A Spanish road trip, reviewed

We had a car waiting at Madrid airport, we had a road map of Spain and we had a plan. Plans are good, but as the “wee tim’rous beastie” of Robert Burns’ poem knows only too well, the best laid plans “gang aft agley”. Part of our plan was to bring the road map with us, but that’s the thing about packing in a hurry. The road map was gathering dust on the dining table back in the Netherlands, but we still had a car and a plan…and that seemed sufficient to have fun in Spain.

The weather changed our plans as well. The unexpected cold rain of earlier in our trip finally giving way to more traditional southern Spanish weather as we headed to Cordoba – something we did earlier than intended. The hills of Aragon will have to wait for another time.

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

I love being in Spain. It’s easy to over-romanticise given the nature of Spanish politics, past and present, and the terrible impact of the economic crash; but I’m not the first northern European to have formed an unhealthy attachment to Spanish culture, seemingly little changed even in this era of globalisation. Where else can you be sipping a coffee in a small cafe, while next to you several locals down large (and rough) Spanish brandies at 8am on a Tuesday before they head off for a, what I imagine is a less than productive, day at work?

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

So what would be my top five recommendations from our Spanish road trip? It’s hard to whittle down so many wonderful places and experiences, but here goes…

Semana Santa in Malaga

Malaga was a unexpected pleasure – great food, great nightlife, a brilliant Picasso museum, wonderful history – Semana Santa an unforgettable experience. Before visiting I’d only thought of Malaga as part of the benighted and blighted Costa del Sol of my nightmares. Now, I’d go back in a flash. Semana Santa was just the cherry on top…an incredible festival lasting a full week. The town seems never to sleep; when it does it’s a sleep brought on by the exhaustion of too much partying – a party where tradition merges with faith, merges with modernity. It’s incredibly atmospheric.

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Chasing Quixote in Castilla-La Mancha

It’s no surprise that there is something quixotic about the red earth, white windmills and monumental castles of Castilla-La Mancha. It’s a word given to the world by Cervantes’ most famous literary creation, a dreamer of fantastical and romantic dreams, for whom the baked landscape of this off-beat region seems entirely fitting. Toledo, former home of Spanish kings and centre of the Catholic Church in Spain, is a must, as are the hanging houses of Cuenca; alternatively, tilt at windmills in Consuegra, or visit a piece of northern Europe in Almagro. Most of all, travel the narrow, near deserted roads through this mesmerising region.

Windmills above Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Windmills above Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Cordoba, the City of Light

People visit Spain just to see Cordoba, to walk its medina-like streets and marvel at the magnificent Mezquita. It’s worth making the journey. Spain wears its history on its sleeve, nowhere more so than Cordoba, where Spain’s Moorish and Christian histories collide and merge. The Mezquita can get crowded, so try to get there at 8am when the doors open, entrance is free and tour groups aren’t allowed for a whole hour. You won’t be alone, but you will be able to absorb some of the genuine majesty of this Islamic architectural masterpiece in relative peace and quiet. Divine.

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

Los Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia

The White Villages of Andalusia are beautiful reminders of Spain’s history and traditions; it helps that many of the most picturesque villages sit inside the mountainous Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. The stunning landscape, dotted with Pueblos Blancos, is like in a fairytale. Many of the villages include ‘de la frontera’ as part of their name, testimony to their location and role as fortified outposts on the boundary between the Christian north and Muslim south up until 1492. Spring is the best time to visit, the landscape is coming back to life and there aren’t so many tourists, or tour buses, on the roads.

