What to do in Trujillo, Spain: Food, History and Daytrips

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Extremadura is one of those places you want everyone to know about, but also want to have entirely to yourself. 

Nestled between Madrid and Andalusia, it’s an oft-overlooked part of Spain and not easy to explore without a car. Rich in history, the western plains of Spain were home to the largest and most powerful Roman cities in Hispania, as well as the birthplace of the conquistadores who conquered much of Latin and South America. This legacy has been left in the jewels littered throughout the comunidad autónoma in Guadalupe’s sprawling monastery, the monument-rich Cáceres and Roman Mérida.

In many ways, spending time in Extremadura can make you feel like time has stopped, but even Spaniards look at it with disdain, citing poor transportation links and a lack of things to do. Just like Americans can’t place Iowa on a map, Extemadura to many Spaniards is a corner of Spain that serves as a gateway to Portugal and Andalucía, and little else.

Suckers.

When a free weekend came up in July, I called up two friends in Sevilla and one in Madrid, and we met in the middle. The town of Trujillo is equidistant between the capital of Spain and the capital of Andalusia, and an easy jaunt on the A-5 highway that connects the southwest of Spain and central Portugal to Madrid.

Follow the trail of the Conquistadores

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Name any conqueror from the 16th Century. Save a select few, the big names all came from Extremadura – Pizarro, Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés. Loyal to the Spanish crown, they claimed a sizeable chunks of land, changing the course of history and effectively bringing the Spanish language, culture and communicable diseases to the New World.

Ever drawn the conclusion that of South America’s great cities are named for Spanish towns? Most of those pueblos, like Medellín or even Trujillo, are extremeño towns. On my first trip to Extremadura, a lifelong extremeña told me that the name of her comunidad autónoma came from these mean from the far-lying (extre) provinces whose lives were hardened on the western plains (madura). Take it for what you will, but extremeños have since been known for their gumption.

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The cornerstone of an already gorgeous main square, the Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, the Palacio de la Conquista’s erection was financed largely in part by the riches Pizarro brought back from Peru. It sits at the bottom of a hill that is crowned by a crumbling alcazaba, and the stone mansions and plazas that tumble down are of note.

It’s honestly one of the most beautiful villages I’ve been to in Spain, and I’ve been to a lot.

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Many of the palaces have since been converted into hotels and restaurants, but a morning walk will allow you to see the highlights. Aside from whether or not they pillaged or brought disease, the architectural legacy is staggering. Oh, and Pizarro reputedly brought over a Spanish food staple – tomatoes.

If you want to go further afield and have a car, Trujillo is about equidistant to Cáceres and Mérida, the administrative capital of Extremadura. The Tourism Board suggests the Ruta de los Descubridores, which traces from Plasencia to Trujillo before heading west to Cáceres. Continuing south, you’ll get to Villanueva de la Serena, Medellīn and Mérida; the outpost of Badajóz is a bit further out but is the last stop.

Day trips to Guadalupe and Yuste / the Jerte Valley

My first go at Trujillo was at the hand of a contest won by Trujillo Villas. We had a long weekend, a car and plenty of time to kill on our way up the A-66. Turning off at Valdivia, a small suburb of Villanueva de la Serena (surprise! home to conquistador Pedro de Valdivia), the road snakes into the foothills towards the town of Guadalupe and the Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe.

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Visits to the Guadalupe Monastery

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to worship. It’s even one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is well-deserving of the nod. Seriously. Do not miss this one.

Further north and part of the Sierra de Gredos lie a number of small hamlets that look like they belong in Shakespeare’s novels than rural Spain. The Gargantas, or a series of natural pools in the foothills, and its largest town, Garganta la Olla, is worth a few hours’ walk to stretch your legs and lunch.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

Just 10 minutes northeast of Garganta la Olla is the Monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste, one of Spain’s patrimonial highlights and where Holy Roman Emporer Charles V retired to live out his days. Formerly inhabited by Hieronymite and boasting picturesque views of the almond tree-covered countryside it’s no wonder he made the treacherous trip from Madrid to Yuste (and El Escorial wouldn’t be ordered to be built for another five years anyway).

yuste monastery extremadura

While it was a disappointment to us with pushy tour guides and a steep price tag, the drive through almond trees in bloom and waterfalls was worth the extra kilometers.

