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Getting to Warsaw and eating

I’m getting increasingly sick of aeroplane travel. Eight of the last ten flights I’ve taken have been at least an hour late in arriving. And what with the ongoing pilot disputes with RyanAir and air traffic controllers on the outs elsewhere, booking a flight and printing a boarding card no longer ensure an on-schedule departure. So we decided to go from Budapest to Warsaw by train.

Booking 8 days ahead, we got some sort of deal – and opted for first class. Two return tickets, first class, came to €126 – €58 out, €68 back. and with as much luggage as we could handle. To get there on WizzAir, without luggage, would have cost the same and more, per person. Okay so the plane door to door might have taken less than half the time (if everything was on schedule) and resulted in airport transfer costs – but the train was so much more comfortable.

There are three departures daily from Budapest (Nyugati). The 7.41 requires a change and gets into Warsaw at the same time as the 8.41, which is direct. Both arrive at 18.56 (and they did – bang on). The 7.41 connects with the 8.41 at Breclav, which explains the same arrival. The overnight takes longer – leaving at 20.15 and getting in at 9.36 the next morning. I could do the 10 hours 15 minutes but the 13 hours and 21 minutes made me baulk.

We had the carriage practically to ourselves until we crossed over into Poland. I found this strange as when we’d booked the tickets, there were only 6 seats left. But when the world and her mother came aboard, I understood. It was standing room only in the second-class carriages and the entire first class was full. The dining car, too, was fully seated. My one and only complaint (I loved the complimentary water and free newspaper when we went through Slovakia) was that the air con was up so high it was bloody freezing while the rest of the train was baking. But apart from this imbalance, it was a very pleasant trip. Plugs for the laptop, table to work on, room to stretch out and sleep. What more could a body ask for.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Warsaw. But I remember being very  impressed with the city, favouring it in my mind over Kraków. I’ve yet to explore but it seems to be hopping. Last night, the street cafés in our neighbourhood were spilling over onto the sidewalks and the mood bordered on ecstatic. I wonder what’s in the Warsavian water.

Hala Koszyki warsaw

Taking a local’s advice, we headed for Hala Koszyki – a food hall over on  Koszykowa, No. 61. It is what the food hall on Hold Utca behind the American Embassy in Budapest could be, if it had communal seating and opened every night. It was great. You order from whichever place you want, take your buzzer, get your drink, find a table, and then wait.

Halla Koszyki Warsaw

We went for Cuban – jerk chicken and mango chicken with cassava hash browns. Delicious. We could have had Mexican, seafood, Thai, French, Italian, Polish – and lots more we didn’t get around to checking out. It’s a particularly good venue if you have a crowd of disparate eaters who can’t agree on where to go. In fact, when we’d been dithering earlier about a neighbourhood Georgian place (which was too hot to sit in and eat) I overheard three people arguing with the guy saying, in exasperation – Look, we can’t agree on what to eat, so we’ll go to Koszyki. What a great marketing strapline.

Hala Koszyki Warsaw

And tucked in between the resturants is a wine shop, a butchers, a bakery, a bookshop, a kitchen shop, and much more. The shops close at 6 but the restaurants and bars stay open till midnight.

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Andalusia: Granada

If I had to choose one city to revisit from this trip across Andalusia, it would have to be Granada. Yes, Ronda is beautiful. Yes, Cádiz has some great beaches. Yes, Córdoba has the whole cathedral-in-a-mosque thing going on. Yes, Seville has the oranges. And yes, the roads between these cities link many fascinating towns and villages, too. But my vote would definitely go to Granada.

Alhambra Palace, Granada

Granada was only on our list because himself want to see the Alhambra palace. Truth be told, I was churched-out by this stage and finding the heat difficult to deal with. I’d had just about enough of lugging suitcases in and out of hotels that proved difficult to access as Google  Maps is lagging behind the one-way systems in many of Spain’s old town centres. I hadn’t done any research at all. I couldn’t even situate the Alhambra in history. We had a 6 pm booking (be sure to book well in advance (weeks) if you want to see inside) and didn’t get there with much time to spare. Inside the Palacious Nazaries (access time is noted on your ticket) I saw a father with this two sons in their early teens. In a stern British accent, he was telling the two boys that this was an amazing place, with stunning architecture, built hundreds of years ago, and that they should be grateful to be able to get inside to see it all. The two boys, half-dead with the coupling of heat and boredom, just couldn’t seem to muster any interest. I felt their pain.

What began life as a small fortress back in 899 is now the most visited tourist attraction in Spain with a couple of million and more dropping by each year. The Moorish king of Grenada thought it a fixer-upper and renovated it in the eleventh century. And if we fast forward a few hundred years to 1333, we see that Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, turned it into a royal palace. Originally white, its walls have been backed to a red in the heat of the Andalusian sun. The detail is spectacular and the gardens something else. But had I a do-over, I’d have gone in the early morning to avoid the heat and to be sure of getting a charged audio guide.

