For a while now, we have been trying to find the tickets to Spain, basically anywhere there. As long as it gets us there, we are good. Mainland Spain was more of what we’ve been looking at. When I found the cheap tickets to Madrid (with some deals, combinations and, my best guess, magic), we were half way there! The only thing remaining was to find what, where and when are we doing it, how are we getting there and what roof will we be under, also known as the fun stuff!
Day 1 – Madrid and Torrevieja
We were flying from Vienna to Madrid, it was short and sweet, and let me tell you, Madrid Barajas airport is a freaking maze. We didn’t get lost in there, but navigating to where you actually want to go to is not easy. In any case, we got where we needed to go, and that was car rentals! We got us a small car, Fiat 500, and it had removable roof, which Agata was crazy for. Getting the car was no easy task, as apparently, loads of other people had the same idea, and it took us literally an hour to get the car from the car rental company.
So, first thing we wanted to explore, after actually getting into the car, was the city of Madrid.
We parked very near Bridge of Toledo (Puente de Toledo), and started the walk towards the City Centre.
Slowly but surely, we were advancing to the main square (Plaza Mayor), that was full of life, just not as much as we expected for a capital city and a famous tourist destination.
Since we were in Madrid for only few hours, and since it was not the main goal of the trip, we wanted to see only the few highlights of the city – Cathedral Almudena (Catedral de la Almudena) and the Royal Palace (Palacio Real de Madrid).
Built in the site of medieval mosque, Cathedral Almudena was planned to be the biggest Cathedral in the world. The first plans for building the Cathedral were considering at the beggining of the Spanish imperial age, when they build many, many cities in the new world and the Capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid. As all that took some toll on the royal treasury, the construction of the Cathedral was postponed, and its construction started at 1879, and it was finished more than 100 years later, in 1993.
Royal Palace of Madrid is the largest functioning royal palace and the largest by floor area in Europe. It was once occupied by the royal family, but royal family do not reside in the palace any more, choosing instead the significantly more modest Palace of Zarzuela, but that was not on our itinerary. The palace itself was in many phases, the last was finished in 1755, and after that it was used by the royal family for almost two centuries. As you might have guessed, it is a very impressive building, that was designed to show the power of the Spanish Empire, and it still stands as a monument to that era.
Getting back to the car, we started our road trip. Exiting the city was easy part, getting to Torrevieja took some effort. Only 5 hours of driving. After all, we wanted to visit and explore Andalusia. The roads to Torrevieja were not bad, they weren’t great either, but the landscapes… Yes, it paid off.
Driving southeast to our destination, we were passing many yellow fields of freshly cut wheat, many orchards, along with red ground, all mixed into a beautiful countryside.
When we finally arrived to Torrevieja, it was already dark. We got to our hotel, left the things there and went to explore the city. The city is a small, very touristy place on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, south of Valencia. It was one of the biggest salt producers back in the day, and it still has a saline where the salt is being produced to this day. The water was warm (the warmest form all the beaches where we went to, we will later find out), and there are sand beaches where you can go and enjoy the sun.
Whoever we talked to about going to Andalusia, one thing was always mentioned – paella. Agata had already tried paella (but in Croatia, so it doesn’t count), and I had no idea if I would like it or not. After walking for a while through the city, we decided we want to try some, as we were both hungry and wanted to sit down, have a conversation and enjoy the view. We found this very nice restaurant, with nice view of the pier and the sea, playing smooth jazz. We decided to give it a try.
Got to say, I was expecting more people to be able to speak English in Spain. It proved not to be the case, as wherever we went for the next couple of days, people either had poor understanding of the language, or just didn’t speak it, at all. I do understand and speak a little bit of Spanish, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but Agata does not at all, so I imagine people would need to figure out the way to communicate if they were visiting Spain. Good thing is, Google translate can help you!
Anyways, staff in the restaurant was nice, but there was a lot of misunderstanding. In the end, it all worked out, we paid the bill just a little bit more than we wanted to, but wherever we go, we do want to have one fancy dinner and this one definitely qualified. We had a bottle of Riesling and lobster paella, totaling 56€, which is a decent price for this time of year, the amount and quality of food we got.
I must say, paella blew my mind. It was perfect and there was plenty of it in the portions. The whole experience was well worth it and we recommend it wholeheartedly.
