Monday, 20 December 2010

Exploring Espana ..... Dec 2010

Looking over the dry plains of Spain
Day 1 – Cartagena to Cuenca (Castilla la Mancha)

While I did the final packing, Mark walked up to the bus station and collected our Nissan Micra hire car for our weeks exploration of Spain. With all systems shut down and Balvenie locked up we were out of the marina just before 11am, it's just 2 minutes to the motorway and we headed north.

The southwest corner of Spain is very dry and inland quite flat. We passed miles and miles of irrigated farmed land, it is the time of year between crops, most of the fields were freshly ploughed, but a few had seedlings popping their little green heads through, others were ready for late harvesting.

Houses built into the hill under the fort
 at Chinchilla de Monte Aragon
 As we headed further north the scenery slowly changed, it became more colourful as orange orchards and olive groves interrupted the miles and miles of crops.  We took a slight detour to the small hilltop village of Chinchilla de Monte Aragon, heading up the very narrow streets and through the ancient stone "city gates" into the Plaza Mayor.   The weekly market was beginning to shut down, stall owners packing away their wares for another day, townsfolk filling their shopping trolleys for another week.  We went for a walk circumnavigating the restored hilltop fortress, the vista over the countryside superb in every direction.  Cute little whitewashed cottages sat below the fort, cut into the hillside like hobbit houses.

Venturing on the balcony of our
 "Hanging Hotel" in Cuenca 

Carrying on almost due north we travelled through more miles of ploughed land, not an acre wasted, as far as the eye could see.  Our destination for the night was the ancient town of Cuenca, famous for its 'casa colgadas' - 16th century 'hanging houses' clinging to the steep ravine sides.  We decided to stay at a 'slightly newer' 17th century hanging house, a converted choir school, but after twice round the tiny lanes, with wing mirrors pulled in so our teeny Micra could squeeze through, we still hadn't found it.  A quick phone call utilizing our constantly improving Spanish had us up the lane for 3rd time lucky, Mark dropped me and the bags off at Posada San Jose then successfully found free parking further up the road.  
Front entrance to our converted
 Choir House

The converted choir house was just beautiful and we splashed out on a 'room with a view' in this boutique hotel, and what a view it was.  We looked across the valley to a restored Monastery, straight down to the river bed, and on each side were other ancient buildings hanging on the side of the hill. Just stunning.  There was enough daylight left to explore the old town before dark, the 16th century Cathedral dominates over the Plaza Mayor and the surrounding pastel painted buildings made us feel we had had a quick detour back to Italy.  It was time to rest, we found a cosy little local bar with free tapas and possibly the cheapest drinks we have had so far in Europe. 

Day 2 – Cuenca to Toledo (Castilla la Mancha)

After breakfast in our enclosed veranda we donned our newly purchased ski jackets, but didn't hit the ski slopes!!!  Instead we did a great hike up to the top of the old town then down the side of the ravine, along the valley base to take in the view from below of the hanging houses and back up for a very well deserved morning cafe con leche (ski jackets definitely not required on the climb back up!!!)
All snug in our new jackets
above the hanging houses

It was time to move west.  We found a brand new free motorway that went nearly all the way to Toledo, there was hardly another car on it, amazing.  Old town Toledo sits, as most ancient fortified towns do, atop the highest ground in the area.  So it was up, up, up, through the one way streets, tiny lanes, dead ends, round and round in circles. There is a definite advantage in travelling with a car, but they can be a liability in these old towns.  Eventually we found one of our chosen hotels, the Hostal Alfonso XII in a small side street with just enough room to park the car temporarily,  we secured a room for 2 nights, dropped the bags, and drove back out of the walled town to park for free.  We spent the rest of the day exploring  this ancient maze the best way - by foot and getting lost! 
Plaza Mayor Cuenca (or is it Italy?)

Toledo is reputed to be Spain's answer to Rome, definitely a pocket sized version, but brimming over with medieval buildings, open plazas, fortifications, Roman ruins and not forgetting the Cathedral, several churches, a couple of synagogues and a mosque or two.  Basically anyone who was anyone has conquered Toledo and left their stamp of this multi cultural, compact and beautiful city.

