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?

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?

Where to Sleep and Siesta in Seville: The Hostel Edition

One of the questions I’m most often asked about traveling to Seville is where to sleep. I’ve slept in my own house or a friend’s (or the Novio’s) since arriving and can only recall a night in a creepy hostel, so it’s not the easiest question to answer!

On my first trip to Seville over a decade ago, the only spaces available for budget travelers were seedy hostels with questionable security and run-down pensiones. Ten years on, tourist apartments and AirBnB digs are often preferred accommodation choices in Spain, but who can resist a good hostel? When traveling alone, I tend to stick to dorm room digs where I can meet other backpackers, mostly because I love the sort of camraderie a hostel breeds.

WHERE

For me, it was more than just a budget thing (as evident by a few terrible places I’ve slept in *cough*Brussels*cough*Santiago de Compostela*) – I wanted to be in the center of the action and have people on-call to suggest tours, eateries and sites. I’ve even taken my step-grandma and the Novio to hostels, and am loyal to chains like Wombat’s.

Now in my 30s, hostels for me must have big common areas, wi-fi, security measures and clean facilities, and endless portions at breakfast is a huge plus. And because Seville has so many stately palace homes with rooftops and enormous interior patios, I’m thrilled that the Andalusian capital has finally kicked it up a notch as far as place to siesta while in town.

I’ve asked other travelers and friends for their recommendations, as well as where locals send their guests, so this list is legit. You can book with Agoda, a major search engine that recently expanded into Europe and offer up to 30% off the prices you’d see on other sites – I do all of my booking through them nowadays! Simply click on the link for the hostel, then put in your dates and number of guests, or direct yourself to the Agoda box buried at the bottom of the website.

I have listed Sunshine and Siestas affiliate links with Agoda, so while you book securely and quickly, you’ll also be helping me keep SandS up and running! It’s of no cost to you, either.

Here are my ten picks for hostels in Seville, listed alphabetically.

arhcitect hostel seville

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The Architect, Calle Joaquin Guichot 8 1ª Planta. Centro Neighborhood.

When a couple of friends from high school stayed in the Architect in 2012, I was pleased to not only find that my friend María had recently gotten a job there, but that the hostel was sleek and central. While it’s experienced some wear and tear since its opening, expect to be right off of Plaza Nueva and to get good bang for your buck.

And even though I love hostels with breakfast included, the Architect no longer provides it. Pop around the corner to Calle Barcelona for old man bars to get your tostada fix.

The basics: The Architect has rooms with four, eight or ten beds, including a female-only dorm. You’ll find a common area, plus kitchen and rooftop, plus wi-fi throughout. Each occupant gets a locker, and doors are locked at night. You’ll receive a full refund  if you cancel 48 hours or more before your reservation.

Price per bed: 16 – 17,50€ in low season; up to 50€ in high season. There are no doubles.

Best for: Limited mobility travelers, those looking for comfort without fuss.

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Boutike, Calle Salles y Ferré, 18. Alfalfa Neighborhood.

Boutike takes all of the great stuff about hostels – comfortable common areas, rooftop terrace, killer breakfasts and beautiful design – and morphed it into a gorgeous budget hotel of sorts. Sitting on a quiet street in the Alfalfa neighborhood, Boutike doesn’t have dorm rooms, but rather double rooms with en suite bathrooms, making it a good choice if you’re looking to get some shut eye in a neighborhood known for its nightlife.

And there’s more – Boutike also offers complimentary passes to Cuesta Sport fitness center, just a five minute walk from the hostel. You know, to work off the crepes you had for breakfast.

The basics: You’ve got everything here – wi-fi, elevators, walking tours and a friendly staff – plus the added amenities of a bar, breakfast and fitness pass. Luggage storage and lockers are also available for free.

Price per bed: Standard doubles are 49.50€ per night in low season, Deluxe with balcony 55€. During high season, prices jump to about 120€ nightly.

Best for: Families, travelers who crave a bit more quiet, couples.

grand luxe hostel seville common room 1

Grand Luxe, Calle Don Remondo, 7. Santa Cruz Neighborhood.

Housed in a beautiful, palace-like building, Grand Luxe is all about location. As in, you can see the Giralda peeking out from behind the Archbishop’s Palace from most of the rooms, and the terrace affords magnificent views. And even with the proximity to the beaten tourist path, Grand Luxe offers tours to give you context – and by kayak, bike and foot!

Like all hostels, you’ll find everything you need at Grand Luxe, plus a cozy common room with computers, board games, a huge DVD collection and plenty of like-minded travelers. What stands out here is the price for the location – you can’t beat a modern hostel amongst hotel heavyweights that charge loads for being within earshot to the Cathedral’s bells.

