Arriving in hot, sandy El Rocío in the early afternoon one could think this is a deserted Mexican village with no life apart from stray dogs and neighing behind stable doors. Towards 6pm grown-ups and children ride through town on their horses and families stroll the riverfront promenade. The enchanting cathedral, the town’s nature visitors’ centre and nearby walks in the Coto Doñana all are a must – watch storks and other birds.
Google map: bit.ly/LWkE9l
Historical Cádiz, with its narrow alleyways and charming plazas sits on a peninsula sticking out in the breezy Atlantic Ocean. Spaniards of all ages are out and about until after midnight. The liberal atmosphere survived Franco. Sample the town beach of Playa de la Victoria or the larger ones across the bay. We – a family of five - stayed in Hotel Las Cortes de Cádiz in one room for E 240/night.
If you want to make the perfect paella, then you need the perfect rice from Calasparra in the depths of Murcia. The town celebrates its famous crop from the rice thrower fountain that greets you to the annual festival celebrating the rice harvest in early September, which features, among other events, daily bull runs through the town. Add to that walks with stunning views, a much visited sanctuary and friendly townsfolk. The recipe for a perfect break!
Seen from miles around, the imposing ramparts of Galisteo are astonishingly like a film set. Built in the 13th century by the Almohads to stem the Christian reconquest of Spain, if a medieval walled town like this had survived in Britain it would be a World Heritage Site. Out in the underpopulated wilds of Extremadura, nobody notices it much except for pilgrims to Santiago walking along the Via de la Plata Roman road.
Luarca, on the Asturian coast in northern Spain, is a small fishing town of white houses and glass fronted 19th Century buildings, which wind their way up a steep valley, along a meandering river. There are fantastic seafood restaurants throughout the town, but those located around the harbour provide great views out across the fishing boats to the rugged coast beyond. August is the best time to visit when the weather is at its best and the summer festivals such as San Timoteo (St Timothy) are in full swing - sardines are handed out to visitors, freshly barbequed by fishermen, parades, fireworks and cider drinking go on into the early hours - a truly typical Asturian experience.
Google map: bit.ly/MGZL6V
This is an amazing oasis on the south coast of Spain. There are thousands of palm trees and date palms growing in a reserve. There is also a castle, and an historic church, the Basilica of Santa Maria where thy recreate the medieval Mystery Play of Elx.
Google map: bit.ly/Or665K
Trujillo is steeped in history and is located in the heart of Extremadura, one of the remotest areas of Spain. The Plaza Mayor is unforgettable – an enormous square bordered with arches on two sides, a large fountain in the middle and dominated by the Church of Santa María la Mayor and an enormous equestrian statue of the explorer, Francisco Pizarro, a son of the town. Trujillo has a hilltop castle with wonderful views over the town and surrounding countryside, city walls, a wealth of monuments - churches, palaces and museums – and narrow, winding streets in the old quarter.
A number of bars and restaurants border the square, chairs and tables set out in front. There is nothing more pleasurable than sitting down at one of these on a warm evening to watch the people of the town go about their business. As the sun sets behind the far end of the square, the Church is bathed in an intense golden light. There is a pervading sense of timelessness and tradition about this place. For me it represents the essence of the real Spain that few people experience.
As you approach Trujillo by road, you will pass through an undulating landscape dotted with oak woods. And from time to time you will spot herds of black pigs. These are the pigs that produce the highly prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota or Pata Negra. The pigs roam through the oak woods and feed on acorns (bellotas), herbs, grass and roots. This lends the special flavour and texture to the meat. The meat is cured and processed in Trujillo and you can buy paletas, jamón, chorizo and other products, as well as local cheeses and other regional products in the local shops. The restaurants also offer dishes based on these delicacies.
If you visit at the right time, you will catch one of the many festivals and fairs – the Chiviri and Semana Santa processions at Easter, the Cheese Fair in May, the Medieval Market and Fiesta of la Virgen de la Victoria in August, Extremadura Day in September and medieval and livestock fairs in each season.
Trujillo has a variety of hotels and hostals, including the Parador which is set in a 16th Convent. I would recommend the NH Palacio de Santa Marta which overlooks the Plaza Mayor. The former 16th century palace has been beautifully redesigned to incorporate and highlight the original features but at the same time it provides comfortable, stylish facilities.
