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Get a feel for Andalucía in 8 days/7 nights

As with anything: the more the better… Andalucía would probably need at least a good month touring around but if you have got just a week off and you are prepared to do a bit of driving, it’s still a great destination, especially in early Autumn or Spring when the weather is still warm and you can enjoy the main cities avoiding the massive summer crowds and the unbearable heat. Andalucía gets truly hot in the central summer months, making it almost impossible to walk around cities like Sevilla or Cordoba so I wouldn’t advise to visit in summer (unless you plan to stay on the coast for the majority of your trip). March, April and May in Spring and September and October in Autumn are – in my opinion – the best months to visit this region.

 

May deserves a separate note since 3 different celebrations are held in this month: May Crosses Festival, Patio Festival and Cordoba Fair and this obviously has an impact on the amount of tourists visiting the town. If you decide to visit in this month you will have great photo opportunities but, as always, prices will be higher than normal and you will need to book well in advance.

If you only have 8 days/7 nights and want to get a good glimpse of Andalucía, be prepared to having to drive a fair bit. The good thing is that, as all over Spain, Andalucía lives until late: shops and museums stay open until late, restaurants serve food until gone midnight so if you live like a Spaniard for a few days you can actually make your day last a lot longer.

Here is a tentative itinerary:

Day 1. Málaga-Granada (130 km). Land in Málaga and hire a car from the airport. Roads are pretty good and it’s very easy to get out from the airport and start your journey into Andalucia. If it’s only the two of you for a 1 week on-the-road-trip, pack light and rent a small size car (it will be cheaper and a lot more practical to move around in the narrow town streets). We used Sixth Car and we were happy with them, particularly because they didn’t charge the drop off fee for picking up in Málaga and returning in Barcelona (very useful if you plan to land/depart from different airports). In Granada, I stayed at Párraga Siete, a nice and very reasonable hotel downtown, a quick walk from the main sites. Just for being nosy, after eating in their restaurant, I had a look at the rooms of AC Palacio de Santa Paula and they were really nice and very well appointed; replacing an old convent, the setting is gorgeous with a beautiful courtyard where you can dine (during the warm season). Unfortunately when we visited it was raining so we couldn’t take advantage of the outdoor area but the meal and the service were spot on. Spend the afternoon walking Granada, visiting the historical centre with the majestic Cathedral, the Albaicín (declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1994) and the Sacromonte neighbourhoods.

Day 2. Visit La Alhambra.

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View of the Alhambra and Sierra Nevada in the background.

I have been to this UNESCO heritage site 3 times in my life and every time it has been absolutely stunning, even when it was pouring with rain :-(. Don’t rush and take your time to visit the magnificent palaces and the gorgeous Generalife gardens. Book well ahead and remember: no matter what time of the year you book, La Alhambra will always be busy. Spring is probably the best time of the year to visit with the blossoming gardens. Even though Granada is only 1 hour drive to the coast, because of its proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountain and its height (738 metres above the sea level), it does get cool and breezy so come prepared.

Day 3. Granada-Cordoba (200 Km). A bit of a drive but Cordoba deserves of course a stopover. Spend the day visiting the stunning Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba (access is free early in the morning)

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and its Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges Courtyard) and get lost in the beautiful white narrow streets of the historic town dotted with blossoming flower pots (Calleja de Las Flores).

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Walk over the Roman Bridge to get a good glimpse of the city. Cordoba is a mix of Arab, Christian and Jewish culture and it’s all reflected in its architecture, its people and its varied food. After a long day driving and visiting, treat yourself to a late Arab bath at Hammam Al Andalus. Your body will thank you! You can find this Arab bath in Granada as well, in case it can fit better with your journey plan (maybe after the visit to La Alhambra?). I tried the Granada one and it was excellent.