Casares, Andalusia, Spain

Casares, Andalusia, Spain

…and finally…

Madrid

For my money, Europe’s most vibrant and interesting capital city. True, I’ve not visited every capital city in Europe, but I’ve been to enough to know that it would take something pretty special to dislodge Madrid from the place it has in my heart. Consider the grand Hapsburg architecture, a multitude of world-class museums and galleries, superb food, relaxed and friendly people, and a nightlife to rival anything Europe’s other capitals have to offer…what’s not to love about Madrid? Plus, for a big city, it has to count as one of Europe’s most affordable. Take to the streets and explore at leisure.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Madrid, an imperial city designed for exploration

Madrid, like much of Spain, is a city where life is lived outside. Whatever time of day or night there seems to be human energy surging through the city: people pack the streets, crowd plazas or stroll around the parks. It’s one of the things I like most about the city. Life is everywhere. The weather helps, and when we were there the sun shone from clear blue skies, temperatures soared and people headed to public spaces to enjoy it. That isn’t always the case, we were once here when the temperatures were barely above freezing and the rain in Spain wasn’t mainly on the plain.

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

The spring weather was perfect for getting onto the streets and just wandering. One of our group (of two) had a birthday so we made our way to the Plaza Mayor for a café con leche and some light people watching, while waiting for the nearby Mercado de San Miguel to open its doors. This wonderful old wrought iron and glass produce market was little more than a wreck the last time I was in Madrid, now it has been renovated and houses more than thirty high quality tapas bars. It can be a bit touristy, but the food, drink and atmosphere are perfect.

We sampled a ‘birthday’ glass of delicious amontillado with some boquerones and jamon serrano, while telling ourselves that in Spain having a glass of sherry and at this time of day was nothing unusual. We decided we were just blending in, culturally speaking, so we decided to try an oloroso as well. Also delicious. This type of foodie marketplace seems quite fashionable in Madrid. Just up the road from where we were staying in Chueca is Mercado San Antón, larger and not quite so upmarket, it still has delicious food and a good atmosphere.

Window display, Madrid, Spain

Window display, Madrid, Spain

Musicians, Madrid, Spain

Musicians, Madrid, Spain

We could have stayed in Mercado de San Miguel for hours but Madrid needed exploring. We wandered aimlessly through La Latina, a barrio that is full of life and stuffed with fabulous tapas bars, before making our way over to the Royal Palace. We were going to visit but there were just too many people, most of them with selfie sticks, so we moved on. Taking this as a sign that most of Madrid’s big attractions would be equally busy, we meandered our way through Justicia and Almagro barrios to the Museo Sorolla.

The museum showcases the work of artist Joaquín Sorolla, famed for his exquisite paintings of typical Spanish scenes, people and landscapes. The added benefit of a visit is that the collection is housed in Sorolla’s beautiful former home, and you can see his work in situ inside his studio. Sorolla came from Valencia and it’s his extraordinary ability to capture the light along the Mediterranean coast that sets his work apart. Well worth a visit.

Central Madrid is relatively compact and easy to explore on foot, especially if you have regular tapas breaks to keep your energy up. By the time we reached the Plaza Santa Ana – more people watching in front of the ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel where famous bull fighters stay, and a vermouth in Hemingway’s favourite bar – and made our way over to the area around Lavapiés, it was time to stop walking and do some serious eating. Luckily this area is packed with tapas bars and restaurants, and time passes quickly when you’re having fun.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

We returned to the hotel late, tired but victorious. The streets were still full of people enjoying themselves, but we needed to rest. In the morning, we’d just have time for breakfast before heading to the airport and back to the Netherlands, our Spanish road trip complete.

Madrid, Spain’s beating heart

Madrid was the very first Spanish town I visited as an adult. It was love at first sight, at least on my part, and the more I go back the more I’m convinced that Madrid is probably the finest capital city in Europe. Vibrant, cultured and friendly, but a little rough around the edges. Madrid is home to incredible history, world class museums, food rivalling anything on the planet, a fabulous nightlife and an easy going attitude. It’s Spain condensed – every Spanish region represented amongst its barrios – but more than the sum of its parts. To cement the deal, it is an affordable city – at least for a European capital.