Day 3 - Day trip by bus to Madrid (Spain's Capital City) 
The most photographed hanging
house with wooden verandas
The little quiet side street where our hotel was located had a little not so quiet nightclub tucked away in it that we had not spotted, so we did not awake bright eyed and full of enthusiasm on Saturday morning.  However Madrid was just an hour up the road waiting to be explored so after breakie and a coffee to liven us up we walked down to the bus station and headed to Madrid.  The countryside was rather uninspiring during the 45 minute journey after the interesting mix we had already seen and we reached the outskirts of Madrid in no time at all.  The bus station has its own exit off the motorway, straight into the underground bus terminal, very efficient.  After navigating our way to the right Metro line and successfully purchasing tickets from a machine we caught the Metro into the big city.    

We came out to street level at Plaza de la Puerto del Sol, to be met by a Animal Rights silent protest underway, hundreds of people standing quietly, attired in white lab overalls, white hair nets and white latex gloves, each person arms outstretched holding a dead animal.  Very effective.  Welcome to Madrid!!!!  

Toledo's skyline at dusk
We moved on quickly walking down the busy roads to the Prado Museum, the queues to purchase tickets were long and there appeared only to be one window open so we decided to try the nearby private collection at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (entry €8 each).  This Museum/Art Gallery had come highly recommended, and for good reason.  Although it is not housed in a particularly interesting building, the art is displayed well, clearly documented and for a private collection of around 800 works is truly outstanding.  From 13th century medieval art to 20th century modern art there is something for everyone, with all the masters - Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh,

Toledo's city gate in the morning fog
 and our favorite Cannaletto - to name just a few.  An excellent display. 

Having spent quite some time admiring all this art we decided to leave the Prado for another time, and spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets, following the suggested "Historical Walking Tour" in the Lonely Planet Guide.  This 5km route covered most of Madrid's main sights, the pick being the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), and the Plaza Espana.  It was 2 Saturdays before Christmas and the Plaza Espana had transformed from a large open area to the venue of the Christmas Fiesta or Santa Parade.  It was absolutely jam packed with families, street theatre, trinket vendors, Christmas trees and about a million push chairs!!!  It resembled nothing of the tranquil plaza I remember from my backpacking days. 
Plaza Mayor in Almagro

We found the crowds overwhelming, dusk was setting in so we decided to head back to Toledo, the metro, bus and walk back to the old town taking no time at all.  We rewarded ourselves with tapas (just for a change) in the Plaza de Zocodover, sitting outside under gas heaters and enjoying the much calmer pace of Toledo

Day 4 - Toledo to Ubeda  (Andalucia)   
Olive Trees, as far as you can see

Another noisy night and a dark foggy morning made for a late start from Toledo.  Then of course there was the challenge of collecting the car and finding the hotel by car again to get our bags, always fun!!!  We had planned to head to Cordoba but decided to change our plans.  Cordoba had experienced heavy rains and major flooding a couple of days prior, plus we weren't quite ready for another busy city so we headed south east into the fog.  We stopped in the small town of Almagro to stretch our legs and top up on caffeine.The Plaza Mayor surrounded by 3 storied wooden buildings all painted dark green, peculiar to this town and traced back to a 16th century German heritage.  It is also home to Spain's oldest theatre, still used during summer.
Sleepy Ubeda from our room

The fog hung low all morning, sometimes  totally enveloping us as we made our way through the scenic vineyard area of Spain, well it said in the book this was the vineyard area, honestly - we could not see anything further than about 30metres ahead of us.   When the fog finally lifted the vineyards were nowhere to be seen, but olive trees - well we must have seen millions of them, miles and miles in every direction, on the plains, up hills, down valleys, along lake edges, just everywhere.  We stayed the night in the smallish town of Ubeda, complete with a walled old town, bullring and a beautiful Plaza Vazquez de Molina surrounded by handsome 15th and 16th century buildings and planted with manicured orange trees.  
A typical rural scene - if it wasn't all olives!!

