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  • Graham Swan

The History of Nerja

Nerja’s Prehistoric History

While many towns around the world may claim to be extremely old, perhaps dating back hundreds or even thousands of years, few can claim to be originally inhabited by a different species of human!. In Nerja, it was well known that there were prehistorical settlements in the area from evidence found in a local caves network known as Nerja Caves or La Cueva de Nerja. However, this fascinating cave was recently described as the site of an “academic bombshell”, with the discovery of artistic images allegedly created by Neanderthal man at least 42,000 years ago.

So far not everyone is convinced at the validity of the claim. in 2017, a team of scientists led by professor José Luis Sanchidrán from the University of Córdoba,  predated the paintings to about 20,000 years ago. However, the Neanderthal hypothesis has not altogether been ruled out, given the art is in red oxide, a pigment which is more difficult to date. Thus many feel further dating needs to be done, especially given that it is undisputed that the south coast of Spain was the last home for the Neanderthals before extinction about 30,000 years ago. Much of the evidence has come from radio-carbon dating, particularly from traces of carbon on the walls which could well be soot from flame torches. From this, archaeologists have dated human presence in the caves dating from 40,000 to 25,000 years ago, (whether Neanderthal or modern European), when groups of hunter-gatherers would have roamed the area. Other evidence found at the site has provided a window into the lives and development of these people over the ages. Some of the Nerja cave paintings dating from 20,000 to 12,000 years ago, include depictions of the animals they would have hunted, such as horses, deer, goats, seals and birds. There are also representations of human figures believed to have been used in funeral rites. Human remains have also been found in the caves and DNA testing of some of these remains have confirmed that they have African origins. Unfortunately the cave paintings are rarely available to public view. The rest of the enormous caves are however open to visitors, and on such a grand scale that every June there are a series of concerts held in part of them.

Nerja’s Ancient History

The period dating from 1100-200 BC saw a number of influences upon the native people of Andalucia, including Nerja. Trade had become very important to the societies living along the Mediterranean coastline, and Andalucia became a very attractive territory due to its good mineral deposits and fertile land.

The first to really exploit the riches of Andalucia were the Phoenicians who founded new colonies there. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who first emerged as a culture during the third millenium BC. Based in Lebanon and parts of Israel they were a federation of small monarchies drawn together through trade. It is likely that the Phoenicians had settlements in Nerja as they did on much of the coast along southern Spain. Certainly there was a major Phoenician settlement at the Los Toscanos site near Almayate. However, there is more evidence that the Romans had settlements in this area from various finds that have been made, such as Roman coins, amphora, building material and tiles; but in particular of the first century Vía Cástulo-Malaca, a road which linked the provinces of Jáen and Almería; the remains of which can be seen near to the San Joaquín sugar factory near Maro. There is a hypothesis that there was some settlement in the Nerja area too, given the amount of Roman activity to the east and west of Nerja, the fish salting and curing factories at both Torrox Costa and Almuñecar. The Romans came to southern Spain in 218 BC as part of their campaign to subdue the Phoenician settlements along the coast, during their wars against Carthage. An interesting story about Roman Spain, one that exemplifies the Spanish spirit of ‘individualismo’, is the following. Although Rome ruled Spain (‘Hispania’) for over six centuries, it hadn’t been an easy conquest; indeed the Romans described the tough Spanish Celts as having ‘hearts of oak’. In 150 BC, during the blockade of Numantia (Numancia, in the modern day municipality of Garray in Northern Spain), and as an act of defiance against the Roman aggressors, the defenders decided that rather than be captured they would get drunk on beer, however, not content with just that, the Numantians then set fire to the place and unfortunately in the conflagration, perished themselves. 

Nerja under Moorish rule

After the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Spain was invaded, as it had been continuously for the previous 70 years by waves of Germanic tribes. Foremost among them were the Vandals, and it was quite possible that ‘Andalucía’ was actually coined by the Moors as a description of southern Spain being ‘the land of the Vandals’.