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

It’s probably impossible to not to feel a little overwhelmed by the sensory overload Madrid induces. When you’ve just spent several days in rural Spain, out in the wilds of Andalusia and Extremadura, you have to try not to overdo it in the first 48 hours. Madrid is just too alluring and we definitely overdid it. We walked for miles through the buzzing streets, visited historic houses, small galleries, large museums, dozens of tapas bars, a couple of traditional sherry bars, some great restaurants and sat soaking up the sun, people watching in the wonderful plazas in which Madrid specialises.

It was exhausting and completely exhilarating. I know I’ll upset a few people, but there is nowhere else in Spain that can match Madrid for sheer excitement. I’ve been to Barcelona, liked it, but wouldn’t swap it for Madrid, where they at least give you tapas with your drink. We stayed in Chueca, which I’d describe as up and coming if it hadn’t already up and come. It’s handily located for the centre of town, but has everything a visitor might want in a barrio, including an alternative vibe with fabulous bars, food and atmosphere. It reminded me of my former home of Shoreditch in London.

Bar in Madrid, Spain

Bar in Madrid, Spain

We decided not to over-plan our visit and headed off in whatever direction seemed appropriate. Since we hadn’t been in Madrid for a few years we retraced our steps through some of our favourite areas: La Latina, with historic and fun Calle Cava Baja and the open air market of el Rastro; Lavapiés where traditional Spain rubs shoulders with modern immigration; the buzzing area around Plaza Santa Ana and down towards Atocha train station; and not to forget a pilgrimage to Paseo de la Florida, bordering the Casa de Campo, for lunch at the wonderful Asturian restaurant, Casa Mingo.

It was a veritable trip down memory lane. We might have been overcome with nostalgia, but Madrid doesn’t allow that. There were familiar streets, familiar sights, familiar tapas bars and restaurants, but in none of the areas we visited has time stood still. Traditional Spain never seems far away, but these areas seemed renewed and more vibrant than ever. We may have had sore feet by the end of each day but we had a huge amount of fun. Madrid’s that sort of town.

Guadalupe, home to the patron saint of the Spanish-speaking world

In a sleepy village, tucked away in the rolling hills of eastern Extremadura, inside an enormous building, lies an extraordinary object with profound meaning across the Spanish-speaking world. Leaving the flat plains of Trujillo behind, we wound our way up into the hills on narrow roads. Turning one final sharp corner, ahead of us, towering over the red-tiled roofs of the village of Guadalupe, was the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. Dating from the early 14th Century, the size and grandeur of the building, even in a country where you get used to seeing over-sized churches in tiny villages, is astounding.

Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

The reason for its existence is equally astounding: this building was constructed to house a wooden effigy of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a tiny cedar wood statue that stands little more than 60 cm in height. That may not mean much to non-Catholics, but this is one of the most revered Virgins in the Catholic world. So much so, that the Virgen de Guadalupe was made the patron saint of the Spanish-speaking world. Inside the main church the effigy takes centre stage in the magnificent altarpiece – illuminated by spotlights for added effect.

In the late 13th century a local shepherd claimed he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a field. He dug down at the very same spot only to discover the statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe, assumed to have been buried by Christians fleeing the Moorish invasion of Sevilla in 714. A chapel was built to house the statue, which became a church, before being enlarged in 1337 by Alfonso XI. Alfonso called upon the Virgen de Guadalupe for protection before the Battle of Salado in 1340, a battle in which he won a crushing victory over the Moors. Believing the Virgin responsible for inspiring the victory, he declared the church a royal sanctuary.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Black Madonna, of which there are many around the world. Unsurprisingly, knowledge of the Virgin was carried to the Americas by the Conquistadors who came from Extremadura. Today the Black Madonna is wildly popular in Latin America, particularly in Mexico where she is alleged to have appeared to a native Mexican in 1531. I suspect that, if your country has just been ransacked by a mob of marauding Spanish Conquistadors, and your entire culture destroyed, you might start seeing things as well.

