Yes, we had a great time exploring Andalucia, the southern most region of Spain, for almost seven weeks. We left Ottawa on October 14, 2004 and arrived in Malaga the next afternoon. We picked up our small Fiat Punto, christened Chico, and drove about 25 Km west to our condo, an RCI exchange in a resort near the Costa del Sol. Except for two weeks when we had the pleasure of Dodie and Randy Smith's company, we were on our own. We followed our usual pattern of making up our itinerary as we went along and changing it as we discovered new places to explore. After spending the first week on the Costa del Sol, we visited Cordoba and Granada plus the mountain town of Cazorla. With Dodie and Randy we saw more of the Costa del Sol plus Ronda and Sevilla. After saying goodbye to the Smiths, we headed east to see Gibraltar, Tarifa, the most southerly town in Spain, the Sherry Triangle and ended up finding great day hiking in several National Parks.
What did we like best about Andalucia? - The weather, all the history and the good hiking in the mountains. What could we do without? - The over development on the Costa del Sol with its over crowded coastal road, parking problems in the towns, the lack of no smoking areas and dog poop on the streets.
On balance our complaints were trivial. October and November are great months to visit Spain. The crowds have departed and unless you are a dyed in the wool sunbather, the weather is great, perfect for sightseeing and hiking. We had sunny warm days and cool nights, like September in Ottawa. We had a few days of cloudy skies but just a few rain showers, but nothing that interfered with our activities. Most days we were in short sleeves but a fleece was needed for the evening.
The Spaniards we met were invariably courteous and helpful. They listened patiently to my attempts at Spanish and kept us from getting lost several times. Many Spaniards do speak English in the more popular tourist areas, but Spanish is the language in the smaller towns and the hotels we sought out. Being able to interpret menus, paying the bill, reserving a room and asking for directions in Spanish was very useful. I only had problems when the local accent was very thick or my carefully worded inquiry elicited a torrent of Spanish that lost me after the third word.
Andalucia is arid and mountainous. A narrow strip of sandy beaches is bordered by rugged hills that rise to a plateau and rolling hills covered in acres of olive groves, looking as if someone spread a green tufted candlewick blanket over the countryside. The beaches were almost deserted during our visit but are thronged with sunbathers lounging on rental chaises in the summer. The popularity of the beaches, especially with the British and Germans, has led to the development of villas, apartment and golf resort complexes all along the south coast and up into the adjacent hills. There are a few high-rise developments near the coast but the majority of the new developments favour the same style that has been popular since the Moors conquered Spain in the 8th century. Rows of white washed concrete units with tile roofs snake up the steep sides of the mountains. Unfortunately the coastal road system has not kept up with the development so we were glad we were there in the off season. The traffic was heavy along the main coastal road but it must be horrendous in the high summer season.
Our timeshare condos on the Costa del Sol were both comfortable. Our condo the first week we arrived gave us time to get over jet lag and explore the Costa on our own. We shared the second condo with Randy and Dodie when they arrived October 29. The condo developments with their pools and proximity to the beaches are very popular with families. They have activities for the children and excursions for the adults. Ray and I decided we liked independent touring, especially in the countryside. We invariably sought the alternate, quieter routes away from the coast and followed torturously narrow, winding roads to find charming quiet villages.
The rest of our trip was spent in relatively simple rooms. Spain has well regulated system of tourist accommodation. The lowest on the scale are the Albergues, the original Youth Hostal accommodation with multi-bed dorm rooms. Next are small private hotels. The simplest and cheapest are the Pensiones with single or double rooms and usually a shared bath. Hostales, rated with one or two stars, are next up the ladder. The rooms are still quite simple but they often offer private bathrooms. Hotels, rated with one to five stars are next in the price list and the top of the heap are the Paradores, luxury dwellings run by the government often in renovated castles or forts. We usually stayed in one star Hostales, using the Lonely Planet as our guide.
None of the Hostales we stayed in offered meals so we got to explore lots of restaurants and sample local delicacies. Andalucia is not an area to be vegetarian or follow a low cholesterol or low carb diet. Whether you are ordering a full meal or various Tapas, meat, and especially pork has a prominent place on the menu. Every village has its own recipe for smoked Serrano ham. Every bar and small restaurant has pork legs dangling from the ceiling by their foot. Tapas are a favourite light evening meal for Spaniards. You go into your favourite bar and stand at the counter with your drink of beer or wine and order one or more small plates of food. You can choose from the assortment of cold tapas displayed at the counter or order hot tapas from an extensive list. If you choose Serrano ham, the server carves off thin slices straight from the hanging leg. Ray and I would share four or five different tapas. Our usual vegetable tapas choice would be roasted red pepper salad or pepper stuffed with ham. My limited Spanish meant that we often got to taste dishes we had never expected. Most were delicious but the "Spanish Poutine" was not a repeat. I interpreted patatas and aoili to be potatoes with a garlic sauce, but to our surprise it was french fries, which formed part of most meals, with a VERY garlicy mayonnaise. We love garlic but this was too much for us!
We had some trouble adjusting to Spanish meal times. No one gets up very early, so that was easy, we didn\rquote t either. Our breakfast was usually in the local bar where the owner had the counter lined with saucers and spoons ready for the coffee orders from his customers on their way to work. Ray always orders cafe con leche, which was freshly ground coffee brewed in an espresso machine with hot foamed milk, served in a small glass. Since I can not tolerate caffeine, I ordered te con leche. This was usually a tea bag in a glass of hot foamed milk. I was really pleased to finally order a freshly brewed cup of decaf coffee in the small town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, in the western Sherry triangle. Ben and Jerry's has come to town. There was no ice cream in the display case in November but cakes and coffee were very popular items.
