Photo Post: the Towns of Úbeda and Baeza

For whatever reason, the province of Jaén has always piqued my interest – and has always intimidated me. I considered it No Man’s Land because of my extreme allergy to olive blossoms, too far from Seville to merit a day or even an overnight.

And with a move to Madrid looming, I would find the province even further away, despite being geographically closer to the capital than Sevilla.

But I’m the now or never kind.

a window to Úbeda Spain

After blowing out my eardrums attending Las Fallas in Valencia before chasing Don Quijote’s windmills (and chasing them down with a glass of wine in Valdepeñas), I decided to stop for a night in the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Úbeda and Baeza to avoid the Holy Week processions in Seville.

The pueblos gemelos of Úbeda and Baeza are nestled into rolling olive groves and noted for their Renaissance architecture, and they’d been on my Spain wish list for years. I called the Novio to tell him not to expect me until Tuesday evening, as I was adding two more pit stops to my trip.

Nearby Úbeda gets a lot of the attention, but Baeza is superbly conserved, boasts a strategic position over the fertile Guadalquivir valley and has an astonishingly high number of intellectual former inhabitants – including poet Antonion Machado – thanks to its university and Guardia Civil academy. But it was the cheap, last-minute hotel deal that got me.

Plaza de la Constitucion Baeza

Sin rumbo, I set off from the hotel towards the city center, itself a labrinyth surrounding the cathedral, old university and the ruins of an impenetrable fortress. Machado himself called it the Salamanca andaluza for its appearance and intellect.

The wind howled through the tangle of streets and my eyes watered from the stinging chill and the olive trees growing heavy with blossoms. Baeza was a town that I’d normally describe as the Spanish type of sleepy, a town in permanent suspended activity.

Streets in Baeza, Spain

But being Semana Santa, I arrived mid-afternoon to a town too excited to sleep a siesta. La Misericordia – Baeza’s answer to Seville’s somber Madrugá processions – would step off that night from the school where hijo predilecto andaluz Machado once taught French grammar. This small city once housed a booming textile industry and takes pride in its Italian Renaissance architecture.

wide shot Baeza cathedral

It felt like I had the village to myself, everyone squirreled away around their braseros (nosy me peeked into ground floor windows) or preparing floats for the Holy Week processions. Even a group walking tour I ran into in the charming Plaza del Pópulo was sadly thin. I wandered around the entire historic center and past its most emblematic buildings, haunting and silent sentries.

Fuente de los Leones, Baeza Spain

view of Baeza from Ubeda

Plaza del Populo Baeza
Plaza de Santa Maria Baeza

My phone nearly dead and a chill in the air, I treated myself to a long rest before heading back out at twilight. Plaza de la Constitution’s colonnades hid intimate tapas bars with low lights and the smell of olive oil wafting out of them. The lights glinted off of religious medals, worn by the faithful who would no doubt be elbowing me through the narrow streets to see La Misericordia.

As I was mopping up the last bit of oil with a piece of bread, the restaurant suddenly thinned out. I threw some money onto the bar and rushed outside. Across the plaza and up a small hill was the university’s heavy wooden doors. Darkness had fallen, but the golden light spilling out from windows proved that Lunes Santo was the big night for baezanos.

Holy Week in Baeza, Spain

Nazarenos Baeza

Paso de pasos during Seville’s Holy Week, but there’s something intimate and primitive about processions in smaller cities. They tend to be more somber, as if carrying the images of Christ’s last days is for the more fervent, that it’s less about spectacle and more about spirit. Indeed, Baeza and Úbeda’s adherence to Catholic tradition isn’t as grandiose as Seville or Valladolid’s, but I saw passion as I watched the nazarenos shuffle by under heavy black capirotes.

La Misercordia procession in Baeza

Holy Week traditions in Baeza Jaen

As they snaked through the Casco Antiguo and followed the trail of the old city walls, I hunkered towards my hotel, catching glimpse of the procession and literally fell into my bed.

