An Asturias Road Trip: Exploring Spain’s Northern Coast

As soon as we’d pulled off the A-8 and onto the N-632, my brain kicked into gear: I’d been here before. This very same roundabout, where we’d dodged cars as we lost the trail of yellow arrows at daybreak on the second day of the Camino del Santiago del Norte.

Sí, Sí,” I shrieked. “I know this roundabout! Then we had to cross the highway and a beagle followed us to the little beach -”

“Cat, I’m driving. Shut your pico and tell me where I have to turn,” the Novio said, straight faced and without taking his eyes off of the road, whose grade nosed dangerously down the steep N-634 that runs parallel to the northern coast of Spain.

Camino de Santiago in Muros de Nalón yellow arrow

There are two ways to see the very best of Asturias: by foot and by car. The little mountain villages and pristine beaches are out often of the reach of the rickety old FEVE trains and buses, so retracing my steps on the Camino de Santiago del Norte was an absolute treat.

Deciding to spend a long weekend in Asturias was easy – not only is it our favorite part of Spain, but the Novio and I were celebrating our birthdays, our first wedding anniversary and my pregnancy reaching 20 healthy weeks (the gender reveal was a birthday gift to us both!). What wasn’t easy were the logistics: being a long weekend in August, trains were booked or prohibitively expensive, and both of our cars were standing guard outside of our house in Seville.

We’d need a rental car if we expected to do anything.

I will fully confess that I’d never actually booked a car myself! Always in charge of itineraries and lodging, I’d traversed India, planned a trip to Marrakesh and spent six years in Spain without needing to get behind the wheel. I didn’t even know what rental car companies operated in Madrid, let alone in which areas of the city, so I used EasyTerra to score a cheap compact from nearby Nuevos Ministerios. The service compared the nearby agencies, like Sixt or Enterprise, leaving only the lodging and itinerary (also my job on this trip).

Visit Lastres Asturias

My last trip to Asturias, I’d walked from Avilés to Figueras and across the Río Eo into Galicia, the Bay of Biscay always accompanying me to the left. Three years to the day after we’d arrived in Santiago, we picked up an Opel Meriva and began the trip north.

AP-6 to AP-66 to Oviedo

Glancing at the rearview mirror just past 2:30pm, I saw a snake of cars converting the AP-6 highway into a summer traffic jam. After rejoicing in the lack of people in Madrid for the first half of the month, it seems we’d found them all.

It isn’t a #roadtrip in #Spain till you’ve eaten your bocadillo, am I right?! With @easyterra

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

As soon as we’d past the M-50 ring road and the traffic eased up, we stopped for a bocadillo at a roadside bar. All epic road trips in Spain feature a simple sandwich on a dusty road, after all. The Guadarrama mountains melted into the arid plains of Castilla – where I’d studied abroad – before we caught the AP-66 at Benavente.

An hour later, we’d exhausted all radio stations but Radio María, but the music went off, the windows went down and the Picos de Europa rose before us, signaling our passage into Asturias.

A-8 to Faedo

As soon as we’d diverted past the capital of Oviedo and gotten on the A-8, I was flooded with memories of blisters, long walks and conch shells. I began remembering small details of our 200-mile hike, from memorable meals to cat naps in the shade of a picnic table.

We turned off the highway at exit 431, and my eyes grew wide.

Renting a car in Spain

“I’ve been here! I know right where we are!” Guiding the Novio around the roundabout by way of the spraypainted arrows, I was almost delighted to find that the next roundabout was under construction, just as it had been three years earlier. I could feel my calves tighten as the narrow road climbed downwards, past road signs announcing the Camino’s crossing over the highway and remembered our descent towards La Concha de Artedo.

At the bottom of the hill, we entered onto a mountain road that climbed out of a thick forest to hug curves around rolling, green hills dotted with hamlets and dairy cows.

Soon after, my mobile signal was lost. It wouldn’t be back for most of the weekend.

Faedo to Oviñana

La Casona del Faedo said it was in Cudillero, the technicolor fishing village I’d visited on my first afternoon of the Camino. It was an inexpensive, so we booked without realizing that it was in Faedo, a miniscule farming village in the Consejo, or district of Cudillero. But the air was crisp and the farmhouse was quiet, save the far off tinkling of cow bells.

Low phone coverage in Asturias

Ángel showed us to our room in the 130-year-old stone stucture, having recently reopened the family home after more than a decade in Lanzarote. He hailed from Pola do Siero, just like my mother-in-law. The internet signal didn’t reach our room – and neither did the 4G – so we passed time asking him for recommendations for food and sites.