The basics: Grand Luxe has several types of rooms, ranging from private doubles to rooms equipped for families and dorm rooms, all with en suite bathrooms. There is also a female-only dorm. A basic breakfast is included (save room for tapas later), along with wi-fi, a stunning terrace and free tours. Security isn’t great here, especially if you have to leave a bag while exploring.

Price per bed: Dorms start at 15€ in low season and go up to 25€ per person in the deluxe double. In high season, expect 35€ and 49.50€, respectively.

Best for: travelers wanting to be right next to the tourist sites, solo travelers and even families.

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Hostel One Centro, Calle Angostillo, 6. Encarnación Neighborhood.

While it’s not a new hostel in town, I hear nothing but good things about Hostel One. With an international staff and a national chain backing it up, Hostel One is a perfect blend of camaraderie and privacy thanks to its multitude of rooms available. Be aware that reception is not open from 10pm until 8am and breakfast is not part of the deal, but you can expect the whole hostel package – a bit of noise, a lack of complete privacy in the dorm rooms and a lot of travelers to meet.

You’re also closer than most hostels to the trendy Soho Bendita and Calle Regina areas, and the hostel is easy to reach from the airport and train station.

The Basics: Hostel One Centro is located in a renovated Sevillian house with a central patio and terrace. Prices are on par with hostels, and group rates are available. Linens, wi-fi and lockers are included in the price; towels and breakfast are not.

Price per bed: 16 – 50€ per bed during low season; 60€ for dorm beds up through 100€ for a private single during holidays.

Best for: Larger groups, solo travelers, female travelers looking for privacy

la banda hostel
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La Banda, Calle Dos de Mayo, 16. El Arenal Neighborhood

I first swooned over La Banda when coming across them on the internet. From the story of two brothers who loved to travel and meet people to the sweeping views of the Guadalquivir and the Cathedral, it seemed like everything you could ask for in a hostel. Dorm room bed are kept to a lower number, but there are plenty of common areas and nightly events for solo travelers.

The Basics: La Banda features lots of different types of dorms, some with en suite bathrooms. Everything is included in the price – from lockers to linens to cheap lunches on the terrace. And seriously – La Banda has dozens of five-star ratings.

Price per bed: 40€ during Semana Santa, Feria and the Velá de Santa Ana in late July

Best for: Travelers looking for mates, art and culture lovers

oasis backpackers

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Oasis Backpackers, Calle de la Compañía, 1. Centro/Encarnación Neighborhood.

I spent the last night of my first year of Spain in an Oasis. It was a fitting end to a magical time in my life, from the tapas crawl with other travelers to the solo breakfast on the terrace as the sun came up over Granada, and I’ve recommended the chain ever since. In Seville, Oasis is just off the Plaza de la Encarnación and has been a mainstay for the last dozen years or so.

Oasis is great for not just the value, but for the location and the amenities. The atmosphere is young and hip, but you won’t sacrifice quality or security.

The Basics: Count on free breakfast and linens, a fun staff and wi-fi in common areas. Note that cancellations with full refunds are not allowed during Holy Week and the April Fair.

Price per bed: 17€ a night, off-season and upwards of 40€ during big events.

Best for: Solo Travelers, Travelers looking for atmosphere.

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Samay, Avenida Menéndez Pelayo, 13. Barrio Santa Cruz Neighborhood.

A bit further away from the tourist beat, Samay has built a solid reputation amongst travelers and is located on the outer edge of Barrio Santa Cruz. It’s also centrally located to both the bus and train stations and easy to reach on foot or public transportation, making it a good option for a quick stay in town or for those with weird travel times.

Samay has en suite bathrooms in most rooms and great common areas, but it’s a no-frills hostel that prides itself on no surprises. You can simply relax and meet other travelers here.

The Basics: Expect 24-hour reception, wi-fi, a big terrace, hot water and linens included. Seriously, there are no surprises here, and friends who have stayed in Samay say it’s comfortable and a basic hostel experience. Wouldn’t you rather spend your time callejando anyway?

Price per bed: You can’t beat 12€ a night for a dorm room. Prices are set around 30€ during high season and holidays.

Best for: No frills travelers, groups

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Sevilla Kitsch, Calle San Gregorio, 1. Centro Neighborhood.

I walked by Sevilla Kitsch when taking a short cut between the university and the UNESCO trio of the Alcázar, the Giralda and the Archivo de las Indias. The bright, turquoise shutters and the promise of tacky religious art intrigued me – it’s part hostel, part art gallery and completely new.

The Basics: Kitsch is owned by two sevillanas who love art and culture, and the property has plenty of places to eat, drink and tour nearby. Expect dorm rooms (with one six-bed female dorm) and a deluxe room with room for four guests. Breakfast, wi-fi, lockers and a spacious terrace are all included. Oh, and live music is a thing here.

