For my birthday, I asked for one thing: a trip. Jacob granted me my wish: a weekend anywhere I wanted (within reason). I had visited Spain during my first backpacking trip years ago and regretted not leaving Seville to see more of Andalucia. Luckily, Jacob had never been to Spain before and it was easy to sell him on tapas and Rioja.
More details and tips under the cut!
Getting to Andalucia
Reasons to visit Andalucia
If you're also obsessed with tapas, Rioja, and the natural beauty, I recommend seeing Andalucia. It's just as charming as its big sister cities (Madrid and Barcelona) although it's much calmer withstanding the busy Costa del Sol. You can fly into either Seville or Malaga for a low price using a number of budget airlines from within the EU: Transavia (from the Netherlands), Easyjet (EU), Ryanair (EU), Vueling (major cities EU), and Wizzair (Eastern Europe). Outside of the EU, it might be cheaper to fly into Southern Spain via Barcelona, Lisbon, or another European hub.
Malaga is much more urban than I expected and reminded me more of Madrid with its great museums, many cities, and fantastic tapas bars. It didn't feel touristy, even in the most central points of the city, which was a nice change from Amsterdam. We didn't spend too much time there, however if you can wander into a nice plaza, it's really relaxing to sit outside snacking on patatas bravas while drinking fresh-made sangria. It is where Picasso is from, so you can visit the museum there if you're a modern art lover.
Although a lot of people tend to go car-less or simply stick to the Costa Del Sol, I highly recommend renting a car...and hiding your valuables (more about this later). The major cities of Andalucia aren't that far apart (maybe 1-2 hours) and the drive is stunning. Some parts remind me more of Texas than Spain due to the dryness of the landscape although I loved all the incredible/strange rock formations. (Below photo pictures La Peña de los Enamorados (Lover's Leap due to a local legend) in Antequera behind the castle).
We first drove to Granada. When I was in Seville, I had visited the Alcázar and I had heard about how incredible the Alhambra in Granada was. However, I had been sick as well as tired from constantly walking in 100F degree heat in August, so I never got there. This time, I did, which only made me appreciate it more, partially due to Jacob's explanation about the 13 forms of symmetry (more on Baez's blog) that you will find in the walls of the Alhambra, which has been an inspiration for many mathematicians and M.C. Escher himself.
Parking and driving in Granada is quite difficult, especially as you near the old city. Most streets are limited to residents and taxis, which makes it quite difficult to find parking. If you're driving, search for Colegio Ave Maria San Cristobal on Ctra. de Murcia. It's not a terrible walk down to the old city although admittedly, the jagged path makes it quite easy to get lost. We stayed in an airbnb with an incredible view of the Alhambra on Calle Horno del Oro where we had an great studio to ourselves. The owner was very warm/friendly, the location cannot be beat, and neither can the price, especially for your own apartment. Below is the view footsteps from the apartment we rented in the Alhambra.
For visiting the Alhambra, book as soon as possible. Only a limited number of people can see the Palacios Nazaríes daily and you must commit to a time. I was not one of these people although the Alhambra is still exquisite. I loved the Water Stairwell, the incredibly delicate handiwork of the buildings, and the beautiful gardens. It's a gigantic complex worth exploring.
Enough of the Alhambra! Anyways, see it. After we wandered around the Arab quarter, which is full of delicious snack and hookah, before ending up at my favorite place in Granada: a little tapas bar close to Plaza Larga that we had passed earlier. This place (La Fragua @ 16 Calle Panderos) had a special: a drink and a tapa of your choice for 2 euros. Unlike some of the other places, it was full of locals and I asked for what was the best thing to eat to the bartender in my passable. She recommended the paella, which wasn't on the menu, which is what everyone else was having. It was fantastic and I had probably 3 more plates of it, to the point where the cook came out to ask how much we liked it. The bartender got a kick out of my strange sounding Spanish account although I definitely asked for the check in technically correct Spanish...except for the word for the check in Dutch. Oops. After this point, we hit another tapas bar for more sangria and people watching before heading back to our apartment.
El Torcal National Park
We left the next morning for Antequera. It's a cute small town and I had traditional Spanish jamon sandwiches before we set off for El Torcal. El Torcal is a natural site about an hour north of Malaga and east of Granada. The rocks have very strange shapes and hiking around it is pretty fantastic. As we were driving up into the mountains, we actually drove into the cloud, which made it quite difficult to see the incredible landscape pictured on the right. We came to do via ferrata and left our bags in the car, which is something I'll come back to. We hiked around the park for a few hours before coming back to the car.
We came back to the car, however someone broke into our car via breaking the side window on my side presumably using a rock. It's a pretty sinking feeling to realize what happened. They stole Jacob's entire bag (with his laptop in the back), emptied out my wallet, and stole my camera lens. We eventually went to the National Police in Antequera to file a report and replace the car in Malaga. Theft/car break-ins are apparently quite common in Andalucia and it's good to be careful about not leaving anything you want stolen in the car (as my mom always told me as a kid).
Pro-tip: Have GOOD travel insurance (including car break-ins), HIDE all valuables if you have them in the car or carry them on you, and think carefully before leaving all your stuff in your car.
I tried to not let this get to me although we needed to drive back to Malaga before replacing the car and driving to El Gastor, a tiny white town in the mountains. Our bed and breakfast was incredibly charming and Miguel was so understanding. We spent the next morning taking in the town and the views. This region of Spain is famous for its natural beauty and its adorable white towns in the mountains (pueblos blancos). It feels a world away from Malaga.
We next drove to Ronda, the one of the most picturesque towns in Andalucia, due to its location above a gorge. There are many other things to do in Ronda besides climbing!
Ronda is a fantastic place to climb due to the unique geography as well as the easily accessible routes that are walkable from town. If you have your own gear, you can do via ferrata to climb up its famous gorge. Via ferrata is quite similar to rock climbing, except for the fact that you clip yourself onto a rope that is drilled into the wall, and there are natural footholds for you. We had difficulty finding the route marker, which resulted in us mistakenly finding someone's sheep yard..and needing to eventually climb out of a backyard when we realized we were trapped.
Via Ferrata in Ronda
If you've never tried via ferrata, you need a harness as you would for normal climbing, a helmet, as well as a special via ferrata harness. Once you master the basics of ensuring that you're always clipped in and some basic rock climbing technique, it's remarkably simple minus the fear of heights, which admittedly, is something I still grapple with. (If you're interested in trying it out, try it out with a professional first!) The most important thing is to remain calm, focus on your movements (and being clipped in!), and to stop when the adrenaline bothers you. This via ferrata was a good basic one although it's mostly stairs, which is not for those afraid of heights. You can avoid downclimbing all together by exiting after you hit the viewing platform. It's worth it for the view and adrenaline rush.
After this, we just took it easy, enjoying the natural beauty of the region, the twisty mountain roads, the view of the beaches/Mediterranean Sea from the Coastal highway, and the tapas bars in Malaga.
Other places to visit in Andalucia
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Karen and Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Now in Paris!
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