Our entrance into Cadiz was quite spectacular.
We drove over the brand new bridge (just 14 months old) with a brilliant blue sky above and the sea sparkling a storybook Mediterranean blue below us.
the brand new road bridge
There was hardly any traffic on the road as we parked the car up and then set out on foot to search for our hostel among the twisting streets in the old town.
Cadiz or Cadicadicadi as locals call it is the most charming town and both Debs and I fell instantly in love with it.
the cathedral sparkles in the sun
Maybe it’s because it’s almost completely surrounded by the sea (a causeway connects it to the rest of Spain), maybe because the architecture is so different (many of the old sea merchants’ houses have watchtowers), maybe it is the enormous promenades and parks, but definitely it is because the people are so friendly.
street life in Cadiz
Oh, and we fell on our feet at our backpackers’ hostel too.
I LOVED the hostel – the Casa Caracol. It had an amazing vibe, great staff, and it was all contained in a beautiful building with heaps of character. I immediately told Debs that I wasn’t planning on checking out any time soon and we threw ourselves into the atmosphere by booking a ‘family’ dinner which was made by a couple from Argentina.
We spent an evening piled up on sofas and beanbags watching a video with most of the other guests, we took part in an impromptu flamenco class with yet another guest and generally we had a great time. There was a roof terrace with hammocks and an outdoor shower and loo, a log burner for the colder nights and an awful lot of stairs. Oh, and a great pancake breakfast was included in the price which is always welcome when you are backpacking and travelling.
a loo with a view
Out and about in the town we got ourselves a free walking tour, we climbed up the Tavira Tower, we explored just about every little nook and cranny and we ate our body weight in tapas.
The walking tour
Of course we tracked down a free walking tour (for tips) and that gave us a great insight into the history and the culture of Cadiz.
the narrow streets of Cadiz
Our guide walked us around the old town and explained how Cadiz became rich due to its location as a port on the tip of Spain and how from here many of the old time Spanish explorers, adventurers and pirates started and ended their trips.
the architecture screams wealth
I had already noticed the resemblance to Havana in Cuba – both in the architecture and the way that the long seafront was arranged – but also in the attitude and the openness of the population. There just seemed to be a lightness about the place. The physical light had a clarity to it – as you might find in St Ives in Cornwall or other places that artists love so much, and the people also had a carefree vibe about them.
one of the many forts
La Torre Tavira and the Camara Oscura
I had seen a camera oscura before – coincidentally in Havana when I was on my adventure trip with Explore – and this one was fun too.
An image of the city below is projected onto a screen in the dark at the top of the tower via a series of cameras and periscopes and we learnt about the unique skyline of Cadiz.
The watchtowers of Cadiz
Many of the sea merchants’ homes had towers on the roof but they are not really visible from ground level. They build the towers so that they could look out for their approaching vessels (or those of their rivals) and they could communicate with the captains by a system of flag signals. Cadiz must have been an amazing sight in its heyday with the port packed full of ships and colourful flags fluttering across the skyline.
The location of the city also made it a target for invading troops and so it was heavily fortified.
looking out to sea
A series of solid stone walls encircle the town and squat forts stick out into the sea at strategic points. Some of these are free, others contain museums and many of the street corners in the old town have iron posts to protect the walls of the houses from the carts and the traffic – but these iron ‘posts’ are the old cannons!
The twisting streets may have been designed in this way to repel invaders who would get lost and who could be more easily ambushed
A wealthy city
Because wealthy merchants and business owners settled here many of the houses are decorated with elaborate balconies and beautiful parks and gardens can be found all over the city, with exotic trees and plants and with fountains of water cascading over colourful ceramic tiles.
one of the beautiful parks
There are churches on every corner and the creamy white stones of the cathedral gleam in the sun and tables and chairs and tiny little cafes are all just a stones’ throw apart.
stepping back in time
Have you ever been escorted off a sherry tour?
The general idea is that you tour the wine cellar, sample the different types of sherry and then buy some more in the shop.
We arrived at the town of Jerez on a day trip from Cadiz by train.
the rather grand station at Jerez
A riot of colour greeted us as we stepped off the train in Jerez. The station building is decked out with the most beautiful coloured tiles which of course point to the wealth that was in this region in the past.
Once we had got our bearings and after a short strong coffee, Debs and I took advantage of the Open Top Tourist Bus which included a visit to the Tio Pepe Sherry Estate.
wonderful tiles at the station
In the late autumn sunshine Jerez was a quiet and charming little town. Its claim to fame is the sherry (fortified wine) and flamenco.
The tour of the Tio Pepe cellar was really very interesting and it was all housed in a grand estate. The grounds were so big that at one point we were taken in a little land-train from one area to another. The barrels which are painted black (so that any leaks can be more noticeable) were lined up in formal rows and our guide explained the concept of sherry making to our tour group and he also pointed out the barrels which famous people had signed and been photographed next to.
Then it was on to the best bit of our tour – the sherry tasting. Our ticket included a couple of free samples – and Debs and I soon upgraded to try several more. We managed to persuade the others on our table to join us but when we asked for another round our guide informed us that it was not possible and we had to leave.
Actually it should have all been very possible but he wanted to go home (we suspect that he had a date) and it seemed that we were his responsibility until we were off the premises. We found a Japanese guy who was staying at our hostel and who invited us to join him, but our guide was having none of it.
