Rows and rows of olive groves, Moorish relics, and excellent food & wine. Andalusia is best experienced by car. My road trip took me to tiny mountaintop villages and historical urban centers.
I recently decided to take a last minute trip and with a quick search with the “Everywhere” feature on Skyscanner in minutes I had a round-trip ticket booked to Madrid (for $390). I planned on going south to sip wine, eat olives, and check out the leftover Moorish architecture. As my eyes moved south on the map they didn’t stop until they reached Morocco. So now I was going to Spain and Morocco!
I went into the trip with a loose plan, but here is how the itinerary worked out. I was anxious for olive groves and quiet roads so I went straight from the airport in Madrid to the train station and hopped on a AVE high speed train to Seville (book at least a couple days in advance for the best deal). After a couple of days there, I rented a car and headed for the mountain villages of Arcos de la Frontera, Grazalema, Zahara, and Ronda. Then down to Tarifa to take the ferry to Tangier, Morocco. Once back in Spain I spent a day in Gibraltar and on to Granada to see the Alhambra.
Cervecirias Hoping In Seville
My image of Seville was ancient palm trees soaring above iron balconied beautiful buildings. This is not what you see when you exit the train station. It’s a newer part of the city that looks like it all went up in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s not the welcome I was looking for, but in the quick 20 minute walk to the hotel things changed pretty quickly. I booked my hotel on TripAdvisor (I use it a lot to get real reviews and traveler photos) a few days before I left. Hotel Don Pedro. It was well located and looked like it had the Spanish touches I was after. When I walked up by cozy tapas bars and cervecirias(Spain’s version of a pub or local bar/hangout) with mostly locals sitting outside sipping beer, wine, or sherry I knew I was in the right spot.
There are no shortages of super touristy restaurants to avoid in Seville, but if you know what to look for you can steer clear. Most of the tapas bars will be frequented by holidaying Spaniards and locals. Many serve free tapas during the afternoon. Sherry is a traditional drink in Seville so I threw down my bags to head to the local, El Rinconcillo, a couple of doors down to give it a try. It was bustling and felt anything but touristy. It’s actually quite a famous old place definitely worth an afternoon sipping local wine or brew and snacking on tapas. There is a lot of outside eating and drinking to be done in Seville. Head to the Barrio Santa Cruz and to the Bodega Santa Cruz and snag one of the outside tables before they fill up later in the afternoon. There is a tapas bar worth stumbling into about every 10 feet in Seville.
One of the biggest draws for me to visit Andalusia was to check out the Moorish influence. You will find little gems all over the the region. In Seville, there is one of the best examples. The Alcazar is also one of the most visited spots, but there is room for all so it shouldn’t be missed.
If you really want to rub elbows with the Sevilllanos head to the Mercado de Triana. It’s Seville’s main food market. You can sample all kinds of Spanish delights. Grab a glass of wine or beer and walk around and sample. Get their early! While you’re over there head to Bar T de Triana (on Calle Betis just around the corner which has a lot of local bars and pubs) for a flamenco show (free on Tuesday and Thursday nights!).
Mountaintop Village of Arcos De La Frontera
Arcos de la Frontera is one of the Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) of Andalusia. It’s setting is dramatic sitting on top of a hill with 360 views. The drive from Seville is equally as beautiful. It’s very easy to rent a car one way in Spain so I planned on picking up in Seville and then dropping off at my last Andalusian destination of Granada. It’s only about a 2 Hour Dr. from Seville to Arcos, but there are lots of amazing photo ops along the way so it took me a little longer. After doing a little research I decided to stay at La Casa Grande to get a room on the edge of town in the hill with a view. They suggested on their website to park at the bottom of the hill and either walk or take a taxi up because of the narrowness of the streets. I will save you the trouble of finding out the hard way like I did and second that suggestion. About 90% of the streets through the center of Arcos seem like something you’re not supposed to be driving on. They are uncomfortably narrow and steep with tight corners that you will inch around. In the end I figured out they are best left to the locals for driving, but they are an amazing sight and a photographers dream. La Casa Grande was an excellent little hotel. All of its rooms wrap around the center atrium patio where they serve breakfast. There is plenty of comfy and eclectic seating. There’s also an amazing little library that is worth sitting and reading in. Some rooms have balconies but there is also a beautiful roof deck. All of he rooms have sweeping views of the valley below. While in Arcos wonder around the labyrinth of streets and alleys. Stop by the Church of Santa María and the Church of San Pedro. As you walk around, peek into the private patios. These wonderful, traditional tiled courtyards filled with plants, pools, furniture, are typical of Arcos.