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Sacromonte, Granada

The hills above the city are lined with caves. Sacromonte, the neighbourhood known locally as the gypsy quarter, is where all things Flamenco happen. This would be the place to go at night – to see the dramatic shows and hear the soul-filled music. By daylight, the views over the city worth the uphill hike to the Camino de Sacromonte. If you have time, or are fleeing the midday sun, the Sacromonte Caves Museum showcases this rock houses while Sacromonte Abbey takes care of the religious relics.

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Albaicín, Granada

Lower down on the hillside, across the Darro River from the Alhambra, is the former Arabic barrio of Albaicín. This maze of narrow cobbled streets winds between whitewashed houses suspended in jasmine-scented air. The views of the Sierra Nevada and of the palace itself from Mirador San Nicolás are definitely worth the wheezy climb, but both Sacromonte and Albaicín are also accessible by local bus – if you can figure out the loop-like system. We failed. Twice. But, like the streets of Venice, this neighbourhood is somewhere to get lost in. Treat yourself to time off the tourist track and wander. Of course, if you don’t go early in the morning off-season, you’ll be wandering with hordes of other tourists, but it’s worth the effort.

Albaicín Granada

Albaicín Granada

Bazaar Granada

Eating in Granada

Had we had time, I’d have gone back to El Molino (Calle Molinos, 8, 18009 Granada, Spain) again and again and again. It is the perfect stress-reliever with delicious tapas included with every drink. Complicated ones, too, not just some thrown-together affair designed to appease the tourist. These are the genuine article. And they keep coming, even when you’ve ordered other things to eat. The chap who was there didn’t speak English but couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. The TV was showing footage of some old Flamenco shows which, judging by the reaction of the local regulars, was good stuff.  A delightful place that you can catch on your walk downhill from the Alhambra.

And yes, of course, the Cathedral is spectacular – from the outside at least. The street bazaar seems to offer everything you might possibly want to take home with you. And a walk along the riverside on Carrera del Darro is a must, stopping for a coffee and some delicious chorizo.

Yes, had I to pick one city I’d go back to, it would be Granada. Off-season. In cooler weather. Just under 2 hours from Malaga, it’s definitely doable.

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That’s it for Andalusia. It was quite the trip, clocking up about 2200 km. Next destination is Warsaw … by train. If you’d like to receive similar posts directly to your inbox, sign up on www.anyexcusetotravel.com

 

granada

Granada Cathedral

 

 

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Andalusia: From Seville to Granada

By Roger W Haworth, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3208996

The road from Seville to Granada is a long one, especially if your point of origin is Burgau, in the Algarve. We’d already experienced driving from Spain to the Algarve as we’d taken time out from the road trip through Andalusia to take in a wedding in Praia da Luz and five days later, fully refreshed, we were back on the road. We had a 6 pm booking for the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which meant that detour time was restricted to pit stops for coffee and essentials.

Had we had the time to stop along the road, though, we’d have done so at Osuna. Remember the Jack Nicholson movie The Passenger, where his character is assassinated in the Hotel de la Gloria? Well, this was said to be in Osuna but it was actually filmed in Vera, in another province entirely. But the town was used in the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Apparently, it’s similar in style to Écija, with many Baroque buildings to be seen. This, of course, has been duly noted, should we ever find ourselves back in the vicinity.

Even though we didn’t stop to see anything spectacular, I did have time to reflect on the dos and don’ts of driving from Spain to the Algarve.

  • Don’t wait to buy petrol in Portugal. Fill up before you cross the border as it’s $0.30 at least more expensive than in Spain.
  • Don’t ignore the slip road signposted FOREIGNERS when you come off the Guadiana International Bridge. I saw it. In four languages. And I ignored it because it said nothing else other than FOREIGNERS. {If there is another sign mentioning tolls, I didn’t see it.) And, having an EU passport crossing from one EU country to another, I didn’t class myself as a foreigner. BUT, just a few km up the road, it dawned on us that it was for the new electronic toll system. Now we were on a toll road going through electronic toll booths with no toll ticket.
  • If you want to avoid tolls, exit at either of the first two exits Castro Marim/VRSA or Altura/Monte Gordo. If you use them, you’re not liable for tolls.
  • When you buy a toll ticket, don’t wait for any texts other than the first one confirming that you have a balance. It’s not in real time. Add the tolls up as you go along and when you’ve used your allowance, buy another.
  • If you have a foreign registered vehicle, don’t waste time in the Post Office trying to pay outstanding tolls before you leave the country – they only deal with tolls for Portuguese cars.
  • Don’t throw out the toll cards… you might just need them to prove you paid up when in Portugal.

