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?

Five Reasons Why Andalucía is the Place to Be in May

Andalucía in springtime is perhaps the closest I can get to nirvana. Yes, the azahar flowers met an untimely death in April and my allergies are rampant, but even the short bursts of rain seem more poetic and more welcome now, because I’ll soon be slurping down snails or sneaking in a beer before work. The sky is blue and the temperature is perfect; the beaches are uncrowded and tourists have yet to choke city centers and my favorite tapas bars.

Even with flight deals to foreign destinations, staying close to home in Andalucía is my first choice when it comes to weekend plans and city breaks. From ferias to romerías, my social calendar is already packed with ideas!

Things to do in Andalusia in May

While I’m busy preparing for my sister’s wedding in the US along with the crazed end-of-term tasks, please grab a cervecita and enjoy some of these festivals for me this month!

Jerez de la Frontera: La Feria del Caballo

May kicks off with La Feria del Caballo, a smaller more welcoming version of my local Feria de Sevilla in little sister city Jerez de la Frontera. A city renowned for its sherry production and Andalusian horses, the festivities revolve around just those things. Head to the recinto ferial on the north end of town to dance Sevillanas and gawk at horse carriages, glass of fino in hand.

Feria de Jerez

And no need to wear a traje de gitana, chicas – this feria is way more laid-back!

2016 dates: April 30 to May 6

Córdoba: Cruces de Mayo, Festival de los Patios, Feria de Córdoba

Seville’s big month is April, but May is totally Córdoba’s time to shine. While it may not be as grandiose as its westerly neighbor, the Ciudad Califa has THREE festivals of national touristic interest.

calleja de las flores córdoba

Cruces de Mayo, which typically takes place during the first weekend of the month, sees large flower crosses set up in city plazas as offerings (and, rumor has it, there are small bars selling food and drink). Next up is the Patios Festival, where locals open their homes and gardens to the public, their walls and wells draped in beautiful flowers. If your wallet hasn’t burned a hole in your pocket during your stay in Andalusia yet, the cordobés version of a feria closes out the month.

2016 dates: Cruces is April 28 to May 2, after which the Patios are open daily until May 15th. The Feria will be held from the 21st and 28th of the month.

Málaga: Noche en Blanco

Málaga is an up-and-coming touristic epicenter, and the city has responded by offering 20% more activities, openings and gatherings for their annual White Night. Fashioned after its American counterparts, the museums, galleries, expositions and tours here will operate until 2am.

You can see the full program here.

2016 dates: May 14th from 8pm until 2am.

Huelva: La Romería de El Rocío

My first trip to El Rocío – a mere hour’s bus ride from Seville – was one for the books. Straight out of the American Wild West, I was surrounded by people from all over Spain who were devoted to an effigy found near the marshes of Doñana National Park. From parades to enormous corrales housing groups of hermandades, this is certainly quite an event!

IMG_4805

I call her the lushy Virgin Mary, as her party on Pentecost Sunday is also characterized by hedonism. After the long walk to the Aldea from various parts of Spain, the statue “jumps” over the altar and is passed around town on the shoulders of her followers. The best part of the Salta de la Reja is that it happens at a different time every year, meaning Sunday night reaches fever pitch proportions.

2016 dates: the carrozas leave their respective hermandades on various days leading up to Pentecost Sunday, which is May 15th this year.

Granada and Almería: Moros y Cristianos

This long-standing festival, reenacting the Christian Reconquest of Spain during the 8th to 15th centuries, isn’t limited to Andalucía – many locals in southwest and south central Spain have their own version of the event. Imagine full-scale battles, costumes and an enormous medieval fair (meat on a stick!). And given that Andalucía – Granada specifically – was the last stronghold of the Moors, the region takes pride in their rendition.

2016 dates: Dates vary by municipality, but count on late May or June; check local websites.

come and drink

As for Seville? It’s still recovering from Semana Santa and Feria! I’ve been drinking in the temperate weather, the sunny bike rides to work and the longer evening light. Well, that and draining my wallet on gas and bocadillos.