Other towns you might want to explore are Zafra, south of Mérida, and Jerez de los Caballeros. Or, really any town with a castle.

Eat

Extremadura prides itself on its food – from hearty game and foul and some of the best jamón ibérico de bellota to Torta del Casar, the notoriously stinky cheese (believe me when I saw it smells like feet). Famous for its sweet, smoked paprika and hearty, little-consumed wines. For its sweets and earthy breads. Characterized by its simplicity and complexity (like all great Spanish dishes), you can eat on the cheap just about anywhere in the region.

jamon y queso

In a small city like Trujillo, there are few options. I had been to famed Casa Troya, a locale famous for its location on the Plaza Mayor and its patronage, on a previous visit and was not ready to return. The first night, restless but tired after our early wake up calls for work and the drive, we settled on Hermanos Marcelo in the square for their croquetas and plenty of helpings of embutidos, or cured meats.

On Saturday morning, we were able to sneak on a last-minute tour of Bodegas Habla, located just to the south of the village.

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In operation from 1999, Bodegas Habla is one of the newest and most innovative wineries in all of Spain – and it produces a table wine that can be drunk as if it was a special occasion. I don’t pretend to know anything about wine other than that it’s made from grapes and I like it less than beer, but I bought into the energy, the marketing and the experience of Habla.

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The tour and tasting cost 13€, which included four wines – their signature Habla del Silencio, Rita, Habla de tí and a limited edition 13. You can contact the Bodega at habla@bodegashabla.com for more information and availability.

While there is parking on-site, please consider finding a designated driver or calling a local taxi. We opted for the latter and, true to his word, he came back in two hours for us and dropped us right off at the restaurant La Alberca.

Perhaps Trujillo’s biggest draw is their Feria del Queso de Trujillo, an artisan fair dedicated solely to cheese. Held around May 1st each year, around 200,000 people are drawn to the Plaza Mayor for activities and tastings centered around goat and sheep cheeses. Area restaurants create special menus in which local cheeses are the main feature. Considering how much I love cheese, I’m shocked I haven’t made it there yet.

Where to eat in Trujillo?

If you’re spending any time in Trujillo, skip Casa Troya and make sure to make a reservation at La Alberca (C/Cambrones, 8). Between the stone walls and the breezy patio, plus a selection of wines from the region – D.O. Tierra de Barro is a great choice if you’re feeling adventurous or want something hearty – this place delivered on food, service and experience. We got away with about 18€ a head.

The Takeaway

I first saw Trujillo driving up to Valladolid with the Novio after about four months living in Seville. The fortress seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the plains, and I pressed my nose to the window to see it from all angles. It may be small, but it packs that distinctly Spanish punch: the wine, the food and the cultural legacy make it worthy of stopping for a night or if you’re en route to Cáceres. In fact, put Extremadura in general on your list.

Trujillo, Spain things to do

Have you been to Trujillo and Extremadura? Anything I missed on this list?

Here’s a little plug for our super cute AirBnB with two terraces and gorgeous views down to the Plaza Mayor. We seriously loved this place so much that we decided to not even go out but just drink wine and play boardgames! It’s a gem and you can park nearby.

8 Must-have Experiences in Northern Spain

“I’m very sorry to say it, but I prefer Northern Spain,” Diego said with a shrug. I returned his shrug and began regaling all of the places I’d been in Galicia and Asturias (and all the pulpo I’d eaten).

“So you’re a fan, I see?” he responded. Des-de-lu-e-go. 