We didn't join the locals for their morning beer, glass of wine or cognac. We couldn't face the Spanish tostadas either. They like their toast topped with ham and cheese or sometimes headcheese. Being fat wimps, we stuck to toast with marmalade (jam). The other breakfast speciality is Chorros. In Ronda we first tasted these plate sized sugarless donut circles fresh out of the deep fat fryer. You hold them with the paper provided and break off pieces to pop in your mouth.
Lunch after 2 PM is the main meal of the day. We took advantage of the economical and very filling Menu del Dia offered in most towns. If we were lucky, a plate of local green olives was served as an appetiser. A first course of soup, pasta or sometimes salad and then the main dish of meat or fish with french fries followed this. Included as well is bread, which is otherwise an additional charge, a beverage of your choice and dessert, usually, a flan (creme caramel). The most popular beverage was a glass of beer although we preferred a glass of the local wine. In some restaurants the beverage was a glass full of ice, a full bottle of red wine and a large bottle of Lemon Fanta for the diners to create their own Sangria.
Because the Spaniards eat lunch so late in the afternoon, dinner is not served until after 8 PM. This was often too late for us so we would go out after 7 PM for tapas or just buy a roll, some cheese, a tomato or red pepper, fruit and an inexpensive bottle of wine for a tasty snack in our room. We did not starve to death. Ray claims he lost a few pounds but I put on a few.
The Moors built many small villages north of the coast on the tops of mountains, giving a clear view of an approaching army and time to prepare for the town's defence. Many have a reconstructed fort on the highest peak with the streets tumbling down from the top. It is a wonder all the houses have not slid off the mountainside before now. Towns such as Casares and Arcos de la Frontera were built long before the car was dreamed of. There is not a broad, straight or level street to be found. The labyrinth of streets was designed to confuse and impede any army should they get through the village gates. The houses are closely packed for both sociability and defence and the narrow streets provide needed shade in the summer. Spain is in the midst of a construction boom. High cranes rise above the new dwellings in every town and renovations are common. These days each home is picture perfect, freshly whitewashed with clusters of flowerpots and colourful ceramic plates decorating the outside walls.
Did I mention the narrow streets? The old sections of the cities, where we chose to stayed, were full of them. That meant that one way streets abounded, the shopping areas were pedestrian malls and parking was at a premium. Ray would break into a sweat as we drove into a town. Just the thought of driving around endlessly looking for a parking place filled him with horror. I was the navigator but our maps failed to highlight the one way streets and street signs were almost non-existent. A discreet decorated tile sign attached to on the side of a building was readable behind you as you passed the street. Ray's worst nightmares were realized in Granada. I very carefully directed him down a side street, neglecting to properly read a large sign warning of construction ahead. The street quickly narrowed to a width just six inches wider than poor Chico and came to a dead end with a gaping hole where the street used to be. We had to back up. I got out and directed Ray and got much needed assistance from locals who didn't have enough room to pass our car until we were out of there. At the first cross street, Ray turned, right into a morning market. The stall owners were all gesturing to him not to proceed but Ray paid no attention. We stopped when that street dead-ended in a park area and Ray said he was going no further.
The solution was to have a picnic lunch on an adjacent park bench and plan our escape. After lunch Ray sat in the sun while I walked over to our chosen hostal, which provided parking, and got directions to get there. The market had closed up in the meantime so Ray was able to beat a hasty retreat and get out of there. Then we had to get to the hostal parking lot. In the busier summer season, barriers that emerge from the road block off the main street leading into the old section of Granada. You have to call your hotel and arrange for them to automatically lower the barriers. Luckily the barriers were down but the hostal was on the main street leading to the Alhambra and was too narrow for two-way traffic. This problem is solved by traffic lights at the top and bottom of the street, just like at road construction sites. A green light means you have just a few minutes to reach the other end of the street before the traffic going the other direction gets the green light. Wonders of wonders we made it and Chico rested in the garage for our entire visit to Granada.
We learned a lot of Spanish history during our visit. You can't miss it. We visited limestone caves in Nerja where prehistoric paintings are found, and Roman ruins are being uncovered in many places. Every city has a fascinating palace, mosque, cathedral or fortress to explore. We visited most of them and have the pictures to prove it. Malaga has an old Muslim castle, the Gibralfaro and the Alcazaba, a nicely restored palace-fortress built by the Muslim governors in the 11th C. Cordoba has an Alcazar, the castle of the Christian Monarchs with beautiful gardens. Cordoba also boasts the huge, fascinating Mezquita, the biggest mosque in the world in the 8th C.
When the Christians conquered the Muslims in the 16th C, they replaced about 1/4 of the complex in the middle with an elaborate cathedral, much to the displeasure of the populace. Outside Cordoba are the extensive, partially restored ruins of Medina Azahara. A city constructed in the 10th C but only occupied for 20 years.
Granada has the Alhambra, a sprawling, walled complex of gardens, palaces and a fortress. Water, in the form of ornamental pools and fountains in every Muslim palace make you forget this is an arid region. Granada and Seville both have strong roots to the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. Queen Isabella, who financed his voyages, is buried in Granada and the body of Columbus reputedly (it has not been determined if they are really his remains) lies in Spain's most elaborate Cathedral in Sevilla. Ronda with its spectacular gorge setting has Banos Arabes (Arab baths), gardens, castle walls, churches and ancient bridges crossing the gorge. Antequera has Roman ruins as well as the ruins of an Alcazaba and renaissance churches.
Read Part 2 of Andalucia, Spain 2004
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