Central and South Spain self tour in 12 Days
This is the second part of our 2016 June trip to Portugal (see my posts on our Lisbon, Portal and Douro Valley trips) and Spain. Portugal and Spain together make up the vast majority of the Iberian Peninsula, they are intertwined throughout a long history. Spain is located to the immediate east of and at 504.645 km2 is about 5.5 times that of Portugal. Our trip ‘strolled through’ the historic cities of Salamanca (in Central Spain), Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga in S. Spain (see our visit map- starred as usual are our visit sites). ‘Strolled’ because we did most visit within the cities via walking which is the best and in many cases, the only practical way to tour these historical city centres (apart from may be taking a ride with the horse drawn carriages). We used bus for the long Salamanca to Seville journey (about 7 hours) and self drive a rented Audi from Seville to Malaga. Here’s our exciting trip…
Travelling in Portugal and Spain by bus is both easy and comfy, we used ALSA and secured our tickets about 3 weeks before travel when prices would be at a good discount (at a small fraction of the normal prices, e.g. our Salamanca/Seville trip was only E19.90 each), the bus took the motorways for most part of the journey and I think it’d take about the same time if we self-drive. As always, do click the links below many of which takes you to my reviews of the places we visited, and my photos are above my itinerary/journal for each group of places we visited. And make sure you sample the local Spanish cuisine and we highly recommend Salmorejo – A thick chewy old soup based on tomato, bread, olive oil and garlic, originating in Córdoba, the tasty Lomo embuchado – a cured meat made from a pork tenderloin (like salami), Pinchitos – ‘Spanish satay’ meat skewer, Empanada – pastry with various fillings (La Tranca – see below, is great with this!). And of course, all goes well with a jug of Sangria and/or a bottle of Rioja. When you travel in Andalucia in summer, you’d quickly understand why Sangria and cold soup are so popular there.
Day 1 – 2 Salamanca: the Universidad de Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain. Acknowledged by Pope Alexander IV to be one of the four great universities in the world, together with those in Bologna, Oxford, and Paris. The city is full of historic buildings and is often named as “A Sandstone Fairytale in Spain”. We enjoyed all the top sights here and our top 3 votes go to The old and new cathedrals of Salamanca (which were adjacent to each other), the Plaza Mayor (the key landmark in Salamanca) and The Roman Bridge (from where you get the best views of Salamanca magnificent sandstone structures). Walking along the streets of central Salamanca gave us the feeling of living in medieval times as every architecture and sights are in sandstone and gleam with history. The city administration is wise to preserve all these in the centre, there’s a whole block of historic houses under preservation along the main street leading to the Cathedral with all the facades preserved despite the presumably dilapidated (and collapsed/demolished) interiors (see photo with poppies above). The only complaint I have was that there is often not enough room to take in the whole view of the structures! We recommend lunch at La Hoja 21 and consider it very good value.
Day 3 – 7 Seville: this is a lovely city in Andalucia with much character, history and culture, and its tapas cuisine is amongst the best in Spain. The Seville Cathedral (Catedral de Sevilla) (3rd largest in Europe) is not to be missed which one can tell from the long queue (waiting time amounts to easily over an hour or more) in front of it all the time, despite of the very hot scorching sunny weather during summer. The best tip here is to go to its sister church –Iglesia Colegial del Salvador which is about 250 m away, where there is often no or very short queue and make sure you buy the combined ticket (around E9.5 each) for this and the main Seville Cathedral. Armed with this combined ticket, you can then just walk straight to the front of the queue, show you ticket and walk right in. Just don’t forget to hire the audio guide which is important to enable a better understanding of the important history, sights and artefacts inside. While inside, make sure that you don’t miss tomb of Christopher Columbus, and the gold carvings full of religious stories at the main altar. Also, the climb to the top of the bell Tower- Torre Giralda is well worth it – see my review here. The 31 levels of ramps should be much easier than stairs!
