Road Trip around the south of Spain (Part 1)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
- Stage 1: This article: Alicante to San Jose, via Cartagena, Bolnuevo & Mazarron
- Stage 2: Cabo de Gato, the Sierra Nevada & Granada
- Stage 3: Granada & Ronda
- Stage 4: Cadiz & Jerez
- Stage 5: Seville
- Stage 6: Cordoba, Cuenca & Teruel
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