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Up until summer 2015, I had spent a fair bit of time in northern Spain, but never the south. And with a country so diverse — from regional cuisine, to cultural customs, to religious traditions — I was keen to revisit Spain from a new perspective.
Austin and I had a chance to spend just over a week exploring the Costa Del Sol and Andalucia last summer (already a year ago!) during a month abroad and we jumped at the chance — with our south Spanish travels taking us to Malaga, Granada, Ronda, Gibraltar, Marbella and Seville.
We departed Toronto (YYZ) for Madrid (MAD), opting for the convenience of a direct flight. After a brief hello with an old friend of Austin’s from grad school days at Cornell, we caught our Renfe train southbound to the coast.
Train travel in Spain is fantastic — the trains are clean, frequent, pretty efficient and it was easy to buy just-in-time tickets at the station. Highly recommended.
On our three-ish hour trip south, I was struck initially by how arid and grassy the terrain was. The north, in comparison, is much more lush and verdant. As we rolled south, the landscape evolved, with olive trees dotting the landscape as far as one could see, tiny pink flowers overtaking fields, and as we moved further south cacti and endless sunflower fields. Rural southwest Spain is a magical sight.We snapped up our week-long rental car from the Malaga train station and drove about 45 minutes to our accommodations along the Costa del Sol. Our apartment was a perfect third-floor walk up, overlooking the mountains to the north and the sea to the south. Doing dishes at our kitchen window was a little luxury with that view.We woke early the next morning to get acquainted with the town. The beachfront stretch where we were staying had a near-endless stretch of boardwalk to stroll. We stopped at the market for key provisions — rose, jamon, fat gordal olives and crusty bread. This was lunch on our balcony more times than I can count, overlooking the sea.That evening, we strolled west to Chiringuito el Juncal for seafood paella. Although Costa del Sol isn’t paella country (you need to go north to Valencia for that) we had heard wonderful things about this beach-side stop from some locals. And it didn’t disappoint — a spectacular and fresh assortment of langoustines, mussels, squid and whitefish dotting crunchy-bottomed rice.A rental car meant we could take advantage of the many wonderful towns dotting the coast and into Andalucia. We knew our trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Alhambra — especially since we had visited architecturally-similar Moorish Marrakech earlier that year. It was a scenic 1.5 hour drive from our home base to Granada.
As expected, the Alhambra was beautiful — a marvel of tile work, wood carving and marble. It was set apart from its Moroccan cousins by the total attention to restoration and upkeep. The fortress is sometimes referred to as “a pearl set in emeralds” and one immediately understood the reference when the shimmering white buildings perched atop the verdant hills of Granada came into view.Things took a turn for the unexpected after we departed the Alhambra. We drove into the mountains a bit more, and I asked Austin to stop off at a gorgeous tile store so I could take a peek. We found a parking spot — which at the time seemed totally obvious — not realizing the many twists and turns of the Albacin (old town Granada). In retrospect, we probably should have marked our place on a map, or took a photo of the lot or… something. But — hindsight.We eventually succumbed to being lost and just explored. For hours, we ventured about the old city on foot — taking in different historic buildings, enjoying tapas on the square, and as if by magic (or really, Austin’s helpful gut instinct for all things directional) found our rental car.It wasn’t how we intended to experience the old city, but it couldn’t have been more magical. We drove home at sunset and collapsed exhausted from the sun and our hilly hike. While on the Costa del Sol, a beach day is requisite, so we planned to spend the morning and afternoon lounging beneath a palapa with books and beverages. The coast is famous for its delicious fat thumb-sized sardines that are grilled to order over an open fire. Alongside some blistery green peppers and more rose, it was a perfect lunch right on the beach. That evening we cleaned up to explore the famous little town of Marbella — known for its yachts and boutiques and exquisite sunsets. She didn’t disappoint — offering us a spectacular gradient sunset of cornflower to lilac to sparkling fuchsia to creamsicle. It was one of those holiday moments where we reveled in doing nothing, just standing on the beach listening to the waves. As we planned our trip, Ronda quickly ascended to the top of our to-visit list. This mountaintop city is famous (if not by name, then photo) for its iconic centuries-old bridges carved into the mountainside. We packed up for the drive the next morning, with Austin commanding the winding and nail-biting cliff-side drive up and up.Our day in Ronda was so full and varied. We parked our car and wandered the city streets, taking in the perfect sunshine. We started the day with a visit to her famous whitewashed Plaza de Toros — known as the home of the Rondeno style of bullfighting. Along the way, we found a good vantage point to admire Ronda’s iconic Puente Nuevo (new bridge), the newest of three (very old) bridges. She spans a 120-metre chasm that divides the city into its old Moorish town and El Mercadillo parts over the El Tajo gorge, and makes you gasp at her sight — especially when you consider the massive structure was built starting in 1751 and took 42 years to complete.