The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe has witnessed many momentous historical events. It was here, in 1492, that Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella met with Columbus and gave him their blessing to set sail for the New World. The beginning of the end for the many civilisations that covered the continent, the tiny village of Guadalupe is ground zero for the conquest of the Americas. Returning home, Columbus brought with him two Native Americans as a gift for the King and Queen.

Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain

Presumably confused, these unfortunate individuals were baptised in Guadalupe using the stone font that, today, forms part of a fountain standing in the middle of the road in front of the monastery. There is a large painting depicting the scene on the back wall of the church.

We mistimed our arrival, the monastery had just closed for lunch. This being Spain, lunch is a good couple of hours. The church remains open so you can simultaneously see the Virgin and take advantage of the cool interior. We had a walk around the town and waited for the monastery to reopen. If you find yourself with time to spare in Guadalupe, beware the extremely aggressive waiters who lurk outside the restaurants across the square – behaviour like this is rare in Spain, physically grabbing us and following us down the road. They didn’t get our trade.

Finally reopened, we discovered you can only visit the monastery with a group of ten or more people. We were told the tour would take two hours, and that we’d have to join a party of 30 ‘older’ Spanish pilgrims who had recently disgorged from a tour bus. After hanging around for so long another two hours were out of the question. We had to be in Madrid so, curses flying, we skipped the tour and headed north again.

A walk through Trujillo’s medieval streets

There is a saying in these parts, that twenty Latin American countries were born in Trujillo. The reference is to the hundreds of Conquistadors who came from the town and surrounding villages, and travelled to the Americas seeking their fortune. Or at least better fortune than backward and poverty stricken 16th Century Extremadura could offer them. Men like Francisco Pizarro who conquered the Inca Empire in Peru, Francisco de las Casas who rode alongside Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico, and Nuño de Chaves who founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, all stamped their mark on the Americas.

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

The vast wealth they accumulated as they rampaged through ancient civilisations from Argentina to Mexico has stamped its mark on Trujillo. The old town, safely inside the city walls, is filled with beautiful 16th and 17th Century mansions, all constructed with looted silver and gold; their ill-gotten gains built and endowed numerous sumptuous churches; and the narrow medieval streets hold a powerful fascination, every turn bringing you into contact with reminders of the extraordinary historical events in which Trujillo had a central role.

We arrived in the late afternoon under a blue sky and hot sun. After checking into our hotel, housed in the former 16th Century Santa Clara monastery, we headed to the Plaza Mayor to take the pulse of the town. The plaza is a beautiful place, the wonderful atmosphere only undone by the number of cars passing through it. After a quick visit to the cathedral, we plonked ourselves down at one of the cafes and did some people watching while relaxing with local tapas and Extremadura wine.

Fully refreshed we hit the streets. It was mid-week and the town was pretty quiet, walking the steep and winding lanes is incredibly atmospheric, history seems to seep out of the walls. This is good because you’ll get a closer view of the walls than expected as you fling yourself against them, or into a stranger’s doorway, to avoid being run over by speeding locals who drive up and down the narrow streets with abandon. Cars are a blight on Trujillo, nowhere seems to be pedestrian friendly.

We found ourselves at the top of the town outside the imposing walls of the castle. Originally Moorish, it was captured in 1232 by the Reconquista, and expanded under Christian rule. Presumably benefitting from Inca and Maya gold. From up here, and under a low Spring sun, the town looks spectacular.

Winding our way back through the town we passed more extraordinary medieval mansions, taking in a couple of churches as we went, and explored wonderful streets that feel like walking through history – at least when you’re not dodging cars. Given the history of some of the buildings, it’s bizarre to discover many seemed abandoned and in a state of neglect verging on disrepair. This included the Palacio de Conquista, the grand house on a corner of the main square built by Hernando Pizarro, the only one of the four brothers to die in Spain.