So there you have it. What I wished I’d known when driving from Spain to the Algarve.

We made it to Granada with an hour to spare, saved by an enterprising tout who pulled up beside us on his scooter as we struggled to admit defeat at the hands of the one-way system in the old town. He asked us where we were staying. We told him. He drove ahead and took us there. And then wanted €10 for his trouble. Fair play, I thought. We’d have been lost without him as with sod all Spanish, it’s impossible to know which streets you can use and which you can’t and when.

The final stop of the tour, Granada. But more on that tomorrow.

 

 

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Andalusia: From Córdoba to Seville

Parador Cartama

I stand in shame. How I ever could have written off Spain as a being the sum of Barcelona, Madrid, and Costa del Sol is beyond me. It’s a country I’ve had little interest in but after the road trip from Córdoba to Seville, I’m a convert. Our three stops – Monturqe, Écija, and Carmona – none of them places I’d ever heard of before, left me at a loss for superlatives.

Monturque

Although not actually on the road to Seville, unless you go out of your way, we made the detour because of the award-winning cemetery (a must for taphophiles) and the Roman cisterns – even though I wasn’t quite sure what a cistern was. The geographical centre of Andalusia, this village of 2000 people perched on a hilltop about 57 km from Córdoba, warrants a blog of its own. It’s doing its damnedest to get on the tourist map and if the lovely Lourdes (our guide) has her way, it’ll happen. The well-preserved Roman cisterns discovered beneath the cemetery in the late 1800s are the fourth largest in the world after Bord Djedid (Tunisia), Albano (Italy), and Cherchell (Algeria) holding some 850 000 litres of water. And they’re still finding them – as recent as last December another was discovered while doing roadworks. Tours need to be booked ahead (www.monturquetourismo@gmail.com), cost €3, and run from 9 to 1 pm daily.

Roman Cistern at Monturqe

Écija

We’d passed the church-laden skyline of Écija on our way to Córdoba and made a note to stop on the way back. We nearly didn’t. Known locally as the frying pan, Écija was hotter than anything I’d imagine Hades to be. But life is too short for regrets and curiosity got the better of us. I’m glad we did. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous with a wow every five minutes. It wasn’t just the heat and the exertion that left me gasping for breath. With more than 20 convents and churches and palaces, it is a truly stunning town. But better to go early morning or late evening because the afternoon is uncomfortably hot.  Just 85 km east of Seville, it’s also a good day trip from the city [Note: The car park underneath the main square charges by the minute….]

Palacio de Valdehermoso Écija

Palacio de Valdehermoso

 

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista Écija

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

 

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista Écija

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

 

Palacio Peñaflor Écija

Palacio de Peñaflor (aka the house of long balconies)

Carmona

Carmona was on the list because of the Parador Carmona and the Puerta de Córdoba. But even though I’d seen pictures of the gate, I was still unprepared. We climbed the winding road to the hilltop town, rounded and bend and there it was. I braked and gave my loudest wow of the day. These Roman boys really did know how to build. We went looking for the Alcazar and the Parador intending to have lunch – but we had left it a little late. Lunch ends at 4 pm. Come to think of it, Carmona and Écija were practically closed. The afternoons appear to be sacrosanct so if you’re visiting, go early or late, but avoid the afternoon – unless you want the place to yourself and lots of closed doors.

Like Écija, Carmona has its fair share of gorgeous buildings. We found the last open restaurant on the circular square of Plaza San Fernando and had some gazpacho. I’m a convert, even though I’m not a great fan of tomatoes. With that and the cold carrot starter from Jerez,  my culinary repertoire has some nice additions. At 33 km north-east of Seville, it’s another very doable day tour.

Puerto de Córdoba Carmona

Puerta de Córdoba

Carmona

Carmona

Carmona

Hotal Parador Carmona

Hotel Parador pool

Cartama

A city with a sense of humour

While Ronda and Cádiz and indeed Córdoba have plenty to offer tourists, it is the smaller towns and cities like Écija, Carmona, and Monturque that are the real gems. Getting off the beaten path in Spain is doable. And not knowing what you might find is an added bonus. That sense of possibility and discovery really adds to the experience.

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Andalusia: From Cádiz to Córdoba

When we were planning this road trip through Andalusia, Córdoba had been near the bottom of his list and near the top of mine. But I can’t for the life of me remember why or what in particular I wanted to see. The road from Cádiz to Córdoba is part motorway, but you can skirt Seville and take the country back roads for quite a ways. The scenery is quite something with massive landholdings all the more notable for their lack of fencing. Popping next door to borrow a bottle opener would entail quite the hike. As we saw on the road to Ronda, the farmland is set with military precision in a patchwork of colours that would do any painter’s palette proud. I had read about the miracle wines of Jerez and that city, on the road from Cádiz to Córdoba, was on the list, too, albeit a late addition.