We thought that we had given him the slip when we went to the toilets (our Japanese friend followed us and invited us again to join him) but our guide tracked us down and he escorted us off the premises! Short of twisting our arms behind our backs he hustled us out, via the gift shop which he herded us quickly through not even allowing us time to stop and buy some sherry and he deposited us back out onto the street. We weren’t even drunk but hey ho it made for a very amusing anecdote.
Get your Spanish phrase book here so that you can avoid confusion when you travel.
As you would expect seafood features heavily in the cuisine of Cadiz and Jerez. The fish market is a vibrant, smelly place and it contains numerous stalls which will cook your chosen fish to order. A speciality of the region are the flat crispy little shrimp ‘pancakes’, of course the sherry and chiparrones – deep fried bite sized crunchy bits of baby octopus and which are a lot more delicious than they might sound.
one of the typical shrimp fitters
Whilst we were chilling in the hostel one afternoon, one of the guests was practising flamenco. We began chatting to him and he invited us along to watch him practice later that evening. Alex teaches flamenco and whilst we expected to watch him he was really generous and gave four of us an impromptu flamenco lesson.
our impromptu flamenco lesson
I had been moved almost to tears by the raw passion at the flamenco show while we were in Granada and here I was, stamping and clicking with a maestro. It was the perfect end to Cadiz and the most southerly point of our #roadtripSpain. We would be heading back up the map the next day.
The interesting bits of Cadiz and Jerez
Our trip – Cadiz – Jerez – Cadiz
Where we stayed: Casa Caracol Hostel – definitely a 5 star choice – click here to see the latest rates and pictures of the rooms. You don’t even have to stay in a dorm as there are private rooms and they are beautiful too
Sherry Tour: we bought a duel ticket for the city open top bus ride combine with our entry fee to the Tio Pepe sherry estate. This included 2 samples of sherry and was excellent value – we just would have liked some more sherry (I should add, we were prepared to pay for it). The Tio Pepe tour was also interesting and our guide was excellent – we just would have liked to have chilled and sampled some more of the products.
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Getting kicked off a sherry tour!
There is so much more than the Alhambra and in this, the third in the series of our road trip around the south of Spain we set out to discover Granada. (click to catch up and read part 1 and part 2)
Granada is like any other modern city in the world with all of the shops that you could want, but the older areas of the town win hands down.
the old Arab quarter
And there are several of these historic areas just waiting to be discovered – each with its own distinct identity.
We began by taking a free walking tour with Feel the City Tours which gave us a great insight into Granada. We also ventured up into the Albaicin – the Old Arab Quarter. As you know, I love a free walking tour – they are nearly always led by enthusiastic guides who give you insider information that you don’t often find in the run of the mill guide books – you can read about some free walking tours that I took previously in this article.
Discover Granada and the intriguing districts
Here in Granada we met Alberto our guide and the rest of our group and we learnt about Spain’s diverse cultural mix and how it came about with conquering Romans, Barbarians, Moors, Visigoths and Christians all taking a turn and then the corruption and bribes which greased the palms of officials who turned a blind eye to inappropriate building works.
the imposing cathedral
We saw the old building which once housed the silk traders from India and we wandered around the narrow streets of the Alcaiceria market with the colourful items for sale from Morocco and India and further afield. We paused in the square where bonfires of books from the Arabic University and the largest library in Spain were burn during the Spanish Inquisition and we learnt how (allegedly) Queen Isabel refused to shower for 4 years – because daily showers were something that Muslin women did!
As we circled the cathedral which contains the bodies of Queen Isabella and King Fernando, Alberto told us that the painted graffiti that we were looking at were in fact seventeenth century advertisements for prominent lawyers etc from the rich families – who used a permanent ink to write their signs.
discover Granada – 17th century advertisements
The cathedral is the 4th biggest in the world although it only has a short tower. This is because to have built any taller would have caused the tower to lean or collapse due to the soft ground near the river.
We stopped by the church of San Gregorio. This church was once sold and for a while housed a brothel but now you can go inside and see some of the 12 nuns who permanently live there and who permanently pray around the clock in relay teams.
Albaicin – the Arab Old Quarter
Although our free guided walk took us up into the Albaicin area, Debbie and myself explored it extensively during our three days in Granada. Quiet cobbled streets wind around the hillside, disorientating and confusing with large villas and tiny cottages mostly hid mysteriously behind high walls and ornamental gates
discover Granada – hidden behind walls
My favourite area of Granada was Sacromonte– famous for its caves and cave houses, gitanos (gypsies) and flamenco.
exploring the back streets
Although it was a bit of an uphill climb we found ourselves drawn up here again and again. We found an enterprising local family who had put a couple of plastic tables and chairs in the street outside their home and where you could buy beer or sangria. Sat in the street, we were the only tourists on any of our visits here, we had to have the best view of the Alhambra – and without the crowds all vying for the best shot over at the Mirador San Nicolas.
the Alhambra viewed from the top of Sacromonte
We stopped to rest and to chat to an old local guy who lives in one of the cave houses on a bench and who told us that locals always pause to drink from a small fountain every time they pass it. We witnessed teenage girls and local men on their way home from all work stooping to catch some water to their lips. We climbed high up to the little church of San Miguel Alto (I had been here on my last visit several years previously). We sat on the low wall as the sun fell low in the sky and we saw the cluster of mail boxes for some of the people up here who live in the caves.
mailboxes for the cave houses
Historically, the caves cut into the hillside have housed the poor, often the gypsies and more lately hippies and squatters who are largely unbothered by government rules and regulations. On our way back down to the main residential area of the Sacromonte we accidentally took a wrong turning and found ourselves walking through the back gardens of some of the more salubrious residents muttering our apologies. I remembered our guide on my last visit warning us not to come to close to these properties and here we were stumbling through their barbeque party. We were lucky tonight – they were smiley and invited us to join them!