Dusk fell over the valley, and we were back to the winding CU-4 towards the A-8. In Oviñana, we drove narrow roads to Sidrería el Reguerín. There was no place to sit on the patio, so we sidled up to the bar and had a bottle of cider uncorked before I could even ask for a free chair. The culín de sirdina was tart and cut straight through the acidity of the octopus salad set before us.

This is one of those places that has a set menu, but it’s always better to order whatever is written on the chalkboard.

Tabla de Quesos Asturian Cheese Plate

Downing another swig of cider and perking his nostrils, the Novio dove right into Asturian cuisine, ordering an immense cheese platter with quince pastes that disappeared within minutes. I’d have been satisfied, but no sooner had I run my finger along the knife to eat the last few crumbles of cabrales, a dish of fried zucchini stuffed with crab meat came out. The murmur of dinners grew louder as cider glasses were slammed on the wooden bar in rapid-fire fashion.

I took the wheel this time, nervously driving back towards Faedo on the hilly, unlit road.

Faedo to Muros de Nalón

Agustina wiped her hands on her apron as she walked out of the kitchen. “Can I interest you in some of my freshly baked cakes?” We gladly obliged as Ángel poured the Novio a coffee from an aging copper pot and followed it with fresh milk from across the valley. Agustina had been up early making a cinnamon coffee cake and pestiños – a honey soaked, fried pastry.

The Novio inquired about where to get the best smoked sausages and fava beans as Ángel nervously checked his watch. “You should hurry and get to Muros de Nalón. They’ve got a weekly market on Saturdays with just about everything.

A quick gulp of coffee later, and we’d jumped into the rental car and zoomed down the mountain, windows open all the way and the Novio’s hair, normally weighed down with hair gel, gently flapped in the wind.

Quesos Asturianos

Muros had been one of the first towns I passed through on the Camino, upon leaving Avilés and walking in a few circles around Piedras Blancas. We’d rewarded ourselves with a beer before the last ascent into El Pito, where we’d splurged on a nice pensión. The car came to a halt just under one of the blue and yellow tiles marking the path into the center of town and the market.

More than food stalls, we found clothing stands, used books and more people milling about the bars than the small market. While the Novio checked out the long coils of chorizo and morcilla, my nose drew me to the baked goods, where I bought a loaf of bollo preñao: sweet chorizo, strips of fatty pork shoulder and a few boiled eggs baked into warm bread.

Lunch was solved for 5,50€.

The Novio’s stock included six or eight links of both morcilla and chorizo to make fabada, a hearty bean stew. He downed a few culines of cider before we pointed the car down the hill towards Cudillero.

Muros to Cudillero

colorful Cudillero Asturias

Our first night on the Camino included a stop in Cudillero, dubbed as one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. Tucked into a natural bay and protected by rock formations, the sleepy town bubbles over during the high season. And interestingly enough, the town is said to have been founded by Vikings who sought a safe port in its natural breakaways, leading to a local dialect, Pixueto.

In late July, 2013, our legs had been too tired after 26 kilometers to do much else but have a taxi pick us up in El Pito and take us right to the port and its cool, pebble-streaked waters and central cider bars. Three years later, the Novio and I climbed the stairs leading away from the village center to the carefully stacked houses and sidewalks that tumble from the cliffs.

Things to do in Cudillero

Cudillero was just as quaint and colorful as I’d remembered it, though so overrun with tourists that I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Just a simple look over his sunglasses was all the Novio needed to say for us to retreat to somewhere a bit quieter.

Cudillero to Soto de Luiña

“Which way to the Pilgrim’s Inn?” asked the peregrino, eyes, squinting in the hot afternoon sun. His face was streaked with sweat and a bit of dirt, evoking memories of ending up, at 1pm, in much the same state. I pointed up the road, indicating that he make a right just after passing the church, where he’d find a bed for cheap in an old converted hospital.

Camino de Santiago mementos

The Novio put out his cigarette into a conch shell ashtray as we watched a few more scattered pilgrims arrive to the bar we were sitting in front of, dip in for a cold drink and continue on to a nap. The bar was the first in Soto de Luiña – and based on the fact that it had run out of food by 2pm, it was likely the most popular.

We’d walked steadily along the A-632 that morning, dodging cars and cyclists on our way to Ballota and its virgin beaches. The Novio bought a bottle of beer and a bag of chips and instructed me to wiggle into my bathing suit while we drove towards the nearest beach.

Soto de Luiña to Playa del Silencio

I’d often heard that Playa del Silencio was one of Asturias’s best, given that it was inaccessible if you didn’t arrive on your own two feet or in a sailboat. Cradled by a sheet rock cliff and a thick forest, the nearest “village” is several miles away, and there are no chiringuitos or even a lifeguard stand.

