes) of the terrain where the home would be built, was also a very important factor.
Perhaps the most common type of location for these kinds of houses, particularly in Hoya de Guadix, are the steep slopes where caves could be excavated in rows and arranged on superimposed levels. Access to the caves is via narrow, winding paths that skirted around the slopes.
If the caves were dug out in hilly areas, tunnels were dug out from one side to the other for light and ventilation purposes. The constructions tended to either be next to each other or grouped around a common space – a plaza or small square (placeta). In Andalusia, the latter are only found in a few cave villages, such as those of Benalúa, Gor, Purullena, Baza, Benamaurel and Huéscar, in the province of Granada. In Baza there is a third type, built in deep ditches, which have fallen into disuse due to the risk of flooding.
The evolution of the external elements of caves has been adapted to modern needs. This gradually led to the transformation of the original constructions into cave houses with outbuildings and extensions that were either attached to the façades or built in the spaces in front of the home.
The most commonly used layout involved the construction of various rooms, which were joined by small openings acting as transverse arches, and arranged in galleries excavated into the rock or parallel with the façade. Gradually the designs became more complex, the main innovations being the addition of other sections to the façade, either joined on or separate from it, and the development of enclosed spaces such as the placeta that served as an entrance. These changes permitted the separation of the rooms, which were used to keep animals from those used as living quarters and allowed any moisture to evaporate outside.
The original layout was gradually transformed to become a more self-sufficient construction in which the cave was preserved as a symbolic centre of the original dwelling.
The façade and chimneys are the external elements, which have the greatest visual impact of these traditional designs. The façade has hardly any openings in order to maintain the excellent temperature conditions inside. The only openings which are the main entrance to the cave and the entrance to the animal den, although sometimes a small window is cut to provide ventilation.
The main entrance usually has a door with two horizontal sections enabling the upper part to be opened as if it were a window. The simplest type of façade is created by whitewashing the rock-face. The most common type uses bricks, concrete or stone to protect the surface from erosion. The porches are often covered with plants or concrete, finished with roof tiles, and are used to adjoin the living accommodation to the cave. This results in a great variety of façades.
The design of the chimneys, which are dug out from the inside, varies considerably from one house to the next. In the town of Guadix, El Marquesado or El Altiplano it is possible to find conical chimneys and others in the shape of prisms or cylinders. They can be made of mortar, brick, or stone, and whitewashed or finished with brick or stone to avoid water coming in.
Inside there are skylights that are positioned at the end of the long narrow passages in order to let as much light in as possible. These can be made in different shapes or forms, ranging from balconies to large open courtyards that let the light in from outside. When the terrain permits, the cave could be excavated through the whole hill so as to create a second entrance, which made the house lighter and created and a through-flow of air.
Whitewashing walls and ceilings is an ingenious way of taking full advantage of the natural light. The atmosphere inside is dry and the temperature, around 18ºC, remains constant all year round.
The layout of the rooms in many of the caves reflects the rural way of life of the locals. On entering, the first room is a living room or kitchen, with a fireplace, which plays an essential role in ventilating the dwelling.
The inner rooms were used as bedrooms, which were separated either with curtains, doors or glass panes. Entering into this more intimate part of the caves, one discovers numerous wardrobes, larders, and food storage areas, which were either excavated or made out of clay.
The most significant modifications to the original home occurred when animals were moved to derelict caves located near to the dwellings. Consequently there was more space that could be used as living accommodation and the problem of bad smells was solved.
Likewise, following the construction of public water supplies, the small washing facilities and toilets, situated in the placetas, were moved to outbuildings.
The widespread trend for increasing the size of cave dwellings by adding more storeys and passages, together with the modernisation of its basic conveniences and facilities, has not in any way diminished the character of what can be considered one of the oldest types of living space.
Guadix has a cave dwelling that has been converted into a museum. It is located in the famous Santiago quarter, in the outskirts of the town. This typical cave, containing a wide collection tools, objects used for religious festivals, agriculture and cattle farming, give us an insight into traditional way of life.
This Cueva Museo (Cave Museum) is divided into various sections: a hall, an audio-visual room, a library, local traditions and handcrafts room, a bedroom, a storage area, a kitchen, animal stalls, a pigsty, a room for farming implements, a larder and a well. The objects on display are examples of this traditional, local way of life.
Troglodyte shelters, which refers to human dwellings built in caves, are highly developed in both of these areas, as seen from the numerous archaeological remains found here.