Just as it had been a relatively short period that the Byzantines had been in charge, similarly Andalucia had hardly time to become fully ‘vandalised’, before there was another invasion which this time would change the character of Spain for nearly a millennium. The Moors, a Muslim people of Arab or Berber descent from North Africa invaded Spain, near Gibraltar, in 711 and would rule over this part of Andalucia for the next 700 years, and have a considerable influence on it for much longer. In 2006, a Spanish historian called Virgilio Martinez Enamorado, published a paper claiming that one of the most important Moorish rulers for Al-Andalus, Abd-al-Rahman, first landed in Spain on Burriana beach in 755. Sr. Enamorado cites Arab chroniclers from the time who describe Rahman’s landing place as ‘Bitruh Riyan’, which he believes was the name for ‘Burriana beach’. Rahman was the founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba, and founded a dynasty that ruled Al-Andalus as an independent state for nearly three centuries.

However, it is during the 10th century that a village in the Nerja area is definitely first mentioned. The Arabic poet Ibn Sadi, who travelled through the area in 917, described Nerja as a farm and settlement called ‘Naricha, located near the High Castle. Ibn Sadi also talks of Nerja’s natural beauty, the opening lines of the poem being: “Stretched on a carpet of magic colours, while sleep closed my eyes, Narixa, my Narixa, sprang from the flowers to bathe me in all her beauty.”

During this time Nerja was called Narixa, which means ‘abundant spring’ in Arabic, and is believed to be the origins of the name of the town. However, local historians have also pointed to the origins of the name being much earlier as this territory was described by pre-Hellinic Greek sailors around 4th or 5th century BC, as ‘Narissa’ meaning abundant water. The centre of Narixa was protected by Castillo Alto (the high castle), and the village would have been built around it, far more inland than modern day Nerja, near to the Frigiliana road. Remains of this settlement have been found in the area still known today as Castillo Alto. There was also another fortification near to what we now call the Bálcon de Europa, called Castillo Bajo, which most likely included the site currently occupied by the Hotel Balcón de Europa. Nerja, was known as a centre for agricultural and silk products. These products were exported to Britain, Flanders, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and India. The Moors did not actually introduce irrigation, but adopted and improved Roman works. They did though introduce new crops such as oranges, lemons, peaches, apricots, figs, and sugar cane. Nerja had many important and wealthy Moorish families during its many years of Moorish rule. Just before the Catholic Reconquest, noble families listed in Nerja included one called ‘Aliater’ possibly the same person, or related to the the silk merchant and military commander whose daughter, Morayma, married the last King of Granada, Boabdil in 1482.

The Reconquest and the pirate threat

The Kingdoms of the north of Spain were slow to assert themselves against the Moors. They were just small states constantly at war with one another. However by the 11th century, the Moorish kingdoms in the south were in a period of gradual decline; their rulers were no longer the soldiers of old, but rather more pleasure seeking, as can be easily imagined when one sees the exquisite Al-Hambra palace in Granada. Another difficulty facing the Christian kingdoms in trying to establish themselves was the fact that when a King died he tended to will that his kingdom be divided between his two sons. This happened to the Kingdom of Castilla where Ferdinand I bequeathed his land to his sons Alfonso and Sancho. Sancho was defeated by Alfonso with the help of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, or El Cid as he became known. In 1085 Alfonso recaptured Toledo, the first crucial victory of the Reconquest.

Catholic Reconquest In 1487 Nerja, along with much of the surrounding area, was recaptured by the Catholic monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.

Records from the time show that Nerja came under the control of Pedro of Córdoba, who took possession of Nerja on behalf of the King and Queen. Initially the Moors remained in Nerja living with their new Christian lords. However, as in the rest of the Axarquía area, they were driven to rebellion by increasingly restrictive laws against their religion and culture. Despite a series of uprisings in the Axarquía area, none of the restrictions were lifted on the Muslim people, and rather than convert to Christianity, many fled their homes. This exodus caused the population of Nerja to decrease so much that by the time of Juana 1 de Castille, (known as Juana la Loca) in the early 16th century (photo, right), it was ordered that Nerja be repopulated with ‘Old Christians’ from Vizcaya, Valencia, Galicia and Málaga. Juana was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and was Queen of Castille from 1504 and Aragon from 1506. She was called ‘la loca’ (the mad), probably because she suffered from what is now described as severe clinical depression, and spent much of her life confined to a convent. Yet despite the influx of old Christians to Nerja the surnames of local people such as Moreno, Herrero, Ávila, Jaime and Leyva, reveal that they most likely descend from converted Jews who remained in the town. The Christian settlers formed a new town around what we now call the Balcón de Europa, developing the town we know today. The old Moorish centre further inland, with its ancient castle was left to ruin, eventually disappearing altogether.