Playa del Silencia from above

The car park led us to believe that the place was crawling with beach goers, but most we met on the way were heading back from the beach. The gravel path led down to nearly 350 stone steps that were narrow enough that onlyone person cold pass comfortably through.

My nice leather sandals crunched uneasily over the smooth stones that made up the beach. Even with the 513 meter stretch of beach full of people, there was… silence. Save the breeze whipping past mey ears and the ocean lapping at the rocks, it was eerily silent.

Playa del Silencio

We passed the bollo preñao between us, contemplating the next 20 weeks and what would come after. I treated our weekend as a babymoon of sorts, a few fleeting days when it would just be the two of us, when we could called the baby “Micro” and when my belly just looked like a little bit of bloat. I plucked my straw hat from my bag and rested it gently over my face, succumbing to yet another afternoon snooze – savoring every one of them I’d get before the baby arrives.

Playa del Silencio to Luarca to Puerto de Vega

Washing the salt off of my body, I heard the Novio downstairs speaking with Ángel as his beer glass clinked against the wooden picnic table that we’d come to claim as our own. Not only was it a long weekend, but it was when many villages in Asturias celebrated their local festivals, making for a madhouse in villages that didn’t have the infrastructure for so many cars, tourists and hungry bellies.

fishing villages in Asturias

We decided to try for Luarca anyway, another large fishing town where Hayley and I had spent a night. I remember finding it devoid of much life – it was grey (the water in the bay included) with most of the town shuttered up, despite being called the Pueblo Blanco de la Costa Verde. But in fiestas, it might just prove to be a bit more lively, and local favorite El Barómetro told us they had space at the bar for two.

We drove in circles around the large port and up to the picturesque cemetery looking for parking, but it was futile – we were onto the next village, Puerto de Vega, as soon as we’d determined that even the vados had been taken. Puerto de Vega was decidedly sleepier, but for Casa Paco. We nabbed the last unreserved table in the dining room, a chill chasing us in from the port, where a few white and red fishing boats bobbed up and down with the wake. The octopus was tender, the cachopo – a pork loin wrapped in cheese and ham before being deep fried – as long as my forearm.

Seagull on wood planks

That night in Faedo, I didn’t last five minutes in bed (with covers on!) before I fell asleep to the lull of the diners in the bar below, waking up the following morning to crickets and cowbells as the fresh dew still lingered on blades of grass.

Faedo to Grado

We skipped the pestiños in favor of fresh cheese bought from the neighbor and crushed tomato on bread that Augustina pulled out of the oven with heavy mitts. Unsatisfied with yesterday’s yield of products, the Novio had already spoken to her about the market in Grado. Due to its position in a flat, fertile valley, the consejo is rich in gastronomic tradition, particularly cheeses under the D.O. L’Pitu and beans.

Purple flowers in Asturias

The roads were foggy and damp that morning as the car slid down the valley into Villafria. Ángel gave us instructions as only a born and bred asturiano could do, full of local words I couldn’t grasp, waving hands and landmarks.

We somehow arrived without getting lost (though we had to screenshot the way on our phones due to lack of a mobile signal).

Food stands at the Grado market

Known locally as Grau, the entire town shuts its central streets for the massive weekly market, and shops stay open, closing instead on odd days. We fought our way through crowds and vendors hocking socks, fake watches and clothing to the Plaza General Ponte, where the traditional market has run every Sunday since 1258. I went to check the free samples on cheeses while the Novio proudly announced that the chori-morci he’d bought the day before were fresher.

We tagged team the whastapps, making the rounds to ask which family wanted fabes or fabines for winter stews. A kilo of good quality fava beans in Madrid was nearly twice as expensive at 20€/kilo: prices in Seville could be up to 10€ more! We walked back to the car with arms laden with cheeses, pig shoulder and beans, stopping briefly at a sidrería for a refreshment.

Weekly market of Grado

Our late start meant we’d finished shopping right about lunch time. Agustina had suggested the hearty menu at Casa Pepe el Bueno which, at 17€ per person per menú del día (on a weekend!), was more than we’d paid for a meal all weekend. The low-ceilinged restaurant was as stuffy as it was packed with people. For a starter, we both chose fabada, served in an enormous silver bowl, meaning two plates each.

“Now Micro knows what a true fabada is,” the Novio mused, pushing back his chair as his cider-drenched hake was set down before him.

the Novio in his element

I was able to make room for dessert as I felt the first small rumblings of our child – a quarter Asturian anyway – deep in my belly. That, or a satisfied stomach.