In addition to the archaeological site La Balunca in Castilléjar, you can visit the Cuevas de la Tía Micaela y Sin Salida (both in Cortes y Graena), the Cueva Horá, the Abrigo de Luis Martínez and the Cuevas de Panoría (all in the town of Darro). There are also numerous natural shelters occupied by Palaeolithic hunters who left a number of paintings and traces of rock art on their walls. East of Píñar the Cueva de la Carigüela and the Cueva de las Ventanas are located, inhabited since the Middle Palaeolithic era. This cave is perfectly equipped for tourist use.
The fertile surrounding area and its enormous mineral wealth were factors that encouraged people to settle here thousands of years ago. They arrived from the Mediterranean and took advantage of the optimal soil conditions (consisting of soft, compact and waterproof materials) to dig out new caves. The Romans chose to create their ‘villae’, but situated them placed near to the existing caves, underlining their great location. The Goths did the same as the Romans.
For thousands of years caves were the form of dwelling most widely used by human beings.
The safety and protection that caves and natural shelters offered prehistoric peoples would be sought out by later cultures. This is true of the Muslim settlers, who excavated most of the caves and cave dwellings which are to be found in the province of Granada today. These types of underground constructions, which accurately reflect the historical, social, and economic changes of their surroundings, blend in with the landscape and topography, lending the areas in which they are concentrated (Guadix and El Marquesado and El Altiplano) an evocative beauty.
Cave dwellings form part of a valuable heritage that has become a sign of identity but also an important tourist resource.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, with the arrival of the Almohads in Granada, the Mozarabes sought refuge in the caves where they continued their religious worship. The Hafas de Arriba de Benamaurel, which are a series of caves with pigeon lofts located in a vertical cut in the terrain split into two different parts, date back to this period. The entrances are on the higher level and access is via a footpath.
The caves dating from the medieval period – which in Guadix are known as Covarrones or Cuevas de Moros (Moors’ Caves), had a defensive character and were set out in small clusters. They can be grouped into different types according to their functions: permanent dwellings (these are the most similar to modern cave villages such as Cortes y Graena, Marchal, Lopera and Benalúa), which were constantly occupied and reoccupied until the Reconquista; watchtowers, which are difficult to spot as they are often mistaken for natural crevices; cave-shelters, which, due to their size and well-developed defensive systems were almost like castles; and cliff top granaries, whose entrance would double up as the window, and could only be reached by ropes or ladders.
These types of homes gained a more urban feel by the end of the 16th century when the Moors expelled after the revolt led by Abén Humeya, returned to their hometowns. Unable to reclaim their old properties, they occupied the existing caves or excavated new ones. From the 17th century onwards the Christian settlers from other Spanish regions arrived to repopulate the area, also used the caves as a places to live.
This is the origin of the many caves and cave dwellings, which evolved from the areas in Baza, in El Pozo in Freila, in Abatel (a name that comes from the Arabic word meaning ‘place of punishment’ because until 1502 it was the site of the High Constable of Navarre’s execution scaffold), in Capallón in Zújar, in Carramaiza, and in the La Cruz and La Morería districts in Castilléjar. There are also some to be found in the town of Galera and in the hills that surround Guadix.
With this new population this ancient type of underground architecture evolved in terms of design. Some of their most traditional aspects were transformed with a view to making them more comfortable and practical. In the 20th century the caves were given the facilities and services that had been installed in more traditional forms of housing years before.
This process of modernisation played a major role in promoting the use of this unique kind of home. Today it is a valuable tourist resource, used for museums, restaurants and tourist accommodation.
Following the Reconquista, the cave dwellings in this idyllic area outside the city walls, provided shelter to the ethnic minorities and social groups who were beyond the control of the administrative and religious authorities, such as the Jews and the Moors. It was largely inhabited by gypsies who came to Granada with the Christian soldiers, for whom they worked as blacksmiths. It is not surprising that the quarter was always inhabited by craftsmen and flamenco artists, the creators of the ancient zambra, an art form still performed at the flamenco shows staged in caves such as Los Tarantos, María La Canastera, Cueva La Rocío, and Venta el Gallo.
There is also another version of the area’s history, closely linked to legend, without which Sacromonte would lose much of its magic. After the fall of the Nasrid kingdom many noblemen were exiled to Africa. Fearing that their fortunes might be stolen, they hid valuable treasures in the Monte de Valparaíso. When their black slaves, who knew where these riches had been hidden, were released, they decided to try and find the treasure. They dug and dug into the hillsides but found nothing. Exhausted from their efforts, they sought refuge in the holes they had created, and later made them into their homes.