Bandits, Brigands and Maquis in the Sierras of Southern Spain

 As part of my research for the next novel, I’m reading two books about the maquis, the guerrilla bands who took to the hills in the years after the Civil War to continue the resistance against Franco. One is a Spanish novel, Sulayr Dame Cobijo by Ángel Fábregas, the other a non-fiction account, Between Two Fires, written by David Baird, an English author long resident in Frigiliana.

Robbery, kidnappings for ransom, shootouts with the Guardia Civil and the fear of betrayal all formed part of life in the sierras. In order to eat, these men often raided local cortijos and farms, though in many cases the farmers or landowners cooperated and gave them food or money voluntarily, either because they sympathised or to protect themselves. Both the maquis and the Guardia Civil instilled fear in the local population, who were pressured from both sides.


Fear of robbers or bandits was nothing new in the wild, mountainous areas of Spain. For hundreds of years bandits had preyed on the merchants and noblemen who dared take to the region’s rough roads, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. They captured popular imagination, instilling admiration as well as dread. Revered by some as Robin Hood figures, robbing the rich to help the poor, they quickly became household names in the local towns and villages, their notoriety enhanced by the colourful nicknames assigned to them: El Tempranillo, ‘The Early Bird’, who started out in banditry at the tender age of thirteen, El Pernales, whose sentiments were supposedly as hard as pedernal (flint), El Vivillo, the crafty one, named for his mental agility, El Tragabuches, ‘Swallowbellies’ whose name was inherited from his father, reputed to have once eaten a donkey foetus.

    José Ulloa, ‘Tragabuches’     

José Ulloa 'Tragabuches'European travellers like Prosper Merimée, Théophile Gautier and Washington Irving longed to meet these romantic figures and were disappointed when their journeys proved uneventful. Bandits, smugglers and flamenco artists peopled their imaginations as they journeyed through Andalucía, taking little note of the poverty and hardship, the bitterly unjust feudal system that characterised rural life at the time. Many of the bandits were forced into a life of crime on the margins of society by desperate circumstances.                                                                                                     El Tempranilloengraving of El Tempranillo 1834IMG_1158

They roamed large tracts of Andalucía, especially in the provinces of Málaga and Cádiz between Seville, Córdoba and Ronda, and further north in the sparsely populated Sierra Morena. The mountainous terrain of the Serranía de Ronda, for example, much of it covered in thick forests of cork, gall and holm oak with many natural caves and solitary cortijos to hide in was ideal territory for fugitives and those living outside the law. It was here in 1934 that the last of the area’s notorious bandits, Pasos Largos or ‘Long Strides’ met his death, shot by the Civil Guard, which had been set up in 1844 specifically to put an end to criminal activity in the sierras.

cave near Jimena

These forests and mountains along with other similarly wild areas proved equally useful to the maquis in the 1940s and 50s. During and after the Civil War, the Guardia Civil were feared and hated by one side, valued as protectors by the other – as revealed in some of the interviews I’ve been conducting in Granada with older people from families of very different backgrounds. In addition to the many fatal shootings by both maquis and Civil Guard, violence on a lesser scale was also rife, beatings an everyday occurrence: stealing a few potatoes in the countryside to feed your desperate family was sufficient cause. For many decades, fear was a normal accompaniment to life for a large part of the population.

The next novel: a love story with a Civil War background

After all the excitement of publishing Secrets of the Pomegranate and the investment of time and energy in promoting it, I’m now trying to turn my mind to the next novel, sadly neglected these last few months. The plot has been in my mind for two or three years and I’ve been researching, reading and talking to people for some time. The Red Gene (provisional title) is also set in Spain. I don’t want to give away too much at this stage but it spans three generations of women from 1936 to the present day and starts with a British nurse who goes out to Spain with the International Brigades at the beginning of the Civil War.


civil war hospital

The historical setting means a lot more research is required than for my other novels. My pile of books (and there is no shortage of books on the subject of the Civil War) is multiplying at an alarming rate while time for reading is not. Meanwhile, the number of people with memories of the war is diminishing and even for the next generation it can be a sensitive topic in Spain. In my interviews with older people I am concentrating more on the details of everyday life: what they ate, the games they played as children, schooling, family life and what part religion played in their lives. I am fascinated by what I hear, though some of the stories reduce me to tears.

queue for bread ration Sept 1936


The Red Gene will have as backdrop some of the darker chapters of Spanish history: the brutality of war, the disappearances and executions by firing squad in the years that followed; stolen babies, mass graves, the slave labour of prisoners, the ‘starvation years’ of the posguerra and the atmosphere of fear that hung over ordinary people during the years of dictatorship, repression and widespread poverty. You only have to pass through some of Spain’s villages with their massive churches towering over a huddle of small houses to get an idea of the power of the Catholic Church in people’s lives during those years.

Olvera 2

If all this sounds depressing, I hope my novel will not be. The spirit of the three main (female) characters in dealing with the – in some cases tragic – situations they face and overcoming difficulties, the solidarity of those fighting for their ideals and fighting against fascism, the courage and resilience of ordinary people will, I hope, shine through. The Red Gene will be a love story, a historical novel and a family saga. Central to the plot will be what can only be described as a crime. But it will have a resolution that is – like that of Secrets of the Pomegranate – positive to an extent.

Bienvenido. Welcome to my first post

sunrise from terrace

Granada is rightly famed for its beautiful sunsets but I thought this equally spectacular sunrise, taken from my terrace at 8.30 on an October morning, would be a fitting image for my first blogpost. Welcome and congratulations on finding your way to this site. I’ll be writing about life in Granada and giving some background to my soon-to-be-published novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate.

Granada in winter means dressing in layers that have to be repeatedly taken off and put on again. This morning, as usual in January, it was below freezing and with tiled floors and no central heating, the house was COLD. A few hours later, I was sitting with friends in the sunny garden of Quique’s bar, near my house in Sacromonte, feeling my face beginning to burn and wishing I’d worn a T-shirt instead of my thermal vest so I could take off my jumper. Quique is a retired flamenco dancer, always elegantly dressed, often in a white suit and cravat with a carnation in his buttonhole. Decorating the walls of his cave are large, close-up,  black and white photos of the lined faces of his mother and grandmother, who were also flamenco dancers in their day. Until her death a few years ago, I used to regularly see his mother sitting at one of the tables in the garden, solicitously attended to by Quique. Often she would appear absorbed in the music, adding her own accompaniment with the palmas, the rhythmic hand-clapping of flamenco. Paintings by local artists as well as all manner of traditional gypsy artefacts adorn the rest of the wallspace above and around the bar. In the garden, classical or flamenco music issues from a speaker but at a volume that’s relaxing rather than intrusive. It’s a great place to while away an hour or two absorbing the ambiente of Sacromonte and watching the sun set behind the Alhambra.

Quique's bar 3

Now it’s evening and cold again – at least in the parts of the house my wood stove doesn’t reach, like bedroom and bathroom. In the salón though, the heat is enough to bring the geckos out of their hibernation. If I get up in the night, I’ll often find a gecko or two on the wall, revelling in the warmth of the still smouldering fire. The downside to this contrast of heat and cold is chillblains – a problem I vaguely remember from childhood but never since – not till I came to Granada. Now every winter my fingers are covered in itchy red swellings. However, when I look out at the mountains, sparkling white after heavy falls of snow this week and clearly defined against a deep blue sky, I think: I can live with chillblains.