When Dan and I began planning our travel for the Christmas holidays last year, he suggested the idea of a road trip through southern Spain. Having lived in and visited Spain on multiple occasions, I, on the other hand, was eager to plan a trip to “somewhere new”. I proposed a different destination (somewhere that I can’t even remember now) and we started researching our options. It didn’t take long for me to feel foolish for thinking that I needed to travel to a new country to see something new when there was still so much of Spain I hadn’t seen. With each picture of the coast I saw and account of the places unspoiled by the masses that I read about while planning, I became more excited about the visit.
Our Christmas road trip took us from Málaga on the southern coast to Valencia on the east coast, covering almost completely new territory for me. This trip satisfied my cravings for savory tapas, the Andalucían accent, and outdoor adventures in the sun. While my Spanish isn’t as good as it was nine years ago when I lived in Sevilla, I loved conversing with locals again, seeing familiar favorites on the menu, and reacquainting myself with the vibrant personality of the southern Iberian Peninsula. Our first leg of the trip was in the Andalucía region – our home base was Málaga and included a day trip to Granada before we took to the road in a rental car.
We arrived in the Costa del Sol to overcast and gloomy weather but that wasn’t going to hamper my excitement for being back in Spain. After checking into our Airbnb in city center, we side-stepped a few puddles on our way to lunch just a couple blocks over at Astrid. Dan and his culinary instincts get the credit for finding this organic tapas eatery where the salad was sumptuous, the tacos had just enough spice and I could have easily devoured another bowl of the duck wok.
A post-lunch nap on this dreary afternoon would have seemed fitting in the homeland of the siesta, but I opted for a neighborhood stroll to better acquaint myself with the bustling and festive streets of this southern seaside town. Certainly a popular destination for summertime sunbathers, I was surprised by the number of people out shopping and socializing on a rather gloomy evening, but then quickly remembered that I was in Spain where, in the evening, the streets are alive with a constant hum of conversation and amiable commotion. I smiled seeing the orange trees alongside the fake illuminated Christmas tree – an unusual site for someone from cold and snowy Wisconsin. By luck, I arrived at the pedestrian boulevard of Calle Marqués de Lairos as a Christmas sound and light show was starting and then visited the Cathedral de la Encarnación de Málaga where the most detailed Nativity scene I’ve ever seen was on display inside. Looping back to the Airbnb to pick up Dan, we made our way out of city center for our dinner at Anyway Wine Bar. For the second time that day I was extremely pleased with our tapas selections – we even ordered a second round of the tomato paella.
On our first full day in Málaga, we headed out of town on an early bus to Granada. With bus station breakfast pastries in hand, we settled in for the 1.5 hour ride through the hilly countryside, watching from our window as a sequence of fog and rain clouds cycled through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Not the best touring weather, we were nonetheless undeterred from the principal point of interest in Granada – the Alhambra. A prominent palace complex within a fortress, its location on a hill overlooking the city is particularly dazzling when seen from a distance with the snow-capped mountains looming in the background. Tickets into the fortress are hard to come by as the number of daily visitors is limited, so even two months out from our visit the general tickets were sold out and we had to settle for paying extra for what is called an “Alhambra Card” in order to ensure our entrance.
Having achieved its splendor in the 13th century during the period of Moors’ conquest and the Nasrid dynasty rule over Al Andalus, Spain, it is a strikingly well-preserved example of Islamic architecture and design. In 1492 though, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, concluded their “Reconquista” of Spain with the expulsion of the Moors from their last stronghold in Granada. The Alhambra then became the location of the monarchs’ royal court where they met with Christopher Columbus and agreed to finance his 1492 ocean crossing and expedition. For a period of time, the fortress and palace were all but neglected until Napoleon’s defeat in Spain in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars. The rediscovery and restoration of the palace generated foreign interest from architects, artists, writers, and travelers to the Iberian Peninsula. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a top tourist attraction in Spain, as indicated by the scarcity of tickets even months in advance and long lines that await you during the high season.