DAY 2 – PINK SALINE AND RONDA
Starting the day early, few minutes after the sunrise, we went to the saline I wrote about earlier. It is very famous for its pink color and high salinity, Great Flamingos and, if you swim in the saline, ability to float in the water! The best place to go and see the pink water and the beach, is Laguna Rosa. Easily accessible, the area is declared a national park (if I understood the sign that was there correctly) and it is prohibited to swim in the water. But people were still in the water, so…
In any case, the water from a far didn’t look any different than any other body of water anywhere. In fact, you had to come very close to be able to see how different the water actually is.
After enjoying short visit to the saline, we started the second part of the road trip, the one to Ronda. Ronda is a very interesting small town, full of history. It was for a long time under Islamic rule, falling from one Islamic kingdom to another. It became a part of Spain in the end of 15th century, and after the Muslim presence in Iberian Peninsula ended, many of them seeked refuge in Ronda and surrounding areas.
Since it is such a small city, everything about it can be seen in several hours. The most notable feature of the city is the New Bridge (Puente Nuovo), and gives the city its appeal. 120 meters tall above the canyon floor, it is over 300 years old, and it is still in use today. Arab baths, Baños Árabes, is located under the bridge, following the stream that flows in the canyon, and it was unfortunately closed when we were in the city. From the bridge, you can see many Red-billed Choughs flying in the canyon.
Main square, Plaza del Socorro, is the political center of the city.
The historical bullfighting ring, Corrida Goyesca, the oldest one in Spain, is close to the city Centre. Built in 1784, it still holds bullfights once per year.
After a long day of exploring and traveling, we decided to find a place where we can have some tapas and beer. It proved harder than you might think, since Spain is mostly wine country, and everywhere we went, we found wine exclusively. The place that we did end up going to, a small bar in the old town next to Puerta de Almocábar, was perfect. The prices were very, very reasonable, compared to other places closer to the main square and other tourist attractions, and the food was great. We felt like locals there. Just speak Spanish and you would fit in perfectly!
DAY 3 – GIBRALTAR AND ATLANTIC OCEAN
Hands down, the road from Ronda to Gibraltar was the most amazing one. Climbing mountains and spectacular views left us breathless more than once. It was a very short ride, only 2 hours, but memorable. The road to Ronda had loads of climbs and nice mountains, but not nearly as many or nice ones.
The roads leading to Gibraltar can get crowded, and it can get difficult to get across the border. Keep in mind, that loads of people from Spain are working in Gibraltar, so traveling between 8:00AM and 10:00AM to Gibraltar can be a very difficult task. After the influx of people going in the city slows down, it’s only a matter of minutes before you get across the border.
Gibraltar, being a part of the United Kingdom, is technically in the EU. However, since Britain is not in the Schengen zone, you still need to have some government issued form of ID (passport or identification card) for crossing the border. Also, you are driving on the right side of the road!
Here is where we realized what a great idea was to have a small car. Seriously, it was definitely the best ever. The streets are narrow, the parking space is limited, and if you have a small car, you are able to maneuver much easier. We found a parking (with a help of a local) that was very close to Moorish Castle, which was perfect (and also free)!
When going to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, there are several entrances where you can enter from. We went to the Moorish Castle entrance, where we got our tickets. Moorish Castle has huge history behind it. The Tower of Homage, the most prominent part of the Castle and the part that was used for recon and surveillance of the area, is the most visited part of it. It was under Moors for over 700 years in total, finally ending their rule in 1462.
City under siege and the Great Siege tunnels exhibits are very interesting to see, especially if you love the history behind the First and Second World War. City under siege tells a story on how people were living and what were they doing when the city of Gibraltar was under siege, how they got water and supplies, who took care of the injured men and so on. Great Siege tunnels tell a story about the unsuccessful attempt of Spanish and French armies to reclaim the Gibraltar from Great Britain during the American Civil War.
Agata was waiting this whole trip to go to the Apes Den, and she was visibly excited when seeing the first ones on the road. You are not allowed to feed them, and as they are wild animals, you should not touch them or get too close to them. Still, they were not interested in us at all, so they continued foraging for food, grooming one another, sleeping and playing.