Grado to Playa de Concha de Artedo

The road back from  Grado was far bumpier – I nearly scratched the car on the narrow road behind Pepe el Bueno, stalled twice due to the car’s sensitive gears and was kindly asked to just navigate us back to Faedo. We made it as far as Pravia before losing signal and relying on our instincts to guide us.

An hour later and after risking bottoming out on an old cattle route, I collapsed into bed as clouds rolled over the valley, heavy with rain.

Asturias driving

Slipping on my bathing suit – still a bit damp from my dip the day before – we made one last beach stop at La Concha de Artedo. I’d been but a kilometer from this beach on our second morning of the Camino, and smiled remembering a beagle that followed us from the restaurant at the top of the hill all the way down to the next arrow.

It was chilly but the time I’d found a dry rock to rest my bag, but the Novio was already darting between rocks, looking for baby andarica crabs that had been washed in with the tide. The pools were warm and shallow, hiding the creatures under rocks full of bígaros and clams.

Concha de Artedo beach Asturias

Due to a goof up in our room, Ángel and Agustina had offered to invite us to dinner at the casona, free of charge. Being one of two restaurants in Faedo – the other was a vegan music bar, quite modern for a town whose population hadn’t topped 150 in half a century – she cooked nightly for more than just guests. As dusk fell, the Novio and the propietario shared a few culines of cider and we chowed down creamy croquetas stuffed with local chunks of chorizo and pito al chilindrón, a simple chicken dish in which a whole chicken is cooked and stewed in a vegetable paste.

Mi mujer tiene mucha mano en la cocina,” Ángel would later claim as we thanked them for the phenomenal meal. Indeed, Agustina was a kitchen whiz.

That night, the wind ripped opened our heavy wooden shutters. Lightning pounded the valley, and as I lazily pulled the windows shut and locked them, I couldn’t help but think that there’s no wonder the animal products up here taste better – it rains so much!

Faedo to Lastres

Bueno, hoy es tu día,” the Novio stated, taking a long drag off of his cigarette as Ángel set a glass of fresh juice in front of me. “What’s on the itinerary? It was my 31st birthday, and I wanted to do what any other 31-year-old-woman would want to do: Go to a dinosaur museum.

Chispa the dog

I patted Chispa on the head once more and thanked Ángel and Agustina for their hospitality. Checking the route before we’d be left without internet once more, we rolled down the Meriva’s windows and slipped back down the mountain.

Passing through Colunga before reaching the Museo del Jurásico de Asturias, we gobbled down the rest of our bollo preñao in the parking lot. Being a national holiday, the museum was teeming with kids. I nudged the Novio in the ribs, knowing full well that we’d be skipping the bars for kid-friendly activities in a few short years.

The northern coast of Asturias was once home to a number of sauropods during the Jurassic period, and the Las Griegas beach has uncovered a number of bones and the largest dinosaur footprint to date. Forming part of the Costa de los Dinosaurios, the museum is one of Asturias’s top tourist attractions.

For someone whose favorite college course was based on the prehistoric beasts, I was a bit skeptical due to the number of reproductions (I am a purist, oops), but to have free election over what to do that day, I enjoyed pointing out the different features of dinosaurs and goofing off in the reproductions park.

Panoramic view of Lastres Asturias

Lastres was just around the bend of the AS-257, another quaint village perched on a cliffside. The stone houses reminded me more of the southern coast of France than the northern coast of Spain, with its red roofs and bougainvillea spilling out of window pots.

Though we’d eaten everything on our list – from cheese to fabada to bollo preñao – the Novo hadn’t had vígaros. As a kid vacationing near Lastres, he’d pick the shiny black mollusks off of rocks and dig out the worm with his fingers rather than using a straight pin.

fresh vigaros in Asturias

A waitress spread an old, faded tablecloth at one of the beachside restaurants once we’d descended the stone stairs to the small port. As a summer baby, I was clear about lunch – freshly caught seafood. Time stopped for an hour despite the ancient clock tower ringing every quarter hour. As the restaurant where we sat on stools fishing the vígaros out of their shells filled as the lunchtime hour creeped slowly up, we ordered a plate of razor clams, piping hot with a hint of parsley and lemon, and squid in black rice.

I’d have a birthday pastry at some obscure rest stop a few hours later, the Novio promised.

Lastres to Madrid

clock tower of Lastres Asturias

Tempting fate, we decided to return to Madrid a bit earlier than planned, checking the traffic report on RNE every hour. Once again, we had the Picos behind us in the rearview mirror after an hour, then the Castillian plains before ascending Guadarrama and entering back into the capital.