Day 4. Cordoba-Sevilla (140 km). Sevilla is a true gem so be prepared to be gobsmacked. Too hot in summer to be enjoyed (it’s the hottest major metropolitan area in Europe), it is a its best in Spring and Autumn.

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The Expo ’92 gave Sevilla a massive tourist push, making the city one of the most visited in Spain. Sevilla would probably need a full week to be appreciated and to enjoy its exciting night life  but if you’ve just got a day and half, concentrate yourself on the main sites. The Cathedral with the Giralda, the Alcazar and its gardens, Plaza de España, Metropol Parasol etc. You might be knackered by the afternoon, so get back to your hotel for an hour of proper siesta and go out to eat not early than 10 PM. It may sound far too late (especially for an English or an American) but if you want to get the atmosphere and the andaluz vibe, you have to make an effort and try to get used to their lifestyle.

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Late tapas
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Sevilla Cathedral

Day 5. On your 5th day, have a bit of a lay in and don’t hit the streets too early. Visit whatever you have left to do in Seville and then make sure you have a seat booked at La Casa de La Memoria for a flamenco show.

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Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria

The last time I visited Sevilla was in 2013 and I still remember how this show impressed me (I was literally in tears and goosebumps). Make sure to get there early, so you can get a good spot.

Day 6. Whatever you do next, it will depend on whether you are happy to do a bit more sightseeing or just want to relax for a couple of days on a beach before flying back. I choose the latter (since I had already visited Andalucía extensively and I needed to warm my bones a bit!) so I decided to head to a place called Caños de Meca. On our way down (it’s just over 2 hours from Sevilla), we stopped at El Puerto de Santa Maria, where we actually spent one night. Spain doesn’t get more Spanish then this…you will see.  Though I personally think it doesn’t require a 1 night stopover (especially if you have only 7 nights available), it’s particularly interesting for those Sherry lovers to visit the Osborne cellar and to get excellent fried fish (and more).

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Seafood at Romerijo

We had a quick lunch at Romerijo and unfortunately we couldn’t eat in one of the restaurant that I had bookmarked, El Faro del Puerto. It is supposed to be truly excellent so if you can book a table, do it! And then let me know how it was 😉

Caños de Meca is probably one of the strangest seaside locations that I have visited. Once land of big investments, it got stuck with the economic crisis that hit the world (and severely injured Spain… which has not recovered yet): plenty of buildings would need refurbishing, a lot of them looking abandoned, streets were not particularly clean when we visited…so, why going there?

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Because – out of season – it is an amazingly peaceful place with gorgeous long sandy beaches (don’t expect any sunbeds, as far as I remember), gorgeous views and a stunning coastline rich in vegetation (the Breña and Marismas del Barbate Park is the second largest coastal reserve in Andalucía). The water is amazingly clear, the beach was surprisingly empty (end of April) and the water was not too cold to allow us a couple of (brave!) good dips. When we got there, it truly felt like what Formentera used to be (see my full post on this amazing island): wild and peaceful. If you decide to visit Caños de Meca, be prepared to change your mindset (even though by now it should already be adjusted to the andaluz style!) 🙂 because you have just arrived in a very laid-back and easy-going town: here nobody will rush. Why rushing? Accommodation in town was generally quite basic; since it was a special occasion, we decided to stay at a place called La Breña, a few steps from the beach in a loft room with views of the Mediterranean sea. Their restaurant was very good as well (a kind of variation on the typical Spanish menus, still being very local) so I would recommend both the hotel and the restaurant. We were surprised by the lack of tourists (and very happy for that!) but the locals confirmed us that Caños de Meca does get jam-packed in summer and services that can’t cope with the amount of visitors. Therefore, I would strongly recommend to visit before/after peak season.

Day 7. Spend your full day on the beach. No need to give you any tips here, just chill out, enjoy the views, have a walk up to Trafalgar Lighthouse and then get back just on time for a drink watching the sunset.