The miracle occurs in the wine cellar when, without any rational explanation, each cask decides, as though of its own volition, which type of sherry it is destined to be. The chemical composition of two casks laying side by side may be identical, but the trained nose of the vitner will smell out which solera it belongs to. ~ Andalusia in Focus

Denominazione di Origine

Sherry is the anglicised version of the Spanish Jerez, and indeed since Sir Francis Drake nicked a few thousand barrels of the stuff from the port of Cádiz back in the late 1500s and took them home, Sherry has been a stalwart British matronly tipple. Until very recently, the only sherry I knew of was Harvey’s Bristol Cream and I was sure that it was British – but not so. For sherry to be sherry it has to be produced in the so-called sherry triangle between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María, and San Lucar de Barrameda.

I was offered a glass of sherry many lifetimes ago at a private do in Elm Park golf club in Dublin. I was in my 20s and was most upset that the butler could have mistaken me for someone older. In my world, only elderly aunts, and elderly maiden aunts at that, drank sherry. That sweet, sickly taste did nothing for me. But then I discovered the dry, white sherry – Fino – served chilled. Sherry isn’t restricted to creams or Fino, though. There’s also oloroso (medium sweet), amontillado (full-bodied), palo cortado (dark and strong), and the very sweet Pedro Ximenez and more.

Sherry and religion in Jerez

We hit Jerez on a Sunday, the one day that most of the bodegas are closed. Tio Pepe was an exception and I was all for taking a tour until I read on a poster at the ticket office that it was the most visited winery in Europe. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t want to be just another tourist. So instead, we wandered off, thinking we’d fit in a tasting of our own over lunch somewhere.

As luck would have it, the church bells tolled just then and we followed the sound to find mass. I quite like my churches but as a practising Catholic, I resent being charged to go in and light a candle. I’d much prefer to leave a donation. Getting a squint inside while also getting mass was a double win. Iglesia de San Miguel dates back to the fifteenth century and is a solid testament to the craftsmanship of that era. The two carved gothic pillars that flank the altar are so intricately done that we were at the Gospel before I got over marvelling at the fact that someone carved these using a chisel. No electricity. No power tools. Just a chisel.

Iglesia de San Miguel Jerez

Iglesia de San Miguel Jerez

The Cathedral, too, is another gem, but it was closed. We had to make do with the outside. The city is on the ball though, and well up with the times, judging by the selfie-spot painted on the steps in front. It amused me no end. The city walls are spotted with holy paintings and some interesting statuary. I was particularly taken with one of what looked like a baby Jesus on a cross. After Cristos Negro with the real hair in Cádiz, I am beginning to wonder at the Spanish take on tradition.

Jerez Cathedral

Jerez

Jerez

Jerez

Sights and sustenance in Jerez

Spain takes Sunday seriously, with many tourist attractions closed for the day. Still, Jerez is a wanderable city with plenty of interesting squares and buildings to marvel at. The place is heaving with restaurants and it’s difficult to decide where to go. We wanted shade and quiet and something to look out on to. Plus we wanted sherries and good food. And we got it all at Restaurante Antonio Centro on the Plaza de La Asuncion. Spanish is one of those languages in which I can make myself understood and understand quite a bit of what’s being said to me, too. It lacks inhibition. Hand gestures, facial expressions, shoulder shrugs, all beef up the conversation. Getting the recipe for the cold carrot starter was hilarious but I’m primed. We had what was undoubtedly our best meal so far in Spain – a notch or three above the usual tapas. And they’d no problem letting us taste the sherries till we found one we liked.

Jerez

Jerez

What we missed

Palacio del Virrey Laserna was home to General José de la Serna y Martínez de Hinojosa, the First Conde de los Andes, who acquitted himself well during the War of Independence, and was the last Viceroy of Peru and Spain in America. It only opens on Sunday from 11 to 2pm. The Alcázar (Moorish palace) tops the list of local sights and is probably a must for those interested in the history of the area.  It houses the last remaining mosque of the 18 that once stood in the city. For the best part of 700 years, Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula was strong. When Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, the decline began. Córdoba would fall in 1236, and finally, in 1492, Granada was surrendered to Queen Isabella I. The   Christian Reconquista was complete. Fast forward some 500+ years and the Moorish influence is still evident in Andalusia. Those boys knew how to build.

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Andalusia: Cádiz

There’s been an air of expectancy around Cádiz for the last 24 hours. Neat stacks of folded chairs lined the streets and squares. Suited men and high-heeled women walked with purpose either coming from or heading to somewhere important. It was like the city was at a wedding but the bride and groom were nowhere to be seen.

We arrived at our hotel after about an hour of circling through the maze of one-way streets that might well have been pedestrian – it’s hard to tell. It’s a former Dominican convent with an amazing tiled cloister and an air of holiness about the place that makes even holding hands a tad embarrassing. After parking the car and the bags, we hit the town for a wander.