Pirate Threat Nerja’s close proximity to the North African coast left the town very exposed to Moorish incursions from the Barbary pirates, so named after the Berber people of North Africa. After the reconquest, groups of Moorish pirates grew in number on the North African coast, attacking Spain’s coastal regions in search of loot, and also abducting Christians that they could sell as slaves. These pirates were actively encouraged in North African towns, and grew in power thanks to the protection of the Ottoman empire, which had taken over much of North Africa by the 16th century. The Barbary pirates remained a constant threat not only to Spanish vessels but also to coastal towns who were under constant threat of a raid. In response, the Catholic Monarchs ordered the building of a number of fortifications and watchtowers on the coast to warn and protect their people.

A bonfire was lit on top of the towers whenever a ship was sighted, warning that the Moors were nearing the coast. They spared no expense in building Nerja a new fortification in 1487 at La Torrecilla, called La Torre de los Guardas (the Guards Tower), to protect the town from attack, the ruins of which can still be seen next to Torrecilla beach. Castillo Baja was also strengthened, becoming La Bateria, on what is known today as the Balcón de Europa.

Sugar cane and the golden age

Despite the rejection of the Moorish culture and traditions the new settlers to the Axarquía did not completely dismiss all that the Moors had brought to Al Andalus. People still continued with the growing of sugar cane, originally introduced by the Moors; indeed, the first record of sugar cultivation in Andalucía dates from the 10th century, and this crop stayed as one of the areas main industries for the next nine hundred years. In 1585 a lawyer from Granada, called Felipe de Armengol, acquired land in Maro and decided to build a mechanised sugar mill on it, the remains of which are still in evidence today. He also created a pathway to Granada, through the Almijara mountains, to facilitate taking his produce there.

Meanwhile, in Nerja the first sugar mill appeared in 1591. However, it had been a few years in the making. Work began on the building – the San Antonio Abad mill, situated at the beginning of the old Nerja to Frigiliana road in 1588. Apparently, when news of its construction was heard by the Málaga authorities, it was ordered to be stopped, because they felt it might increase the risk of attacks by the Barbary pirates. Following public protest though the mill was given a licence, and in 1591 work began. Given the close proximity of the mills at Maro and Nerja there were inevitable disputes, and there are stories of Nerja people who took their sugar cane to Maro for milling, and vice-versa, as the factories went in or out of favour. However, both sites went on for many centuries.

The 17th Century and the El Salvador Church

By the 17th century Nerja’s population was well established at around 400 people and it had developed its own town council.

During this period, and to cement the new Catholic heritage of the town, the Hermitage of San Angustias was built in 1655 (photo, left), followed by a facelift for El Salvador church in 1697, (photo, right). The church was originally built in 1505 on the orders of the Spanish Queen, Joanna the Mad. 

Nerja’s golden age The 18th century had been good for Nerja, with a flourishing agricultural trade, and the development of new industries. Along with Nerja’s wine, honey, and flour-milling trades, mining also commenced, further adding to the town’s prosperity. Some of its streets were paved and the Church of El Salvador was extended; also, Nerja’s road links to both Málaga and Almería were also improved and developed.

Revival and industrialisation of the sugar industry In the 19th century the sugar industry enjoyed a revival as it was still a rare commodity in Europe, and therefore the sugar cane which could grow in abundance thanks to the climate, was now farmed on an industrial scale. In 1864, a new factory, San José, was constructed near the mouth of the Chillar River in Nerja, and the latest hydraulic machinery was installed in order to process the sugar cane. It was acquired by the Larios family in 1872.

