Our most recent trip was last Easter with our friends Julie, David, Erik and Jeff. My cousins gave me their swanky 3 bedroom condo in a golf community called Soto Grande, which made for a perfect place to explore the area and treat our friends to the delights of this part of Spain.
All the stereotypical things you think about Spain were born in Andalusia: fiestas, siestas, Flamenco dancers, bullfights, sangria and a relaxed attitude towards life. Despite being so quintessentially Spanish, it was actually Muslim for half of its history. At its closest point, it is just nine miles from Africa across the Straight of Gibraltar and that famous triangular rock. The Moroccans cultivated this part of the Iberian Peninsula from AD756 and were only booted out by the Spanish in 1492, making their last stand at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. That same year, Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World from Andalusia's capitol city: Seville. Even today, the Moorish influences are everywhere in the architecture, the food and place names. Some locals still call the area by its Muslim name: Al-Andalus.
The entry point for most visitors to the region is the city of Malaga. It's not the prettiest town, but it goes about its business and has an excellent airport named after its most famous son: Pablo Picasso. (Antonio Banderas is also from Malaga, but to my knowledge, he hasn't had anything named after him yet). The six of us met up at the airport, rented cars and drove down the Costa del Sol towards the southernmost point of continental Europe.
The first town you come to down the coast is Torremolinos. This was a glamorous destination in its day, but is now a jumbled mass of 60's era high-rises, tacky shops and cheap restaurants. The beach beyond is completely obliterated by the concrete mess. While the smart set would never be seen dead here in daylight, come nightfall the neon lights of dozens of bars and discos attract huge crowds from all over Andalusia. Don't bother coming early, as Spanish nightlife is notoriously late getting started and goes full on until sunrise.
Continuing down the coast, the highway swings in close to the shore and offers beautiful views of the blue Mediterranean Sea. Then a large white arch announces you have arrived in Marbella. This was Freddie's home for five years, and the locals like to think of it as Spain's answer to St. Tropez. There is a glitzy harbor area chock full of super yachts called Puerto Banus overflowing with all the overpriced trappings required by the nouveau riche. But outside this port area, Marbella is a delightful and inviting city. The center of the old town is called Plaza de Naranjas with cobbled streets, white washed buildings draped in bougainvillea and a myriad of shops and restaurants. The waterfront has miles of swimming beaches and chiringitos, the local word for beach cafe's. Overlooking Marbella is La Concha, a striking shell shaped mountain growing up out of the green valleys and facing out to sea. The six of us stopped for a traditional lunch of fried sardines, salads and a delicious paella. Our friends were quickly won over by the charms of this city by the sea that has been like a second home to us for years.
With the giant Rock of Gibraltar in sight, we arrived at the resort of Soto Grande. This new town of expensive condos, golf courses and pleasure boats is about the most un-Spanish place in all of Spain. However, if you are looking for a quiet, secure beach community with international style restaurants where everyone speaks English, this is for you. Our condo was a luxury 3,000 square footer with a private pool and full on views of the Mediterranean. Oh well, at least it was free.
The next day we drove up into the mountains to see the Pueblas Blancas. These are the small white towns that dot the landscape on the road to Seville. It's a beautiful drive, made all the more picturesque by an unusually wet spring that had carpeted the green hills in wildflowers. The summit of this drive is the town of Ronda, perched on top of a cliff and entered via an ancient bridge across the El Tajo gorge. The old town is gorgeous and precarious with stunning views and a 325 foot drop in every direction. In Spanish tradition, there are only a some low railings keeping visitors from falling to their certain deaths, and no warning signs what-so-ever. The Spanish have apparently never heard of personal injury lawyers, which is refreshing. We had lunch in a restaurant built into the side of the cliff and had our jamon y manchego watching the swallows dart in and out of the rocks. Afterwards we took a stroll around the square and checked out the Plaza de Toros, one of the oldest and still functioning bull fighting rings in Andalusia.
The jewel of Andalusia is the city of Granada. With the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains as a back drop, this city thrives with 50,000 university students, an
ancient, ethereal old town, and the one of the world's finest architectural treasures: the Alhambra Palace. The new town sprawls and bustles below, and the restaurants and nightlife are second to none in this part of the world. The tradition of serving a small portion of food when you pay for a drink started in Granada, and the tapas on offer today are mouth watering. Hip youngsters hang out on ancient bridges, strumming guitars and smoking weed, and music drifts in the air around every corner. The old town is called the Albaicin with its white washed walls, narrow streets, steep hills and battered stone squares. We joined the crowds in the warm early evening to find the best tapas, while a multitude of
tiny bats filled the darkening sky in search of tidbits of their own.
Visible from all over Granada, reigning in splendor from its green hill top perch, is the majestic Alhambra Palace. Began in the 9th Century and added to many times over the centuries, the burnt red walls and intricate stone carvings were the pinnacle of the ancient Moorish architects. The Alhambra is a self contained town of its own, with palaces, bath houses, shops and mosques set in a lush labyrinth of gardens. The heady combination of light, color and sound created by trickling fountains and reflective ponds overflowing with fragrant jasmine and honeysuckle flowers is as close to heavenly bliss as you are ever likely to find. The Alhambra's overwhelming popularity means you have to book tickets well in advance, and dodge crowds of guided tours, but there are always little out of the way places to find and soak in the ancient, sensual atmosphere. It is easy to spend the entire day in the Alhambra, but it is best to visit later in the day when the crowds have thinned, and the setting sun casts its golden light on the massive red walls. Bring a bottle of Rioja, some bread and manchego and experience this earthly paradise, as people have been doing for a thousand years.
We left Granada and drove through the rolling hills and olive trees back to Malaga. Our friends reflecting on the many seductive ingredients that make up this vast swathe of Southern Spain. For Freddie and I, it was a reminder of all the things we love about this part of the world, experienced with the fresh senses of first time visitors. Spain is meant to be shared after all.