Hotel Convento Cádiz

Religious fervour in Cádiz

First stop was a glimpse at the sea and a stroll along the promenade. It reminded me of the Malecon in Havana so I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the Bond movie Die Another Day was filmed along that very stretch of coastline, with Cádiz the city double. Then it was back into the melée to see if we could figure out what was going on. It was Friday. And a first Friday at that, but every church we passed had teems of people going in and out in a very Orthodox fashion – not at all RC like. Curiosity got the better of us at the Santa Cruz church, the oldest in the city, and a former cathedral. There was all sorts of singing and blessing and milling around going on – so very un-Catholic. Three huge processional floats were on display with people taking lots of photos. It reminded me of Malta.

Cádiz Cristo Negro Black Jesus

The priest and his entourage stopped in front of what looked for all the world like a statue of Jesus Christ – complete with long hair (which, I found out later, is very real). And he was black. I asked half a dozen people if they spoke English but no one fessed up. One man did confirm that it was Jesus… and a translation of a Spanish site tells me that it was commissioned by the Campe-Martíns and is a copy of a famous carving of Cristo de Medinaceli de Madrid. It is an amazing piece of work. But that didn’t explain all the fervour, as only half the people there were paying any attention.

Ageing beautifully

The city, said to be the oldest in Western Europe, has a lot to offer the energetic tourist. Our map showed no fewer than 68 places of interest. Dark narrow streets cut between high buildings open onto large sun-filled squares. It’s a great city to wander but I didn’t have the wherewithal needed to muster up enthusiasm for museums and the like. I had no idea Spain was so loud. Energy-sapping loud. The art of speaking softly or singly is one that hasn’t yet been mastered. One look at the long list and I had just one pick – the Central Market, to see the fish. And yes, it would give Pike Place a run for its money. The fish stalls are inside the great hall. The fruit and veg stands run around this outside, and the outer perimeter is the meat and speciality stalls. It’s all very, very orderly.

Cádiz

Cádiz Cathedral

Central Market Cádiz


At, on, and by the water in Cádiz

After that, it was on the Catamaran over to El Puerto de Santa Maria to find some sherry bodegas, some tiled buildings, and maybe even a beach. El P apparently is where Christopher Columbus sailed from, the second time he set out for America. The 30-minute boat ride was lovely (and a snip at €2.75). But it was the middle of the day, and it was hot. We forgot about the sherry, gave up on the tiled buildings, and headed for the beach.

Catamaran in Cádiz

Santa Catalina Beach Cádiz

Bull ring El Puerto de Santa Maria

We caught the No. 3 bus which was packed to the gills with beachgoers. It’s a great way to see the suburbs – and the bullring. The Spanish know how to do beaches. Entire families – three and four generations – had brought chairs and tables and umbrellas and were camped out with coolers of food and plenty of booze. It was bedlam. And deafening. And as we were leaving at 6 pm, they were still arriving. There are plenty of beaches to choose from – we simply decided by getting off the bus when everyone else did – at Las Redes along Santa Catalina beach.

Of course, we could have gone to any one of the many beaches on the Cádiz side, but we wanted the on-water experience.

Prayers and processions

Back it the city, there was definitely something going on. Our hotel – the convent – is right beside a church and there were hundreds in the streets waiting outside. We even had security on the door and had to show our keycard to get in. The processions had begun. We watched as foot by foot the massive statue of Jesus was edged out through the church door. It took 42 men to carry it, walking in drilled precision, swaying from side to side to keep it moving and balanced. This was just one of many processions from the various churches in the city that all passed through the main square. This was what all the folded chairs were for. Apparently, it was the 750th anniversary of the Diocese and reason enough to bring everyone out to the streets. It made watching the World Cup quarter-final between Croatia and Russia quite surreal. The penalty shoot-out played as the statue of Jesus carrying the cross filed by. God was definitely having a laugh.

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

And some trivia

Probably one of the city’s lesser-known famous sons was General George Meade. Meade’s father, who was Irish by the way, was working in Spain as a naval agent for the US government. His son George, who was born in Cádiz, commanded the Army of the Potomac, which defeated General Robert E Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. There’s one for the next table quiz.

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Andalusia: From Ronda to Cádiz

Alcaidesa beach lunch

Gibraltar has been on my list of places to see for a long time, but faced with the thoughts of exiting the Schengen Area and having to go through passport control at the border (something that I believe can take hours) I settled for giving it a wave from a distance. But to do that, we had to take the long way around to from Ronda to Cádiz. I did my homework. I read the guide book. And it assured me that the village/town of Castelar de la Frontera was…

…an abandoned mountain village, which is gradually rediscovering its old identity.