Meanwhile near Maro the old rivalry continued when a certain Joaquín Pérez del Pulgar y Ruiz de Molina, inherited around two million square metres of land in the 19th century from his mother. In 1879 Joaquín ordered the construction of an aqueduct, El Puente del Águila, to improve the water supply to his new sugar factory which was subsequently completed in 1884. Later on a distillery was also built next to it. Several plantations of sugar cane were used to supply the factory, and the large aqueduct was used as much to provide water for the fields as for the factory.

One can still see the aqueduct not far from Nerja on the coastal N340 road, (photo, right), and further on, in the direction of Maro, the factory, known as the San Joaquín factory or simply the old Maro factory, is still very evident to the left. In 1930 the factory was acquired by the Larios Sugar Society, and it stayed in operation right up until the 1960’s. Similarly in Nerja, the San José factory continued in existence until Larios closed it in 1968, moving their base of operations to their factory in Torre del Mar, ending centuries of sugar production in the Nerja area, with the loss of many local livelihoods.

The Peninsular War and the attack on Nerja

The 19th century was a turbulent period for Spain with the outbreak of the Peninsular War (1807-1814), a conflict between Napoleon’s French empire and the allied powers of Spain, Britain, Portugal and Ireland. This war would also have a profound effect on Nerja, with some of its citizens taking up arms, as well as destroying the town’s main defensive structure that had stood for hundreds of years.

Like the rest of the area, between 1810 and 1812, Nerja had been occupied at various times by French troops, and was valued enough by them to be told in 1810 to build its own town hall to look after its municipal affairs, separate from the region’s capital, Vélez-Málaga. It is believed that French troops in Nerja may have been stationed in early 1812 either in the castle on the Balcon, (known either by its old name ‘Castillo Bajo’ or as ‘La Batería’ because of the battery of guns inside it), or in the fort at La Torrecilla.

Initially, in the spring of 1812, the captain and ship that would go on to blow up one, or both of Nerja’s fortifications, were sent against a notorious pirate called Barbastro who was operating several fast vessels along the Málaga coastline. Unfortunately, the ship charged with the duty, the 20 gun sloop-of-war Hyacinth, was not fast enough to catch the privateers, so its captain, Thomas Usher, (pictured on the left), assembled a small squadron to attack the privateers in their base, the castle of Gibralfaro in Málaga town. Despite heavy losses by the British, they were successful.  As a result of his gallant actions, Usher was promoted to post-Captain, and put in charge of a small fleet, the Hyacinth again, plus the Termagant and the Basilisk. In early May, Usher was then ordered to take part in the war proper and attack the French who had secured the castle on the promontory in Nerja. So, a few days prior to May 20th 1812, the Termagent, captained by Gawen William Hamilton, was ordered to fire on the castle at Nerja that Napoleon’s troops had captured. However, which military fortification was attacked? The one on the Balcón or the one at La Torrecilla?. According to a convincing thesis published by Doctor Francisco Capilla Luque, Historian and Coordinator of the Advisory Commission of the Nerja Museum, as well as a respected local author, La Castilla Baja was not actually destroyed by the Termagent’s cannonade. Instead, the castle on the Balcón was blown up the previous year, by apparently putting dynamite into the ovens! In all probability it was done, Luque suggests, around October 4th, 1811, the date when apparently the British had landed in Nerja. In fact, as well as blowing up Castilla Baja in order to prevent the Napoleonic forces getting hold of it, the British also handed out 6000 rifles to the local militia. According to local records the wood from the destroyed castle was collected and sold, with the money going to buy food for the local freedom fighters. It should also be borne in mind that at this point in history, La Torrecilla no longer looked like a watchtower, but after the modifications a century earlier, like a fortress in miniature. This is the reason why it could not be ignored by the British ships that were concentrating their firepower on castles along the Spanish coast, rather than on defensive structures like watchtowers. They couldn’t afford to let fortified structures with cannons and the like installed in them, get into the hands of the French army. This observation, in relation to Torrecilla, was also made by a Juan Pirez, an engineer sent to investigate the fortresses along the coast by the Málaga council, in 1821. Thus, given that Nerja’s records suggest that Castilla Baja was blown apart in 1811, and the fact that the Royal Navy records suggest that there was one, not two, castles fired upon by the Termagent, then in all probability it was La Torrecilla, that was fired on by the Termagent in 1812. Following this action the guerrillas then came down from the surrounding mountains. Usher and Hamilton then went ashore to have a meeting with the guerrilla’s leader. The British captains were told that the French force of about 300 men had retreated again, this time 7 miles east to the town of Almuñecar, and that they were anxious to go after them. Usher readily agreed to help, and promised that the British ships would fire at where ever the French were positioned.