Day 5 - Ubeda to Granada (Andalucia)

Another foggy morning.  The views down over the plains from Ubeda should have been spectacular, oh well - something for next time!!!  Eventually through the mist we found the road for Granada, then the motorway.  Olive groves gave way to planted fields, then we went through National Parklands.  As the mist cleared we could see the Sierra Nevada's looming in the distance, our destination of Granada sitting in their shadow at the foothills. We joined the 'ring road' and followed the signs for the Alhambra.  The exit took us off and up into the Alhambra "compound" that comprised of a huge car park,the main Alhambra and grounds and a narrow road (with no space for stopping) that lead us down into the city of Granada.  
The Alhambra from our hotel

And that is when we got lost!!!! We didn't appear to be on our Lonely Planet city map, none of the sign posts were for things on our map either (yes I did check I was using the correct map!!), we went up wide treed boulevards, down main avenues, into tiny one way systems, through the Arab quarter, still unable to work out exactly where we were or where we wanted to be.  Occasionally I would briefly 'find us', only to lose us again seconds later as we turned into another maze.  We never found one of the 10 hotel options we had chosen.  After what seemed like hours we found another sign for the Alhambra, made our way back up the hill and headed straight for the car park, barely flinching at the advertised 25Euro charge for 24 hours.
Us and the Alhambra from the
 Generalife Summer Palace

We ventured into the upmarket Hotel Guadalupe and  took a double room at the excellent off season rate, with the bonus of getting our parking at half price, dropped off our bags and headed for the nearby cafe for a very late pizza lunch and a much needed drink - our nerves were shredded!!!    Our "tour" of Granada by car had worn us down and we decided we had seen enough of the city through the car windows so didn't go into town for the evening.  We had an excellent meal at the hotel (there was nothing else open up there) then enjoyed watching the BBC News in English, over and over again, this was the first time we had had English speaking TV for a very long time !!!

Day 6 - Granada to Capileira (Andalucia)

Next morning dawned crisp and clear, we frequented a small cafe for tostada and cafe con leche then headed for Spain's most visited monument, the Alhambra (entry €12 each) the best example of an Islamic building in Europe. 
Looking down on Granada thru the
Albrambas arches
There certainly are advantages of touring in the off season, not only are the hotel rates much more affordable, but instead of a) prebooking your Alhambra ticket weeks in advance on the internet or b) queueing by 7am in the hope of getting one of the gate sales allocation - you can simply turn up, buy your ticket and enter, no queues, no tour buses, just lovely.  That's not to say we were the only ones there but there were no crowds and we could spend as little or long as we chose to exploring this incredible area. 

Fountain and reflection in the pond
Dating from as early as the 9th century the Alhambra, like all well placed fortresses has had a chequered history, built and occupied by Arabs, taken over by the Christians then later abandoned, in moved the thieves and beggars and it was left to fall into decline until Napoleons troops occupied it for a while.  Thankfully it was declared a National Monument in 1870 and has undergone extensive restoration work ever since.   The Palaces, watchtower, baths and gardens are all excellent and display fine examples of the extreme level of craftsmanship used in buildings of antiquity - what a great loss to mankind that these crafts are almost extinct.
Afternoon walk up the valley
 from Capileira
We left Granada early afternoon, heading out on the ring road then south towards the coast, only 60 km's away.  But we weren't heading back to the sea just yet, we took a left in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and headed into the region known as Las Alpujarres - we were heading for the hills.  We turned again at the main town of Orgiva and headed north into the mountains, climbing the steep, narrow, windy road , up and up, then up some more.  We passed the small village of Pampaneira, whitewashed houses cascading down the valley walls, further up we passed Bubion with its cute compact village centre of whitewashed and stone buildings, but we kept going to the top with Capileira at nearly 1500m altitude our destination for our final night of touring.
Morninghike above Bubion and Capileira
We found a room for the night at Finca los Llanos, with great views down the valley and over the village, dropped our bags, donned our hiking boots and went off to explore.  We did an easy hike up the valley towards the snow topped Mulhacen (3,479m), mainland Spain's highest peak, the air was clear and crisp, the sun still had some warmth, birds were singing, goat bells were ringing across the valley - just magic, it was lovely to be back in the mountains.  As the sun started to dip we headed back to our sleepy village, a bustling spot for hikers most of the year, but we were here in what they report as the quietest 2 weeks of the year - between the early December public holiday break and Christmas.  Much of the town was closed up but it still had a laid back touristy feel to it that we enjoyed.
Picnic lunch on last day.