In search of our first view of the Alhambra, we made our way up the hilly streets of the Albaicín neighborhood towards one of the famed viewpoints, but stopped for lunch along the way just in time to take shelter from a brief rain shower. After our paella at Café Bar Restaurante Ocaña, we had a short walk to Mirador de San Nicolas, where we weren’t the only ones admiring the grand palace on the hill across the valley. We were even serenaded by Spanish guitar as the rain fell gently onto the cobblestones.
Down the slick city streets and then up a path creeping alongside the fortress walls, we trekked towards the entrance to the Alhambra ahead of our time-scheduled visit of the Nasrid Palace inside the fortress. The Nasrid Palace houses the famed royal residences where every wall, pillar, and ceiling is adorned with intricate decorative details. On account of its popularity and the close quarters within, it’s also where you are more than likely to find long lines of people patiently waiting for their turn to tour the palace and then jostling for the perfect angle to take the best picture within.
From the crowded corridors of the Nasrid Palace, we made our way to the Palace of Charles V and the Alcazaba towers overlooking Granada and its endless meadows. While the Palace of Charles V is “newer”, having been constructed subsequent to the expulsion of the original Moor inhabitants, the Citadel is the oldest part of the fortress that stands today.
Our final stop of the visit was to the gardens of the Generalife which sit on an adjacent hill and at the time of their creation, allowed the palace residents an escape from the burdens of royal life. The gardens contain beautifully manicured plants and archways, while water canals, fountains, and pools sustain life at the top of the ravine. Most of the garden features are not original, but the views looking back at the Alhambra Palace are as spectacular now as I’m sure they were in the 15th century.
It started pouring as we were wrapping up our visit, which we took to be a good sign to head back into city center for an early dinner. Dan’s suggestion for a Moroccan dining establishment did not disappoint, and we warmed up with some of our favorite dishes and drinks at Palacio Andaluz Restaurante Almona. The pastille, tajine, mint tea, and fruit juices were filling, but at our post-dinner drink stop, the bar was serving free tapas with each drink you ordered so naturally I had to sample the creamy chicken stew. After our drinks we made our way back to the bus station to board what turned out to be the last bus back to Málaga. Even though we were plenty early and the bus arrived late, we still were the last ones to board because the departures sign was never updated and we were concerned about getting on the wrong bus – almost too cautious in this case.
The next morning was the first of our continuous streak of sunny southern Spanish weather. We started our day with other likeminded folks who were out for their runs along the Malagueta Beach before partaking in a delicious breakfast at El Último Mono. The friendly barista indulged me and we made small talk in Spanish, even after he had us pegged as foreigners. I truly appreciate when the locals are patient and let me use my Spanish, even though it doesn’t come as quick as it once did – just one of the reasons I love southern Spain.
We were eager to get our road trip along the coast started, so with Dan in the driver seat of our rental car, we were on our way towards Cartagena before midday. The views as we headed out of Málaga were better than expected and we were even so bold as to declare that, on account of the beautiful scenery and minimal tourist traffic, Southern Spain could easily compete with the coasts of Italy and southern France.
As we continued further away from the Costa del Sol beachside resorts I started noticing the endless rows of white structures nestled into the plains between jagged hills and alongside the highway all the way down to the coast. With a little research, I learned that these are the greenhouses where, under the shade of plastic tarps, around a half of Europe’s fresh produce is grown. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, avocados, and mangos to name a few are now successfully grown in a region with a climate so inhospitable that, until the emergence of the greenhouses in the 1980s, the arid landscape was better suited to filming western movies.
