Saturday, 21 April 2012


I decided to make a few big trips in 2012, and things started off (as usual) with a conference, EuroGP, which took place in Malaga. I hadn't done a proper trip in Spain for years (decades), so I took a week off after the conference and rent a car to explore the wonderful Andalusia.

I was able to walk a bit around Malaga during the conference, and it is actually a nice city, despite being so touristy. Ignoring the seafront and exploring the castle and some of the small streets around it is a much nicer idea.

I was also lucky in that the conference organised an excursion to the El Torcal park. I had never heard of it, but I am glad to have joined. A beautiful park with sea fossils all over, and amazing limestone walls and formations.

But the real adventure began after the conference was over. I picked up my friend Veronika from the airport, and the next day we hit the road. Most of the roads in Andalusia are hilly and full of bends, with amazing vistas, and occasional little white villages perched on hilltops.

Our first stop was Ronda, one of those villages. This one has the particularity of being set on both sides of a really deep gorge, with a massively tall bridge connecting both sides. A particular site of interest was the Plaza de España, mentioned in Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", when during the civil war, the fascist townspeople were marched to their deaths by the ravine...

We then headed for Gibraltar. As you approach the coast, the landscape changes dramatically, all flat, but all of a sudden, in the distance, you notice the Rock of Gibraltar standing tall. Not especially a must visit, despite its historical and political significance, but it's fun to drive around and have a chat with the local macaque population.

Our final destination for that day was Tarifa. More than Gibraltar itself, this is truly Europe's last stop before the strait, and you can see Morocco across the strait. It's a small town, with an obvious Arabic influence (like most of Andalusia). We stayed in a cute little hotel called "La Estrella de Tarifa", with each room uniquely decorated with great taste.

Vejer de la Frontera
We really enjoyed Tarifa, and were temped to stay and do a day trip to Tangier, but in the end we decided to make full use of our rental car. So we said goodbye to the sea and the African coast, and headed back North, towards a gem of a small town perched atop a small steep hill: Vejer de la Frontera. It has a fantastic main square, around a fountain decorated with 1000s of small tiles, and old people sitting around, under the shade of palm trees. We spent a few hours there, exploring the old castle.

Next was Arcos de la Frontera. What an adventure it was to get there! We kept following signs for the city centre, and suddenly found ourselves going up incredibly steep and narrow alleys, mirrors almost touching the sides, no chance of turning around. We had lunch there, and walked around the place, probably just us and the locals. It has a magnificent view from the hilltop.

Back on the road, it was a short ride to our next destination, Jerez de la Frontera. After the beauty of the two previous wonderful little towns, its big city attitude was a let down, but we still explored it a bit on foot, and even managed to sample some of its most famous export, some Tio Pepe liquor. At this point, we had decided not to head to Cadiz nor Seville; despite being obvious must-visit destinations, we would be stuck looking for parking; instead we decided to keep visiting smaller, less obvious destinations.

So we headed for our final destination of the day, Carmona. It was a bit of a drive to get there, so we arrived quite late. We found a cheap hotel, and went for a massive beer and tapas dinner, great value at 10€ for two people. We spent the next morning exploring the town, which has quite a few interesting historical buildings, and a great view from outside the city wall. And once again it seemed to me that there were no other tourists to be found.

The main destination of the third day was Cordoba. After a struggle to leave the car somewhere (it is a large city), we explored the riverfront area, with the pleasant Puente Romana. But the main attraction of Cordoba is undoubtedly the Mesquita, where we headed next. It truly is magnificent: a huge indoors area, with a mix of Roman, Muslim and Catholic churches, monuments, artefacts and decorations. We didn't bother with audio guides, and instead spent hours exploring, imagining all the history that took place there, amongst those massive columns.

We also explored the surrounding tiny shopping and residential streets, soaking up the sun whenever it dared to turn up.

The final destination of the day was Priego de Cordoba, another tiny hilltop white town. We had by now decided that that would be our approach; every evening, find a small town, with cheap and cozy accommodation, and an off-the-beaten-path village to explore. Priego de Cordoba certainly didn't disappoint. We stayed in the lovely Posada Real, owned by the charming Juan López Calvo, who took care of us as if we were family.

The following day we drove a lot, as we made our way clockwise around Andalusia. The main destinations were Baeza and Úbeda, famous for their Renaissance beauty. Baeza, the smallest of the two, was our first destination. We just wandered along the cobbled streets around the Cathedral, taking our time and enjoying the place. A charming place.

Next up was Úbeda. We got there just past lunchtime, and this being Southern Spain, it was siesta time: everything closed, no-one around. We had the city for ourselves! Úbeda is definitely the prettiest of both cities, especially the area within the old city walls. Although most were closed, we really enjoyed just admiring their beauty, especially the Capilla del Salvador del Mundo, and the Palace around Plaza Vasquez de Molina.

The final drive of the day was nothing short of spectacular: a mountain road, with amazing views of the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada at every turn. We got Guadix quite late, and struggled to find the accommodation we were looking for. It was worth it, though. Guadix is famous for its cave houses, built partially or totally underground, and we stayed in one. It was super cool, a tiny apartment totally underground. It was so dark there with the lights off, it was almost claustrophobic. I had a great sleep

We spent the next morning visiting the cave district of Guadix. It is such a strange place: chimneys and antennas sticking out of the rocks, doors leading to the heart of small hills. We stocked up on provisions, and headed to our main destination of the day, Granada.

Luck favours those who try, and we managed to find a free parking space right in the centre of Granada. From there it was a long trek up to the Alhambra, the main visitor attraction of Granada. We got there in the middle of the afternoon, meaning we couldn't get in the Palacios Nazaries, However, we still managed to see the Generalife, the Alcazaba, and even the Museo de Bellas Artes (off-topic with the rest of the complex, but still nice - and free). The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering from shop to shop, bargaining on small souvenirs.

For our last night on the road, we drove to Comares, a tiny village not far from Malaga. It took a while to get there, running low on fuel along tiny mountain roads! The approach to Comares was beautiful though, always riding along the hill crest, with the village on sight. We got there with nearly no petrol, and the single hotel, "El molino de los Abuelos", was closed. But when we knocked, someone opened the door: a Dutch and Bolivian gay couple, who couldn't be more contrasting with the conservative surroundings. They opened the hotel and its restaurant just for the two of us, and Ivan went to cook a great meal, while Nenne danced and sang for us!! We had a feast and shared three bottles of wine between us all. An epic night.

The next morning was a rough one! I woke up really early, and went to explore the village. Although with a population of only 300, Comares is full of history. It was a Muslim stronghold, being so isolated and easily protected. The old castle and the cemetery are quite interesting. And like in most towns around Andalusia, small signs on the walls marking spots where people were murdered during the civil war.

That was pretty much it. We said goodbye to the party couple, drove downhill in neutral until finally finding a town with a petrol station, and went back to Malaga, where we caught our flights back home. It was a great few days of discovery of what is truly one of Spain's most interesting regions.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Continuing with my discovery of Easter Bloc countries, I decided to go to Kiev, Ukraine for 5 days, with my great friend Lena Verik. In typical Russian/Ukrainian fashion, hotels are more of an exception than a rule; it's far cheaper (and more comfortable) to rent an apartment, which we did (arranging it through an Ukrainian website is again much cheaper than going through typical Western booking sites).

An eight-legged baby pig
With five days, we could visit a bit. One of the places I really wanted to see was the Chernobyl Museum. It's a really touching museum, a sore reminder of the suffering of thousands of people, not just because of the effects of radiation, but perhaps even more so due to the massive economic and social problems that it created.

We followed that with a long walk along the Dripro. November in Ukraine is quite cold, and no-one is crazy enough to go for river cruises, but we could still see some of the pretty churches along the river front, until we nearly froze, and had to find a big bowl of hot soup! Kiev is set on a sort of plateau, and so from the river towards the city centre, we could take a lovely old Soviet funicular.

At the top of the funicular, is the monasteries area, with St. Michael's Gold-Domed Monastery grabbing all the attention, shiny and postcard pretty (and interesting in the sense that it is a working monastery) - even though it is in reality a very recent reconstruction (2001).

Nearby is the really nice St. Sophia's Cathedral. Named after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, it may not be as grandiose, but one does feel the power of history inside it. Nearby there once was yet another church, replaced by the Soviets with the humongous Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which I could not stop admiring, given my fascination with all things Soviet).

Entrance to the Lavra
One of the places most people visit when in Kiev is the Lavra (there's always queues of people coming off excursion buses). Despite finding our way there, we decided the long queues were not worth it. In any case, the main objective was the nearby Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Despite having seen quite a few WWII museums during my trips across Russia, this one was by far the best, and even had some explanations in English. It mostly describes the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and includes some gruelling objects, such as a concentration camp guillotine, and a bone crushing machine.

The museum has an area of Soviet realist sculptures around it, trying to depict both the heroism of the troops that fought the Nazis, and the suffering of the civilians. And sitting on top of the museum, is the absolutely stunning Родина Мать (Nation's Mother) sculpture; standing at 62m tall, and made out of titanium, it is a sight to behold.

The walk back towards the Lavra, albeit long, is worth it, passing by the touching monument to the victims of the Holodomor (the great famine, ordered by Stalin during the collectivisation campaign), and offering great views long the Dnipro river.

The Andriyivsky Uzviz, a winding descent street in the centre, is a typical spot to visit, with stalls of crafts and souvenirs, although really it felt like a massive tourist trap. It was also under renovation, to be ready for the hordes of tourists coming for the 2012 European Football Cup, so we didn't linger. Instead, we went for a wonderful Borsch, complete with bread topped with a big layer of fat, and loads of сметана (sour cream)!

Visiting Kiev with an Ukrainian-speaking friend means it's a bit easier to get around! So we could find and take a long marshutka (collective mini-bus) towards the "Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture", a large outdoor park located well outside the city, with houses and buildings brought from every province in Ukraine.

We spent quite a few hours there, peeking into farmer's houses, windmills, and even a beautiful wooden church. The dinner we had there was probably the best Ukrainian borsch I ever had (and I had many!), complete with home-baked bread, garlic, and a plate of pelmeni.

For our last day in Kiev, we went to see the Babi Yar park. This was the site where the Nazis executed most of Ukraine's jews. On the 29th September 1941, hordes of jews were ferried to this spot, and 34,000 were executed within 48h. It is now a beautiful park, especially dressed in Autumn's colours, and it's hard to imagine such atrocities, but a few monuments here and there are a sober reminder.

We still tried to go to the Water Museum, but were also greeted with a closed door (renovations for the World Cup...); still, the park where it is located offers great views of the Dnipro.

Kiev is a city full of history. In between old monasteries, reminders of the horrors of Nazi occupation, the good and bad consequences of Soviet influence, and an undeniably Ukrainian feel, it is a city of contrasts, and one that I quite enjoyed exploring. Especially with a wonderful friend!