Usher was as good as his word and that evening he anchored off Almuñecar and fired on its castle (photo, left), creating breaches in its walls. Unfortunately, as Usher found out later, the guerrillas didn’t receive the reinforcements they were expecting, so didn’t feel confident enough to join in the attack. The next morning, Usher and his ships again gave fire on the castle driving the French soldiers to take refuge in the church and houses in Almuñecar. Not wanting to kill any of the town’s inhabitants that the French had cowardly put at risk, he ceased firing and returned to Nerja. Back in Nerja, Usher met up with a Colonel Febrien, an officer in the Spanish army of General Ballesteros, who put himself and his 200 troops at the British disposal. Knowing that the only roads to Almuñecar were through the mountains, Usher proposed to take the infantry with him by boat, and let the cavalry weave their way through the mountain passes as quickly as possible to the appointed rendezvous outside Almuñecar. Unfortunately the boats were becalmed, prompting the French, who had heard of the forthcoming attack, to flee along the coast to Motril and then up to Granada. Nevertheless, Usher sent one of his officers, plus a guerrilla officer, to hoist the British and Spanish flags onto the castle. However, because of the castle’s size and position it was considered vital that it didn’t fall into enemy hands again, so the British felt they had no choice but to then destroy much of it. Today, if you go to the ruined La Torrecilla fort, or stand on the Balcón and look down below at the large boulders and rocky masonry from the castle that collapsed into the sea, they remind you of the important part Nerja played in Spain’s War of Independence or as the Peninsular War as is known here. 

Plagues, earthquakes and poverty


During the late 19th century the region suffered from various insect plagues and drought. However, in the 1870’s a virus caused by the phylloxera aphid, spread from France and destroyed most of the vineyards. It caused great economic hardship, and there was a mass emigration to Argentina, Colmbia and Costa Rica. Of the 1671 hectares of vineyards that Nerja had in 1877, by 1891 it was reduced to 437 hectares. And these were not the original grape but a grafting of an American variety resistant to the phylloxera parasite, with the Muscat grape.

1884 great earthquake The suffering of Nerja’s population continued in 1884 when a serious earthquake destroyed much of the town over Christmas.

The earthquake affected many villages in the provinces of Málaga and Granada, and over eight hundred people were killed, though Nerja’s populace fortunately only suffered injuries. Many of Nerja’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the Ermita Angustias church.

The damage in the Andalucian provinces was so bad that the King of Spain, Alfonso XII, visited many of the affected villages to show his support including Nerja. However, the legend that the king walked onto Nerja’s promontory and was so impressed that he described it as “el Balcón de Europa”, (the Balcony of Europe) is an urban myth. Here is what really happened…

After visiting the province of Granada, King Alfonso went to Torre del Mar, where he arrived on January 17 of 1885. In the following days he visited various affected villages in the Axarquia and on January 20th – not the 12th as written on the brass plaque on the Balcón then went to Torrox and Nerja. The royal party arrived in Torrox in the morning and came to Nerja in the afternoon, met the mayor, walked around a couple of the damaged streets then, an hour later, returned to Torre del Mar. In fact, there are historical documents at Nerja town hall that attest to the name Balcón de Europa being used as long ago as 1839 to describe the views from the promontory. Indeed, it seemed to start being used after the rubble of the old castle (Castillo Bajo) that was blown up during the Peninsular War, was removed in about 1832. The pictures above show Nerja’s Calle Puerta del Mar in ruins after the earthquake, and the King and the Royal retinue on their way to Nerja after the earthquake.