While Seville and Southern Spain will always be my second home and I was devastated to move away, I am deeply enamored by anything that touches the Cantabrian Sea. Though my time has been mostly logged in the occidental regions of Galicia and Asturias, I have clocked in 15 trips to the four autonomous communities that stretch along the northern border of Iberia.

colorful Cudillero Asturias

Northern Spain feels more authentic: there are beaches but they often lay silent. The food is rich and earthy, a true testament to the way that land is cultivated. Festivals are less about color and pizzazz and more about bringing people together around an open fire or an oversized plate of food, stacked high with local delights. There’s a quiet spirituality in the ruddy-faced Galicians, a whisper between Basques in their language – which has no ties to modern tongues – that breathes mysterious. Where the Andalusians skip letters, gallegos change Ns for Ñs: asturianos make Os into Us.

Anything from the Camino de Santiago and up, give or take, is the Spain you don’t expect to find.

A tour through the north of Spain is getting far off the beaten path. As in, limited-flights-and-bus-routes-and-barely-on-the-map off the beaten path. I’ve spent considerable amounts of time in the north, traveling through the westerly regions of Galicia and Asturias frequently and with a belly swollen by good food and drink and a heart filled with a morriña for a land so starkly different from Andalusia’s olive groves and whitewashed villages.

Feeling overwhelmed with so many beautiful beaches or lack of transportation? For holiday ideas and packages in Spain visit Bookmundi.

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Galicia

Jagged coastlines, cheese shaped like a boob and a barnacle fisherwomen risk their lives to harvest, plus witchcraft, medieval stone villages and some of Spain’s most celebrated wine?

Secret’s out – Galicia is nothing short of surprising (and awesome).

I felt so moved by the northwestern region of Spain, in fact, that I spent five consecutive Julys there, culminating in tracing the steps of thousands of pilgrims through the interior of the Lugo and A Coruña provinces in search of plenary indulgence – and a bit of myself.

Walk the Camino de Santiago

walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain

At the very top of my list is walking a pilgrimage route undertaken by the faithful and the adventurous. Though it’s no longer full of vandals and disease, seeing Asturias and Galicia on foot was magical and a way for me to more fully understand the north. For thirteen days, I carried a pack that was 1/10 my body weight, garnering blisters, stamps in a pilgrim passport and countless stories along the way.

Reaching the majestic Catedral de Santiago de Compostela after 326 kilometers and five blisters was a lesson in resilience in both myself and the people who believed this passage would earn them an automatic berth into heaven. While everyone has their own reasons for walking the Jacobean route, mine was a little mix of adventure and proving to myself that I could. It stands out in my mind – next to watching Spain win the 2010 World Cup (I watched in Galicia, no less!) – my most vivid memories of a decade in Spain.

As the botafumeiro swung over my head and I clutched my compostela certificate, I promised myself I’d do it again.

Indulge in a mariscada, queso tetilla and pimientos de padrón

where to eat seafood in Tapia Asturias

When I worked at an English language summer camp in Galicia, a part of my paycheck went straight to an all-out seafood fest. Piled high on a serving platter, we’d pick through boiled shrimp, sweet, plump crab legs, ugly-looking gooseneck barnacles whose goosebump purple skin hides tender meat. We’d toast to a job well done and feast like kings before taking our bounty (and an extra kilo or two) back home for rent and bills.

Queso tetilla, a creamy sheep’s cheese shaped like a tit and called like one, too, flash-fried pimientos del padrón sprinkled with sea salt and fried or marinated chunks of pork loins, washed down with crowd pleasing Estrella Galicia beer or a crisp Albariño wine filled my evenings after classes. And that’s not to mention the plato estrella – boiled octopus served over a bed of potatoes with a dusting of sweet, smoked paprika, polbo a feira.

The best part? It’s wickedly cheap. Tapas for a euro or two, a full-blown ración for under five. During my first trip, we assumed we had stumbled upon an overprice tapas bar only to be overwhelmed with the amount of food placed on our plates. And while walking the Camino, we ended up in someone’s dining room squished between truckers, noshing on a soup because there was no set menu.