The day is Sunday. The place is Plaza del Banco in the centre of the city - a square lined with small cafes and sheltered by lofty trees. The central bandstand hasn't changed for generations. The cafes are filling up with locals sipping chilled fino, or a Brandy de Jerez, and dipping into small dishes of olives and tapas. Plastic chairs are arranged in front of the bandstand for those who don't want to pay for a drink. The Banda Municipal de Jerez assembles at midday and strikes up immediately. The free concert lasts an hour. The repertoire is varied - some traditional Spanish, some movie theme tunes, some well known classical pieces. However, enthusiasm rather than accuracy of delivery is the order of the day. If you're in the sherry capital of the world this is a free, weekly event not to be missed.
Plaza del Banco, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia
Google map: bit.ly/Kst7rg
A tiny hamlet with tumbledown cottages and magnificent views just below Cruz de Fero, the high point of the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago. It's totally quirky, with the most amazing medieval style bar, Gaia, just like the Inn at Bree in Lord of the Rings, serving fantastic food. Unless you're a pilgrim you won't get to stay in a tiny chapel, lit all night by candles, and be inducted into the order of Templars by the eccentric hostel warden, nor the extremely funky hostel Monte Irago; but you can hang out with clusters of pilgrims, visit the chapel built by a 12th century hermit, and stay in the pension next to Gaia. Recommended for its combination of eccentricity and total peace.
Arcos de la Frontera is one of the pueblos blancos (white villages) of Andalucia. It is perched high on a hill with magnificent if vertiginous views from the main square overlooking the Guadalute river. Admire the views, get lost in the picturesque maze of cobbled streets and then reward yourselves, as we did, with a splendid lunch of regional specialities washed down with a glass or two of rioja at the Restaurante El Convento.
Google map: bit.ly/MCQ99M
Visit Figueras in Catalonia, home of the quite simply fantastic Salvador Dali museum. Running over five circular stories this charts the opening of a fabulous mind (rock figurine paintings) through to his famous dreamscapes, taking in a Mae West's lips sofa trompe-l'oeil along the way. While the museum itself is not to be missed, a whole range of European clothing stores have sprung up to provide hassle free shopping in this compact town. For those who like to party check Rachdingue 'Discoteca Surrealiste' nearby which is a bona fide nightclub replete with glass cased mannequins from one of Dali's proteges, hosting techno inside and deep house on the terrace, and the annual Rachingue Festival in June.
Plaça Gala-Salvador Dalí, 5, E-17600 Figueres
+34(0) 972 677 500
Google map: bit.ly/Kvg1Fb
Carrer Call, 17493 Vilajuïga, Spain
+34 972 53 00 23
Google map: bit.ly/Mnb5V2
El Rincon del Cani is a wonderful restaurant in the tiny village of El Colmenar - also known as Estacion de Gaucin. The food is fantastic and excellent value, the service is great and the locals extremely friendly. I've never eaten as well, and so cheaply, as I have here. The swordfish and revueltos in particular are incredible and the wine list, concentrating on local wines from Malaga and Cadiz, never fails to disappoint.
El Colmenar can be reached by train from Algeciras, or even better, from Ronda - one of the truly great train journeys in Spain. The train takes about an hour and winds down a river valley with spectacular views on either side.
c/ Ruiz Zorrilla, 2
Google map: bit.ly/LMVcoO
Consuegra announces itself from a distance with an elegant line of white windmills perched along a hilly skyline, in the otherwise endless plains of La Mancha in the heart of Spain. An excellent base for exploring the historic town with its medieval castle and peaceful square - complete with nesting storks - is La Vida de Antes, its gracious rooms set around a central courtyard. At up-and-coming restaurant Alfar, Antonio the young owner told us about the local saffron industry and recommended local dishes and wines. But it is the photogenic windmills and their association with Don Quixote that are the real attraction.
Up in the hills of cork forests above Girona, Joanet is a sleepy hamlet by day, but at night on the weekends locals come from miles around to eat at the terrific bar and restaurant which serves succulent barbecued steaks and awesome pigs' cheeks. Work up an appetite by following the GR83 national walking path or mountain biking paths which lead through the village to neighbouring Arbucies or Sant Hilari.