Semana Santa en Baeza

A thick fog covering the ribbon of road between the sister cities the following morning, I steered Pequeño Monty toward Úbeda. This is where fellow blogger Trevor Huxham lived as an auxiliar de conversación for a year, and he was quick to fire off a food recommendation: churros at Cafetería Anpa. The cold was permeating, so I treated myself to a thick mug of chocolate and a ración of churros. You know, a good old stick-to-your-bones sort of breakfast.

Fog still sat over the Lomo de Úbeda as I wandered towards the city center, and for 9am on a Tuesday, even quieter than Baeza. The cobblestone sloped downwards towards the sandstone monuments that scored it its UNESCO designation, all locked up and shuttered up as if warding off the chill in the air. I pulled my jacket around me tighter, realizing that I’d not dressed properly for the cold morning.

The jewel in Úbeda’s well-earned crown is Plaza Vázquez de Molina, flanked by half a dozen buildings built in the Italian Rennaissance style: the Sacra Capilla del Salvador, the Capilla de Santa María de los Alcázares and the Palacio de las Cadenas are perhaps the most famous.

Capilla del Salvador Baeza Spain

Lion statue Ubeda Spain

Ubeda cathedral

Parador Baeza

Santa Maria de los Reales Alcazares Úbeda

I wandered into the nearby Parador for a coffee and to warm up a bit, but instead was met with sniffles, sneezes and itchy eyes. As I feared, my allergies betrayed me in Jaén. Úbeda merits far more than an hour I spent with my nose in a Kleenex – if not for the architecture than for the historical privilege brindado to this beautiful place.

Like Machado’s exile from Spain during the Civil War and his absolute heartbreak over the Republic, I got in my car and found myself suddenly questioning our move to Madrid. Andalucía is, for me, home. The rolling olive groves fanned out from Jaén through Málaga and on towards Sevilla gave me some comfort on the three hour trip, and now – 16 months after this little jaunt – it’s a view I miss when driving through Madrid’s urban sprawl.

In fact, it washes me in relief when the high speed train passes through Despeñaperros and spits you out in the Jaén province.

Late, corazón…no todo se ha tragado la tierra.

beautiful old door in Europe

If you go:

Stay: I got a great deal – especially considering the holidays – at Hotel Juanito. A bit antiquated but very much comfortable, this hotel is one of the village’s mainstays and boasts a great restaurant (this is an affiliate link via Agoda – you’ll get a great deal at no extra cost to you!). Avenida Alcalde Puche Pardo, 57, Baeza

Eat: If you can’t get into Juanito’s famous restaurant and the dishes made with the resto’s own brand of Extra Virgen Olive Oil, Baeza boasts plenty of tapas bars in the center of town. I ate at Taberna El Pájaro, where traditional Andalusian cuisine gets a bit of an upgrade without the price hike – and their olives are seriously delicious. Paseo Portales Tundidores, 5

If you’re in Úbeda for breakfast, do not, pero DO NOT miss the thick chocolate and crispy churros at ANPA. Corredura San Fernando, 33.

BAEZA AND ÚBEDA

Do: In Baeza, climb the torreón at the Puerta de Baeza for views (and cheesy medieval stuff) after wandering around. In Úbeda, you can’t miss the Plaza Vázquez de Molina – and do get into the buildings if you can. Had I more time, I would have taken a guided walking tour.

Have you ever been to the Jaén province?

Where to Stay in Cudillero, Asturias: La Casona del Faedo

En la Casona de Ángel, queremos que Ustedes estén como en la casa de los abuelos,” Ángel prompted, reaching for my weekend bag. After five hours in the car from Madrid, I stretched my legs while breathing in mountain air and let the hotel owner carry my bag up wooden stairs.

how-to-get-to-la-casona-del-faedo-asturias

If Ángel said he wanted us to feel like we were at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we’d certainly make ourselves right at home.

Clinging to the edge of a teeny Asturian village, La Casona del Faedo had been a budget find on one of the busiest weekends of the summer, where hotel rooms were going for three times the 40€ we paid per night. Like many who we’d meet that weekend sitting at a picnic table next to the small bar, they’d been fooled into thinking that the Concello do Cudillero meant the hotel was located right in the heart of the fisherman’s village of the same name.

colorful Cudillero Asturias

After a car ride that snaked though the Gaudarrama region, the empty plains of Castilla and the green hills and mountain ranges of the Picos de Europe, I was delighted to recognize the N-632 road that I’d walked three years prior. Down the steep hill, rather than turning west towards Soto de Luiña, we veered left, onto a two-lane road that climbed into the foothills of the Picos.

