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 an 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

Scenes from Semana Santa in Malaga

It might have been the constant pounding of the drums, or the clouds of incense, or even the mournful songs that accompany some of the processions. Ultimately, I blame the over consumption of Torrijas, the sickly sweet traditional pudding of bread soaked in egg and milk before being fried and served up to unsuspecting tourists, but after a few intense days of non-stop processions, Semana Santa started to feel a little overwhelming. A sure sign it was time to leave the city and head for the hills.

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Malaga was a lot of fun during Semana Santa, and I suspect it is a fabulous place to visit at any time of year. We visited the Picasso Museum, with a couple of hundred works donated or loaned by Picasso’s relatives; we clambered up the Gibralfaro for fabulous views over the town and ocean; we passed through more overwrought churches than you can shake a stick at; we wandered around the lovely harbour area; and we drank cocktails in wonderful rooftop bars like we truly belonged in the Mediterranean.

Malaga is a town that doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, but we’ll definitely be going back for more…but for now it was time to sample rural Andalusia.

Dawn to dusk, Semana Santa in Malaga

Throughout Semana Santa, Holy or Easter Week outside the Spanish speaking world, Spain essentially comes to a grinding halt. Everyone heads to the streets to participate in the festivities. Malaga had a full programme of activities, we’d picked up a timetable the night we’d arrived and, without really knowing which processions might be most interesting, started planning where we should be and at what time. This was a bit pointless, there are so many processions that you can’t really avoid bumping into them all over the city, day and night – after a few days we’d become completely blasé.

It would be fair to say that Spain, and the Spanish, enjoy a good fiesta, there seems to be one every other day somewhere in the country. Semana Santa though is in a different league, the traditions run deeper, it is more colourful, more vibrant and more devout than most fiestas. It is the highpoint of the Christian calendar and Spain celebrates it with gusto. It’s hard not to get caught up in the whole euphoric experience.

There is something extraordinary about thousands of people dressing as medieval penitents, some barefoot and blindfolded, carrying giant floats topped with life-size biblical tableaux, known as misterios, weighing 3 tonnes or more. They do this for hour after hour, all day and all night. The processions are the domain of cofradias, Catholic brotherhoods, that are associated with a particular church within a particular community of the city. The processions always start from and return to the local church, after parading through the streets to the cathedral.

As all the processions converge on the cathedral, this is a logical place to see the action; but it is well worth the effort to track down the parish churches where the floats start from and watch them as they pass through their local barrio. As a spectacle there is little to rival it. We had time and saw processions throughout the week, but if you have limited time the most important processions, often from the most ancient of the cofradias, take place towards the end of the week, and typically late at night.

The first morning we went out to a barrio away from the centre, found a cafe near the local church and waited for things to get going while we had some coffee and churros. It wasn’t long before people started to gather and the atmosphere became noticeably charged. The front of the procession consisted of children carrying incense burners and palm leaves, behind came robed and hooded penitents, and then the first of the floats. Each cofradia normally carries two floats in each procession – one of Christ, often featuring a donkey or the crucifixion, the other is of the Virgen and is normally extremely ornate.

There is a serious amount of rivalry between the cofradias, extending to a rivalry between statues of the Virgen for the affections of the people. Everyone has their favourite Virgen, apparently. Posters of the Virgens can be seen all over town, in every bar and restaurant, depending upon where the affections of the owners lie. Coming from a cold, northern Protestant background I find it all great fun while at the same time can’t help seeing the bizarre…when in Rome, as they say.

Semana Santa in surprising Malaga

I freely admit my prejudice, I had only ever considered Malaga as part of the horrors of the package holiday nightmare that has swept the Costa del Sol for the last four decades. This coastline has become a byword for unsustainable and unsympathetic development, the sort that has seen formerly picturesque villages and golden beaches consumed by one of Europe’s greatest concentrations of ugly apartment blocks. A place that, until recent attempts to clean it up, was also a byword for a type of tourism that regularly makes tabloid headlines.

Let me go on record and apologise to Malaga and its people. This is a wonderful city that has an historic old town, a vibrant nightlife, tremendous food and some great museums. During the Easter, Semana Santa, celebrations, it is also one of the most entertaining places I’ve ever been. We’d been told that Malaga and Sevilla compete for best Semana Santa celebrations, and while Sevilla is better resourced and more glitzy, Malaga is more down to earth, grittier, quintessentially Spanish. Plus, have you ever tried to find reasonably priced accommodation in Sevilla during Semana Santa?

Despite its proximity to the resorts of the Costa del Sol, Malaga seems decidedly non-touristy, and the Semana Santa celebrations seem to attract only a tiny number of the tourists that go to Sevilla, Granada and other Holy Week hot spots. That in no way detracts from the spectacle of the celebrations or the exuberance of the festivities. Although the scene of serious religious devotions, Malaga is known to have a non-traditional approach to Semana Santa. Less dour, if not less devout.

To my untrained eye that translates as more raucous. The impression I got was that for many younger people Semana Santa is, first and foremost, a reason to party…and people party hard. Luckily Malaga has a wide variety of excellent tapas bars, restaurants and sherry hostelries to accommodate this tendency. Tired of watching the parades? There is always some convenient place to recharge the batteries with a glass of sweet Malaga Virgen wine and a tapas or two, before rejoining the throngs of merry makers.

We arrived after dark and almost immediately found ourselves stuck in the midst of a Procesión, the parades which carry the giant Pasos, floats or litters, topped with biblical tableaux. These things weigh an enormous amount and are carried by dozens of people. They move at a snails pace…we were going to be late reaching the hotel. As it happened the Procesión belonged to a Cofradías which had its temple on the street next to our hotel. It didn’t seem like we’d be getting much sleep that night…time to take to the streets and see what else was happening.

The Cofradías are Catholic groups, often referred to as brotherhoods or fraternities, that promote religious training and undertake charitable activities. The Brotherhoods also commission and maintain the floats and organise the parades, as well as (the male members) carrying the Pasos along the Procesión route. The floats are sometime made by famous designers and some are centuries old. There are dozens of Cofradias in Malaga, thousands throughout Spain.

This first glimpse of the near constant parading that takes place during Semana Santa was just an amuse bouche for what was to come over the next few days. It would be fair to say we enjoyed ourselves massively, although the shock of seeing people dressed up like Klu Klux Klan extras from Mississippi Burning took a while to get used to.