We decided to try something different on this trip. We wanted to get away from other tourists as much as possible. And we wanted to see what life is like for people who live outside cities – which are all beginning to look and feel alike. To be honest, our reasons for choosing Spain were craven. I googled ‘good places to travel in November’ and up popped a list. The most exotic location was Andalusia, Spain.
We flew into Malaga, which is located on the Costa del Sol on the south coast of Spain.
In high season, Malaga is probably awful, but in the low season (November to March because it rains), it was lovely. The temperature was warm but not hot, and the streets were decorated for Christmas. Adorably, the Spanish were bundled up in puffy coats and woolen scarves. We tried not to draw attention to ourselves by wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. But it was hard to wear a sweater in 25 degrees, so I’m pretty sure they knew we weren’t local. Tourists were around, but they were mostly Spanish, which somehow felt okay.
Although the city is home to more than a half a million people, most tourists stay in the Centro, the “old” part of town where the streets are literally paved with marble. The architecture is mostly post-WWII because Malaga took the side of the Republicans in the Civil War and was pretty much flattened by General Franco as a result.
Malaga has been occupied for 2800 years, since Phoenician times. There is a Moorish palace belonging to the Nazari family, which has gorgeous mosaics on the floors and ceilings.
There’s also a fort dating from the 10th century from which you get a terrific view of the city. It’s said that on a clear day you can see Africa on the horizon.
We stayed for five nights while we acclimated to the time zone and got ready for the main event: a village to village walking tour in the Sierra de Grazelema.
The tour was arranged for us by a lovely Scot named Nicola who works for Macs Adventures. Macs books the accommodation and provides maps and detailed notes for the walks. The best part (in my mind) is that they arrange for your luggage to be transported so you don’t have to carry it. On this particular tour, we stayed two nights in each village, so we had a chance to explore.
The Sierra de Grazelema is a national park located in the province of Cadiz, about a 2-hour train ride north and west of Malaga. The landscape is exceptionally steep, dry and rugged.
The park is supposed to get more rain than anywhere else in Spain, but not this year, as you can see. One B’n’B owner told us that there have been two days of rain since last April. Like the rest of Spain, the Sierra de Grazelema is experiencing a drought.
We started in the pretty village of Grazelema, which is one of the ‘pueblos blancos’ or whitewashed villages of the area.
The villages were established by Berber settlers in Moorish times, around the 10th century. In the past, Grazelema had two distinct ghettos: “Big Bull Penis” and “Little Bull Penis.” Not surprisingly, the more wealthy people lived in larger homes in the Big Penis area, while the common folk lived in Little Penis. Ah, simpler times…
Our next stop was Benaocaz, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a Tidy Town, as you can tell by all the immaculate detached houses. A Tidy Town is Julian’s term for a formerly bucolic village that has been turned into a haven for city people wanting a quiet second home.
The food was awesome though – there are some benefits to an influx of city people every weekend. The village also has a barrio or quarter that dates back to the time of the 9th century Moorish family, the Nazari.
The plants in the region are literally fantastic, especially the succulents.
For those of you who visited our home in Pender and admired Julian’s yuccas, this is the size a yucca is supposed to be.
Sometimes we saw a stark reminder that November is in the fall/winter season,
but there also were confusing surprises like this iris reticulata which blooms in April/May in Ontario.
The walking was pretty low key. Most days we saw only a handful of other walkers on the trails who greeted us with a cheerful ‘hola!’ The landscape got us thinking about Sergio Leone and his Fistful movies of the 60s and 70s, which were filmed in Spain. It’s no wonder the Spanish considered the south-western US their natural second home.
Our third village was Montejacque.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay our second night here because the B’n’B had, sometime in the recent past, been home to a cat. Thankfully, I never travel without an antihistamine. But my reaction was so severe that it looked like I’d go asthmatic if I stayed another night. This is where the lovely Nicola came in. Within a few hours she had contacted the B’n’B owner, who spoke no English, and arranged for us to move onto our final town the next morning. The B’n’B owner was mortified that she’d caused me even a moment’s distress. The Spanish people we met were uniformly warm and gracious. They also speak very little English, so the google translate function was heavily used for several exchanges until she learned we are Canadian.
“Parlez-vous francais?” she asked in astonishment. Cereal box French got us through breakfast and the multiple apologies needed, on both sides, before we could be on our way again.
Our final stop was the town of Ronda, which we first spied across the wide plain that our map told us to cross. Those are buildings, barely discernible, atop that massive cliff. And yes, we climbed it at the end of the walk.
Hemingway once said that Ronda is a good place to go on one’s honeymoon or to take a girlfriend because it’s very romantic and there’s nothing to do.
That’s not entirely true. There is a bull ring, which is one of only four still operational in Spain.
There are bridges and ramparts, dating from Roman
and post-Moorish times.
And there are fabulous restaurants.
After all, we had to regain our strength after all that walking.