The town isn’t big and we soon found ourselves back in the Plaza Mayor. It was definitely time to sample a few local dishes – this region is famed for good food – and to expand our knowledge of Exremadura wines. I’d read somewhere that the wine of this region was gaining a reputation internationally, in a good way, so it seemed like a wise investment to get ahead of the curve. The night air was still a bit chilly, and on a Tuesday night the town quiet, but this is Spain and we found our way to a busy restaurant for a fun evening sampling the local produce.

Trujillo, a journey into Spain’s history in the Americas

Trujillo is an incredible place with an extraordinary history. This town in the centre of Extremadura played a far more significant role in world history than its size indicates. It’s grand historic buildings seem inappropriate for a town of this size; and even the glorious medieval mansions, vast castle and elaborate churches don’t really do justice to the influence Trujillo had on the history of the medieval western world. A visitor from another planet would have difficulty working out why such grandeur exists in such an unlikely place.

Walk around the beautiful (although plagued by cars) Plaza de Santa Maria, and you’ll come to a building that begins to explain what happened in Trujillo. On a corner of the square stands the Palacio de la Conquista; if the name isn’t enough the building is decorated with sculptures of former leaders of the Inca Empire, in chains. This is the house Hernando Pizarro built.

Statue of Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Statue of Francisco Pizarro, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Hernando was one of the famed Pizarro brothers, Conquistadors who travelled to the New World in search of vast wealth. The Conquistadors were little more than mercenaries, and the Pizarro brothers exemplified the violent world into which they were born. Led by the illiterate Francisco, all four brothers played a major role in the conquest of Peru and the brutally efficient destruction of the Inca Empire. The vast wealth they stole or extorted from Inca nobility went to build Trujillo’s beautiful and well fortified medieval mansions.

It is hard to imagine that a powerful and sophisticated civilisation, numbering millions of people, could be destroyed by a handful of soldiers in just a few months. Yet this is what Francisco Pizarro, 168 Spanish Conquistadors and 27 horses achieved in Peru. I read William H. Prescott’s classic history of the conquest of Peru when we travelled there in 2012/13, it reads almost like fiction. The Inca civilisation simply collapsed, doomed because they lacked steel, horses and immune systems capable of surviving European diseases.

Prescott makes clear the peril Pizarro’s men found themselves in, and the bravery they displayed, but he also recounts their ruthlessness, painting a picture of vicious killers who would have stopped at nothing. They ruled the former Inca Empire with an iron fist, simultaneously marrying Inca royalty to give themselves legitimacy. Their ambition led to conflict with their fellow Spaniards, and it’s little surprise that three of the four met violent deaths in Peru. Hernando was the only one to die in Spain, in Trujillo, in the Palacio de la Conquista in 1578, but only after he’d spent 20 years in a Spanish prison.

I’d wanted to see Trujillo ever since being in Peru and it was a bitter-sweet experience. While I marvelled at the glories of Trujillo, I couldn’t help but reflect on the wonders of the Inca civilisation that were lost, destroyed or melted down. It didn’t seem a fair swap.

Statue of Francisco de Orellana, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Statue of Francisco de Orellana, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

I didn’t expect it, but there seems little remorse for the town’s role in the destruction of another civilisation. An impression reinforced by the giant statue of Pizarro dominating the main plaza. My guidebook revealed the bizarre story that the statue was made by an American and donated to Trujillo in 1927; but not before he tried to give it to the Mexican Government as a statue of Hernán Cortés. Unsurprisingly, the Mexicans weren’t in the mood to honour the destructor of Mexico’s Aztec and Mayan civilisations. It was ‘renamed’ and given to Trujillo.

The Pizarro brothers weren’t the only conquerors of the New World to come from Trujillo. Ñuflo de Chaves was born in a village just outside Trujillo. He founded the Bolivian town of Santa Cruz, a fact I didn’t know when living in Bolivia. Other Trujillo luminaries include Francisco de Orellana, who accompanied Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and was the first European to navigate the full length of the Amazon; and Diego García Paredes, known as the ‘Samson of Extremadura’, who founded Trujillo in Venezuela. Their ill-gotten gains are also on display in Trujillo.