A wonderful three day festival of music theatre, circus etc totally free and great fun for all ages. It is held in the lovely town of Alcala La Real in Andalucia on the 3rd weekend of July annually. Stages are set up at various points around the town and events start at around 10am and carry on till the early hours, if you have the stamina! Programmes are available from the tourist information or Etnosur website.
Alcala de Henares, 30 minutes from Madrid, has much to boast about. It has the longest colonaded Calle Mayor, dating from the 16th century, in Spain; the oldest comedy theatre in the country, the Corral de Comedias, dating from 1601, but only recently discovered and restored and now open for performances and to visitors; the oldest women's hospital in continuous use since 1483; the Casa Natal, the birthplace of Cervantes, beautifully restored and housing a fascinating collection of editions of Don Quixote in various languages; and a Museum of Sculpture in the Open Air displaying 50 or more sculptures in various materials and styles, claimed to be the largest in Europe. A fine Archaeological Museum, a very old University and the Monasterio de San Bernard are additional attractions. If you have the time to pause there are a number of cafes, bars and restaurants under the arches of the Calle Mayor and in the Plaza Cervantes, the most interesting (and priciest) being the Hosteria del Estudiante, in the University precincts but run by the Parador chain. And if you still want something else you can go on the "ruta de las ciguenas" and see the storks and their nests,high up on the roof tops.
20 plus miles east of Madrid. The trains from the capital run frequently and stop on the edge of town.
Google map: bit.ly/JRvz4y
The eastern Alpujarras is much less visited by tourists than the Granada end of these Sierra Nevada foothills and as such can give the feel of stumbling across ‘undiscovered’ hamlets.
After making our way from Almeria, our hire car laboured into the village of Fondon early one Sunday afternoon, the engine fan a high-pitched wheeze as it battled the Andalucian heat.
A bar in the main square was packed with what seemed like the entire population of the settlement with a huge 1970’s TV set placed high on a corner shelf blaring out a weekend football match.
Hungry after the journey, it was then time to put our rudimentary Spanish to the test, ordering tapas from the counter.
From the hilltop village of Vejer de la Frontera I got my first glimpse of Africa: the brown crust of the Moroccan Rif misty on the horizon but surprisingly near.
Having travelled on a bus from nearby Cadiz I set out on foot to wander the tight web of streets.
Then, coming to the edge of town, looked down to a field where a donkey stood obstinately braying.
At lunchtime I entered from the sunshine into the gloom of a bar where three – what I thought to be local – men stood chatting and laughing.
I ordered a bottle of San Miguel at two-thirds the price of more touristy places and sat at a table to write postcards undisturbed.
Conil is a beautiful white town with a fantastic huge expanse of sandy beach. Lovely to walk around it's narrow streets and to discover great places to eat in the bars and restaurants either in town or along the beach.
Google map: bit.ly/LioTPF
I wouldn’t say the tiny, walled village of Pedraza has something for everyone, but if you like medieval dungeons, imposing castles, nesting storks and outlandishly good ham then Pedraza has something for you. Better known to the city slickers from Madrid who flood the town on the weekends, Pedraza is very much off the beaten path for Brits visiting Spain.
We visited this atmospheric village on the last day of a walking tour in the Segovia region. It may be my own bias, but I can’t help feeling that, despite the large public car park near the castle, walking is much the best way to approach the place. We felt like wandering pilgrims as we trekked up the side of a dramatic valley and through the massive stone archway to enter the village. It was a quiet Tuesday in April, and our only company were the storks making graceful circles overhead. Not a car or other human being in sight. In the spring, storks build enormous, gravity-defying nests in the belfries and ledges of the village. Watching them at their work is awe inspiring.
With fewer than 100 full time residents, the village wasn’t much busier than the scenic valley around it. We ambled through the cobbled streets, stopping at the wee exercise area that overlooks the valley near the castle. I’m sure you could get a serious workout if you were so inclined, but we goofed around like kids, swinging on the chin-up bars while enjoying the spectacular views. Later, we toured the Carcel, a 15th-century prison that still bears the evidence of a time when prisoners were kept in chains in a dark pit and had their food lowered down in buckets.
Luckily the food offerings for today’s visitors are a little more sophisticated. Visitors can belly up to any of the excellent cafes and restaurants that ring the main plaza. Vegetarians beware - meat is everywhere. The plaza also seems to be the centre of village life. We witnessed a lively parade rehearsal by local school children while we were enjoying ham sandwiches and beer. Que bueno!
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