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Sunset from La Brena hotel room

Day 8. If you are flying out from Málaga, allow plenty of time to get to the airport (at least 3 hours). Our sat nav didn’t work (or I didn’t put the destination properly… more likely) and we ended up racing like maniac down the country lanes (it felt wrong but we kept going until we realized it was very wrong). And we almost missed the flight…

Don’t fancy driving? You can do almost everything of the above (except Caños de Meca) using Spanish trains (Renfe) or buses. Spanish trains are reliable, relatively modern and save you the hassle (and the cost) of the car but of course you loose a bit in flexibility. From Málaga, you can reach by fast train Sevilla (2,30 h) and Córdoba (1 h) and Granada by bus in 1,30 h. Málaga is also 2,45 h from Madrid, therefore flying to Madrid and catching a train connecting to Málaga is an option too.


 

Of course you will have left Andalucía without seeing plenty of wonderful town and villages but you have got the excuse to come back. Málaga, Ronda, Antequera, Estepona, Cádiz, Baza caves…there is plenty more to come back and plenty more to write on!

 

 

 

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In the heart of Catalunya: Girona and Figueres

Not far from the French border, Girona (in Catalán and Gerona in Spanish) is less than 100 km from Barcelona. Ryanair planes fly here so it could be a great destination for a short and not too expensive getaway. I have been here a few times, the last one being April 2015 and once again I find myself in a pretty city with nice architecture, away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona, with a lot of character and just a short drive to one of the most gorgeous coastline of Spain.

Girona is not a big city, you could easily explore it in less than a couple of days (depending how much time you want to dedicate to museums etc). It’s very pleasant to walk around since plenty of areas in the historic district are car-free. There is plenty to see in the old town: the Cathedral, Sant Pere de Calligants, the Jewish quarter, Plaça de la Indipendencia.

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Girona Cathedral
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Plaza de la Independencia

If you’ve got a car and a spare day, go and visit the former Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes (almost an hour from downtown Girona).

When we visited Girona we based ourselves in a budget hotel just outside the old town, Hotel Margarit: very reasonable room rate, super clean room and walking distance from the centre. For lunch, we had a quick and reasonable menu del dia (daily menu) in one of the many restaurants in Plaça de la Indipendencia and then we started exploring. In the evening, we treated ourselves to a nice meal out in Placa del Vi, 7 in the namesake square. Despite reading some negative reviews on Trip Advisor, we personally had a very good meal with great choice of wines by the glass (I particularly enjoyed the Riversaltes dessert one). Unfortunately (as sometimes happens in Catalunya), despite noticing that we were foreigners (I can speak Spanish but not Catalán) the staff didn’t make a lot of effort to try to communicate with us other than in Catalán. Not a problem of this particular restaurant, since it has happened to me on more than one occasion in this region so I suggest you don’t get put off by this and just enjoy the nice food and lovely atmosphere.

If you are not here on a budget and you are prepared to pay some serious money to taste some amazing food, don’t forget that Catalunya region has got plenty of Michelin starred restaurants (53 as of Autumn 2015), including El Celler Can Roca (3 Michelin stars).

Not far from Girona there is another small town well worth a visit: Figueres, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí, one of my favorite artist. Figueres is twined with St. Petersburg, FL, another great city where for Dalí’s fans. It was an absolute genius and his Teatro Museu is true testament of that.

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He once said: “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream”. Once you are in you will soon understand that he has fully achieved his purpose.

Figueres is a relatively small town so you could easily spent just half a day here and combine it with a visit in the nearby Cadaqués or Port Lligat, another one of Salvador Dalí hot spot.

 

 

 

 

Postcard from a fishing village…

The last time I had been here was during an incredibly hot summer, back when I was 16 I think. I remember the heat because it was almost impossible to walk around before the sunset. I wasn’t driving at that time – of course – and I didn’t remember the road to get here.