Extremadura, recruiting ground of the Conquistadors

Spain is a country that wears its history on its sleeve. A visit to just about anywhere in this extraordinary country will bring you into contact with its long and frequently brutal history. Nowhere is that more true than the parched and often desolate landscapes of Extremadura. Historically it was one of the poorest regions of Spain, its inhabitants forced to scrape a living from poor soils. Only now is it starting to shake off a dusty exterior that has kept it off the tourist trail: the historic glories of Extremadura have begun to attract a steady flow of visitors.

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

Life was so hard here that it proved a fertile recruiting ground for the Conquistadors, men like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, who would conquer the Americas with a mixture of savage brutality and European diseases. It is Pizarro that most fascinates me. We’d visited Peru twice when living in Bolivia and I’d seen the results of Pizarro’s work at first hand. I was eager to see the town where the conqueror of the Incan Empire grew up.

Heading north past Cordoba, we called at tiny Belmez, our final stop in Andalusia before crossing into Extremadura. We hadn’t planned to visit Belmez, but it seemed as good a place as any to grab a coffee and a snack; plus we could see the town’s castle perched on top of a ridiculously steep hill from miles away, and I can’t resist a good castle. We finally found our way through the narrow streets to the base of the hill and started the ascent upwards. Needless to say the castle started life as a Moorish fort, but what remains today dates from after the Reconquista.

The climb was worth it. Clambering up to the very top of the tower provided a 360̊ panorama over the surrounding countryside, with only a few birds and a strong breeze for company. Back at ground level we went for a stroll around town, ten minutes later we were seated in the local bar with a coffee. This tiny place looks like it has seen better times, at least judging by the number of ‘For Sale’ signs dotted around the town.

There was time when Romans lived here and mined iron ore, but it was the discovery of coal deposits that turned this into a mining region, and saw an influx into the area at the start of the 20th Century. On the outskirts of town the remains of long abandoned coal mines litter the landscape; this area has suffered more than most from economic decline, with industry gone there is little to offset the hardship and younger people are voting with their feet.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

Back on the road we decided to take smaller roads through the countryside. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves passing through breathtaking rural landscapes and entering Extremadura. In the distance we saw what looked like a massive hilltop fortress. Naturally we headed in that direction and after navigating our way through a tiny village and up a steep hill found ourselves, alone and on top of another hill, standing amongst the ruins of the Alcazaba Arabe de Reina, close to the small town of Reina.

Situated at a vital junction on the route between Cordoba and Merida, the Alcazaba Arabe de Reina dates back to Roman times, and the ruins of the Roman town, Regina Turdulorum, are nearby on the plain below. It grew into a massive fortress during Moorish times – being situated not that far from the boundary between the Christian north and Moorish south. It may be dramatically situated but there is little that remains of the original citadel other than some of the massive walls.

There is a hermitage and shrine in the middle of the fort dedicated to Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, our Lady of the Snows. After wandering around for 20 minutes and drinking in the views, it was time to start the last part of our journey to Trujillo. We skipped visiting the nearby Roman ruins, because some in our party (of two) felt that visiting two castles in one day was already an overindulgence, but this region of Extremadura is definitely one to return to.

North to Extremadura, the beautiful Sierra de Grazalema

It was time to head north. We’d promised ourselves a few days in Madrid before flying back to the Netherlands, but first we wanted to visit Extremadura. We had only one destination in mind, Trujillo, home of Francisco Pizarro, Conquistador and conqueror of the Incan Empire – a town built on looted silver and gold from Peru. It was a bit of a whim, and quite a distance, but after a couple of visits to Peru in 2012 and 2013, we were keen to see from where Pizarro and his band of cutthroats heralded.

Leaving Ronda behind, we set off early to loop through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Andalusia: the Sierra de Grazalema. Our route would take us through the mountains, along a narrow road that has more hairpin bends than you can count, and leads you over the 1357m Puerto de Las Palomas. It is a spectacular road to drive, the mountains in the crisp morning air, absolutely wonderful.

Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain

We headed towards the sleepy village of Grazalema, which nestles in a high altitude valley beneath a giant lump of limestone called Peñon Grande. It may be sleepy but the location is all drama. When I think of Andalusia the first thing that springs to mind is a relentless, sultry heat, but in the Sierra de Grazalema National Park the countryside is some of the greenest in the whole country. A bit of reading revealed that it has a unique microclimate created by the mountains, making this region the rainiest place in Spain.

The village was originally founded by North African Berbers, and it was they who introduced the sheep that you see all over this region. The wool industry became hugely important for the local economy, but today tourism, based around outdoor activities, is the major industry. We had a long journey ahead so we only had time to pause for a coffee before heading up and over the mountain towards Zahara de la Sierra.

The coffee turned out to be a very good idea, you don’t want to drive this mountain road without being fully alert. We reached the Puerto de Las Palomas (the Pass of the Doves) in one piece, but coming down the other side of the mountain range was more traumatic than going up. At least we could see our destination, the castle of Zahara de la Sierra was visible from miles away.

As defensive positions go, the fortifications at Zahara de la Sierra are as impressive and daunting as any I’ve ever seen. After lugging ourselves up to the top of the hill from the main square in the village I speak from experience. Out of breath we may have been but, from the windswept top of the Homage Tower, the views are absolutely stunning. If that wasn’t enough, standing on this spot you are standing in a place with an important history.

The castle of Zahara de la Sierra played a vital role in the Reconquista, the protracted conquest of Moorish Spain by Christian forces under the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1481 the Emirate of Granada, all that was left of the once mighty Moorish empire on the Iberian Peninsular, decided to seize Zahara de la Sierra from its Christian occupiers. This they did in a daring night raid, the unforeseen consequence of this was that it sparked the final phase of the Reconquista, the conquest of Granada.

The Homage Tower is all that is left of the castle that once stood on the craggy outcrop that literally towers over the town below; up here you get a real sense of why this was such an strategic place. The fertile valley below was a rich prize, and this place changed hands several times. From the top of the tower we could see the white knuckle route we had just driven, presumably it was just a rough donkey trail in 1481. We stopped for a bite to eat in the village square and then set off again to wend our way north towards Extremadura.

Semana Santa in Ronda

We arrived in Ronda in time to catch more Semana Santa festivities, and after the massive celebrations of Malaga it was interesting to see what happens in a small town. Not that Semana Santa in Ronda isn’t a big affair. Most of the town seems to turn out for the numerous parades that wind their way from outlying barrios to Plaza Socorro, and back again. We made our way towards Barrio San Cristobal where one procession started around 8pm, just after darkness had fallen.

It was a chilly evening – at an altitude of 744m, Ronda can get cold at this time of year – and we had to hang around for a while waiting for things to get going. Eventually people started to gather, food vendors passed up and down the lines, and the sense of anticipation grew. Despite the cold night air, seeing a procession at night is an atmospheric experience, particularly as many people in the procession carry big candles, including small children. The main float of the Virgin was brilliantly illuminated with dozens of candles.

Semana Santa in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Semana Santa in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Following the Reconquista, when Spain was united under Ferdinand and Isabella, forging a Catholic, Christian identity for a nation that had been largely Islamic for 700 years was a major undertaking. Semana Santa became a tool for doing just that, and the origins of the celebration as it now exists dates back to just after the end of Moorish rule in 1492. In Ronda, the first written records of the Semana Santa celebrations date from 1538, although it probably started earlier, giving the city 500 years of tradition to draw upon.