Flamenco – dance and song of the gypsies.
Granada is a fantastic city and its prize jewel is without a doubt the Alhambra but for both me and Debbie the absolute highlight was the privilege of being immersed in electrifying flamenco.
we were all captivated
Debs has been taking flamenco lessons so was particularly keen to see a show – but neither of us wanted to pay thirty plus euros for a sterile show just for the tourists.
We found ourselves drawn over and over again to a tiny little place, Le Chien Andalou which only charged ten euros. Worried that you probably get what you pay for, we grabbed our front seats seats and settled down. Sometimes flamenco music could to unaccustomed ears sound tuneless and the dancing could look staged but tonight’s show blew our mind.
It blew more than our minds. At the end of the show even the macho Spanish men in the audience had tears in their eyes. I have never seen a Spanish guitar played with such speed or skill, the voice of the singer cut right into the deepest depths of your soul and the dancing was fabulous.
Lost in their own little world but still very much working as a team, the three stomped, clapped and clicked. We were so close that Beatriz’s skirt was flicking our knees and the sweat poured down her face and neck, her eyes closed and her face a mask of concentration, sadness and passion.
After three nights in Granada we got back on the road and continued south to the mountain town of Ronda. This small town was such a contrast to Granada – the main attraction is its old stone bridge which connects the two sides of the town high over a gorge which is 120 metres deep.
The New Bridge (1793)
It was raining when we arrived but we didn’t let that spoil our fun and we managed to get out and walk and see the bridge from every angle – including from right underneath it after clambering over a barrier and balancing down a precarious narrow path.
The new bridge
Ronda is one of Spain’s most ancient cities and all around there is evidence of old stone walls,medieval gates, fortifications and of course, the amazing bridges (there are 3).
The town sits on a plateau where the land seems to roll on and on for ever. At night, there were plenty of bars and restaurants open and on the Saturday lunchtime it seemed as if every one of the town’s citizens was out eating lunch in the restaurants.
There is a very imposing looking bullring (most Spanish towns have a bullring) but the jewel in the crown of Ronda is undoubtedly the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) over the gorge that was built between 1751 and 1793.
outside the bullring
Where we stayed and insider information.
Granada – the Alhambra, Albaicin, Sacromonte and Flamenco – Ronda
In Granada we camped at Camping/Motel Sierra Nevada. You can read about that and about secretly charging our mobile phones which we wrapped in plastic bags and buried in the hedges while we pilfered the energy from the banned electric points – in my previous article: Road Trip Spain #2
We ran out of time but I am very sorry that we missed the Museum for the Caves of Sacromonte. I would have liked to have learnt more about this fascinating area with its unique culture.
Always check the adverts on your city maps which you pick up from the tourist offices. You will often find special offers or discounts. We had a very decent free glass of wine and a tapas each at El Corte Ingles department store in Granada.
Climate: Granada enjoys over three thousand hours of sunshine a year and average temperatures of 22 degrees. In its position in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada it has hard, cold winters and extremely hot summers.
In Ronda we stayed in a small room at the Pension Rondasol. We shared a bathroom but the wifi was good and we were lucky to find free on-street parking very close to the hotel. If you want to save yourself the hassle of driving around Ronda searching for a place to stay, check out the Rondasol here
that bridge again
Whilst we didn’t visit, we could see people on the other side of the river in Ronda climbing down the steps to the Secret Mine and the Arab Fortress and the Forestier’s Hanging Gardens surrrounding the Palace of the Moorish King.
If you want to know more about Spain and especially Andalucia, you can get your Lonely Planet Guide here: Buy Now!
The other articles in the series can be found here:
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Exploring the south of Spain on a Road Trip – Part 2
Leaving the small seaside town of San Jose behind we set off in Betty the Berlingo to continue exploring the south of Spain – our next stop was the Sierra Nevada and Granada.
We were now in the National Park of Cabo de Gata with its undeveloped coastline and deserted beaches.
The deserted Cabo de Gata
The lunar like landscape in this region has been used in the past for many films – such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and deeper in the interior there are even gold mines.
We passed some huge lagoons with pink flamingos rummaging around for whatever it is they eat in the mud (what is it about those birds that make them so lovable?) and then we drove up to the headland named Las Sirenas (the mermaids) where the lighthouse gleamed white against a cornflower blue sky.
the lighthouse at Las Sirenes
After a brisk walk in a bracing wind we decided to break with what few plans we had and to head inland. A friend had texted the previous night and advised us to go up into the mountains of the vast Sierra Nevada where apparently there are 50 picturesque little white villages dotted around.