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From Barcelona it’s just over 2 hours (and that makes it a hot spot for weekenders); the last length of the journey is a pretty high and winding road (especially if your driving boyfriend suffers vertigo!), before you start your descend to the bay. Once at the bottom, you get rewarded with one of the most charming white fishing villages of Costa Brava, in the Alt Empordá region: Cadaqués. Whilst a lot of the Costa Brava villages/towns have been taken over by mass tourism, Cadaqués still retains its old charm: white steep and narrow alleys, lovely bars and restaurants set in the most scenic corners, beautiful views of the crystal blue water, picture-framed water front in a stunning location. An overall sense of tranquility and mellowness pervades this pocket-sized town and you will get it as soon as you step in.

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View of Cadaques

In the past, Cadaqués had been frequently chosen by many writes, painters, poets and artists in general as a holiday spot or as a place to have a second home. Dalí, Picasso, Miro’, Magritte, Lorca and Breton just to name a few. And you can’t really blame them. Dalí is particularly celebrated in the area (his former house in Port Lligat – not far from Cadaqués – deserves a visit) so keep you eyes open to spot his face around town.

I was there last April, long before the crowds started to take over – as every summer – this tiny village of just over 2,500 people, with prices sky-rocketing and making it a mission impossible to find a not overpriced accommodation. But in April (still with a strong Tramuntana wind), it was perfect as it was: a quiet fishing village with few people around enjoying the serenity of such a gorgeous place. Spend a few hours wandering its narrow streets, walking the sea promenade and nosing in the few open shops.

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Weather was still far too cold for a swim (unless you are used to swim in the North Sea, I suppose) but if you are happy with walking and enjoying a clara in an outdoor sun-soaked terrace facing the sea… well, then come in April (or at least no later than June)! 🙂 You will beat the crowds and once there you will soon understand how nice is to be almost on your own in such a magical town.

I can’t recommend any place to eat because we chose to have a jamón y queso sandwich-to-go and sit by the sea to enjoy the awesome scenery… can’t really blame me!

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No restaurant can beat this view!

If you have come to Cadaqués, you may have already stopped at Figueres, a nice town home to the stunning and unique Salvador Dali Theatre Museum. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth a trip on his own, so have a look at my post on Girona & Figueres!

I left Cadaqués with true beauty in my eyes: the white fishing village, set amidst the darkness of the surrounding mountains in the cerulean of a Spring windy day soaking up in the blue-green water is possibly the best postcard to bring back home.

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Una cerveza, por favor!

When the heat strikes hard, that’s all you need to know to survive in Barcelona. A good cold beer. Best enjoyed in one of the thousands terrazas that you will find at every corner and square througout the city.

If I had to choose between Madrid and Barcelona I wouldn’t have any doubt: I am madrileña inside, but I have to admit that Barcelona has got something that Madrid hasn’t (and unfortunately, despite the efforts to bring the Manzanares river back, will never have): the SEA. Not so much the sea itself, but all that comes with it: a wide and well kept beach walk starts almost from the very downtown and stretches further out to sun-blessed city beaches, lovely terrazas facing the sea offering amazing seafood and in general a far more relaxed atmosphere than Madrid. It must be the sea breeze. In summer (and even before and after) it does get hot and very humid but you have always got the sea handy for a dip, so BCN is a good bet for an all year round trip.

Not to miss while you are there:

  • Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, Casa Battló, La Pedrera…: basically, everything that the great Antoni Gaudí has designed. Visits to Gaudí’s houses are not cheap but are well worth a visit, at list once in a lifetime. Try to visit the Sagrada Familia early in the morning before dozens of buses (with hundreds of tourists) arrive.
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Sagrada Familia, interior
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Sagrada Familia, interior
  • The Cathedral (known as La Seu): this stunning Gothic cathedral built in 3 stages over 150 years absolutely deserves a long visit. Check out on its website since there are some time slots throughout the day when access is free of charge.
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Barcelona Cathedral, interior
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Barcelona Cathedral, interior
  • Eat out in a terrazaI love the Born area, with the Picasso and Textile museums and Santa Maria del Mar Church…so you could combine a delicious outdoor lunch with excellent sightseeing (great shopping with plenty of individual and original boutiques, too). All over the neighbourhood there is an excellent choice of terrazas where to sit, share a few tapas and people-watch. It’s a very good spot to hang out in the evening as well and it’s just a few steps from La Barceloneta beach.
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Tapas in the Born Area
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Tapas in the Born Area
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Santa Maria del Mar
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Santa Maria del Mar, interior
  • In Barcelona (as in almost every corner of Spain) from Monday to Friday restaurants and cafes generally offer a menu del dia (daily menu) where sometimes for less than 10 € you can get a starter, a main and a drink. Quality depends (as always) on the establishment you choose. Generally the menu is advertised on a board outside the restaurant and it should change daily, as the name suggests.
  • Spend a few hours in the Mercado de la Boqueríaon the Rambla. A bit touristy and pricey but still a good place to admire its colorful stalls offering a wide range of jamones, quesos, aceitunas y pescado for which Spain is famous for.
  • Get the underground to Barceloneta or Ciutadella/Villa Olimpic and start you long walk on the beach side. In theory you wouldn’t even need to get your feet sandy since the boardwalk is all paved. Just so you know, the beach side restaurants and bars get very busy at night time so if you are up to a nice dinner out and a bit of boogie boogie you know where to head to.
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Beach walk
  • If you like partying, factor in to have a big night out. Barcelona is a party city and you shouldn’t leave it without having experienced good fun. Time Out Barcelona is a good source to check the trendiest clubs in town. To me, even though many years have passed, La Terrraza still holds some of the best memories of my time in BCN. A magical open-air club with top quality house music (some of the world best DJs have played here), set in the charming replica village of Pueblo Español. I have visited plenty of times and had a blast every single time.
  • An evening stroll on Passeig de Gracia to admire the beautiful evening lights of Casa Battló and La Pedrera.
  • Watching the sunset at Museu Art Nacional de Catalunya and stay there to grab a good spot to enjoy the Magic Fountain show.
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Museu Art Nacional de Catalunya
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Magic Fountain Show

Safety wise, I have to say that my feelings towards Barcelona have always been very mixed. Its streets and alleys, particularly in the old barrio Chino (Raval) and barrio Gótico are very narrow and poorly lit. Both barrios are busy in the evenings (plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from) so just hang out where other people are and you will be fine. The Rambla is to be avoided in the night (again, plenty of other places to go in BCN unless you are particularly fond of pickpockets, drug-dealers and prostitutes) or if you go there exercise precaution. If you decide (I wouldn’t, but up to you!) to sit down in one of the cafés on the Rambla, keep your bag on your lap anytime.

I think my aversion for the Rambla comes from the fact that when I was 17 I decided (together with a group of 3 other girls) to travel from Lloret de Mar (one of those places that you shouldn’t visit under any circumstances and that I will not mention anymore) to Barcelona, without booking an hotel – of course. We thought we could have stayed out partying all night. But we didn’t take into account that 1) our budget was not unlimited and 2) clubs closed at a certain hours and at that time I was not ready for matinee sessions yet (it took me just a year more!!) so we ended up literally on the Rambla from 4 AM until probably 7 AM, when we finally entered a coffee bar and waiting to board our bus back to Lloret. And what we have seen on the Rambla, we would like to forget.

Having said this, during the last decade BCN town hall undertook several actions to try to clean up many of the areas where drug dealers, prostitutes and pick-pockets where moving around freely so a lot of previous no-go areas are now a lot safer and therefore busier with tourists. I lived in BCN for a few months back in 2000 and gone back almost every year since then and I have never experienced any issue so just keep your eyes open and enjoy this fascinating city!

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Barcelona views (Torre Agbar on the right and Sagrada Familia on the left)