Stephanie Jack and her boyfriend had two weeks vacation, the last week of January and the first week of February. Her boyfriend was working in Europe and Stephanie, a Canadian, had never travelled in Spain and thought it would be one of the warmest European destinations at that time of year. Combining Spain and Morocco—just a short ferry ride away—seemed a perfect fit.
Many people who visit Spain tend to go to Barcelona and Madrid but we only had two weeks and wanted to see two countries. So while in Spain we decided to rent a car and focus on the Andalusia region in the south. Our itinerary was Málaga, Granada, Zuheros, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, Ronda, and back to Málaga.
The cars in Spain have standard transmission and my boyfriend is not comfortable with that. So I was the driver and he the navigator. We got a BMW sports coupe and it was nice car, brand new. In the Sierra Nevada the road follows the curves of the mountain and the drop-offs can be a bit daunting. But distances between towns are short and we were able to drive around this whole region in a week. The car was a brilliant idea because the roads are very good and we were able to go to out-of-the way places.
Andalusia is between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Mediterranean. It has a rich Moorish heritage, which was a mixed race of Berbers and Arabs from northern Africa; they built the spectacular cities in Granada, Cordoba and Seville. It is also a region of stark white hill-towns. Olives, almond trees and citrus fruits grow on the lower slopes where the weather is milder.
We flew into Málaga where we picked up the rental car. It is on the Costa del Sol of the Mediterranean, about 100 km from the Strait of Gibraltar and one of the oldest cities in the world.
Granada, located at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was a favourite of mine because of the old Moorish architecture and cobblestone streets. At the top of a hill overlooking the whole city is a huge compound called the Alhambra that is part fortress and part palace. It is stunning with its beautiful carvings and gold leaf ceilings. A short distance away there are wonderful gardens that are connected by paths. Both Alhambra and the gardens are UNESCO World Heritage sites. From there you can see the entire city and it is obvious how old it is. I lost my camera the evening after visiting the Alhambra and the pictures here do not do the city and the sights justice.
You need a whole day to see the Alhambra complex and I could have spent a couple of days there. You have to buy your entrance ticket in advance and I think it is normally quite busy but since we were there off-season we were able to see everything without waiting in lines.
Zuheros is a picture-perfect mountain village of whitewashed houses. There’s also a castle and, of course, the village church.
We barely scratched the surface of Cordoba, which is a walled medieval city and one of the oldest in Europe. The historic part of the town is a maze of narrow streets and there are many old structures. One of my favourite places was The Mezquita, a cathedral that became a mosque and now is again a cathedral. It is stunning because of all its pillars and arches. It is remarkable that over all that time the two styles are still present.
We also went to see the dancing Andalusian horses in Cordoba, a special breed once famous for its skills during war. The arena is in the old city in an annex to the compound that had once been the royal castle. There are still functional stables and training grounds there.
Seville was very busy with narrow, cobblestone streets and I would never drive there again. Everyone seems to have tiny cars and I had a hard time finding a place to park ours.
There is this massive, old gothic church called the Cathedral of Seville—one of the largest in the world. We climbed 16 flights up the bell tower where you get a 360-degree view of the whole city. The Jewish quarters, near the Cathedral, was one of my favourite areas. It’s almost like a fairy-tale with its ancient walls, winding roads and moats. Orange trees are everywhere but you don’t eat these oranges because they are very bitter and used for marmalade. The shopping is great in Seville.
Jerez de la Frontera is all about sherry because the white grapes grown in the area are perfect for sherry. Apparently, to be called ‘sherry’ the wine has to be aged within the geographical area of the so-called sherry triangle. We went on an English-speaking winery tour and did some sherry tasting. I was surprised to learn that there are 5 types of sherry depending on how long they age. Cadiz, which is close to Jerez, is part of the sherry triangle and along its break wall there are these unusual concrete-square wave breakers.
We had lunch high in the mountains in the village of Ronda about 100 km west of Málaga. The tiny restaurant is beside an old bridge that connects two sides of the town over a very deep gulley. It’s the kind of scene where you can just imagine people bungee jumping off the bridge.
I was kind of disappointed with the food in Spain. They seem to eat a lot of bread and meat; chips (French fries) was often the only vegetable served. It seems that every meal includes ham. Ham is everywhere. You go to a pub and a leg of ham would be hanging over your head. It is the highest quality of ham, of course, but you soon feel surrounded by it. I was so happy to find seafood paella in Seville.
I think most people in Spain eat their meals at home and afterwards go out for a drink that is accompanied by tapas so maybe it gave me a false impression of what they eat. But after a couple of days I was really tired of eating so many tapas.
The weather along the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun) is usually 17 ° c during the day in winter and it’s a little colder in the mountains but pleasant. We stayed mostly in Ibis hotels, which were easy to book and to find, usually about US$30 a night with a private bathroom.
That was Spain! Next month I’ll tell you about Morocco.
This interview with Stephanie Jack has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Stephanie Jack
© Riding the buses 2013