Perhaps on my next trip to Asturias – Micro in tow – we’ll focus on the oriental part of the region. The Lagos de Covadonga, the tiny mountain villages tucked into crags and providing sweeping views of Bay of Biscay, the artsy cities of Llanes and Ribadasella. Or perhaps he’ll eat cheese at el Reguerín and hunt for crabs with his father at Concha de Artedo.

Colorful Asturias Spain

It’s easy enough to explore Asturias by bus or train, I suppose, but half the fun are the tight turns, the stoping for cows and the sleepy little hamlets where vecinos wave you down to try and sell you their fresh milk or butter. Save walking along the coast, it’s the only way to go.

EasyTerra Car Rental, a Netherlands-based rental agency that compares well-known suppliers in more than 7,000 loctions worldwide, graciously picked up our tab. We paid for gas and navigated tractors trails and tight mountain curves ourselves – so all of the opinions expressed here are my own. That said, their website is user-friendly and their prices are the cheapest we found!

Have you ever driven or walked through Asturias? What places would you recommend?

Photo Post: The Smurf Village of Júzcar, Málaga

If there is one thing that sleepy Júzcar, a small pueblo blanco at the end of a curving mountain highway near Ronda, can claim, it’s that Smurfs live among them. In this teeny village known for its mytocology and hiking trails, you might notice something that distinguishes it from the other so-called white villages in the region – the whole town is painted bright blue!

Blue village in Spain

This hamlet perched high in the Valle del Genal has gained international fame thanks to Madrid-based publicity agency Bungalow25 (with whom I’m working on the Caser Expat ‘Typical Non-Spanish” project), Sony Pictures and more than 1000 gallons of paint.

Before the premiere of the Smurfs in 2011, Júzcar was a quick pit stop in the Serranía de Ronda, literally drawfed by other, more picturesque towns in the valley. Taking those words to heart, the town was doused in a layer of blue paint to boost tourism to an otherwise blip on a map. Cue allusions to ‘Pitufolandia’ and worldwide media fame.

panorama of Juzcar, Spain

Blue colored village Juzcar

Smurfs in Spain

pueblo pitufo spain

pitufolandia Spain

Smurf related ideas

Tourism in Juzcar Spain

While there’s not much to do in town – we were in, out and fed in an hour – the simple novelty is not lost. In fact, we were there on Día de Andalucía, along with half of the province! Bars were full, kids darting from cerulean shop to shop decked out in their own white smurf hats and parking was a nightmare, proving that a little bit of imagination can do wonders for tourism. That said, the town has yet to capitalize on it to its fullest extent!

Júzcar, Spain-

If you go: Júzcar is best reached by car, but you can take local buses from Ronda, which is 25 kilometers to the northeast. Parking is free.

Typical Non Spanish

I visited Júzcar as part of my Typical Non Spanish project with Caser Expat Insurance and my promise to myself to do 52 new things in 2016! Anything I can’t miss – be it sites, experiences or food – around Andalucía?

The Five Best Day Trips from Seville

Something happens to me every weekend – the push-pull of relaxing in a city I love exploring against the need to grab my car and drive until I’ve found somewhere new. Using Seville as a base to discover Andalucía, Portugal and even other regions of Spain was easy because of a top-notch transportation, and having a car means extra flexibility. And most don’t require an overnight trip.

My guests have been multiplying over the last few years, and once they’ve gotten on my nerves enough, I tend to send them outside of the old city walls via bus or train and to another city. Or, we hop in Pequeño Monty and set off, sometimes without much of a plan.

Five

I’ve left off a lot of favorites like Granada, where you should spend at least the night, and the famous white villages because they’re best reached by car. But within two hours of Seville are ruins, gastronomic highlights and enough surprises to make my visitors come back and see more of Spain.

Carmona (Sevilla) 

I will be the first to admit that the other pueblos in the province can’t hold a candle to the regional capital, but Carmona comes pretty darn close. It’s a smaller scale version of Seville, complete with an intact wall encircling a jaw-dropping old town and winding, cobblestone streets. It’s kind of like the Santa Cruz without all of the signs advertising the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus and peddling polyester flamenco dresses.

Carmona has traces of Roman, Moorish and Carthinigan rule in its large historic complex, and during its heyday, it produced enough food to feed the army thanks to its location on the Roman road and near the Guadalquivir River. Today it’s a bit sleepy, but a pueblo perfect for a Sunday trip.

the village of Carmona Spain

the streets of Carmona Spain

Carmona Spain from the watchtower of the Clarisa Nuns Convent

Read more: Carmona, the Perfect Day Trip from Seville

Get there: If you don’t have a car, hop on the M-124 bus from the San Bernardo train station. The trip will take you close to an hour but leave you right in Plaza del Estatuto, home to a number of old man bars and the Giralda’s kid sister. Tickets are 5,60€ round-trip.