Take a guided tour of the bull fight arena – Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza and learn about the rather sad stories of the top 2 bravest bull fighters of Spain-rather sarcastic too (I think) as both were so desperate to die by the bulls’ horns. Spend an afternoon or morning at Real Alcazar in the shades of the palace indoors or amongst its magnificent gardens and fountains, and visit the University of Seville , previously the Tobacco Factory which inspired the story of the famous Carmen with the immortal George Bizet’s classic . Do take a leisure walk too along the Puente de Isabel II (Puente de Triana) bridge and the river and savour in the sights of the Tower of the Gold as well as people watch. But no visit to Seville is complete without going to the Flamenco shows, we went to 2 shows at the Museo del Baile Flamenco , and I highly recommend the private more exclusive one with only 20 guests or less (we’re invited guests but it costs about twice that of the ordinary show). The bailaor and bailaora were dancing so close that I was afraid that s/he would step on my toes (such forceful zapateo would certainly crack my toes!) and that I can feel her breathing were just an amazing experience. While Seville is not the birth place of Flamenco (it’s in the Granada caves- see below), it’s culture and expression seems to be most exquisite here.
We had the best Spanish cuisine this trip in Seville, thanks to our friend who flew in from London to take us around the best restaurants there. The top restaurant with modern fusion tapas which I highly recommend is Petit Comite , the food is delicious and service prompt and friendly. At about E40 each including a very nice bottle of Rioja, and Michelin standard food, I reckon it’s superb value, do not to leave Seville without eating there! Restaurante Az-Zait is another fine dining restaurant with great food. Do book a day or two ahead (especially for Petit Comite) to ensure there’s a table for you, but you’d have a better chance if you eat earlier than the locals who typically starts their dinner after 9PM! And there’d still be customers coming in at midnight.
In Seville, we stayed at this great place via Airbnb and we love it, but mind you with most similar lodgings (not modern hotels), you have to be prepared to walk some stairs as there’s likely no elevator.
Day 8 Carmona : this is a small town with thousands of years of history through the Roman, Arabic and contemporary ages, just 40 minutes (by bus or car) from Seville, a rather interesting town if you’ve half a day to spare while at Seville – for the old town itself (which I highly recommend taking guided tour) and the sunflower fields nearby (in the right season of late June). While the town centre is not large, but it’s steep and hilly and the purposely built narrow electric bus would be ideal for touring this place- for E20, it takes about 2 hours with John- an amazing guide whose stories are so interesting, and he’s really infectious with his passion about this old city, he turns every ordinary-looking corner into an amazing and interesting sight. We’re not so lucky as this summer was very dry and the sunflowers had dwindled to just a few percent of what its usual numbers. I was told there’d be 60km wide of sunflower fields near Carmona and you can see this magnificent sight from the grand hotel at the hill top (middle photo above- which is very popular with Japanese tourist who flock there every June/July to see the sunflower fields). Thanks to a very detailed description online, we did manage to find a ‘small’ field off the dirt roads, but at the expense of our rented Audi which looked like coming out of a mud bath afterwards (but not to worry, we gave it a E1 DIY high pressure jet shower before we returned it!)
Day 8 – 10 Cordoba and Granada : Driving along the motorways of South Spain was a piece of cake as traffic was low, roads were good, but tolls were not cheap especially near the coast – Costa del Sol area. The same cannot be said about driving in the city areas! Our car was towed away in Cordoba for not (knowing to) pay for parking and display the ticket, a scary experience indeed – imagine not being able to find our car when we got back from a few hours of sight-seeing; and as the parked space was very tight, the natural conclusion was that it’s stolen with all our luggage in the boot! Luckily, we managed to find a very kind young lady who worked in the nearby bar (who communicated with us using Google translate on her phone) to help us to talk to the Police, etc and called a taxi to take us to the pound. You see, we could not speak Spanish and all I could gathered from calling the Police myself was that he couldn’t speak English! Well, a fine of E110 was less than I expected to retrieve our car, and a good sum for a hard lesson learnt.
Key sight in Cordoba is of course the cathedral in a mosque- Mezquita Cathedral de Cordoba, take note of the interesting muslim architecture of double arches (again, rent an audio guide for more in-depth understanding of the interesting history behind this amazing place), but the narrow alleys of the surrounding Historic Centre of Cordoba are most interesting to explore for the little surprises here and there with very picturesque colorful settings and interesting historic architecture around every corner, just stroll through and get lost in them for a couple of hours (don’t worry, your Google map will take you to where you want to go in the end).