We stopped off in the city square for tapas, pitchers of tinto de verano and a Spanish guitar serenade. Perfection. We spent the remainder of the afternoon meandering through Ronda’s sites — the Mondragon Palace and gardens, old bridge and city walls. Along the way, we took in the caves and a quick stop at a local winery for offerings of simple table wines and sherry on tap. We got on the road for the zigzagging drive before sunset, fueled by custard cake and rosquillas, traditional sugared doughnuts. Returning to Malaga, we were greeted with fireworks from our apartment window, the perfect ending to a sweet day.
The next morning, we set out early to see the famous Rock of Gibraltar, a little taste of the UK on the Spanish coast. It felt like a scene from a film to wind along the highway and suddenly see that massive iconic shape rising into the clouds.Appropriately, we crossed the border, found a parking spot and settled in for some old-school pints and fish and chips with plenty of malt vinegar and mayonnaise. Through a combination of cable cars and walking, we made our way to the apex of the rock.
Gibraltar is famously noted for its Barbary macaques — feisty little creatures who will steal any and all food in their reach. As we stepped off our gondola, one hilariously snatched a full strudel from the bottom of a family’s stroller and proceeded to have a one-ape feast. His audience was equally horrified and impressed as he dove into dessert.
We spent the day taking in the Rock’s sites — the British Forces base, many barracks and cliff-hanging vantage points into the mist, and the impeccable St. Michel’s Cave, a network of limestone caves with epic cathedral-like ceilings dripping with stalagmite rock formations. As we explored the cave’s tunnels and passageways, it was neat to see the main cavern being set up for a concert that evening — the cave’s natural acoustics make it a popular music venue. The next morning, we were up bright and early to pack and return to Malaga, where we’d spend the morning before heading north to Seville. High on my list of sites to visit was the Centre Pompidou Malaga — the first sister to Paris’ famous Pompidou Centre, one of my favourite galleries in Paris. The Pompidou has an iconic colourful cube as its main architectural feature, which makes for a fun photo op. We were fortunate to visit during a fantastic temporary exhibit devoted to Joan Miro’s paperworks, which were stunning to see in person.After a short walk along the waterfront and under its wooden canopies, we caught our train to Seville, which I fondly have come to know as my city of aesthetic overload. That is to say, I’ve visited many stunning, architecturally magnificent cities in my day, but none has yet to compete with the opulence and splendor and light of Seville. We checked into our “splurge” hotel of the trip, the Palacio de Villapanes Sevilla — housed in an old converted palace and truly a place of luxury from the branding to the amenities to the massive 15-jet shower.Map in hand, we set off on-foot mid-afternoon in the searing 40-degree dry heat. It felt so good and different from the cool breezy heat of the coast. We strolled through parks and past iconic buildings eventually making it to the Plaza de Espana and Maria Luisa Park before sunset, where the city square was bathed in perfect light.The square’s mix of Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival architecture makes it one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, replete with gorgeous, intricate tile work, fountains and wood detail. We walked the park, eventually making it to the river, where we spent the evening tapas hopping from one picturesque table to the next — eating all the octopus and patatas bravas and gazpacho we could manage.We walked across the bridge through the dark toward the Metropol Parasol (Las Cetas), Seville’s controversial wooden structure in La Encarnacion Square, purportedly the largest free-standing wood structure in the world. Said to resemble giant mushrooms, we learned just how divided the locals were toward this structure during our time in Seville. There were no “it’s so-so” opinions — people either love or hate the thing, as we would learn the next morning as we undertook a tapas tour of the city. In our research leading up to the trip, I kept happening upon a local guide company, Devour Seville, run by an expat American who seemed to be doing great things to spread the Spanish food gospel to tourists. We signed up for a half-day tour of the city that would take us to eight of Seville’s key food sites.
Our day started at the Mercado de la Encarnacion, just underneath the Metropol Parasol, a bustling indoor market bursting with meats, seafood, pantry staples and fresh produce. To begin, we tasted some expertly sliced jamon Iberco, of the famous chestnut-fed Iberian pigs. The meat was paper-thin, mouth melting and deliciously salty.