See / Sip / Chow: Stop through the Necrópolis on the west side of town. For a small fee (or free if you’re an EU member, you can see excavations taking place on one of the best preserved Roman funerary ruins.

Roman Ruins in Carmona

Once you’re hungry, L’Antiqua, an abacería just inside the city walls, serves Andalusian fare and especially good stews, called guisos. Wash it all down with a local Los Hermanos anisette and a torta inglesa, a typical sweet cake made with almonds. Locals consider Las Delicias (Chamorro, 12) to have the best cakes in the city.

Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz) 

I’ve long been privy to the charm of Jerez (pronounced hey-RAY by locals). The stunning churches and majestic Andalusian horses had little to aportar once I’d tried the city’s most famous resident, Tío Pepe. The school I worked for as an auxiliar de conversación took a teacher’s outing by train to the González Byass wineries for a sherry tasting, and that brand would be served at my wedding seven years later.

Apart from its star export, Jerez claims Andalusian stallions and flamenco culture as its own, leaning this small city packs a lot of salero punch. Like Carmona, it’s got a lot in common with Seville – the tapas bars, the guitar-filled patios and the whitewashed houses, but it seems a little more willing to rebel. Seville is stuck firmly in the past in many senses, where as Jerez can’t wait to be on the wave of the future.

Feria de Jerez

caracoles in jerez

real escuela ecuestre jerez

Read more: Tasting Jerez de la Frontera

Get there: Jerez is just one hour south of Seville on the media distance train that ends in Cádiz. From the station, the sites and city center is a short stroll. Tickets start at 16€ one-way, though buying round-trip will knock 30% off the price.

See / Sip / Chow: Like Córdoba, May means a month of hedony when the Feria del Caballo rolls into town. But the fair isn’t members-only like Seville’s, and it’s got a decidedly more international feel. And if you like horses, don’t miss a show at the Real Escuela Ecuestre de Jerez (if you’ve got a carnet jóven, you get a mad discount!), and flamenco fans will revel in its festival each February.

Sampling sherry in Jerez de la Frontera

If you’re wary of sherry, a Pepe Limón spritzer – half lemon juice, half sherry –  will cool you down just before you dive into tapas. Hopping from tabanco to tobanco, or old man tapas joints, are a beloved tradition in Jerez.

Mérida (Badajoz)

I am a complete convert to seldom explored Extremadura, a place said to have hardened the New World conquerers and one that brought riches back to Spain. Imagine vineyards and olive orchards that stretch for miles under an empty sky, local cuisine punctuated by hearty wines and game animals, and traces of the grandiose Roman and New World cultures.

Though not the de facto capital, Mérida is the largest city in Extremadura and an easy two-hour drive north of Seville – it’s actually closer than Granada! The Roman ruins of the Aqueducto de los Milagros, the Roman Theatre and Temple of Diana are the show stoppers from Emerita Augusta, and the recently renovated National Museum of Roman Ruins is a treat.

And if you need a break on the return trip, nearby Zafra is quaint, full of plazas, and has nunneries peddling cookies. You know, for merienda on your way back south.

Merida Spain amptheatre

Merida Spain

Read more: A Guide to Archaeological Sites in Spain

Get there: A private bus is your fastest option at just over two hours. The ALSA line leaves from Plaa de Armas a few times each day for just 14€ one-way. If you’re on premium bus, ask for the wi-fi code and a free coffee, and bring headphones for the movie.

Bocaito de Berenjena Tapa at Meson Sabika

See / Sip / Chow: You should spend at least a day in the ruins, which dot the city. If you’re into classical theatre, the city hosts an international festival in the Roman Theatre mid Summer. I recommend trying migas, an earthy bread dish popular in the region, and pub hopping on Calle John Lennon with university students.

Ronda (Málaga)

The jewel of the whitewashed villages of Andalucía is undoubtedly Ronda. A jaw-dropping gorge, vistas of a lush countryside and quaint homes characterize this town, which is perfect for strolling, eating and… little else. There’s barely enough to stretch your trip into a long weekend, making Ronda a great place for just a day.

Depsite this, the town has a long, fabled history stretching from the early Celts to modern-day Facists. In fact, the town’s most famous fan was Hemingway, who was rumored to have modeled events in For Whom the Bell Tolls off of executions, and who wrote fondly of modern bullfighting, which was fashioned in Ronda.

puente nuevo ronda

walking around Ronda

Ronda countryside

Read more: Visiting Ronda: A Photo Post

Get there: The only way to Ronda is by bus, unless you have a car. Count on winding roads on the two-hour trip, which is operated by Grupo Samar out of Prado de San Sebastián – just look for the green and yellow coach buses. Expect to pay 22-30€ round-trip.

jamon y queso

See / Sip / Chow: I’ve never done the hike to the bottom of the gorge that merited the Puente Nuevo, but it looks incredible. Bring sturdy shoes and water, and then hike up for a drink with a view at the Parador, a converted hotel that’s owned and operated by the Spanish government.