Price per bed: From 17.99€ for a bed in a dorm room in low season and 60€ for the deluxe quad, prices jump during high season to 35€ and 150€, respectively

Best for: Solo travelers, those looking for funky digs

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TOC Hostel, Calle Miguel de Mañara, 18-22. Centro Neighborhood

TOC is the new kid on the hostel block and draws high review thanks to its location and staff. No detail has been spared in the earthy yet modern hostel – the design is stunning, from the bare wood and natural materials to the fingerprint recognition at the main door. And those pod beds and move theatre!

TOC is part of a chain with other hostels in large cities around Spain, and they’re into food, culture and technology, which comes across in their spaces.

The basics: Choose dorm or individual suites and relax in what look like beds comfy enough to rival Sir Toby’s (my favorite hostel of all time, located in Prague). Count on a bar, breakfast (that you can pay for ahead of time) and awesome common areas.

Price per bed: 20€ and up for a dorm; 113€ for a private with terrace

Best for: Trendsetters, couples, groups and solo travelers. Essentially, everyone

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Triana Backpackers, Calle Rodrigo de Triana, 9. Triana Neighborhood

Even though Triana is one of the most popular districts in the city, it’s not a common place for tourists to stay. Triana Backpackers is the only budget accommodation in this part of town that also offers special prices for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. While it’s not the trendiest hostel, it’s long had a reputation for a fun atmosphere and is just steps from Calle Betis (and, as far from the tourist sites as it seems).

And, um, they have jacuzzi.

The basics: Like most hostels, a converted home on a quiet street in my favorite neighborhood (it’s only a few block from my house!). Security is of huge importance at Triana Backpackers – rooms have keycard access like a hotel -, and you’ll likely be rubbing elbows with really budget travelers. Breakfast and linens are included, as is wi-fi and 24-hour reception.

Price per bed: Prices start at 15€ for a dorm room bed or 19€ for a double

Best for: Solo travelers, Camino de Santiago pilgrims

Any great hostel experiences you’d care to share? Did I miss any? Or am I way off-base with his post? Let me know in the comments below!

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?

Five Myths About Seville, Debunked

“I’ll just stop talking before I ruin the Feria de Sevilla for you,” Dan remarked, noticing that I’d stuck my fingers in my ears. A history and archaeology professor at one of the city’s universities, he’d already struck down a number of things I’d known to be true about my adopted city.

5 Myths about Seville

In a city as mythical as Seville, I’ve become privy to tall tales and lore that have only grown to be larger-than-life legends in the Hispalense. But Dan’s early morning route with Context Travel astonished me with how many things I’d had wrong. Winding through the streets of Santa Cruz and the Arenal and speaking about the centuries that shaped modern Spain and the New World, I had to shut my mouth and just listen (always hard on a tour when you know so many of the city’s secrets!):

Gazpacho was invented by the Moors

Dishes with a legend are rife in Spain, and Seville’s claims to gazpacho are just as common. Gazpacho is a cold, tomato-based soup that pops up on menus as both a dish and a garnish. It’s also about the only Spanish dish I’ve mastered. While the word gazpacho is of Arabic origin, and they commonly ate a dish of bread, garlic and olive oil, the dish as we know it today is definitely is not of Moorish invention.

gazpacho andaluza in spain

It a simple question of history: The Moors conquered the Iberian Penninsula over centuries, beginning in 711. The last were expelled in 1492 from Granada, the same year that the Catholic Kings sent a young dreamer, Christopher Columbus, to find a passage to India. Tomatoes come from the Americas, so the very earliest they would have appeared in Spain was the late 15th Century. While Moors lingered in Spain for centuries, the introduction of vinegar, tomatoes and cucumber would come much later.

Seville is flat

Columbus may have been onto something else: for all of the boasting I do about how perfect Seville is for biking and walking, the city was built in Roman times around a series of hills. Little remains of the Roman past within the city limits, save a few columns on Calle Mármoles, the crumbling aqueduct that once carried water from Carmona, and the recovered mosaics and fish paste factory in the Antiquarium underneath Plaza de la Encarnación. If you want to see ruins, head to nearby Itálica or Carmona, or even two hours north to Mérida.

Context history tours in Seville Spain

Roman Seville – then called Hispalis – had five major hills, with strategically built fortresses and temples built atop them. Laid out in a cross fashion, the major thoroughfares, called Cardus Maximus and Decumanus Maximus, and likened, to the main arteries of the human body, lead to a crossing near Plaza de la Alfalfa. This site was likely home to the forum, and Plaza del Salvador excavations have led archaeologists to believe the the curia and basilica once stood here. Indeed, the street leading from the east-west axis is the city’s one “hill,” dubbed Cuesta del Rosario, or Rosary Hill.