There were definitely some differences between Ronda and Malaga. There were still plenty of long pointy hats, but there were also a number of different types of headdress, including one that looks uncannily like those you see in any film or documentary about ancient Egypt. In the procession in Barrio San Cristobal there were also a lot of women elegantly dressed in black lace, something else we’d not seen in Malaga

The mixture of young and old, of fun-filled festival and sombre religious parade, makes the night processions well worth going to. The good thing, for the casual observer, is that the floats weigh so much that it impossible for the procession to move at much more than a snails pace. We watched the procession file past and then wandered off with the crowd to find a tapas bar, for a bit of warmth and sustenance.

Some food and a couple of glasses of vino tinto later, we caught up with the procession still some way from the centre of Ronda. It literally takes hours for a procession to complete its course, which tells you a lot about the dedication and devotion of the people who participate, especially those carrying the floats. It also allows the less devoted to visit a few tapas bars and not miss any of the spectacle.

Ancient Ronda, Spain’s wild and startling town

Ronda is an extraordinary place. The epitome of traditional Spanish culture (bullfighting is a very, very big deal in Ronda), while simultaneously maintaining an identity that is unique and (slightly) aloof. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a town tracing its evolution from early Celtic tribes, to Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. The town is split in two by the dramatic El Tajo gorge, separating the old Moorish part of town to the south, La Ciudad, from the newer, El Mercadillo, area to the north, built following the Christian Reconquista in 1485.

In Ronda, ‘newer’ has different meaning, this is one of Spain’s most ancient towns. On the western side of town you can see why Ronda has been inhabited for millennia, and why it took so long for Christian forces to capture it: the town teeters on the edge of vertical cliffs that plunge over a hundred metres straight down, making it a near impregnable stronghold.

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

The two parts of the town are connected by it’s, and one of Spain’s, most emblematic sights: a towering triple-arched bridge that induces vertigo when stood on top of it, and a sense of awe when stood beneath it looking up, white water tumbling between its central arch. The bridge, known as the Puente Nuevo, is one of three, but is the most famous of all thanks to a particularly brutal incident in 1936. During the Spanish Civil War, Republican forces from Malaga arrived in Ronda, rounded up Nationalist and Fascist sympathisers, throwing them off the bridge to their deaths 120 metres below.

In a conflict that produced many acts of barbarity from both sides, the executions in Ronda have a particular notoriety. Much used for propaganda purposes at the time, it was probably Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which recounts a fictional version of events in Ronda, that made it internationally famous. Despite these terrible, and not particularly ancient, events, Ronda is a beautiful and tranquil place to spend a few days. It also makes a good base for exploring the mountainous surrounding countryside.

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Hemingway wasn’t alone in being drawn to Ronda, many other artists sought inspiration here, including film maker Orson Welles and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke said of Ronda, “I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda. There is nothing that is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.” Stand on the Puente Nuevo and you get a sense of exactly what Rilke meant.

His last phrase, “wild and mountainous”, gives a hint of another side to Ronda and the surrounding region: for a couple of hundred years this was considered bandit country. The region was criss-crossed with trails used by smugglers from the coast, largely outside the control of the Spanish state. It gained a notorious reputation for banditry and contraband. This is, after all, the region that gave birth to one of Spain’s most famous literary characters, Carmen. Made famous by Bizet’s opera, Carmen was inspired by a visit to this region by French writer, Prosper Mérimée.

Ronda is considered to be the birthplace of modern Spanish bullfighting. The modern form, with all its rules and traditions, including the scarlet cape, started here in the 18th Century. Before that, and a little like Ronda’s reputation for lawlessness, bullfighting had two forms, one of which was just an out-and-out man versus bull free-for-all. I doubt this improved the bulls chances, but the modern form more or less ensures an unfair competition by weakening the neck muscles of the bull (with knives) before the matador takes to the ring.

To celebrate the founding of this new form of bullfight, Ronda built what many consider to be Spain’s finest bullring. Seating 5000 people, it hosts some of the biggest and most important fights in the country. When there is a big bullfight in Ronda the national media show up. There’s a museum attached which we skipped in favour of less bloodthirsty activities – wandering the streets sampling some of the delicious food that is on offer in the numerous tapas bars.