A couple hours into our drive, we were more than ready for a late lunch stop in Almería. This time, I scouted out the eatery and had us tuck in at Jovellanos 16 for a very authentic atmosphere and traditional tapas. The restaurant was packed when we arrived so we were ushered to the only available table – a taller than average high-top. The friendly waiter and bartender took notice of me laughing while pretending to scoop the food right off the table into my mouth, and within minutes moved us to the next available proportionately sized table. The food at Jovellanos 16 was authentic and excellent! We ordered seconds of our favorites – the warm Bacalao de la Abuela (baked cod) and patatas con chimi churri.
Back in the car and not long into the next segment of our drive outside Almería, we rounded a corner on a single lane road and immediately caught sight of a police officer further up who was flagging our car over to the shoulder. We stopped and without much explanation, the officer took Dan’s license and walked around the vehicle while making notes on a clipboard. He returned and asked Dan a question in Spanish that I did not hear. Upon seeing Dan’s confusion, the officer asked “English?” and when Dan responded yes, he returned his license and gestured that we were free to continue. We were initially perplexed by the exchange as the officer did not request paperwork for the rental car, but as we processed the scenario and with some further research, we made the connection between the extensive agricultural industry and its employment of migrant workers.
Southern Spain has long been a gateway between Europe and Africa, as evidenced by the AD 711 arrival and settlement of the North African Muslims. Their ancestors would come to be known as Moors, construct the Alhambra palace in Granada, and infuse Al Andalus with significant advancements in the arts and sciences. This interchange between continents continues today and, specifically referring to the Almería region, there is a direct correlation to the agricultural industry. As the greenhouse farmers are confronted with intense competition from other markets, they look for ways to manage costs, one such way being the hiring migrant workers who are often exploited for low wages and faced with harmful working conditions.
This is a complex and multifaceted issue in this region because the agricultural production is good for the local economy and furthermore, the greenhouses are utilizing a resource not in short supply – the sun. Unfortunately though, the plastic used in the greenhouses generates a lot of waste that ends up in the waters off the coast and negatively impacts aquatic life. Yet, strangely enough, recent studies have revealed that this expanse of white plastic is reflecting the heat from the sunlight, thereby slowing down the warming on the earth’s surface in this region.
I share this information because I was not aware of just how much agricultural production takes place in southern Spain, nor the ramifications of production within this high concentration of greenhouses. I also think it’s important to have a better understanding of the places I visit and the issues encountered by locals on a regular basis.
In my continued (and sometimes obsessive) effort to seek out and get to know the less sought after places, I had proposed a short hike along the volcanic rock coastline of the isolated Cabo de Gata-Níjar National Park. My suggested route would take us from the shrubbery carpeted interior hills to the jagged coastline at the Torre de los Lobos lookout where we would be able to watch the sunset. It was a slow drive on speed-monitored back roads, followed by a turn onto a barely distinguishable unpaved single lane path to get the trailhead just outside Rodalquillar. For not the last time on this trip I underestimated the drive time, so we pulled up to the gated entrance to the path with about 45 minutes until sunset. It was a race against the clock to make it to the lighthouse at the top of the cliff before the sun would dip below the horizon but we were encouraged to make haste as we took in the already amazing views on the ascent.
We supplemented out power-walking with jogging and made it to the top of the hill and the lighthouse with a couple minutes to spare. Incredibly, we had this spectacular view all to ourselves! We enjoyed the expansive panorama of the green plateaus and deep red volcanic rock formations that glowed as the sun dipped below the horizon. We had about 30 minutes to enjoy the sunset and novelty of having such a spectacular setting to ourselves before we realized we would have to book it back down to the car before complete darkness.
Having made it back to the vehicle just as total darkness descended into the valley, I took my turn in the driver’s seat and we continued on to Cartagena in the neighboring region of Murcia. While our arrival in Andalucía didn’t start out so sunny, being sent off with an epic sunset was the affirmation I needed to conclude that I actually could never tire of visiting Spain. It’s the country that just keeps on giving – even if you think you’ve had your fill, there is always room for one more tapa! More to come on Murcia…