There are just two main routes across the Sierra Nevada and we chose the southerly route. Debs drove Betty steadily upwards from the coastal plain and into the mountains. The view altered as we rounded each of the hundreds of hairpins, from vast sweeping vistas rolling to the distant horizon, craggy, spiky mountain peaks, forests of dark pines or oaks and steep sided valleys.
Traffic was sparse, the roadside plummeted away below us in many places and all over, we could see the famous tiny whitewashed houses clustered in their little villages and surrounded by open space.
We spent our first night in Laroles where we managed to track down a campsite. We had naively thought that we would have our pick of places to stay en route but as the owner at the Camping Alpujarras site explained, we had managed to start our #roadtripSpain at the end of the hotel season and he would only be open for one night more. (click here for latest prices at the Alpujarras site)
We also had our first encounter of many with road sweepers and government workers who luckily were always around whenever we got lost. This time, our guy in his white van didn’t just point us in the right direction to the campsite up on the mountain; he jumped in his van and led us there.
It was strange being the only campers on the site, virtually in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by an imposing pine forest. We trekked down into the village and then on our return Debs cooked us supper over her little gas cooker – before we headed inside the bar for some warmth and some wifi.
view from the highest village in Spain
The next day we continued our journey across the Sierra Nevada, stopping off at tiny little villages with coffee shops and bars on amazing viewpoints – in fact every part of every village was an amazing viewpoint – even the public gym equipment was sited high up on bluffs of rock.
One peculiar feature of the little white-washed houses was their flat roofs and the tall stone chimneys. We asked why flat roofs in a region which had heavy snow fall every winter – why not steep roofs? We were told that historically the flat roofs were used for drying red peppers, chillies and herbs – with villagers having to climb up daily during the winter to sweep the snow away so that the houses don’t collapse. The houses in each village nearly all face south – perfect for catching the warmth of the winter sun and the dry cold air is perfect for drying hams and the goat cheeses.
a typical house of this region
We rocked up for our next overnight stop in the highest village in Spain.
Checking in to the campsite – Camping Trevelez we opted to pay the extra euro each for a wooden cabin (garden shed) rather than our tent and because the night time temperatures were plummeting at that altitude http://www.campingtrevelez.com/?lang=enwe also opted for an extra euro for a heater.
our wonderfully warm cabin
I like to think that this wasn’t a case of opting out but more one of survival. We took a long hike down to the village where we sat in the village square soaking up the bright sunshine and visited some of the many delicatessens with their hams and goats cheeses. We were in our element here – the whole village smelt like one giant ham and plate loads of the top quality meats were handed out as free tapas with our beer.
this is the life
We wandered around some of the places where the hams are cured and marvelled at the sheer number of them hanging from ceilings. I apologise to any vegetarians reading this post, but if you want a top quality ham then this is the place in Spain to come to.
the very top quality hams
That night we ate out in the bar of our campsite and chatted to some other travellers who were in the region for the hiking and the scenery, before deciding to make the most of our garden shed cabin and having an early night.
touristy but attractive
Around the Sierra Nevada and Granada
The following day we dropped down in altitude to the city of Granada which lies in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It was my second time here having had a flying visit some years before but I was keen to explore this historic city properly.
The iconic Alhambra
Despite our chosen campsite being well signposted Debs and I still drove around and around for half an hour before we realised that the flags on the roadside were the entrance gate. We had chosen a municipal site for the safe/cheap parking and its close proximity to the bus route into the centre of the city.
The first thing to organise were our tickets to the Alhambra Palace. The tourist office couldn’t help us because they had sold out for the next 10 days but the very friendly guy at our reception desk at our campsite managed to get hold of tickets for us in a couple of days time. So, we confirmed our stay for three nights in our ever-so-cosy tent and thought about what to do in the meantime.
the Alhambra at night
Finding things to do in Granada is not a problem.
Walk, shop, eat, repeat. Walk, shop, eat, repeat. Marvel at the wonderful views, architecture and culture and walk, shop, eat, repeat….
But first, let me tell you about the Alhambra is a large complex containing several palaces which were constructed over a period of time for different rulers.
Inside the Alhambra
Set on top of the hill in an imposing position above the city, the first palace was started by the Moors in 1237. Several centuries later in 1492 the complex was surrendered to the Catholic monarchs. It is spectacular at night – its floodlit form dominates the skyline. It sprawls along a ridge high above the town, and consists of several distinct sections which can take at least three hours to wander leisurely around.
Road trip Spain – the Alhambra
The Alhambra is full of Arabic architecture with reflective pools of water and fountains, intricate carvings cover walls and ceilings and it has beautifully landscaped gardens. There is an ancient stone well surrounded by lions which I believe is only one of such statues in the Islamic world to feature living creatures (it is forbidden to portray living creatures in pictures and carvings in Islam) and there are many keyhole shaped doors and fret-worked windows offering glimpses over the city below.
One of the many gardens in the Alhambra
The stone dome roofs of the hamman (steam baths) contrast with the square palace which now houses the museum of fine arts. The fortified castle (the Alcazaba) with its tall towers dominates one end of the ridge and there is a huge area where you can see excavations of the foundations of the soldiers’ quarters.
tourists marvel at the intricate decorations
The whole compex is set on the wooded hillside which is interesting in itself to walk through – and as you descend back to the narrow streets of the old town you pass intriguing shops set into the cliffs.