Even if you’re visiting Andalusia on an all-inclusive holiday or cruise, make time to experience these visitor-friendly festivals – they will give you an insight into Andalusian culture and tradition in the wonderful region I now call home.

Curious about events taking place in other parts of Spain? Madrid’s local festival, San Isidro, is marked by bullfights and events around the city, and Girona is famous for its Temps de Flors. Devour Spain covers the ins and outs of San Isidro, and Jess’s photos of the flower festival are gorgeous! And my apologies: I should have pushed publish on this article two weeks ago – oops! 

What’s your favorite springtime festival in Spain?

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 Curious Case of Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“Passion and quality are at the heart of this venture. It’s that simple.”

I sneezed, a clear sign that spring was about to settle onto Andalucía for a brief period of time before melting into summer. The breeze picked up, and I wrinkled my nose, lest any more oliva pollen enter my system. For as andaluza as I sometimes feel and act, my allergies gave me up as an utter fraud, calling attention to me in a group of nearly 50.

Bodeguero puppy

Isaac Martín, event coordinator for Basilippo, an award-winning olive oil producer internationally recognized for its quality, kicked off a tasting event that was punctuated by my sniffles. Set at an old hacienda buried within acres of olive trees, an internet search for foodie experiences brought me to one of western Andalucía’s foremost producers of liquid gold, extra virgin olive oil.

Teetering on winter and spring, I was willing to risk puffy eyes to learn how to properly taste olive oil and look out for its quality and properties. As a staple of the Mediterranean diet, its health properties have long been touted, but not all aceite de olivo virgen extra is created equal: supermarket buyers often have to pick between an entire shopping aisle’s worth of brands and varying quality.

Arbequina olive oil from Andalucía

And the good stuff doesn’t come cheap.

The Basilippo brand, made with the manzanilla and arbequina varieties of olives, has been my go-to brand when bringing home a nice bottle for foodie friends, but I shamefully catalogued what I used to cook with or a dress a salad with at home: whatever came cheapest and in a plastic bottle. I had a lot to learn, and creative packaging could not longer be a barometer for quality.

And for a small-batch, family-run brand, passion for the ripest fruit and top-tier production practices, only the best would do.

Inside Hacienda Merrha’s lofty tasting room, several round tables sat armed with jewel blue tasting cups, a brasero disguised underneath by heavy cloaks. Diego Vergara, responsible for the company’s marketing, held up two sherry glasses full of orange juice as we sat. 

Properly tasting olive oil

His explanation of how to distinguish extra virgin olive oil was simple: one was an orange juice squeezed from ripe oranges. The second was a bastardization of orange pulp, colorants, chemicals and mass production. In other words, it was a soft drink meant to mimic the flavor of orange juice. If the product was bruised or off, the taste and aromas would be off. Perfection is this business, amidst mass production and knocks offs, truly came down to passion for the cleanest, most natural product.

The scents naturally found in olive oil – grass, banana and traces  of fruit – laced the air as the heater next to our legs in turn heated the smooth, rounded tasting capsules for optimum olfactory pleasure.

Flavors present in EVOO

Oil exists in dozens of varieties, and olives have been picked, pressed and packaged into olive oil for nearly eight millennia. Extra virgin – considered the healthiest and ripest state of the olive – occurs when no heat treatments have been applied to the product and is made from 100% olives of the same type. All other oils wane in quality, thus driving down the price. Packaging can also make a difference, as olive oil loses its properties with exposure to light or heat.

Again, I fully admit to being ashamed of the marca blanca I have stocked at the back of my pantry.

The three blue cups sat before us. Two contained about a tablespoon of product and were covered with a plastic condiment lid. The third, sitting at 7 o’clock, was filled and quickly covered. Blue cups are typically used in blind tasting as, unlike wine, color is not a factor in determining an oil’s quality. Smell and taste take all the credit here.

como degustar aceite de oliva

Olive oil’s properties are strongest when it’s as close to harvest as possible. The generous pours came from a bottle only a few weeks old, and Diego generated a bit of heat to release its intoxicating smell by cupping the glass in his hand and rotating it back and forth as if opening a bottle of pickles for about 15 seconds. Next came a quick whiff and recapping the jar.