Looks like we’d been fooled, too, but in the best way.

A half-blind, mangy dog sporting dreadlocks greeted us as we pulled the car into an overgrown strip of parking adjacent to a canary yellow house, built towards the end of the 19th Century. Chispa, a younger dog, shot by him and jumped on me immediately. The property owner, Ángel, set down a basket of eggs he was carrying and offered a hand before taking our bags and leading us into the galeria asturiana, a hallmark of old country houses in these parts.

exterior-of-la-casona-del-faedo

The worn stairs alluded to the house’s history, rubbed thin and bowing in the middle. The second floor held several bedrooms: ours would be the one at the end of the hall, a room with a low ceiling, a wide double bed and an en suite bathroom. Truthfully, it did look like grandma and grandpa’s house. It was a little out-of-date, sure, but we aren’t travelers who spend much time in our hotel room anyway.

I freshened up, windows wide open and looking out onto the terrace bar, an old hórreo and acres of rain-fed pastures, while the Novio had a beer downstairs. After only six weeks in Madrid, the damp air took my hair back to its original shape and body. We’d spend a decent amount of time on that patio, opposite one another on a splintery picnic table. The Novio, with his beer, and me with a tonic water, chatting. The wi-fi signal here was weak.

hallway-of-casona-de-faedo

Ángel and Agustina, his wife and the unrivaled matriarch of the house, are born and bred asturianos. The sort of salt of the earth people who take pride in their daily work and sing when they speak. They’d spent nearly two decades in the Canary Islands as bar owners before returning to their tierra natal to take over the old bed and breakfast.

Agu soon returned, a bounty of groceries spilling out of her arms. The fresh cheese would accompany our bread the next morning, the eggs whisked to coat croquetas – but the pale green fabines were hers to stew with clams.

la-casona-del-faedo-details

Every morning and afternoon, post-siesta, we’d descend the mountain in our rental car and explore the region – Playa del Silencio, the weekend markets at Pravia and Muros de Nalón, a family-run sidrería on a lonely road in a town whose name I’ll never remember. And Agu and Ángel were always there when we returned – in the kitchen and behind the bar, respectively.

On our last day, me teetering on the edge of 30 and 31, the hotel owners informed us we’d have to move rooms due to a glitch in their new booking site. “No pasa nada,” I said. “Growing pains.” We gathered our things that morning and left them by the door. We were rewarded with an upgraded room and an invitation to have dinner, on the house.

Our bags were set near the bed when we arrived back from the Concha de Arvedo beach that afternoon. More coquettish and with a breeze, we’d have to close the ancient wooden shutters that night when a storm rolled through the Concello.

la-casona-de-faedo-bedrooms

room-details-at-casona-del-faedo

There was a murmur in the adjacent dining hall when we arrived, and Ángel had saved us our picnic table. “Señores, qué les apetece para cenar?” He began to list off whatever his wife was fabricating in the kitchen, but the Novio just replied, “Whatever is good.”

We filled up on cheese from somewhere across the valley, crumbling cabrales and fresh goat quesu, spread across bread that had been baked that afternoon. The croquetas were clearly homemade, lumpy and bursting with bechamel sauce and hints of leeks, and the pollo al chilindrón practically fell off the bone.

As if the location of the Casona wasn’t enough of a privilege, the food and the company was beyond what we expected from a budget bed and breakfast. It was one of those places where faces become familiar over breakfast, where the mini fridge is stocked with cans of Coke and whatever you’d picked up at the market that morning, and you’re greeted with a drink as soon as you’ve arrived.

owners-of-la-casona-de-faedo

If you go: La Casona del Faedo is a small, rural homestay located about 6 miles due south of Cudillero and reachable only by car. From Oviedo, take the A-8 to exit 431. Follow the N-632 for 1.5 kilometers and, at the bottom of the mountain, turn left onto the CU-4. The town of Faedo is seven kilometers along. You can reserve on Booking.com for around 50€.