We visited the Alhambra on our third day in the city – but as I have already hinted at, there is so much more in this city.
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In my next article I will tell you about accidentally discovering THE best viewpoint of the Alhambra at night totally free of the hordes of tourists, unintentionally wandering through a party of the cave dwellers who squat in caves high above the town and the highlight of Granada for us, the night that Debs and I and thirty other people were moved to tears by a passionate flamenco show.
Details of our road trip around the south of Spain, Part 2
San Jose – Cabo de Gata – Laroles – Trevelez – Granada
Laroles – Camping Alpujarras. We pitched our tent here in the forest. The kitchens weren’t open as the site was closing down the very next day but we spent the evening in the little bar with the most stunning picture window and views across the mountains.
Trevelez – Camping Trevelez – we could have camped but as the night time temperatures were plummeting we opted instead for a cosy little wooden cabin. We ate good wholesome food in the bar in the evening and chatted to some other travellers.
Granada – Camping Sierra Nevada – On the surface this campsite was great – the toilets and showers were spotless, the site was well maintained with mature trees and shrubs and it was perfectly located for the city of Granada on a very efficient bus route. Sadly, the extras, or the lack of them let the site down. There was a bar with weak wifi BUT every electric point was taped over. When I asked if I could charge my lap top the staff declined and told me that they were nothing to do with the campsite. That shouldn’t have mattered but we were drinking there. The site would charge our mobile phones at reception for a fee – there was no way I was going to leave my lap top charging there – but as I had a deadline to reach, I had to resort to sitting on a wooden bench in the dark, damp and freezing cold with my laptop plugged in behind the drinks vending machine. The final straw was when we left the site the computer system had (allegedly) gone down and we could only pay by cash. We scraped together enough euros to pay our bill but we then had problems once we were en route to our next stop as we couldn’t find an ATM and we needed fuel. If you want to go a little bit more upmarket you could stay in one of the motel rooms
The Alhambra – if possible buy your tickets in advance but if the tourist office has sold out, check whether your hotel, hostel or campsite can get hold of any for you.
La Alpujarra – make sure that you try the goats cheese and the Serrano hams
Trevelez – the handmade rugs are amazing value and unlike any others that I have seen. Not for the first time I (almost) wished that I had a home of my own
For the latest prices at the camping sites in the Sierra Nevada click here
You can read the other articles in this series at the following links and if you would like to know more, the Lonely Planet has a series of books on the south of Spain and Andalucia: Check out their library here
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Road trip the south of Spain – Part 2
I had been static for far too long since my return from S E Asia so when my friend suggested a road trip around the south of Spain I didn’t hesitate – I was in!
I decided not to research too much into any of the destinations on the road trip because I wanted to discover what Spain had to offer along the way. I wanted to discover each new place for myself – apart from what I already knew and I wasn’t disappointed. There were countless ‘Wow!’ moments as we travelled for just short of three weeks, so read on and find out just what a road trip around the south of Spain has to offer and maybe go ahead and plan your own adventure.
If you are the sort of person that does like to plan in advance, you can get your guide books at this link
the prom in Alicante
I began with a few days in Alicante. I travelled down by train to join my family who were renting a typical apartment building in the old part of the town just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral for a week. With the original patterned tiled floors and tiny balconies hanging over the narrow lane I was in my element.
View of Alicante from Santa Barbara castle
In Alicante I had been expecting a typical tourist hot-spot but in fact Alicante (click on it’s name for more info) is so much more. It manages to combine chic with contemporary and traditional with cutting-edge. It has a beautiful promenade running behind a port, the marina and some long golden sandy beaches.
the castle high above the town
There is the impressive Santa Barbara castle high up on a bluff of rock above the town which is well worth exploring. It is one of the largest medieval fortresses in Spain and has played a major part in the city’s historical events from when it was built by the Arabs to when it was used as a prison during the Spanish Civil War. You can get up to the top via a lift so there’s no need to tire yourself out in the heat. There are several museums in the town and, according to my sister, the shopping is quite spectacular. The streets in the old quarter tumble down the side of the hill where cute and pretty buildings have been haphazardly thrown together and everywhere is a riot of balconies, window boxes, flowers and colour.
pretty streets climb the hillside
Alicante, in fact the whole of the south of Spain, excels at tapas and this road trip unintentionally began as it went on – as one huge food fest.
There are bars and restaurants everywhere and because Alicante is blessed with a special sort of a micro-climate, much of the eating and drinking takes place outdoors. Tables and chairs are set up in just about every plaza and side street. One thing that always impresses me is how the Spanish take the art of service – waiters and waitresses, bar staff and barristas so seriously. In this country it is a respected career choice rather than a temporary fill-in job for students.
eating al fresco in one of the many plazas
The town hall is open to the public and is well worth a poke about (free entry). Anybody is free to wander around some of the rooms upstairs which retain their old chandeliers, portraits, tapestries and floor tiles and get a glimpse of a time gone by. The building itself is imposing with its large gold statue of Dali in the entrance and positioned just behind the beach road. Just smile at the receptionist and you should be allowed upstairs for a look.