Perfect, I thought. We’d seen a few of those mountain villages in the far distance travelling to Ronda from Cártama and seeing one up close and personal was just what we fancied. We headed over the Sierra Ronda, a winding mountain road with Shirley-Temple-curl style bends. Nothing too challenging but enough curve in them to give the gearbox some good exercise. And the views…. the views were verdurous.

Sierra Ronda

Mountain villages

When we finally stumbled into Castelar de la Frontera, I was suspicious. We’d been steadily climbing on our approach but had then started to drop like a dead pigeon. So much for our mountainous village! This bright new development didn’t have an old identity to rediscover. I wasn’t impressed. I wanted more to show for my 90-minute detour. Seeing other signs for a Castillo-something-or-other, we followed them and gradually began to climb again. This time, the bends were more like the ringlets on the head of a Irish dancer. It was bracing stuff. We turned a corner and saw what looked like an old Moorish castle perched on a mountain. Score! The new Castelar de la Frontera (7 km away) was built in 1960s, closer to the road, and with its own train station (Almoraima). This was the old one.

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

The original Castelar de la Frontera dates back to the Bronze Age. It grew up to be a medieval fortress, passing back and forth between various rulers who vied for its vantage point. Around 1650 , a certainTeresa María Arias de Saavedra, who was the Countess of Castellar, took over the town that would later pass to  the Medinaceli family. There’s a fascinating read in the Telegraph about the late 18th Duchess of Medinaceli, who lived till she was 96, long enough to have lost count of the number of castles she owned in Spain.

[She] was nine times a duchess, 18 times a marchioness, 19 times a countess, four times a viscountess and 14 times a grandee of Spain — as well as head of a family whose members included three saints and two Popes.

Anyway, in 1973, it was acquired by the Rumasa Group, who had it for 10 years before the government nabbed it and decided it was some place worth keeping and looking after. As a ‘Historical and Artistic Monument’, it was a good investment. It reminded me a little of Óbidos in Portugal. Today, local artisans call it home and quite a number of the houses are lived in. Some are for rent and a few are for sale. Oh, lotto, oh lotto, where art though lotto! The view of the Guadarranque reservoir is velutinous.

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

Guadarranque reservoir

Seaside towns

Hot and flustered and in need of food, we headed to the coast. I quite fancied a dip in the Med before hitting the Atlantic later in the week. We made for Playa de La Alcaidesa, driving by the manicured golf course and the glaringly white villas in this gated community close to Sotogrande. We’d skirted Marbella earlier in the morning, where ‘exclusive’ seemed to the real estate adjective of choice. In Alcaidesa, they seemed to prefer ‘modern’. Whatever. I’d only holiday there if someone else was paying. Way too much English being spoken.

The beach was open to the public. The restaurant was grilling fish. And while the sand was Hades hot, and the water gonad-shrinking cold, it was perfect. Just perfect.

We ate, we drank, we swam, and we slept. And then took the short cut through the mountains to Cádiz for an opening Wow! Puente de la Constitución of 1812 (aka La Pepa) spans the Bay of Cádiz, linking the city with Puerto Real on the mainland. What a stunning sight to be met with. Day 2 done and dusted.

Rock of Gibraltar from Alcaidesa beach

Alcaidesa beach

Puente de la Constitución

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Andalusia: From Cártama to Ronda

Ronda

I love a good road trip. Preferably one through places I’ve not been before. My experience in Spain has been limited to Madrid and Barcelona. This is my first time venturing further afield, to Andalusia. The original plan was to fly to Malaga, arriving about 8.30 pm and driving straight to Ronda. But given that RyanAir must have sold their on-time bugle, we figured there was a better than average chance the flight would be delayed. And it was. Fair play, Michael. Never one to disappoint.

For some reason, I’d expected the road to Ronda to be a narrow, climbing one with steep cliffs on both sides. Gorge and treacherous were my word associations. So rather than risk the night drive, we decided to stay in Cártama, a small town between Malaga and Ronda.

Racking up close to 11 pm, I was worried nothing would be open. I’d forgotten I was in Spain where people don’t get hungry till 10.30pm. We checked in, parked the bags, and hit the tapas. Apart from the fountain and the Lidl, I didn’t see much of note. The place seemed lively enough and the tapas were cheap and plentiful, as was the wine. Not a bad start. We’ll call that Day 0.

On the road to Ronda from Cartama

Day 1, we hit the road to Ronda. For all Spain’s passion and its palaver, this part of the country is quite uniform. There’s a military precision to its fields, its olive groves, its citrus trees. Windfarms stand sentry, their whiteness even whiter against the blue sky and the Van Gogh yellow of the cut fields. It’s picture-postcard stuff. I was glad we’d waited and not missed it all in the dark.