After excitement of the impounded car, our onward driving to Granda was uneventful until we hit the city centre and was alarmed to see signs of restricted zone with camera logos (presumably with surveillance cameras indicating heavy fines!- oh not again!). This time we’re more careful and walk around to find signs after parking, and read them (Google Translate is the friend) carefully.
Granada is famous for the old palace on the hilltop-The Alhambra, the grounds are huge and would take a few hours at least to explore. Don’t expect a grandeur palace as much are ruins, but it’s the ruins setting against the surrounding give the unique atmosphere of this place. We took the challenge of walking starting by taking the public bus line C2 from Plaza Nueva (not far and east of the Cathedral-Cathedral and Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) which itself is worth a visit) to Mirador de San Nicolas (at the hilltop opposite Alhambra), from where one can have a panoramic view of the whole of Alhambra across the valley, dive into the local architecture and living culture by taking the narrow and steep alleys from there to the river bank- Paseo de los Tristes where there are lots of lunch and drink opportunities offering a nice resting place to break the journey. From there, we crossed the Darros River via a bridge- Puente del Aljibillo and took the incline all the way to Alhambra, the journey was not as daunting as it may seem as there’re shades along the way and our slow walk took about 40 min. If you’re a historical buff and keen on visiting palace interiors, you’d take note of their closing times and better book well in advance as tickets may be sold off days ahead in peak seasons. But if you’re like me, prefer enjoying sceneries outside, then entry should not be a problem to the main grounds. In fact, we like Generalife– the garden next to the Alhambra ruins much better. It’s grand and so picturesque that you’ve to be there to admire this landscape architecture masterpiece. Our journey from taking bus C2 at around noon time to exploring (just scratching the surface of) these 2 major sights took us to dinner time (which in Granada would be around 8PM onwards). If you like to experience of watching Flamenco in the caves, Sacromonte would be a nice experience for an evening, you should book ahead. As we’ve been there in our previous trip, we opt instead for a leisure walk in the city centre. If you like shopping the local crafts, there are plenty of opportunities around the exit of the Alhambra as well as near the Cathedral.
After the week’s fine (and rather heavy) dining in Seville, we chose to mix with locals in the local tapas bars and spending at around E5 to 15 each for light tapas including Sangria and beer! E.g. we went to Bar la Riviera near Plaza Nueva, and cheered along with the locals while watching Eurocup Iceland vs England football match. My experience with these local bars where nothing is in English is to go ask a lady waitress to order/help who’s always more helpful.
Day 10-12 Ronda, Costa del Sol, and Malaga: Ronda is a nice picturesque small town famous for the gorge- El Tajo which the river Guadalevin runs through, see it from Puente Nuevo Bridge. Many reported that a walk down the deep gorge and back up would be well rewarded with very nice scenery. We didn’t take the challenge as it’s a rather hot and sunny day. Again, we parked our car at the centre fringe and walked to the sights. Do remember to bring drinking water along these walks in the hot and dry summer days in Spain and Portugal.
We’re lucky to find a parking spot along the road not far from the seaside at Marbella, Costa del Sol, the town is mainly a nice place for people who like marina and waterside living, also nice and posh restaurants- not much to see (I think). Hence we just drove onto Malaga.
Amongst the places we visited this time, Malaga is probably the most modern but still retains an old historic centre with the church-Malaga Cathedral , opera house, and an old palace- Alcazaba (similar but much smaller than Alambhra), all worth visiting. We like the central market-Mercado Central de Atarazanas where all colorful local fruits and vege are on display and you can have lunch there too. Malaga is a convenient city to explore on foot and you can easily spend a few days visiting e.g. the Picasso birthplace and musuem, parks, etc. Public transport to the airport is easy and straight-forward, just a few stops from the centre. But the Malaga airport design is bad and seems daunting if you’re new to there as the first sight that greets you would be hundreds of check-in counters all in a mile-long row!
Again trying local budget style, we had a dinner at La Tranca for E8.70 for 2 while the bar played old times jazz! See photo above on how the waitress calculated our bill. This is a very popular place with the locals, so go there early. The Recyclo Bike Café near the river offers better comfort and more restaurant style food, around E12 each. That’s why I told my son that he can survive at E50 a day including accommodation travelling Portugal and Spain!