My friend drove down and joined my family and I for a few day before we all went our separate ways and our road trip around the south of Spain began in earnest.
Alicante to Cartagena
Our vehicle of choice was a workhorse named Betty (the Berlingo), our accommodation of choice was a tent bought especially for the occasion and our route was flexible. It also soon became clear once we were actually bowling down the road and away from Alicante that we had no road map. This could be interesting!
I still get excited when I see flamingos
We passed lagoons packed with pink flamingos and then we drove through a dusty, lunar like landscape. Despite the heat and the desert-like terrain this huge region of Spain is where much of the fruit and veg for Europe is grown – under enormous plastic tents. These plastic shrouds dominate the landscape and are often, seemingly, miles from civilisation.
It’s really quite ugly but obviously quite necessary for both the economy but also to feed, not just the inhabitants of Spain but much of Europe too.
Spain is VAST
We rocked up at our first port of call – Cartagena. I wanted to visit this city because I had loved Cartagena in Colombia so much but there could be no comparison – apart from they are both large ports and there is an awful lot to see here.
The ampitheatre and the port in Cartagena
Cartagena is very much a working city with a port. There is a well-preserved Roman ampi-theatre which we didn’t actually go into but we could see most of it from above but Debs and I did visit the very interesting Bomb Shelter museum. During the Spanish Civil War the civilians of Cartagena hid out in tunnels and caves which were carved into the huge rock that dominates the city and these tunnels have now been opened up as a museum.
The tunnels were excavated in 1937 and sheltered up to 5500 people during the repeated bombing raids by the Italian-German airforce which supported Franco.
Cartagena was the headquarters of the Republican fleet who operated out of the port and this made it a target for the bombers. It was sobering to think of so many scared people crammed into the tunnels in the mountainside.
Going up – the lift up to the castle
On top of the big rock in which the bomb shelters are carved is the Conception Castle which we also chose to visit and which was accessed via a rather modern lift in a tall metal tube which wobbled horribly when you walked over the metal walkway at the top.
The 13th century castle houses an interpretation centre and various displays, and like the castle in Alicante it has spectacular views across the port.
the intricate details of the balconies
I was especially delighted with the roads lined with the impressive merchant houses complete with intricate details and balconies. In the late autumn sunshine, the streets were packed with people enjoying their Saturday tapas and drinks. Much of the old town is surrounded by ancient walls and it turned out to be particularly difficult to get our bearings due to the geography of the city and the way that it jutted out into the water.
We hadn’t booked any accommodation for our trip, intending to stay on campsites or in hostels but Cartagena had none. We tried to book a room at a small pension but rather suspected that it had been taken over as a residential home and nobody had bothered to take the sign down from outside. A guy who had to be close to one hundred years of age was manning the reception desk. He had absolutely no clue whether there was a room free for the night, the place smelt of over-boiled cabbage, there were armchairs arranged all around the reception room and an elderly lady exited the lift around the corner and hurled insults at the receptionist in a quavery voice.
we bought the wrong sized tent, lol
Our road trip hadn’t got off to the best of starts but we did enjoy our brief visit here and we moved on in the late afternoon, trusting to fate that we would find somewhere to sleep that night.
We followed the coast road south as the sun was setting and we found a nice campsite that was right on a beautiful, long sandy beach. There was a bit of a stunned silence once we had pitched our tiny tent among the big mobile homes. Our tiny tent had not been what we had expected at all – it turned out that it had been on the wrong shelf in the store! But we had no choice to make the best of things and embrace the challenge.
The Spanish family who were leaning on the low hedge were amazed that the two of us planned to sleep in such a tiny tent. As were the Dutch couple on the other side and the Germans opposite. We brazened it out – there would be no problem.
The strange rock formations at Mazarron
The beach at Mazarron was backed with some strange mushroom shaped rock formations that reminded me of the desert in Jordan. As it was late evening at the end of October it was mostly deserted but it was still warm. We only planned to stop over here for one night so we put our new cooker to good use and ate sitting in the back of Betty the Berlingo while hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (it was Halloween) rampaged around the campsite.
Luckily it was dark when we finally attempted to get in and into our respective sleeping bags. It certainly proved to be cosy – and somewhat of a challenge to get in and out of – especially with several glasses of wine on board. We were very aware of how sound carries through canvas (or nylon) especially as we imagined the Spanish family, the Dutch couple and the Germans were waiting with bated breath to find out if we would actually fit.
We did fit eventually but it was something of a struggle accompanied by much smothered laughter as we finally settled down to our first night on our Spanish road trip.
Cabo de Gata National Park
After a decent night’s sleep and a lazy morning we continued south, driving through some of the wildest and most under-developed coastline in Spain. We were in the Cabo de Gata National Park where developments are strictly controlled. The arid desert-like landscape felt very alien and was made even more so by the lack of houses, people or in fact other cars passing through. The road swooped across the desert and around cliffs, looping and switching back on itself as it fell towards the sea. This was a day mostly spent in the car with stops to picnic and to get into the travelling mindset.
We found a large campsite a few miles outside the small beach town of San Jose where we pitched our petite tent. We drove into San Jose and wandered around on the sunny evening. This tiny little beach resort had an end of season feel as people grabbed the last of the sunshine. Families stretched out their time on the beach and shops enticed people in. Along the small prom some travellers and hippies sold bracelets and ornaments that they had made.