The approach to Ronda was less than inspiring. It wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. I’d been waiting for that audible gasp, that full-on America OMG, this is awesome… but I missed it. We’d booked into El Poeta, a gorgeous, fabulously furnished boutique hotel in the old town. The room wasn’t ready so we dropped the bags, parked the car, and went for a wander. Crossing the new bridge and looking down into the gorge, I could see what the fuss was about. El Tajo (the gorge) divides the new town (mid-fifteenth century) from the old Moorish town. Breathtakingly beautiful, particularly around 9 pm when the sun hits the sides. There are a number of vantage points, the best of which is probably the 1.3 km descent to the base.

Bridge at Ronda

Bridge at Ronda

With just one day to do the town justice, we picked four places we wanted to see and then put the guidebook and the map away and just wandered.

Casa Don Bosco

I mistakenly thought that this was St John Bosco’s home, but no. It was willed by the Granada family to the Salesians as a nursing home for elderly and ill priests. Once upon a time though, it was a single-family residence and if I had any one of my lives to live over, I wouldn’t say no to being one of the Ronda Granadas. The €2 entrance fee is money well spent. The tile work in the gardens rivals the best I’ve seen in Portugal. And the views from the winter garden… words fail me.

Casa Don Bosco

Iglesia de Santa María de la Encarnación la Mayor (Church of Santa María la Mayor)

I’ve been a practising Catholic for all my adult life and a regular Rosaryer. I’ve done my fair share of Stations of the Cross. But this was the first time I’d ever heard of the Marian alternative to the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis): Via Matris (Way of the Mother). But I think this was the Via Lucis (Way of Light) … with a Marian influence. It was all a little confusing. Nonetheless, it’s an incredible piece of work.   Some stations, in particular, are very expressive.

The massive chandelier with its 24 700 diamond shaped crystals (Who counted them?) competes for attention with ornate side altars and statues and colourful wall paintings with slightly different takes on the usual. The Last Supper, for instance, the rendition of the Last Supper is one I’ve not seen before – the servants are mainly women and Our Lord and the Lads aren’t sitting around the usual table. It’s all a lot friendlier. The €4 entrance fee includes a self-guided audio tour.

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Plaza de Toros

The bullring, the Plaza de Toros, is reputedly the biggest in the world. Some 60  meters in diameter, it was the first stone ring built in Spain and one of the first where the matador met the bull on foot. It seats 4500 spectators and in its day has been everything from a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War to a boxing arena. Tickets are sold for four main sections – No. 1 and No. 2 are in the shade, No. 3 is part sun/part shade, and No. 4 is all sun. It’s all very well done with a great museum in the walls around the ring. Did you know that a matador’s cape weights 5 kg? That’s 5 bags of sugar. Entry fee is €8.50, which includes a self-guided audio tour. Andalusia has a number of rings but some quick research assured us that this was the one to see.

Plaza de Toros Ronda

Ronda Bull

El Museo del Bandolero

The only museum in the country devoted to bandits, this quirky one-of-a-kind offers a fascinating account of the famous Spanish banditos and the Civil Guard formed to hunt them down. The last of the lot, Pasos Largos, was killed in 1934. Some of them were Robin-Hood-style good guys, but more of them were bloodthirsty vagabonds. The museum has an impressive collection of 495 books written about them dating from 1823 to today.  €3.75 will get you in the door and most of the exhibition is translated into English.

El Museo del Bandolero

Eating in Ronda

There’s no shortage of places to eat in Ronda but to get the real experience, venture off the tourist track into the back streets, into the Spanish neighbourhoods. Find a place that has a few old men deep in conversation or a group of young mothers with their kids running around. They’re the good ones. Most places do reasonably priced daily menus (The Hemmingway Café at El Poeta has some good gazpacho – how could I not have known that this cold soup originated in Andalusia?) and if you find a local bar, you can get your tapas for a €1 a go. With so many places to choose from and so few meals to eat, we split them up – with starters in one, mains in another, and dessert in a third. Hey, it’s Spain. No one is in any great rush to go anywhere.

Backstreet in Ronda

Throw the guidebook away and wander. Check out the doors, the doorknockers, the potted plants. Look up as well as down and over and across. It’s a great little spot – one not to be missed if you’re in the vicinity.

Ronda

Ronda

Casa Don Bosco Ronda

Church of Our Lady of Peace Ronda

Ronda

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If you only have one day in Venice…

Monkfish in Venice

If you only had one day in X, what would you do? I put this question to people who have been places I’ve not been to before or don’t know very well. It tends to focus their thoughts and get them thinking of what’s memorable about their city. Of course, I only ask those of a similar mindset who enjoy doing the things I like to do. Spending my one day in Minneapolis at the Mall of America, for example, wouldn’t be my idea of a good time. Before going to Venice, we asked himself to give us an itinerary – to tell us what he would do with one day in Venice. This is what he came up with. First off, we were to take a waterbus from Lido to the San Toma stop on the Grand Canal and then walk to find the following:

  1. Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Huge church with paintings by Titian.