We’d all come for the tasting portion of course, and sloshing it around your mouth like Adolfo of Plus Vino showed me to do wouldn’t cut it:

Olive oil has different tastes on your tongue and taste buds. Sucking in air as it travels towards the back of the throat makes it taste more viscous and potent. And I wasn’t the only one who got a burn in the back of the throat – slurps were followed by gags, coughs and grunts, the sign of a quality harvest.

Moving on, we paired a vanilla-infused organic oil with both regañá crackers and a crisp, hard cheese, as well as a pineapple ice cream drizzled in olive oil. Though most of Basilippo’s bottles come with recommendations for consumption, the kitchen serves more innovative dishes.

The man immediately on my left seemed to be some sort of aficionado and asked the white elephant question: How did Basilippo feel about the “adulteration” of Spanish olive oil? 

Brought up as extended family of the Rubinellis and the Dell’Alpe dynasty – a Chicago-based import company known for its quality Italian products – olive oil has always been a staple in my family’s kitchen. And until moving to Spain, I was convinced that Italy produced the highest quality product. But European olive oil is on par with organized crime – even though Spain produces roughly 40% of the world’s olive oil, most is shipped in bulk to Italy before being bottled, giving the impression that most olive oil is coming straight from the Boot.

How to do an olive oil tasting

This has been going on since the Roman occupation of Spain, when olive oil was used in commerce and called liquid gold (and in all fairness, my Italian relatives have a soft spot for Spanish cuisine). I’ve long felt that Spain is only beginning to embrace competing on an international market with its food products, and I’d likely consumed them as they paraded as Italian. 

But Basilippo’s product was meant to stay with the connoisseurs, a thead that runs thorughout its four generations of olivareros. International consumption is definitely on the table – they’ve won numerous awards worldwide and run a quality assurance program attended by visitors abroad – and they’ve got a strong local following. I thought back to Isaac’s powerful speech in which his love for his business reach my consciousness despite the sneezing and nose blowing. Passion isn’t so much an ingredient, but a habit at Merrha.

Diego explained that close to 10 pounds of olives are necessary to produce a single liter of olive oil of any quality, hence the small batches coming out of Basilippo (the production comes from just 20 hectacres of olivos). By the time our group of nearly 50 hit the gift shop, we’d depleted a large portion of stock. I introduced myself to Isaac, chuffed that so many phenomenal gastronomic treats now formed an important base in my diet.

fried olives from Andalucía

Unsatisfied with a few morsels of bread for mopping up oil in the gift shop, I sneezed my way back to the car and we struck out towards El Viso del Alcor. Craddled between Mairena and El Viso, this privileged land was believed to have been inhabited as Tartessos. It’s also home to one of the zone’s most innovative tapas bars, MasQueTapas.

All of the dishes on the two-paged menu are made with products from down the road at Basilippo and the place was packed on a rainy Saturday. As the waiter brought out drinks, he laid down a small dish of fried olives.

“But heating the olives changes their properties,” Kelly said, popping one into her mouth. “So these are probably the rejects.”

Low quality or not, they were exquisite, proof that a small sliver of land in my backyard, with its rolling groves of olive trees (and toxins for my system) is producing what could be the world’s most perfect crop.

a tasting at Basilippo

I’m on a mission to do something new every week of 2016 – from visiting a new village to trying a new bar or restaurant. Have suggestions for in or around Andalucía? Please share them, and take a tour of Basilippo‘s immaculate grounds, just 30 minutes from Seville (they’ll even pick you up if you use public transportation!). You can buy their products in small gourmet shops like Oleo-lé in central Seville.

Have you ever attended a strange food tasting?

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?

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