We sat outside a bar as darkness fell and enjoyed the sight of the Mediterranean Sea as it gently sploshed onto the sand. A text popped up on Deb’s phone with another recommendation of a place that we could check out on our trip – so there and then we decided to veer from our sort-of planned route, and mapless we would drive in another direction.
The following day we would be breaking away from the coast and heading inland and upwards
Details of our road trip around the south of Spain – part 1
Part 1: Alicante – Cartagena – Bolnuevo, Mazarron – San Jose
Bolnuevo – Camping ‘Playa de Mazarron. This large lively site was deathly silence from 10.30pm. Shower blocks were clean and there were many of them, there was wifi available and pitches were divided up with shrubs and trees. Best of all was its position with beach access and close proximity to bars and restaurants on the beach.
Jan Jose – Los Escullos Camping. This was another large campsite but more remote from the bars and restaurants in the nearest town – however, for families staying there, there was a good activity programme and it offered water sports
You can go straight to the other articles in the series by clicking on the following links:
This is one of my favourite images from this section of our #roadtripSpain. Feel free to click and to share it (or any of the others) onto Pinterest etc etc
road trip Spain
What are the top things to do in Milan?
If you have 3 days in Milan you can cover most of the sights and get a really good feel for this Italian city.
Milan is a chic, charming city full of style. Quietly confident yet understated, it’s full of little boutique cafes and bars where people watching is the local pastime.
The centre of the city is dominated by the Duomo – the massive cathedral which was begun in 1387 but which wasn’t completed until the 1960s.
For the best ‘wow’ factor transfer into the city centre via the metro and if you are lucky choosing your exit from the station you will come up the steps and exit into the piazza and see the main facade of the cathedral directly in front of you.
The Duomo’s dome completely dominates the skyline yet it appears to float to float delicately above the huge piazza on which it sits.
Despite its massive size, the intricate stonework and marble gives it a feather-soft beauty, catching the changes in the light and ensures that it looks magical whatever the weather.
If you are physically able to, do pay to go up inside the tower and explore the roof of the cathedral. Clambering around on the sloping lead tiles and scrambling up and down steps at eye level with the old stone gargoyles, you really get an idea of the sheer scale of the building.
The main roof slopes gently away either side of the ridge but it’s easy to negotiate and there are many small corridors, balconies and nooks and crannies to discover.
The view across the rooftops of Milan from the top of the Duomo is, as you would expect, quintessentially Italian with countless domes and stone church towers poking up between the rusty coloured terracotta roof tiles.
Flocks of pigeons scatter in the path of children who run around on the large chequered piazza below and over in the distance you can see snow capped mountains.
For the best view of Milan’s Duomo
There is a large department store called La Rinascente which is just alongside the Duomo.
Take the escalator to the 7th floor where you will find a row of restaurants and bars and arguably the best place to experience the Duomo as you are looking AT it, rather than from it.
These little bars range from ‘not so cheap’ to posh, but do order a drink and sit and watch the tourists who are watching you from the balconies of the cathedral.
In nearly all of the bars in Milan you will be given tiny little plates of nibbles to go with your drinks. These nibbles can range from some nuts in a bowl to dainty crostini, pieces of chorizo or cheese and olives, to hunks of bread or cakes.
Snacking in Milan
Going out for a drink in the early evening in Milan can take this snacking cuisine to a whole new level. Track down a bar which is serving aperitivi and you are sorted.
Buying a drink (choose a Negroni or a sbagliato) in one of these bars advertising aperitivi and you will get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The drink may cost a little bit more, but the food will certainly make up for it. A myriad of tapas style snacks or a large pot of stew served with beans, a bar somewhere in Milan will be serving something that you like to eat.
And to drink? Milan has made the aperol spritz its own. Made with prosecco, Aperol and soda water and served in oversized wine glasses over ice and a slice of an orange, you should order one, settle back in your seat and watch the world go by.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
For a shopping centre with style, visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is also in the main square with Milan’s Duomo.
When it was constructed it was way ahead of its time, and now the iron and glass arcades are filled with the likes of Prada and Gucci and old-style cafes where waiters silently glide around in starched cotton aprons.
The architect Giuseppe Mengoni plummeted to his death from the glass roof just before the project was completed.
To ward off similar bad luck, stand on the testicles of the mosaic of the bull which is set into the floor near the centre and spin on your heel.
shopping in style
The Last Supper
Probably one of the most iconic paintings in the world is in Milan.
Technically not a painting but a fresco The Last Supper is well worth a visit but you will need to be a bit of a detective to obtain a ticket.
You can always buy a grossly overpriced ticket from an agent and you can of course, go along to the ticket office, but tickets generally sell out days or even weeks in advance in high season.
There is a website but I personally didn’t find it to be very user-friendly and I resorted to asking an Italian friend of a friend to organise one for me.
However, once you are armed with your ticket and you have found the building that the fresco is in, you wait for your time-slot and you are allowed into the hall with its subdued lighting.
The fresco has been damaged by time and also by the priests who once hacked a new doorway to the kitchens through it. The colours are now cloudy and lumps of plaster have dropped off it but the scale of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, not to mention the conspiracy theories and fictions which surround it, make it one special piece of artwork.
