The old town of Salobrena spirals around a large hill which sits between the slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the sea. At its peak is a war-torn, weather-worn Moorish castle and several viewpoints offering vistas along the coastline. Below lies a flat floodplain dotted with squares of smallholdings defined by bamboo windbreaks and growing various beans. Among these is a grassy car park cluttered with motorhomes from across the European Union, including my Trixie. This land was once covered with sugar cane fields and in the neighbouring village of La Caleta stands Azucar Guadalfeo. Built in 1860 by Don Joaquin Agrela, it was the last working sugar factory in Europe, having stopped processing sugar cane back in 2006. All that is left now is tall red brick chimney and the shell of the processing building, crumbling walls and broken windows. Some of the machinery from the factory has been recycled as artwork for the middle of Salobrena’s roundabouts.
Sugar cane originates from the Far East gradually being transported through Asia, Africa and then into Andalusia by the Moors in the 10th Century. The Mediterranean coastline around Motril provided the perfect climate for the sugar cane to grow and soon it became the main crop on the plains. Up to 500 people were employed in the fields and up to 300 in the processing mills which were built to extract the sugar. This ‘sweet gold’ was then shipped around the world from the port. Over the centuries, demand increased and more mills were built, but they could consume more than 3000 cartloads of wood each season and by 1540 the pine and oak forests of the region had disappeared.
This deforestation resulted in a lack of fuel for the mills and caused flooding of the plains, destroying the sugar cane crop. From 1495 to 1621 significant pirate raids also took place along this now prosperous coastline. By the end of the 17th century, only 3 sugar mills remained in operation. Competition from America, which produced beet sugar, excessive local taxes and climate change all assisted in the decline. The 19th Century industrial revolution led to a resurgence of the sugar factories which could use steam power to work the rollers and presses. However, the revival was to be short lived and now the chimney stacks dotted around the city of Motril are smokeless and the factories recycled into radio stations or museums.
Salobrena now makes its money from tourism and the beach front is lined with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, though few of them are actually open in December. I decide to stop at one next to a rocky outcrop called El Penon, which juts out into the sea from the grey gravel beach. The waters are calm in this sheltered bay and instead of crashing waves, I can hear the breeze rustling the fronds of the palms and the seagulls searching for their supper. I have a glass of chilled white wine and a bottle of ice-cold Sierra Nevada mineral water from the village of Lajaron, which I passed through from Granada. I can feel the sun on my face and it feels good. It’s a lot warmer here on the south coast than the freezing interior of Spain and Salobrena boasts 320 days of sun. So, for me, the sun is the new ‘sweet gold’ of Salobrena.