Where to see Roman ruins in Seville

My glutes would be better off having some changes in elevation, but my knees are glad that silt from the Atlantic, which once lapped shores near to the Cathedral and old city walls, filled in the shallow valleys.

The true meaning of barrios

The streets of Seville are steeped in history, and many of their names give tourists a historical context. In my neighborhood, Calle Castilla stems out from the ruins of the Moorish castle, Calle Alfarería reveals where pottery and ceramic kilns once stood, and Rodrigo de Triana takes the name of the prodigal son who was reputedly the first to spot the New World from high in a crow’s nest.

casa de la moneda sevilla

When Seville became a bustling commercial center after the Reconquist in the mid 13th Century, European merchants flocked from other ports of call to take part – population boomed, making Seville not only the most important city in Iberia, but also the largest in Europe.

Dan explained that competition was fierce amongst bands of merchants, and large manor homes were constructed around the cathedral to showcase not only the wares – olive oil was big business, even then – but also wealth. Just peak into any open doors in Santa Cruz, and you’ll see what I mean. Feudal relationships existed, and small gangs of street were established as territories, owned and operated by the merchant groups.

Santa Cruz Sevilla neighborhood

Because of this, streets bear names like Alemanes (German) or Francos (French). The wealthiest group? The Genovese, whose market wares were sold on Avenida de la Constitución – the most important street in the city center.

You may know another important genovés who passed through Seville during this time – he set off from Spain in 1492.

Triana was the historically poor neighborhood 

Dan asked the other tour guests what they’d done since arriving in Seville the previous day. “Oh, we wandered over the bridge to the neighborhood on the other side of the river. Lovely place, very lively.” 

triana

“Well,” Dan replied, taking off his sunglass for effect, “Triana used to be one of the richest sectors of the city.”

I was baffled – I’d spun tales about how my barrio had once housed seafarers, flamenco dancers and gypsies, and thus made it more colorful and authentic, an oasis untouched by tourist traps and souvenir shops. In reality, the heart of Triana – from the river west to Pagés del Corro, and from Plaza de Cubs to just north of San Jacinto – was encapsulated in high stone walls and a number of manor houses during the Al-Andalus period in the 10th Century. 

Capilla del Carmen Triana Anibal Gonzalez

After the Christian Reconquist and subsequent destruction of the Castillo San Jorge, artisans, labor workers and sailors took up residence in Triana, perpetuating the stereotype that the neighborhood has been poor since its origins. Poor or not, it’s full of character and close to the city center, yet feels far away.

Orange trees are native to the city

I had learned the importance of citrus fruits in Seville’s culinary history during a Devour Seville food tour, and had wrongfully assumed that orange trees had been around since the time of the Moors. After all, they brought their language, their spices and their architectural heritage, so surely they’d thought to plant orange trees. Maybe they did – the Monasterio de la Cartuja is said to have edible oranges, and the cathedral’s Arabic courtyard is named for the naranjos that populate it – but it was renowned Sevillian architect Aníbal González who suggested planting orange trees along roads and in private gardens.

Oramge trees in Seville

Hallmarks of the Neo-mudéjar visionary are littered around the city and other Andalusian cities, including his obra maestra, the half-moon Plaza de España. And Each year when the azahar blooms, I’ll be reminded that the Novio’s great grandparents wouldn’t have marked the start of springtime with their scent like I’ve come to do.

I’d spill more, but the tour will reveal dark moments during the Inquisition, hidden secrets from the bustling commercial period after the Reconquist, and where the New World archives actually are – it’s a tour made for history buffs and visitors who want a more inside scoop on a city’s political, geographical and historical origins. Admittedly, many of these facts can be found online, but the point is that locals perpetuate the incorrect myths as a way to keep the magical of the city intact. Sevillanos exaggerate, and these many of these tales are as tall as the Giralda itself.

Typical Seville Streets

Dan and I walked back over the Puente San Telmo towards Triana, and I offered to buy him a beer back in the barrio (even though he tells me I’m from the cutre part). One Seville myth that will never die: cerveza is cheap and aplenty in this city, and tastes best on a sunny day with friends.

Context Travel graciously invited me on the Seville Andalusian Metropolis tour free of charge; tickets are 80€ each ($91 USD at publishing), plus any entrance fees you may incur. Tourists are encouraged to tell the guide what things they’d like to see and explore to help give the tour shape – their tagline is #traveldeeper, after all! You can also look for them in Europe, North America, Asia and South America. 

Are there any odd myths in the city where you live?

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