No photos are allowed inside, and to be honest, no pictures can do it justice, so you will have to go and see it for yourself.
Milan has a castle, the Castel Sforzsco . With imposing walls it sits in a large park, complete with a lake and a bandstand and lots of paths to wander around.
It began life as a fortress before being taken over as a stately home and it now houses a museum.
Arco della Pace
At the far end of the park with the castle is a piazza that is dominated by the Arco della Pace – a triumph of giant statues and arches. Sit on the steps or pause for a drink in one of the little bars that line the crossroads and the road to Paris and marvel at the pomp and splendour of the gateway.
Arco della Pace
You may not be interested in opera or your visit to Milan may not coincide with a performance, but a peep inside La Scala theatre is a glimpse into another world.
Opulent red velvet and gold provide a spectacular colour theme and posters and costumes make you feel as if you have stepped back in time.
La Scala is one of the iconic theatres of the world and retains all of its old world magic.
The Navigli district
The Navigli neighbourhood runs alongside the canal, and while it is now sleek and modern and packed with bars, restaurants and independent shops, it still manages to retain a bohemian atmosphere.
On the last Sunday of every month antique dealers and second hand traders set up their stalls alongside the canal.
…and the other top sights in Milan?
The railway station.
If you happen to be passing take ten minutes to pop in and take a look at the marble columns and panels that were in vogue when it was built
Art – contemporary or ancient.
Home to many of the renaissance art schools and now dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty first century, somewhere in Milan you will find a gallery or a museum to interest you.
Wander around the masterpieces of the Pinacoteca di Brera in the substantial stone building with its sturdy veranda running around the central courtyard or find a modern gallery – its all here.
Leonardo da Vinci.
You have The Last Supper and the Museo Nazional della Scienza e Technologia Leonardo da Vinci with its reconstructed models of his ideas.
There are the fortifications of Castel Sforzsco which da Vinci designed and posters and references to him everywhere – you can’t escape reminders of this prolific man.
Shopping and fashion
From designer to vintage, artisan crafts or ingredients for the most discerning chef, the shops are a work of art in themselves. Never shabby or run-down they epitomize Italian chic with their tasteful window displays.
Find a little backstreet pizza restaurant with an authentic stone oven and you are in for a treat. Where better to enjoy a pizza and a glass of wine or an aperol spritzer than in Milan
These are my top things to do in Milan. But don’t take my word for it. Go over there and see for yourself.
Farming and Fiestas: work hard, play hard.
And after all the work that I told you about in my previous article, you must agree that the Catalans certainly deserve to party.
Everyday, somewhere in Catalunya there will be a fiesta happening. Celebrating the birth, life or death of a patron saint, a religious day or a national day, there will be a reason to party. Rows of trestle tables covered with white paper are set up under the trees next to the river and clouds of mosquitoes dance and hover in the fairy lights which are strung between the branches, or village-sized marquees are thrown up overnight and the entire population stuff themselves inside for up to a week of celebrating.
Scarlet Jones Travels: preparing to party
For a very reasonable price you can be served three plates of food, with the offerings usually including the local delicacy of blood sausage and the flaky pastissets and of course, plenty of sangria or wine. There might be a band or a DJ or a mixture of both and people will dance together, cha cha cha-ing or later salsa-ing or grinding away to reggaeton.
Claire serves the sangria
I have described the Corrofoc in a previous article – the adrenaline fueled fire running event (click here if you missed it) which a lot of the towns and the villages host, but there are also parades of gigantes (those massive ‘It’s a Knockout’ style puppets), medieval festivals and Corpus Christi. And as a birthday bonus, you get extra celebrations rained on you on whatever birth date you share with the saint that you were named after.
Scarlet Jones Travels; the crazy correfoc
One evening almost the whole village decamped to the opposite side of the river and went up into the hills to the Old Station Fiesta. Years ago a railway line was built up into the mountains but later fell into disrepair. Now restored and converted to the Via Verde (the Green Way) you can cycle or walk along it for miles, over spectacular stone viaducts and through long, pitch black, bat inhabited tunnels. A group of local businessmen restored one of the old station buildings and during the summer they open the terrace on the old platform to diners and hold live music events.
The old station building
The fiesta at the old station is a relatively new event which is rapidly becoming absorbed into the timetable of local customs. A shuttle bus ferried people up and down to and from the village, there were the tables crammed together, cauldrons of food bubbling away, buckets of sangria of course, and music. I watched and then I was later invited to join in with the local dance called the jota which, believe me, is much trickier to do than it looks. Men and women dance in snakelike lines moving deceptively slowly while doing some frantic and complicated footwork and elegantly twisting and turning in tune with each other (apart from me of course). The men wear spotless white shirts with bright red sashes and the ladies wear black, delicate embroidered lace shawls
Scarlet Jones Travels: letting the amateurs loose on the dancefloor
Films and slides were projected onto the side of the station building, some documenting the history of the station and its connection with the village and there was much cheering and shouting as the villagers recognised themselves or their friends and relatives in the pictures.
And then we danced until dawn; spinning, salsa-ing and bouncing until the cry went up that the final shuttle bus was about to depart, and we fled the dance floor at 6am and got back into the village just as the sun came up over the mountains.
The end of a perfect night. And the start of a perfect day