Córdoba (Córdoba)

What really sold me on Spain was on the inside cover of my first Spanish book, Paso a Paso 1. At the tender age of 13, I was upset with my mom for forcing me to study Spanish instead of French, but the plaster of the graceful horseshoe arches in Córdoba’s mosque lit up my face faster than Bastille Day fireworks.

Southern Spain had my heart long before studying abroad, a decade before making my home in Seville and half a dozen boyfriends before meeting my Spanish stallion, and it all started with Córdoba. The flower-filled patios, the yummy salmorejo and the dream-like Spain of your imagination can all be found here, plus a spring full of festivals and its own gastronomic heritage (I may love snails, but the cordobeses take their affection to the next level come springtime). 

cordoba guadalquivir river

horseshoe arches of cordoba mosque

calleja de las flores córdoba

What’s most striking about Córdoba is its juxtaposition of Andalusian and Moorish culture. While you can’t have one without the other due to the Arabic rule over Spain for more than seven centuries, Córdoba was once the political and intellectual capital of the Al-Andalus caliphate. Apart from art and architecture, language and tradition outlasted the califas, and the Jewish and Christian occupations that followed have left its mark on a city made for wandering.

Read more: Technicolor Córdoba

Get there: The AVE high-speed train is the fastest way to get to Córdoba, and the train station is a 10-minute walk from the city center. Trains leave practically every hour and pass through the Caliphate city on their way to Madrid. The trip will take about 45 minutes and cost about 30€ return (grab the media distancia, a slower train, for 10€ cheaper!)

salmorejo in córdoba

See / Sip / Chow: Springtime is especially magical in Córdoba. From flowers dripping down walls to a raucous Feria to loads of street drinking, try to make May the month you travel here. Don’t forget to try the star dishes of salmorejo and flamenquín, a pork loin rolled in ham and cheese before meeting the deep fryer. My cordobesa friend has spoken loads about the new gourmet market, Mercado de la Victoria, which is located halfway between the train station and the historic center.

This post was brought to you by Monster.Travel. If you’re looking for package travel to destinations around Spain, get more information at Monster.Travel.

Where do you go to get away from the city (I know, I know: I skipped the Sierra, Arcos, the beaches and even Granada!)? Know any hidden spots in these cities?

Photo Post: Ronda and its Picturesque Historic Center

I roused Laura awake. Due to a miscommunication on exactly when her plane touched down in Seville (a day later than I had expected), I was behind in showing her my Spain. I dragged her out of bed, handed her a towel and a mug of coffee and announced Sunday’s destination: Ronda.

Visits to Ronda

Laura had two requirements for a day trip: somewhere quaint and within two hours by car. The beauty of owning a car in Spain – despite being a bottomless money pit – is that destinations that are out-of-the-way or not-traversed-by-public-transportation or too-long-on-the-bus-when-jet-lagged are suddenly on your list.

As the jewel of the typical white villages of Cádiz and Málaga, Ronda and Setenil de las Bodegas were close enough to hit while Laura dozed in the car.

Balconies in Ronda Spain

As the jewel in the crown of Andalucía’s famous pueblos blancos, Ronda hardly qualifies as a pueblo with 35,000 inhabitants. A city made famous in For Whom the Bell Tolls and a favorite hangout of Orson Wells and Washington Irving, it certainly earns its reputation for being one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. I’d visited once in late 2007, long before I knew enough Spanish to enjoy myself, istead stressing over what my family would have for lunch.

But despite its fame and touristic draw, there are still pockets of the city that are devoid of overpriced restaurants and their poorly translated menus, of souvenir shops and of cheesy museums (those things are thankfully clustered around the Puente Nuevo bridge that spans the Guadalevín river gorge). We stopped at a local restaurant, far from the sites, for cheap raciones of huevos estrellados and solomillo as soon as we arrived. Because, jet lag is a bitch and food in Spain is cheap and bountiful in villages.

Elbowing past a few British tourists staggering off a bus, no doubt on a day trip from Málaga capital, we began at the Alameda del Tajo. Rising out of the mountains, the surrounding countryside alternates greens and blues, yellow sunflower fields and stark grain groves.