If you love food, don’t miss Galicia (or my list of best places to eat in La Coruña).

Visit the Islas Cíes and Playa de las Catedrales

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Whereas the Costas are full of Northern Europeans, busy boardwalks and mediocre eateries, the 1500 kilometers of coastline in Galicia hide pristine beaches where you’ll be joined by families, fisherman and a Gadis supermarket bag of food. They’re staggeringly beautiful and – by Spain standards – untouched.

The majestic Playa de las Catedrales (Praia des Catedrais) was just a short taxi ride off of the Camino from Ribadeo, and we took advantage of a low tide to climb down worn stairs and walked between rock formations, toes in the sand. The cliffs, covered in goose barnacles and home to sea crabs, resemble the soaring naves of cathedrals (If you go: as of 2017, you must snag a free ticket to visit the beach during low tide).

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You can also take a boat ride to the Islas Ciés biosphere, facing the bustling port of Vigo. The chain of islands is considered to be one of the most picturesque parts of Spain, and its Playa de las Rodas was named the Best Beach in the World in 2013. We camped out, arriving early to hike the myriad of trails that crisscross the archipelago and eating sandwiches we’d prepared in Julie’s kitchen before sharing beers with others while watching the sun set over the Atlantic.

From Sanxenxo to the Riazor to the cliffs at Cabo Fisterra, it’s worth renting a car and taking advantage of the paisajes.

Attend the Patron Saint Festival in Santiago de Compostela

st james at the santiago cathedral

Spain’s holiest site is the massive cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the cockleshell-covered remains of St. James were said to be discovered by a hermit in the early 9th Century. After primitive shrines and chapels were burnt to the ground during the Muslim raids on Galicia, the Mixing Romaneque, Baroque and Gothic architectural hallmarks, it is the jewel in he crown of a lovely city steeped in pilgrim lore.

It’s also the focal point of massive celebrations that fall on July 25th, a holiday in Spain commemorating the patron’s role as the Matamoros (Moor-Slayer), in which St. James was said to descend from heaven to slay the Moors that were overtaking the Iberian peninsula. Imagine the Alameda park jammed full of carnival rides and stands peddling cotton candy, concerts in practically any open square or green space and a midnight fireworks display.

We went on a whim, packing our Gadis bags with bottles of alcohol, snacks and an extra layer of clothing for good measure. We bounced around the concerts, leaning on one another as the fireworks lit up the night and the western façade of the cathedral before passing out on the short train ride up to La Coruña in a heap.

Extra points if you attend during a Xacobeo year, when the holiday falls on a Sunday and swells with pilgrims destined to reach the temple before the Misa del Peregrino on the Holy Day. It’s every 6-5-6-11 years.

Principado de Asturias

Oviedo Cathedral

I have a soft spot for Asturias – my mother-in-law was born here and my favorite Spanish dish is a hearty fabada, so not even a 13-hour drive from Seville to rain-soaked Oviedo one Easter weekend would have tainted my love for what some label as a paraíso natural, or natural paradise.

In-freaking-deed. The Picos de Europa – said to hold the last bastion of Spain safe from the Moorish conquest – frame rolling hills where the country’s best fed cows that lead to the ocean. Like Galicia, you can find D.O cheeses here, eat a cachopo the size of your forearm and kick back fizzy culos of fermented apple juice, called sidra.

In fact, we love Asturias so deeply that we spent our babymoon here and took the Babyman up for our summer trip the following year. Maybe it’s the mountains or the hamlets that top them or the fact that the people in those villages traverse those mountains for the right cheese seasoned with paprika.

Pueblo-hop through fishing villages

Visit Lastres Asturias

Asturias is known for its quaint fishing villages. Perched around small bays and river mouths with boats with peeling paints bobbing off a pier, they are literally worthy of your phone’s entire camera roll.

Cudillero, Luarca, Tapia de Casareigo… you can literally follow the N-630 highway that snakes between the Picos de Europa and the ocean, stopping off at any one of them for fresh seafood and an abundance of abuelos. Throughout the summer months, these villages swell with travelers and former residents who left for the big city and its work opportunities. But pueblos in Asturias make you feel like a local. When we stayed at La Casona del Faedo for two consecutive summers, we were greeted with a hug and pinched cheeks, just like a grandma would do. The cabrales cheese at El Reguirín in Oviñana was creamier than the year before. Our pictures appeared in a local paper at a goat roasting festival.

And when the Novio cooks fabada with the smoked embutidos and bulging fava beans we bought last summer in Grado, it’s a big, fat hug.

Visit the pre-Romanesque churches of Oviedo

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Urban centers in Asturias are somewhat relative: you can see the capital city of Oviedo in half a day while whiling away the rest at a sidrería or sleeping off a huge potaje. Urban tourism takes a backseat to the gorgeous landscapes and outdoor activities – and by a long-shot. But if you don’t miss one thing in Uvieu – local tongue for the city – it’s the pre-Romanesque churches perched above the city.

Coinciding with the start of the Muslim campaign in Iberia in 711, the following two centuries saw a burst of box-like structures that later became places of worship. The Principality is dotted with them, but none more accessible or charming as those of San Miguel de Lillo and Santa María del Naranco.

When my friend Claudia moved from Sevilla to Oviedo, I took advantage of starting the Camino in Avilés, just a stone’s throw away, to spend a day with her. We took an early hike up to the Naranco hill that faces the city to the churches, wonderfully preserved and worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Reflecting on our years as extranjeras in Spain and passing a milanesa between us, it seemed incredible that Spain eclipsed our two countries in age and enlightenment.

Visit the convent at Covadonga and the Picos de Europa

Roadtrip Through Asturias

Having married someone with Asturian blood, I was to pay tribute to one of the most important places in Asturian history: the monument at Covadonga. Tucked into the Picos de Europe above Cangas de Onís, a church and hermitage are one of the region’s most visited sites.

In 722, when Muslim armies were overtaking Spain, the Christian Iberians took refuge in the Picos under Pelayo, destined to become the first king of Asturias. The salmon-colored basilica spires poke out between the foggy mornings that seem to linger in the mountains, slow to burn off and reveal the area at face value. Clinging to the mountain face is a small hermitage, where the Virgen de Covadonga reputedly killed would-be conquerers by provoking avalanches – she is so beloved in Asturias that many young girls are baptized in her name.

The lakes can be hiked, so long as your timing is right between tours, seasons and frequent road closures.

Descenso de la Sella

fishing villages in Asturias

Although I myself haven’t done it, smelling and seeing the Novio and a friend tumble off a bus in Valladolid clued me in to this festival, held in August annually. August truly is festival season in the Principality, and the Descenso de la Sella is as Spanish a mix as egg and potato – sport and fiesta seem to come together as well as a tortilla de patata. There is a competition where kayakers race 15 kilometers downstream from Arriondas to Ribadasella, a charming village that shares a coastline with the Sella river and the Atlantic.

Revelers camp along the way, between the two villages, loading up on cider and whatever food they can manage. Known as the Fiesta de las Piraguas, there are costumes, concerts and bars set up on the banks of the Sella and at the finish line. This year’s event is set to take place on August 4th.

What to do in Northern Spain

Madrid has lost its sheen to me, a city with a profound history that seems reduced, at times, to chain restaurants and a flood of tourists. While you can’t miss its multitude of museums, if you’re looking for a Spain ajena de tapas and flamenco and, ahem, sun-soaked coasts, put the northern provinces on your list.

Have you ever been to Galicia or Asturias? What would you recommend seeing, doing and eating?