Read more about our Asturias road trip!

I was not paid in any way for this article, save genuine hospitality on behalf of the owners. All opinions are my own.

where-to-stay-in

Do you have any recommendations for Cudillero or Asturias?

Vía Crucis de Santiponce: Semana Santa Lite

Torches lined the gravel path, which inclined ever-so-slightly upwards. Mari Carmen had taken hold of my arm and was pulling me forward through the crowds as pebbles rolled out of place, causing me to stumble – no joke – three times. Up ahead, a procession showing Christ carrying the cross was reaching the top of the hill.

Via Crucis Santiponce

When my friend invited me to a Saturday night out at a small-scale religious procession, I hadn’t been skeptical or searching for something better to do. After turning 30, some sort of chip clicked on, and I have been determined to switch up my weekend routine ever since. Because, #thisis30 and my stamina is not what it used to be. Attending one of the Aljarafe’s most celebrated fiestas locales with an American friend’s Andalusian mother-in-law was going to be a new experience.

Santiponce traditional festival

Accompanied by a somber three-piece woodwind band, we were able to sneak around the gold-laden paso and slip into the crowd next to the local cemetery. Close to 50 brothers, torches and cruces de guía in hand, had taken up rank across from the cemetery’s western wall as Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno sliced through the masses of people. Even on my toes, I couldn’t see but as he passed through the gate, the speakers crackled to life with the Our Father.

Growing up Catholic, I’d learned many prayers by heart, but even working in a Catholic grade school hadn’t prompted me to learn the words in Spanish. I bowed my head so that Mari Carmen wouldn’t see that I couldn’t say more than Padre Nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre

What is a via crucis

As the procession backed up and headed down the hill towards Itálica, an ancient Roman town that saw prosper and the birth of two emperors, I could finally ask Mari Carmen why she’d invited three guiris out to a procession. The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is one of Spain’s most revered Lenten activities, and draws the participation of brotherhoods, called hermandades, from around Spain.

Following the old Roman road through Itálica, we stopped and waited near the entrance to the ampitheatre. Inside, fourteen brotherhoods would line up along the oblong-shaped walls with their cruz de guía, or the crucifix that heads up each procession in its respective hermandad. No pointy hats here. The Cristo would stop at each one as an hermano would read passages from the Bible and pray an Our Father fourteen times.

Via Crucis Spain

Just as the paso passed into the amphitheater, the clouds broke and a drizzle began to fall. Umbrellas went up, blocking my view. Even the threat of rain keeps most Cristos and Vírgenes at home, safe in their temples, but the 25 year-old tradition wouldn’t let the damp weather spoil its journey. Instead, a poncho was placed around the veneration’s shoulders and the first station – Jesus is condemned to death – was completed.

Torches burned and the crowd thinned out at Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno made his way through the last moments of his life. We followed him as he passed the stone walls of Itálica’s most famous ruin as he figuratively prepared for his death and resurrection.

hermandades en un via crucis

Via Crucis Spain Italica

Brotherhoods participating in a Via Crucis in Spain

Altarboys Spain

Santiponce Via Crucis

A tí te gusta la Semana Santa, Cat? Mari Carmen asked, again clutching my arm as we heard the grunts and shoe scoffing of the costaleros under the float as they approached 11th station, the crucifixion. Like Semana Santa, a Vía Crucis a moment of reflection and meditation, a plead for forgiveness or piety, but without the crowds and the pushing come Palm Sunday.

I answered her no, that the raucous celebration of the Feria de Sevilla were far more my pace.

If you go: The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is celebrated yearly and of touristic interest. It is held on the first Sunday of Lent, typically in late February or early March. Admission is free and parking is ample, or you can take the M-170A from Plaza de Armas. 

Via Crucis Santiponce2

Have you ever been to a religious celebration? Have any cool events to share in Spain? If you liked these photos, check out last year’s Palm Sunday processions photo diary!

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?

The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.

Whoa.

If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

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