Ronda countryside

puente nuevo ronda

The Bridge in Ronda

views of the countryside Ronda

Rumor has it that Nationalist sympathizers were thrown to their deaths off of the sides of the bridge, falling 120 meters into the rocky canyon. Laura and I had a coffee after lunch at a nearby café, and as I told her the legend, her eyes grew wide and she backed her chair a little further away from the edge.

But, man, what a view on the way down.

After years of friendship – we’ve known each other since age 14! – Laura and I strolled the Casco Antiguo, catching up on her new job, her upcoming travels and my wedding plans. In a place as old as Ronda with an old friend, everything felt new as I sought to explore Andalucía a bit more.

Ronda Old Town

walking around Ronda

My MUST-dos in Ronda

See: The old part of town is fairly walkable – it’s paved with cobblestones but mostly flat. Be sure to take in the famous bridge, the outside of bullring and the churches and plazas on the east side of the Puente Viejo.

Chow: Food in the Serranía de Málaga is pretty much what you’d expect: hearty meats, stews and plenty of vegetables. We had lunch somewhere on Calle Jerez at a small bar that smelled good, though the roadside ventas are never a bad idea if you’re looking for solid price-quality eats. You can find them on the way in and out of town.

Sip: Have a coffee or drink at the Parador, housed in the old town hall and teetering on the edge of the gorge. It will cost you, but the views of the Puente Nuevo are worth the mark up.

Skip: The old Arabic baths (particularly if you’re going elsewhere in Andalucía) and the bull ring. While gorgeous and the first to stage modern bullfights, the visit isn’t worth the 7€ price tag – spend that money on another beer at the Parador instead!

Have you ever been to Ronda or the Pueblos Blancos? Have car, will travel with my foreign travel slump!

Spain Snapshots: Setenil de las Bodegas (and why I never need to return)

The eternal question I get from my visitors is: Ooooh, where should we go on your days off? I’m not the type of person to sit still on the weekends so long as there is sunshine, half a tank of gas and someone to watch the ever-changing highway signs for me.

Tobes works in the travel industry, so when we went down the list of obvious choices (Granada? Nah, was just there. Portugal? Let’s skip it because of the holiday weekend.) Nothing really stuck out at us.

It was time to get Señor Google involved, and the page rank spoke: Pueblos Blancos.

The white villages, known as pueblos blancos, are a string of whitewashed villages perched on mountains and in valleys in the Cádiz and Málaga provinces. Many, like Ronda and Grazalema, are quite well-known. There are two dozen of them, and I can count the number of them I’ve been to on one hand.

Once she’d recovered from jet lag, we hopped into my car and drove south out-of-town. Once you hit Puerto Serrano, towns begin to pop up in the distance as small white blips on a mountain, reached by snaking roads over hills and through farmland.

In a last-minute decision, we stopped in Ronda for libations and to stretch our legs, and while we could have spent the entire afternoon callejando, I had been intrigued by a village I’d seen on Trover – Setenil de las Bodegas.

Believed to have been around since the Roman times, the river gorge on either side of the Trejo has been exploited for shops and homes that are built into the overhanging rock. The result is something that kind of twists your mind:

Could you imagine going outside to see if it’s raining but come face to face with this rock? 

Tobes and I arrived at the merienda hour, when people were beginning to wake up from a Sunday siesta and head to the streets. The road that leads into town immediately shoots you onto a one-way street that winds through homes and uphill. Seville is as flat as Illinois, so we had several small scares as I tried not to stall or roll down the hill.

I found a parking spot at the highest point in town, right next to the city’s main attraction:

Setenil has just over 3,000 residents, though very few of them actually have houses built into the rocks. Apart from this alleyway, calle Jabonería and calle de las Cuevas de la Sombra are the only evidence of that this village has a claim to fame. You can drive under some of the overhangs, but we found that people weren’t willing to corral their dogs or small children or move out of the street for you.

We did climb to Calle Cerrillo, home to the San Sebastian hermitage and the supposed place where Isabel I of Castille (the most badass women in Spanish history) gave birth to a stillborn child of the same name. The sun was setting behind the mountains, turning the gorges golden and the buildings a dreamy off-white.

For a town with a rich history (Romans! Arab fortresses! Catholic Kings!) that’s known for its gastronomy, we left pretty disappointed with Setenil. The town was shabby, the locals indifferent to visitors and I saw very little encanto.

The town is a mere 20 minutes from Ronda and 20 more from El Gastor, so don’t go too far out of your way to visit – hit Vejer, Olvera and Arcos de la Frontera instead.

Like small towns in Spain? Tell me about your favorites or read a bit more on ones I love: Garganta la Olla (Cáceres) // San Nicolás del Puerto (Sevilla) // Carmona (Sevilla) // Osuna (Sevilla)

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