5 Outdoor Activities to do with Kids and Teens this Summer in Cádiz

Andalusia has the winning combination of weather, history and culture and wallet-friendly prices, making it especially tempting for a family trip to Spain. Kids will faun over castles, stretches of some of Spain’s best beaches and theme parks: older kids and teens will appreciate activities dedicated to their interests and energy levels.

what to do in cadiz with kids

The Cádiz province, considered to be the oldest continuously-inhabited part of Europe, is a favorite for Spanish holiday-makers in the summer. Roughly 30 blue flag beaches, whitewashed mountaintop towns and a robust gastronomic tradition are my top picks for things to do with family in Cádiz:

Kitesurfing, Windsurfing and Adventure camps (Tarifa)

The pico of land at the very south of Spain (and, indeed, of Europe) straddles the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Oceans, making it one of Iberia’s windiest points and one renowned for kitesurfing and windsurfing worldwide – the town of Tarifa boasts about 300 windy days each year! And if that weren’t enough, the beaches of the Cádiz province are amongst Spain’s best stretches of sand and family friendly, too.
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For adventurous teens over 14, combination teen summer activity and language camps such as Lenguaventura in Tarifa bring together project-based language learning with sporty activities. Participants can choose windsurf, kitesurf or adventure camps in either English or Spanish, and parents will know that 15 years of Swiss management make the camp safe for their kids. Prices include nearly every amenity; only inscription fees may be added.

A Campo Abierto (Medina Sidonia)

If you haven’t the stomach for bullfighting, you can visit a ganadería, or a livestock farm, where toros bravos are bred. And not just any farm – that of Alvaro Domecq, Jerez de la Frontera‘s prodigal son. Winemaker and former mayor of the Cádiz province’s largest city, Domecq’s name is almost always synonymous with the toro bravo, as it was Domecq that pioneered artificial insemination to ensure quality stock (and bullfighting on horseback, known as the rejoneo).

bullfighter jackets El Jueves Market Sevilla

You can visit the family’s farm, inherited just before the Spanish Civil War from the Duke of Veragua, by guided tour. You’ll learn a bit about bullfighting and the rejoneo in addition to seeing bulls, oxen and stately Andalusian horses. Prices begin at 11€ for children, and you can add on sherry tastings and flamenco performances.

You can book tickets at A Campo Abierto and visit the charming village of Medina Sedonia while you’re at it.

Dolphin and whale watching (Tarifa)

Tarifa boasts more than just windsurfing – the Straight of Gibraltar is home to a variety of dolphin species and even killer whales. With success rates hovering over 95%, most companies will offer 2-3 hour boat trips through the Straight, providing information about the wildlife and ecosystem of Tarifa, as well as facts about marine mammals.

Not got your sea legs? You could consider adopting a dolphin!

Boat ride in the Doñana National Park

Europe’s largest nature preserve and most important wetland, UNESCO-lauded Parque Natural Doñana, straddles the Cádiz, Sevilla and Huelva provinces and is framed by the Atlantic Ocean and Guadalquivir River. Home to the Iberian lynx, wild water horses and countless species of aquatic birds, visitors can visit part of the expansive park as part of a boat ride while on foot (visits to Doñana can only be done via certified tour companies because of park protection measures).

Horseback Riding in Doñana National Park, Spain

Setting out from Sanlúcar de Barrameda (a town known for its sherry production and exquisite tortilla de camarones in case you’re more into the gastronomic offerings), boat tours are about three hours and include a guided visit of the park during two stops. They also serve snacks and refreshments for purchase on the pontoon.

Doñana is under threat of more than just losing its UNESCO nod because of deforestation and human-started forest fires, depopulation of its fauna and ecological threats due to industry. I urge you to use responsible tourism companies whose carbon footprint does not add to the problems the park faces.

Biking the Vías Verdes 

Using old train tracks as their guides, you can actual cycle along the old routes through some of the picturesque pueblos blancos, or white villages. The province of Cádiz boasts four “green ways” between 4 and 46 kilometers long.

archidona malaga pueblo

Snaking 36 kilometers through the countryside and mountains between Olvera and Puerto Serrano, this route (or a portion of it) will take you through natural parks and near rivers, over old bridges and through tunnels that once served the southwest corner of Spain. If you’re looking for something closer to Cádiz city, the Vía Verde Entre Ríos travels along the coast between the towns of Rota, just across the bay, and Sanlúcar la Barrameda.