The hard years of the early 20th century

By the 1900’s Nerja’s fortunes still hadn’t improved after the sugar crop was destroyed by a plagues of insects, a period when many villagers relied on agriculture or fishing, (photo, right) in order to just survive at a subsistence level. In fact the situation was so bad that the town council had to ask the Provincial Calamity Fund for money, to assist the many labourers who were unemployed. Sugar cane was again at the centre of contention when in 1911 there were serious clashes between farmer and sugar producers over its price, and harvesting came to a standstill until the conflict was resolved. In 1915, in an attempt to generate employment, Mayor Francisco Cantarero Rodríguez opened a new factory, El Progreso, making brown sugar and honey as well as distilling liquors. Francisco had formerly been a master builder and had constructed the El Puente del Águila aqueduct between Nerja and Maro, so later on he created Nerja’s first piped drinking water supply, pumping it from its source at Fuente Santa on the Chillar river. His family name is remembered in Plaza Cantarero where in 1913 he built a family home, which is now a restaurant. Nerja’s general fortunes continued on the decline during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, with its people suffering from much hardship and poverty. The following article, published in Insight Magazine in 2004, is the recollection of one Nerja man, Javier Nuñez, of this time:

The Axarquían years of famine - Christmas 1942 In  ‘La Caraj de los Hilos’ (The Box of Threads), a book by local writer Javier Nuñez Yáñez published in 1998, Javier records his childhood during the civil war and the difficult years that followed.

‘In the Axarquía region, the 1940’s were known as ‘the years of famine’, with 1942 springing to mind as a particularly bad one. The civil war had been over two and a half years but those that had been ‘defeated’ (the Republicans), were still having a terrible time. Most knew someone still in prison or recruited by force to the workers squadrons. Some had fled to neighbouring countries but others had been less lucky and lost their lives.  With two of my Uncles in prison, we knew little else but sadness and poverty. Christmas was particularly hard, although we still managed to get together around the family table. Traditionally we had what we called ‘poteje de Nochebuena’, (Christmas Eve stew), cod and chickpeas as a starter followed by pork fillet. As a dessert we had ‘roscos’ (ring shaped cakes made with local wine) and ‘mantecados’ (similar to shortbread). I can’t remember exactly what we had during the Christmas of 1942 but it would have been a much cheaper affair. Probably a gazpachuelo (hot soup and eggs). The midnight mass was one of the most important nights. The parish priest used to light up the church, and there was a women’s choir that sang carols (Villancios Navideños), after the mass. The church was packed with people, and latecomers had trouble to find seats. 

That year marked the first Cabalgata de Reyes Magos (Parade of the Three Wise Men). I impersonated Caspar, one of my cousins was Melchor and we had to paint one of our neighbours black to impersonate Baltazar. The three of us rode on horses and with the local wine inside us, I don’t think we were as wise as we should have been.

We were in the years of the so called ‘racionamiento’, (rationing) which had been established two years before. A daily ration for a man consisted of 400 grams of bread, 250 grams of potatoes, 100 grams of pulse (chickpeas, lentils) 50 grams oil, 30 grams sugar, 75 grams cod and 235 grams meat. Children under 14 would receive only 60% of these quantities and women as well as the elderly got just 80%. However these are official figures and the reality was often very different as there was either a shortage of certain foods or no money to buy them. Every family had a ration book (la cartilla de racionamiento), but those with a little extra money could go to the black market (estaperlo) where the price of the goods was a lot higher.  A rural worker lucky enough to have a job earned a salary of 8 pesetas a day*. One piece of bread was 2.5 pesetas; 1 kg of rice – 16 pesetas; chickpeas – 14 pesetas a kilogram; oil 20 pesetas a litre; and cod (which was not real cod just something similar) between 10 and 20 pesetas a kilogram. I often wonder how many families were able to prepare a traditional Christmas stew during the years of famine?”

Caves discovery turns Nerja into Costa del Sol holiday town

Little did the people of Nerja know that their fortunes were soon to change thanks to a group of young boys who discovered the Nerja Caves in the 1950’s. This marvellous discovery put the town firmly on the tourist map and it has not looked back since.

The first hotel, the Portofino, was built in 1960 followed closely by the Balcón de Europa, and then the Parador in 1965.  By the 1980’s Nerja experienced a major building boom, and the town we know now really took shape. Today, Nerja is known as the tourist capital of the Axarquía region, and the town’s biggest industry is tourism, with thousand of visitors coming to the Nerja Caves every year.

Nerja, the jewel of the Costa del Sol

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