The Andalucian village of Orce sits almost 3000 feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains of the ‘Altiplano de Granada’. Orce has two main surrounding hamlets – Fuente Nueva and Venta Micena just a few kilometers drive into the countryside towards the town of Maria. Orce village has many of the same characteristics of other rural Spanish villages yet boasts significant importance. In 1982 the controversial fragment of a skull was unearthed giving the idea behind ‘Orce Man’, claimed to be the oldest hominid found to date in Europe. During the summer months and when funds/permission allow the hamlets of Fuente Nueva and Venta Micena are alive with teams of archaeologists and volunteers working on the various ‘digs’ where all manner of discoveries have been made over the past few decades. These areas are rich in prehistoric finds (Fuente Nueva being the most prolific) given that the area sits in a basin where animals would come to drink, various discoveries have so far been found including woolly mammoth, rhinoceros and sabre tooth tiger remains as well as tools used by early man. There is also a cave in the area than upon being excavated revealed the tooth of a woolly mammoth which is now protected behind glass – an unusual feature for the Spanish home.
The countryside surrounding Orce village is a contrast between mountains, woodland and arid landscape, a lush countryside in early spring that quickly dries on the approach to the Andalucian summer. Venture into the nearby woodland either on foot or by 4×4 and you can take in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the region, historic flint mines as well as stone built watchtowers are also present. Traditionally an agricultural area Orce also boast the famous ‘Cordero Segureno’ – a hardy breed of sheep, protected and one that is said only to survive in a few areas, Orce being one of them. In the late 1980’s some of these sheep were exported to the south of France for breeding but sadly did not survive the new environment, it would appear the tough life of the Andalucian campo favours this breed and as such they thrive only within a few pockets of the Altiplano.
By the turn of the twentieth century Orce had more than 4000 inhabitants, a much higher population than today’s estimated 1300. Resources were scarce leading to poverty and hunger for many and in 1917 Orce was decimated by a flu epidemic which almost ruined the village. There was also much social unrest which continued until 1931 when Dictatorship gave way to a Republic. By 1950 and having endured some very lean times during the second world war Orce recorded its highest numbers of inhabitants which was marginally just over 4500. During the early 1950’s the population of the village begins to decrease with residents migrating to other areas of Europe, Northern Spain and in some cases America, the population would never reach 4500 again. In 1964 Orce suffered a powerful earthquake, the village sits near a fault line which is predicted to generate earthquakes of significant strength every 60 years or so similar to the earthquake experienced by the town of Lorca in 2011. In the whole scheme of things these earthquakes are not very high on the Richter scale producing between 4.0 and 5.0, it is the fact that the fault lies so close to the surface that results in light to moderate damage. Evidence of the 1964 earthquake can still be seen today in some of the modernised cave dwellings in the area. One popular way of elaborating your cave fireplace was to build a plaster mantle piece above, some elaborate, some rustic but many have been kept and have a vertical crack directly through the center as a result of the earthquake, interestingly one thing all these all these fireplaces have in common is that they all face west.
In the late 1970’s many Orce inhabitants find work in the south of France with the wine harvest, this becomes a valuable source of, although seasonal, reliable income. There are many French expatriates who have holiday homes in Orce village and its surrounding hamlets. Spaniards would travel to France and speak of the cave dwellings in Orce village and of course the French were intrigued with many travelling to Andalucia to discover what ‘cave houses’ were all about, the rest as they say is history. One such person we have had the pleasure of meeting is ‘Juan’ a French restauranteur by trade who purchased ‘La Veranda’ one of only 3 cave hotels in Spain, Juan told us “Gradually more friends from France came to the area and bought caves, some for holiday homes and others for permanent residences”. Juan explains what a fantastic discovery it was because people who had very little money could easily afford a good sized home and they could live well without working to death, which for some was just impossible in France. Juan also tells us that up until recently, the area was known as “la colonia francesa” because of the amount of French people who had arrived.
Orce village is famous for its cave dwellings, a unique way of life and a safe secure home, in Orce you can find cave dwellings for rental as well as privately run caves in which you can enjoy a B&B holiday break. It has not always been like this though, Inhabitants from surrounding hamlets would almost give their caves away as during the mid/latter part of the 20th century cave houses were regarded as worthless, attached to gypsy culture and poverty from the earlier part of the century caves were gambled in card games, swapped for vehicles, farm machinery or simply abandoned as residents would move closer to the village or further afield nearer Granada or other areas of Spain. This changed in the very late 1990’s which after an influx of French anda few other Europeans the English began to show interest. Holiday programmes like ‘A Place in Sun” were detailing something different from which sprung estate agents and cave prices almost began to rise overnight. Naturally this has been a boost for the local economy which has been long overdue bringing government spending as a result and also investment into the village through new businesses.
Orce village has a distinct Moorish influence, an imposing castle or ‘Castillo de siete torros’ named after its seven towers, a true fortress, center of the village built by the Moors. In summer during fiesta time the most action the castle sees apart from tourism is the latest films broadcast within the castle grounds for the younger generation. Orce also has ‘Fuencaliente’ on its outskirts on route the nearest village of Galera, a swimming pool with a difference by way of a natural spring. The pool is one of the only free pools in the area in a nice setting with bar and restaurant but the main attraction is the fish. The pool itself is full of carp from the small to big and big they are too. One tip for swimming in Fuencaliente is not to wear red nail varnish as the fish do tend to take a liking.
One of Orce’s other attractions is its main church or ‘Iglesia Santa Maria’, finished in 1749 this beautiful building faces the castle, upon entering it is difficult to imagine the time and craftsmanship required to achieve such intricate detail. Other churches around the village include San Sebastian and San Anton, the former is thought to have been built over a Muslim shrine and although largely rebuilt is thought to be even older than Iglesia Santa Maria. Pre civil war there used to be a figure of San Sebastian within the church but which sadly disappeared during the 1936 – 1939 turmoils. Iglesia San Anton has just as much significance, built in the 1770’s the church was and always has been a devotion to St San Anton.
Visit Orce village in late January and you can experience the San Sebastian/San Anton fiestas – an important fixture, even more celebrated than Christmas perhaps. Attendees can donate a small amount of money at the local bank and be fed the traditional beef lunch with comes with copious amounts of tasty gravy, hunks of bread, singing, dancing and above all atmosphere well into the early hours.
If you fancy getting married in Spain then Orce Palace may be an option. Constructed in the 18th century the palace is open air, on two levels surrounded by balconies and intricately designed. The palace also hosts numerous events such as art galleries, food events, presentations and other hosted evenings. Orce also has its own museum which used to be situated next to the palace (as of 2015 a brand new Museum has been built) and really is a must see, this museum houses many of the prehistoric artifacts founds in the area. Named after palaentologist Dr Joseph Gilbert who pioneered the archaeological digs in the area and still does to this day after his death you will find reconstructions of life sized sabre tooths, fossils and educated tour of why this small Andalucian village is so important.
Orce village is steeped in history, a small corner of Andalucia where daily traditions are still practiced including the Spanish ‘siesta’, don’t expect anything to be done very quickly, in fact its better not to wear a watch at all. Orce is your typical whitewashed Spanish village, strings of ruby red peppers don the rustic white walls, customs are unique and hospitality is in abundance. Many of Orce’s dwellings are unique, hewn from the rock generations ago – caves, now modern with all facilities you can visit Orce and have the very best of both worlds.
Mas videos de Orce – (San Anton • Timbakutada • Gato Negro • Exploración Rural • Troglodita Festival y mas)