Pack a bocadillo, rent bike gear, and enjoy an active day out.

Getting to Cádiz is easy via Seville, Málaga and even Jerez de la Frontera, where you can find cheap connections across Europe and even to the USA via Málaga. There are also a number of charming boutique hotels and campgrounds.

Streets of Cádiz old town

Looking for more activities for kids and teens further afield? I’ve written about my top picks for families in Andalucía and great things to do with kids in Madrid. I’ve also written about a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, many of which can be found in Andalusia.

Do you have any tips for great, interesting things to do with family in Andalucía?

Photo Post: the Manchego town of Cuenca

“Just take a look at this!” Pa tossed a magazine across the room towards me, dog-eared to a photo spread of an eagle soaring over lush pine trees. I’d announced my move to Spain a few weeks before. While my grandmother wept and cursed me for leaving the country to find a foreign husband, my grandfather nudged me and told me I’d have the adventure of my life.

They were both right, but that’s not the point of this story.

The article my grandfather had saved for me was about a nature preserve in Eastern Spain, one of its largest and finest. The Serranía de Cuenca is comprised a small hills and rock reliefs and is home to wild boars, mountain goats and that eagle Pa pointed at (which is likely a vulture).

“Will you go for me one day?” he asked with a wink.

Spain Blue

The Manchega city – famous for its casa colgadas, or hanging houses – has been near the top of my list since I moved to Spain because of that promise to Pa.

He was a man of few words. But when Pa said something, he meant it. And when I made him that promise, I intended to keep it.

So when my grandpa passed away in May 2014, plunging me into that dreaded expat fear – grieving abroad – I felt a renewed need to visit Cuenca. The problem was that it lay more than 500 kilometers away from my home in Seville for nearly a decade. A move to Madrid meant I was a car trip away.

Souvenirs from Cuenca

I literally knew nothing more about Cuenca than it was easy enough to see in a day, its famous site are the 15th Century houses that look ready to topple into the Huécar, and that it’s the victim of a vulgar joke. But in an age where fellow Millennials travel for Instagram-worthy pictures, it could have had a crumbling church and a famous dish, and I would have still visited.

When Inma and I left the city on one of those bright, chill-in-your-bones Sunday mornings, fueled on coffee and gossip. As we had often done in Seville, a sunny patch of sidewalk and a cheap glass of beer sidetracked us as we walked towards the city center, built on a crest above the Huécar and Júcar rivers.

I had Camarón with me, eager to use my eye for something more than baby pictures and to capture a place that seemed to house my grandfather’s spirit. Sleepy, surprising and colorful:

Scenes of Spanish villages

Colorful facades in Cuenca Spain

beautiful house facades yellow Spain

colorful homes Cuenca Spain

Cuenca cathedral

Casas colgadas museum Spain

Great view of Cuenca's Casa Colgadas

Pretty view of the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Casas Colgadas of Cuenca

Inma and I traversed Cuenca’s hills and narrow streets before lunch time, legs as exhausted as our vocal chords. I can’t say that Cuenca lived up to me expectations, but I wasn’t really looking for it to. A promise is a promise is an easy Sunday trip, and I found my Pa in the strangest places.

In an old man bar, the abuelitos tight lipped, hat pulled down over his brow.

In a quiet corner with a wood carving on the door.

A whistle from a passing car.

Spanish Abuelo

It’s been three and a half years since Pa’s heart decided that enough was enough, and he slipped away from this world. It’s been more than ten since I moved to Spain. But as we drove back west, the sun setting over the hills that mark the way back to Madrid, I feel like I’d done good on my word.

Mirando pa Cuenca, indeed.

CUENCA, SPAIN

Have you ever been to Cuenca? Read my posts about other colorful cities in Europe, like Córdoba and Copenhagen.

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?

A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic, to find my friend’s place via portable wifi in Spain. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

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