St. Michaels Cave system in Gibraltar is a huge network of limestone caves in Upper Rock Nature Reserve. It is the most visited cave system in Gibraltar. Did you know that there are more than 150 caves in the Rock of Gibraltar? There is evidence of people using the cave in the neolithic dating back 10-20 thousand years!
The whole Gibraltar part of the trip was amazing, and, as much as we did a lot of exploring in the Upper Rock Reserve, there was still loads of things worth exploring in the city. Unfortunately, we did not have time to do more, and we started going out of the city. We could have picked a better time for leaving the city. All the people that live in Spain start leaving Gibraltar between 2:00PM and 4:00PM so the traffic slows down as well. We were lucky that we got in and out of the city when the airport runway way not in use! If you try to get in and/or out of the city during takeoff/touchdown, you can easily add at least 10 minutes to your trip.
Getting out of the Gibraltar took a while, but as soon as we were out, we were back on the schedule. The plan was to go to an apartment we rented, near Barbate, and we took the more scenic route next to the coast. At the time (middle of August), the autumn bird migration had alread started, and we saw huge flocks of Black Kite Milvus migrans, ranging from couple of hundreds to couple of thousands of individuals.
Our road was going very close to the Playa Valdevaqueros, where we wanted to go for a swim. Unfortunately, as much as it was looking gorgeous, we decided against staying there, as the wind prevented us from enjoying the beach. The wind was lifting the sand and you could feel the little “stings” from it hitting your skin. To bad, as the Parque Natural Del Estrecho was right there… So, back to road we went.
Our place where we stayed was perfect. The place was easy enough to find, but the actual location of the apartment was a bit of a mystery. I was trying to figure it out from the signs on the houses, but no help there. Agata was fighting with the navigation, and it was ridiculous. In 500 meters, your destination will be on the right. Yeah, right, that is not true. Going back and forth with the navigation, I decided to call the apartment owner. He picks up, and I asked if they spoke English. No. Well, great, and then I used my best Spanish ever. Maybe this part is the reason why this particular place is my favorite. We figured out where to go, he welcomed us, greeted us and showed us around the apartment. I absolutely loved the place!
It was couple of hours till the sunset, and I found this beach, apparently one of the most beautiful beaches in Andalusia. I believe that. The water was perfect, after whole day on the sun, it really cooled us down. Sand everywhere around us, the sea in the distance, and in the east, one big lighthouse on the small rocky hill.
Kentish Plovers were piping around us while we were strolling down the beach. The wind started to pick up, and for us, it was time to leave. But not far away, because we saw a restaurant right next to the entrance to the beach from the nearby village. As any other place we went to, they too had very bad English, so we used Spanish as much as we could.
If you go to Andalusia, and you don’t try some local cuisine, shame on you. From all the things I read about, all the food you can try there, one dish stood out among the rest. It was orteguillas, fried sea annemonies, a dish you have to try on the coast of Spain. The restaurant happened to have them, and you could have ordered them without prior notice, which was not the case in other restaurants. I would say the restaurant was reasonably priced, probably just the same as the one in Torrevieja. With one order of orteguillas, one order of fried prawns and a glass of rose wine, the total came up to 26€. We weren’t that hungry, and the portions were on the small size (to have enough food to be full, you would have to order something besides prawns or orteguillas), so there is really nothing to complain about here (ok, maybe one thing – the orteguillas were not made on order, they were most likely fried earlier and then just reheated, shame really).
DAY 4 – THE RETURN
We started pretty early this day, since we had about 700km to cover and get back to Madrid. It took us just shy of 8 hours.
Andalusia is definitely one of the places where I want to go back to. The nature, the food and the scenery were amazing, and we want to go back there definitely for longer time. The time we had in Madrid was also too short. There is much more history in the city we haven’t seen and much more food we need to try, it’s hard to do much in just couple of short hours.
If you can, try to get somewhere closer to the particular place where you want to go to. Alicante and Malaga are close to all of this, and you can find some pretty cheap tickets to get to any of these two places, and you can spend much less time trying to get from one place to another, and more time actually enjoying wherever you are (not that we didn’t, but if you need more time per place, try this).
Gas (mileage ~2200 km): ~200€
Car rental: ~190€
Food (excluding the restaurants): ~50€