Troglodyte structures in Setenil de las Bodegas in Cadiz Province, Spain.

Setenil de las Bodegas: Peculiar Troglodyte Buildings and a Strange Name for a Quaint Spanish Town

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Setenil de las Bodegas is a town located in Cádiz, a province in the southern part of Spain. The current town dates back to the 15th century AD, when the Moors who occupied it were expelled during the Christian Reconquista. This picturesque little town is renowned for its troglodyte structures, which are buildings dug directly into the rock face. As the façades of these buildings are like normal ones, it looks as though they are supporting the rock above them. This is an illusion, of course, but it is also this peculiar feature that draws tourists to the town.

Seven Nothing?

The name of the town is peculiar in itself. According to some sources, the name ‘Setenil’ is a combination of two Latin words, ‘septem’ and ‘nihil’, which means ‘seven’ and ‘nothing’ respectively. This is supposedly a reference to the number of times the Christian rulers of Spain attempted to wrest control of the town form the Moors. They made six failed attempts, and finally succeeded on the seventh try. As for ‘Bodegas’, this is said to be a reference to the many underground storage facilities in the town that were used primarily to store wine.

Troglodyte structures in Setenil de las Bodegas.

Troglodyte structures in Setenil de las Bodegas. (CC BY SA 3.0 )

The area of Setenil de las Bodegas has allegedly been occupied as early as prehistoric times. This is based on evidence for habitation by prehistoric man in nearby caves, such as the Cueva de la Pileta, which is known for its cave paintings. However, the continuous occupation of the area means most of this evidence would have been erased over time. It is more certain that the area was populated by the time the Romans arrived in the area during the 1st century AD. Unfortunately, the settlement was not developed at that time, so it remained insignificant.

Setenil de las Bodegas in Cadiz Province, Spain is one of the well-known "white villages.”

Setenil de las Bodegas in Cadiz Province, Spain is one of the well-known "white villages.” ( Jialiang Gao/ CC BY SA 2.5 )

Setenil de las Bodegas Grows

It was only during the 12th century that Setenil de las Bodegas began to see some progress. By then, the Romans had long gone, and the new masters of the town were the Almohads, a Berber Muslim dynasty that was based in Morocco. The Almohads established a fortified town by using the surrounding rock cliffs as a natural defense system. It seems that these defenses served the Muslims very well indeed. During the Christian Reconquista, Setenil de las Bodegas, which had become part of the Emirate of Granada under the Nasrid dynasty, was attacked by the Christian armies seven times. It withstood the first six endeavors to capture it, and finally fell at the seventh attempt, in 1484. It is worth mentioning that Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula, fell eight years later, in 1492, which means that the capture of Setenil de las Bodegas occurred relatively late in the timeline of the Reconquista.

The surrounding rock cliffs of Setenil de las Bodegas served as a natural defense system during the Christian Reconquista.

The surrounding rock cliffs of Setenil de las Bodegas served as a natural defense system during the Christian Reconquista. (Panarria/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

From Wine to Tourism

The new Christian rulers of Setenil de las Bodegas developed the town as an agricultural center. The town became known for its production of olives, almonds, and wine. Even today, the first two are still being produced by the town’s people. Setenil de las Bodegas’ wine production, however, came to an end during the 1860s, as a result of the phylloxera insect infestation, which destroyed most European vine stocks.

A cartoon from ‘Punch’ from 1890: “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.”

A cartoon from ‘Punch’ from 1890: “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.” ( Public Domain )

Setenil de las Bodegas is also a tourist attraction today thanks to its unique architecture. Many troglodyte structures may be found in the town. These buildings, which are carved directly into the rock cliffs, are able to naturally keep the heat out during the hot summer months, and maintain warmth inside during the cold winter months. It was only necessary for the inhabitants to build façades for their cave dwellings. Whilst many of these structures are still used as homes by the people of the town, some have been converted into bars or restaurants that cater to visiting tourists.

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