From there, we tucked into Bodega el Picadero for some tosta de pringa — a soft baguette spread with a mixture of braised meats often eaten standing up for breakfast– coupled with a cafe con leche.
Walking a little further, we stopped outside one of Seville’s many convents for sweets prepared daily by the resident nuns. We learned that because of the city’s extreme, dry heat, few families have ovens for baking and instead rely on communal bakeshops and working convents for their sweets and bread. Each day, the nuns prepare a set menu of traditional sweets, plus a daily special cookie. The tiny, anise-scented and powdered sugar coated sweets reminded me fondly of Greek Christmas cookies.We continued our eating tour with tinto de verano and succulent grilled pork sandwiches stuffed with fries. Interesting note: we learned on our tour that sangria is a 100% invented tourist commodity in Spain. Locals actually drink tinto de verano — the same beverage minus the floating fruit, for a quarter the price. We were happy to be in the know for future drink orders!
We took a breather from all the eating to stop at a generations’-old hole-in-the-wall for Vino Naranja, traditional orange wine. This wasn’t my cup of tea — overly sweet and syrupy, but I could see it working cut with ice and sparking water on a hot day!
Stomachs (somewhat) settled, we moved along to one of my favourite stops, Freiduria la Isla, where we feasted on perfectly fresh, flash-fried dog fish and chips, served piping hot from the fryer on newspapers or in paper cones. This was expertly prepared in a tender, herb-dotted batter. I could have eaten mounds of it.Our last savoury stop of the day was to our guide’s favourite Sevillan tapas spot, where each guest was given free reign to select a few tapas. Austin and I ordered a range of delicacies — from braised snails to salmorejo (Andalusian bread soup — similar to gazpacho but blended with stale bread) to thick slices of tortilla.
The eighth and final stop was a sweet finish at one of Seville’s oldest ice cream shops — La Fiorentina – for incredible housemade helado. I opted for the flor de azahar (cream of orange blossom… when in Seville…) and it was expectedly fragrant of the city’s famous blossoms.
By this point, with the city deep in siesta and our bellies bursting, we returned to our hotel for a nap of our own. We roused before sunset to dress for dinner and set out exploring. We strolled past the government buildings, down the main pedestrian thoroughfare and into salsa lessons at a local market. To finish off what was becoming our eating tour of Seville, we popped into Eslava — top of my list of Sevillan tapas spots from research. It delivered with fresh, beautiful tapas on a perfect two-top table in its alleyway — slow cooked egg, more salmorejo, grilled razor clams, stewed Iberian pork cheeks, to name a few — all washed down with tumblers of tino de verano.
In our research, Austin found a celebrated Peruvian-Japanese restaurant that he was convinced we needed to try. I initially side-eyed the idea of eating fusion tapas in the south of Spain, but my husband is usually right about these things. Off we went to find Nazca — down winding back alleys and by busting night life, for dinner #2. And Austin was right — we had one of our best mini-meals of the month at this place. Their ceviches alone have us planning a return to Seville — bursting with acid, the freshest expertly chopped fish and bright herbs.
Our ninth day in Spain was our last, as we had a mid-afternoon flight to catch to Venice for the second leg of our summer holiday. After one last leisurely stroll through town to see the Seville Cathedral in all her splendour, we tucked into pestinos (Andalusian sweet fritters) and cafe con leche before we hit the road.
Planning Your Trip
The Palacio de Villapanes Sevilla for a five-star hotel experience in Seville
Miraflores for quaint apartments overlooking the Mediterranean Sea
Chiringuito el Juncal for perfect paella (Costa del Sol)
Devour Seville for a knowledgeable local guide company to introduce you to the city’s iconic eats (Seville — also in Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga)
Eslava for the best Sevillan tapas
Nazca for some of the best, freshest ceviche in Spain
The historically stunning Alhambra (Granada)
Beautiful Moorish Albacin (old town Granada)
The seaside Yatcht town of Marbella
The mountaintop city of Ronda — especially the Plaza de Toros and magnificent stone bridges
The Rock of Gibraltar for a taste of England on the Spanish coast
The Centre Pompidou Malaga — particularly if you love the Paris equivalent
The iconic Plaza de Espana (Seville)
The controversial Metropol Parasol (Seville)
Step-by-step guide to building a travel itinerary
How to pack a capsule suitcase
My Spain board on Pinterest