Drive Through The Sierra Nevada Mountains And Los Pueblos Blancos
On the day I left Arcos I got an early start with excitement for the beautiful drive ahead of me. The road between Arcos and Ronda goes right through the Sierra Nevada mountains with hairpin turns and sweeping views. If you were to drive straight through it would probably only take a couple of hours. I took the entire day and really took my time. There are plenty of mirador’s (view points) to stop for some of the best photo ops you’ve ever seen. There are many trailheads along route A-372. I stopped at one about 4 kilometers before Grazalema and did about a two hour beautiful hike.
Grazalema is one of the Pueblo Blanco villages perched on a hilltop. It has a central square where you can watch old men playing cards, and there are plenty of quiet, whitewashed streets to explore. For me Grazalema was a perfect place to stop for a bite and wonder around for an hour or 2. Plaza de Andalucía, a block off the view terrace, has several decent little bars and restaurants.
Zahara is a small village under the watchful eye of a Moorish castle. The views are striking. During Moorish times, Zahara was within the fortified castle walls above today’s town. It was considered the gateway to Granada and a strategic stronghold for the Moors.
Ronda was first declared a city by Julius Caesar in the late 4C AD, but pretty quickly taken over by the Moors. It has many historically significant things to see including remnants of a ancient wall but the shining star is undoubtedly the Puente Nuevo bridge. That bridge though! It was completed in 1793 and took forty two years to build. It is seriously something to be seen. Ronda is surrounded by lush river valleys and sitting above a deep ravine, it is a place that literally takes your breath away when seeing it.
There are plenty of great walks and hikes all around the city. Go to the Plaza De Maria Auxiliadora and take the trail that leads down to the bottom of the bridge. Then double back and stay on the trail that heads toward the rolling valley of olive trees. You’ll pass by the remnant of an Arabic wall and through the Puerta Del Viento gate (as soon as I saw it I decided to come back that evening with a bottle of wine). Keep going and you’ll come to impressive Puerta de Almocabar, which was one of the most heavily defended parts of the wall. Walk through the gate, up the hill, and when you see the incline most people walk up to the left, skip it, and walk directly straight to the right. you wind up on the trail that goes outside the wall down the hill with plenty of places to sit and eat lunch (if you brought something with you. I did!) and admire the striking views. I ran into a herd of sheep. If you continue down the path it will take you to the Arab Baths, the best preserved in Spain. They were built at the end of the 13th century. Many of its features are still visible and in good condition. The star-shaped vents in the roof were modeled after the ceiling of the more famous bathhouse at the Alhambra in Granada. Also see the Palacio del Rey Moron and have a look at the Plaza De Toros (Bullring).
Drive to Tarifa and Ferry to Morocco
The next part of this adventure was something I was really looking forward to. It was something that wasn’t planned at all and came up spontaneously. The day I left Ronda I got up before the sun came up to drive down to Tarifa to get on the boat to Morocco. Something I highly recommend but check out my post here about the hassle that most people have experienced.
Once I was back in Spain I headed straight for another destination I was really excited about. For some reason I’ve been obsessed with visiting Gibraltar. It has such an interesting and controversial history. And I thought it would be interesting to have a little taste of the UK. One thing that I was completely fascinated about what that you have to WALK or DRIVE across the airport runway to get to Gibraltar! It certainly makes for some interesting photos! Gibraltar is a quick tour. Just a quick visit to the top of the rock, walk through the town, a pint at the pub, an order of fish and chips, and a flash of my passport to get back in the Spain and I was back on the road!
Granada and the Alhambra
Granada was a the last Muslim city to fall to the Christians in 1492. There is one reason why I’m here. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with keeping off the tourist trail. The Alhambra is one of the most brilliant jewels of Moorish architecture in Spain. It’s a series of palaces and gardens built under the Nazari Dynasty in the 14th century. The ruin of the original casbah can be seen and the fortress of the Alcabaza. If the jaw dropping Moorish palatial architecture isn’t enough, it all stands at the foot of Spain’s highest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, and overlooks the city below and the fertile plain of Granada. Here’s the thing, it is packed with tourists. You even have to book ahead to see the palaces (recommend at least a couple days in advance). It’s crowded, it’s well-traveled, but it’s absolutely beautiful. A must see.
That’s it! I got rid of the car and hopped the train back to Madrid. The food, wine, views, people, and culture of Andalusia definitely made a big impact on me and I am already planning on returning.
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