We arrive at dusk, while it’s still light enough to see the spectacular view. The street is set on a ledge of rock, high above the town of Baza; from a terrace, we look across the scorched flatlands of the Altiplano de Granada towards the hazy hills of the Sierra de Castril. We open the front door of our holiday cave (you did read that correctly) and step into the hillside. First, a tiny rock-cut salon bright with tiles and glass and mirrored textiles. Beyond, a little dining room, an old-fashioned parlour with a fireplace and a small kitchen. Only one bedroom we think, but when I open a vividly painted door (I thought it was a cupboard) I find two more.
All the rooms have been scooped out of the rock – whitewashed and womb-like with low ceilings, Arabic arches, carved niches, bumpy walls and pick-marked surfaces. A ladder leads up a terrace with views of Cerro de Jabalcon – a mountain of limestone which erupts from the plains to the west of Baza. The weather is sultry (day-time temperatures hover around 35-40 degrees) but here’s the beauty of cave houses: the rock-cut rooms inside remain deliciously cool even in the hottest of summers. During the Altiplano’s chilly winters, they are snug and warm. No wonder so many of the locals still choose to live in them.
In this this area of northern Andalucia, the landscape is riddled with man-made cave houses. They owe their existence to the region’s curious geology – weird eruptions of sandstone, formed from sediments of a prehistoric ocean – and they cover a huge area; from Granada all the way up to Huescar (100 miles or more). They began as the humble homes of 19thcentury peasants but though many lie in ruins, thousands are still in use.
In the Barrio de las Cuevas in Guadix – where crowds of camera-wielding tourists arrive in a Noddy land-train – a troglodyte museum provides some figures: 334 occupied caves in Baza, 1,398 in Guadix, 144 in tiny Gorafe. The list goes on. Holiday caves, snapped up by ‘foreigners’, is a fairly recent trend.
During several trips to the area, I have become a bit of a cave spotter. Driving into remote villages and towns, we find Cappadocia-like hillocks of sandstone, riddled with caves and pocked with windows and doors. Favourites include Gorafe which sits within a spectacular red-rock canyon – reminiscent of Arizona – among Megalithic tombs, a hot-spring spa and the remnants of an ancient castle; and Benamaurel which offers cliff walks and amazing views from abandoned 12thcentury cave dwellings.
On the outskirts of Baza, in a village that doesn’t seem to have a name, we stay in Al Jatib – a cave hotel with a restaurant, hammam and pool. Many modernised caves have house-like front extensions, but this terrace of troglodyte dwellings are just as they would have been a hundred years ago. Hollowed out of a low cliff, the windows are cut into the rock, chimneys poke out of grassy rooftops; the white-painted facades (pictured, below) are dazzlingly bright in the hot sun.
Al Jatib has four hotel rooms, each with a fireplace, a sculpted Flintstone bathroom, and a window in the roof (if you are imagining dark, dank spaces, these are drenched with light) but we stay in a cosy self-catering cave house. Simply furnished in a modern-rustic style, it has a little courtyard garden and, from the restaurant terrace, dreamy views over the whispering grasslands of the Altiplano.
Our Al Jatib studio was rather lacking in basics – no kettle, no decent cooking utensils – but most modern cave houses are far from primitive. And I love the cool air, the silence, the rough-hewn walls and the sense of being inside the landscape. I’ve never slept better.
More cave stays…
Cuevas el Guindas, Baza
Close to Al Jatib, on the outskirts of Baza, this trio of charming self-catering caves are the work of ebullient owner Pepe and his wife Tina, and offer neat kitchens, quirky, rocky bathrooms (with cerulean blue mosaics and a hint of Gaudi) and a garden and pool terrace shaded by tall trees. Breakfast, free bike hire and off-road desert safaris are among the optional extras. Two-person cave house from €60 [£48] or six-person from €90 [£73] – at least for the time being. El Guindas is for sale – see eye news – three caves and a a cottage at a knock-down price of €360. I’d buy it myself if I had the money.
Cuevas Abuelo Jose, Guadix
In Bejarin, a small village a few miles north of Guadix, this family-run community of nine one- or two-bedroom cave houses are arranged in a terrace overlooking a swimming pool, gardens and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. There is a hammam with Arabic baths and a mini spa. From €70 [£57] per night. cuevasabuelojose.com
Cuevas Algarves de Gorafe
The tiny village of Gorafe, four Hobbity caves, or ‘bioclimatic houses’, sleep 2, 4 or 12 people, in hole-in-the-rock rooms with wood-burning stoves, skylights and south-facing terraces overlooking the village. Desert footpaths along the canyon begin from the rooftops. One-bedroom cave from €50 [£40.75] per night. cuevasalgarvesdegorafe.com).
Cuevas De Bardenas, Valtierra
These up-scale cave houses are unusually north – roughly half way between Madrid and Bilboa, close to the spectacular desert of Bardenas Reales of Navarre. At the ‘troglodyte holiday destination’ there are nine rocky homes to choose from – including colourful, accessible La Perdiz and El Mochuelo (pictured) which sleeps up to 7 (at a tight squeeze) in two bedrooms. Good for families as it’s close to Senda Viva Park (zoo, thrill rides, zip line etc), Spain’s largest leisure park). From €480 for 3 nights. lasbardenas.com/es/
• This post is an edited version of an article published in the Guardian Travel pages in August 2014.