  2. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Via S. Polo, 3052, 30125  – Amazing guild hall completely painted by Tintoretto.

  3. After Scuola Grande di San Rocco, walk towards Campo Santa Margherita, 30100. On the way you will pass interesting tourist shops. At Campo San Pantalon, see if the church is open. If it is, on the ceiling is what is supposed to be the worlds’ largest oil on canvas painting. It covers most of the ceiling. Campo Santa Margherita has quite a number of relatively inexpensive places to eat and drink, especially along the right-hand side, if things haven’t changed. Try the Aperol or Campari spritz. (Campari is the more bitter one.) I felt most like a Venetian sitting on this square, sipping a spritz and watching the world go by. In the early part of the day there is also a market. Later on, there are decent enough restaurants with tourist menus, mostly on the left-hand side. There is also a very good gelato on the right.

  4. Continue walking toward Campo San Barnaba. There are more cafés and bars that are pretty good along this route. There is a popular floating fruit and veg market near the bridge across to Campo San Barnaba. And the square itself is another nice place to relax and watch people. [Note: The outside of this church featured in an Indiana Jones movie.]

  5. Ca’ Rezzonico, Dorsoduro, 3136, 30123  is one of the finest Palazzo’s and is open to visitors. [Note: I had the best monkfish ever, served in a white wine sauce with buttered spinach, in a tiny restaurant by a canal in Dorsoduro – Osteria da Toni.]

  6. Walk back toward the main campus building of the University of Venice, Università Ca’ Foscari, Dorsoduro, 3246, 30123. This route takes you through some quiet little streets and tiny pretty little squares.

  7. After leaving  Ca’ Foscari, continue on back towards S. Toma waterbus and go wherever you want. You can also take one of the gondolas that ferry people across the Grand Canal, and get yourself lost in the streets leading back to San Marco.

So, with only one day in Venice, that’s it pretty  much taken care of. And while you’re walking, keep an eye out for unusual doorbells. Delight in the ordinary.

Venetian doorbell

Venetian doorbells

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Lido

How many Venetian islands are there? I asked myself that question and managed to name 6. Just 94 or so short of the actual total. Yes, there are more than 100 islands within the 340 square km that make up Venice. And one of them is Lido.

Last time I was here, we visited Burano, Murano, and San Michele. Those are the three I can remember. What time we had was spent in the six sestieri: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo, and Santa Croce. This time, though, we stayed on Lido, probably best known these days for hosting the Venice Film Festival. 

What to do on Lido

We spent most of our time wandering around, looking at the fabulous old houses and villas that line the back streets of the island. Many were once single-family residences and have been split into separate apartments or turned into small hotels. Some, though, seemed to have still retained their former glory. When I win the Lotto, I’ll be back with cash in hand.

Hotel Hungaria Lido

Hotel Hungaria Lido Villa on Lido

Villa on Lido

Canal in Lido

Where to stay on Lido

If your hotel doesn’t have a pool (ours did – Marea Le Ville del Lido) you could check out the beach. But it’s a tad strange. If you’re in the back row of cabins, your view is not of the sea but of the next row of cabins. I’ve heard tell that the front-row cabins go for as much as €1000 a month in the summer season. Madness. And there didn’t seem to be anyone laying around on towels, so cabin use may well be compulsory. I was happy enough with the pool, though. A lovely way to relax after a hard day at the Biennale or sightseeing.

Lido beach

Lido Beach

Where to eat on Lido

We ate out every night – easier than cooking in the villa, but that is an option. At first, we stayed on the main drag where the restaurants have a certain sameness about them. That said, I had the best liver and onions ever (Venetian style) at Ristorante Pizzeria Ai Do Mati (49, Granviale Santa Maria Elisabetta). Would go back again in a heartbeat. Of our two posh nights out, the first, at the Villa Mabapa, was excellent. Lovely setting by the sea. Beautiful view of the sunset. Excellent food. Unobtrusive service. And reasonably priced. The second, at the Hotel Villa Laguna, again on the waterfront but closer to the waterbus terminal, was almost as lovely, but twice the price.  Still, the cocktails were to die for, so that lessened the pain a little. If it’s pizza you’re after, I’d recommend Ristorante La Sfera and for those after-dinner tipples, you’d be hard pushed to beat the craic at Bar Lepanto.

 

Dinner at Villa Mabapa Lido

Dinner at Villa Mabapa Lido

Lido is a grand spot to visit and a nice place to stay in the summer as the heat is less oppressive than in the city itself. Were I going back off season – I’d be more tempted by a flat in Cannaregio, but given the weather, the pool was worth the money. 

Sunset on Lido