Day 7 - Capileira to Cartagena  

Awakening to the call of roosters and smelling wood fires burning always fondly reminds us of Nepal, and when we opened our shutters and looked out on the new day with clear skies and snow capped peaks, well we could nearly have been back there. 
After a very hearty hikers breakfast in the hotel (so far we had seen 6 staff and we were the only ones staying), we picked up a detailed map and instructions from reception and did a very scenic 2 1/2 hour walk up above the villages, along a ridge with a vista to Morocco (but not today, too much haze) then back down the valley slopes below Bubion, and up to Capileira - that certainly woke us up!!!!  Rewarded with an excellent coffee in the warm sun it was time to start heading home to Balvenie.    We took the scenic mountain route, down valleys, over rivers, back up mountain sides - we feel we saw most of what you could by car in Las Alpujarras, it is an interesting area and has an extensive network of very well marked paths for hiking, with rewards of remote mountain villages to lay your weary head at the end of a hard day.

The landscape was hilly all the way back to Cartagena.  We ended up on a motorway we didn't want to be on for some time by Almeria, but generally took the more scenic rural roads.  We had planned to stop and look at Mazarron but the windy roads had slowed our progress and light was failing.  We joined the new "peage" motorway at Mazarron the last 50 odd km's back to Cartagena, at 6.50Euro for this short distance we were very pleased we had not got on it earlier.  We were back to Balvenie around 7.00pm, we covered just short of 1600km's and enjoyed an excellent week.

Excursion Info for Spain Mini-break:
Car Hire:  We booked and prepaid our small car online directly with Europcar for €120 including all insurances and 250km's per day (we stayed under this).  We collected it from the local Europcar at the Cartagena Bus Terminal, just 5 minutes from the marina.  We used €106 fuel, and paid €24 in parking fees and €6.50 in toll road charges.
Accommodation:  (click on their names in text above to get link to their own websites) 
Cuenca - Posada San Jose €85 blew the budget completly but it really was lovely and what a view.  Didn't check wifi
Toledo - Alfonso XII €45 cute but tiny rooms.  The nightclub noise was an issue but may not be on weeknights, also they did have a couple of rooms not facing the street which would have been quieter. Free wifi in room
Ubeda - Hotel Cuidad Rosaleda de Don Pedro €45 plus €10 parking. Free wifi in some rooms and main lobby, quite big hotel but think we were the only ones there.  Nice enough.
Granada - Hotel Guadalupe €45 plus parking in Alhambra complex discounted to €13.80 for 24 hours.  Only one floor open as undergoing refit but no noise from this.  Very good meal in restuarant only ones in there).  Free wifi in lobby area.  BBC in English on TV
Capileira - Finca los Llanos €64.80 including a good breakfast but thought it was very overpriced for the off season rate.  Only ones there.  Free wifi in lobby but it closed at 6.30pm. Heating didn't come on till 5.30pm and it was pretty chilly up there.  Room ok nothing flash though, nice view down valley.
Eating out:  As we had the car we took food/utensils etc with us, so had fruit and cereal for breakfast.  As picked up fresh bread and had picnic lunches enroute, but we always stopped for our morning coffee and generally went out for drinks and tapas, followed by dinner.  Total for the week €263
Sightseeing:  The return bus/metro fares from Toledo to Madrid were €10.50 each.  Total entrance fees spent all week were €45.60

No comments: