Saturday, 21 April 2012

Andalucía

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 1000 small tiles, and old people sitting around, under the shade of palm tree. 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 bit of 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 Veronika caught her flight, and I caught mine the next day. It was a great few days of discovery of what is truly one of Spain's most interesting regions.