Did you think saying that Portugal was a Spanish province was the worst thing you could do to a Portuguese? Well, you are mistaken. Of course we don’t like it…sure, rage spikes in our blood and we might never talk to you again, but you know what really drives us crazy? Petrol prices in Spain. There you go.
Of course we display our patriotic individuality with borderline-hysterical enthusiasm, but when it comes to filling the tank, we would gladly engage in an endless debate on the absurd price differences in petrol between two countries that, if you see it closely, are practically the same territory…. Fair enough, you might say us Portuguese have the mentality of a teenager, I won’t argue that. Oh, by the way, we have the unpredictable mood swings as well. What an enchanting people.
And if filling the tank in Spain saves us a few euros, why not spending them on a road trip to our neighbouring country?! (For more good advice on how not to save money hit the follow button).
Even though we were spending the beginning of the week in the south of Portugal, out first random stop in Spain was decided by the big orange moon that dominated the sky at 2 a.m. during our ride to Algarve. With our friend (who lives in Barcelona, and had flown to Portugal earlier that day not to miss this ride) deeply asleep in the backseat, pilot and copilot felt hypnotised by the strong moonlight that had been serving as a magical scenario for deep conversations during the last few hours on the road. In result, our friend woke up, startled, confused that she was in Spain again, as if she had never actually left.
Ayamonte is famous for its excessive Portuguese tourists (that visit “just to have lunch/dinner in another country”….) and its large beaches of fine sand bathed by warm quiet waters, all reachable just by crossing the Guadiana International Bridge. The three of us stretched our legs on the beach, gazing at the stars and the moon, listening to the quiet sea and enjoying the warmth of the night.
A few days later, we were heading to Seville. The weather was on our side, as the 40 plus degrees that usually haunt the city were down to 36 (this is like Winter in Seville!!), and we were clever enough to get there right in the begging of Siesta Time (a blissful nap time that takes the Spanish what it felt to us like half of the day, although it officially works from 4 to 7 p.m.) and so our walk and explorations of the place were much easier and pleasant, along fully empty streets of a preheating Hell.
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See
We visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, better know as Seville Cathedral, where, even though my friend was wearing a sexy split dress, I was the one being warned, in dramatic wide open arm gestures, that my shorts were way too inappropriate to be in a sacred place like that, terminating my visit right away. Luckily, the cathedral was beautiful both on the inside and on the outside, and I was able to appreciate the construction while sulking on the street.
For those who love tiles, courtyards and arabesque decorations this will be your favourite spot in the city. The Palace was built for the Christian king Peter of Castile on the site of a Muslim residential fortress that had been destroyed after the Christian conquest of Seville in 1248. This Palace, a prominent example of Mudéjar art (a type of ornamentation and decoration used in the Iberian Christian kingdoms, between the 13th and 16th centuries), combines Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Islamic structural elements, which makes it unique enough to have been registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (along with the Cathedral).
We spent a good couple of hours cruising along the spacious rooms on the first floor, heads tilt backwards to admire the majestic ceilings of each room, caressing the million different colour tiles on the walls (I easily used up half my iPhone’s memory just with photos of tiles). Downstairs, an incredible courtyard, called Patio de las Doncellas (meaning “The Courtyard of the Maidens”, a reference to the story that the Moors demanded an annual tribute of 100 virgins from the Christian kingdoms of Iberia), all Arabian in style, with marble floors and a fountain, was the main vignette for instagram stories of pretty much every visitor (ranging from worldwide famous influencers to myself).
We stayed at the Royal Alcazar pretty much until the guards kicked our asses out of there. In a grumpy mood all the time, those workers seemed to chase us across the rooms to complain about every single detail in our behaviour: don’t speak so loud, do not touch that, straighten the mask in your face, shorten your selfie stick (I repeat, they really wanted my friend to SHORTEN HER SELFIE STICK…).
I knew that most cities in Spain had to have a Plaza de España, but I am now convinced the one in Seville is the most beautiful one of them all. We arrived very late in the afternoon, the sun was setting in an orange and pink sky above our heads, a street musician enchanting the square with every note he played, the central fountain illuminated in purple light sprinkling a bunch of little kids running around. It took me a few seconds to fully absorb this magical scenario and to form a mental image that will remain imprinted in my mind forever.
The whole day we kept walking from one place to another, and so it felt wonderful to finish at this square and finally rest our feet while sitting on the floor and doing nothing but accomplishing our own existence. I felt happy and at peace. I wasn’t even accusing hunger, even though I was running only on ice-cream. Sounds weird? Let me explain. I am not the biggest fan of Tapas, the snack-type meal famous in Spain. Tapas have evolved with time into a sophisticated cuisine consisting of a messy combination of different foods (that would definitely be delicious on their own but that just don’t go well together), served hot or cold (or, again, both ways at once). Apart from the weird combinations I suddenly saw on my plate (shrimps surprisingly floating on a bowl of scrambled eggs with ham and mushrooms), everything was fried, greasy and over-seasoned, and so I gave up on it right from the beginning of the trip. Which means that on that day in Seville, while my friends were having tapas, I was having a delicious 2-scoop ice cream from La Abuela (an ice cream place whose name translates into “Grandma”, letting you know that the ice cream you are having follows the recipe of an old spanish grandma, or at least that is what I would like to believe).
Coria del Rio and Zahara de la Sierra
Heading to Ronda, our next 5 hours of driving could easily have happened in some arid Saudi land. The air conditioning in the car saving us from the 45 degrees outside, all we could see was dry earth surrounding us from every direction and the mountains smiling from afar. An endless yet animated ride while singing along all possible music styles (having the pleasure of being the designated dj of the day, I presented my friends with house and R&B from the 2000s, latino hits and Portuguese hip-hop songs) had its first break once we got to a river that seemed to have no possible way of crossing, even though our navigation system insisted on it. We agreed on having lunch right there (at a town we later found out to be called Coria del Rio) and later deciding what to do about the phantom bridge that our eyes could not see.
After a 5 euro full meal of a succulent beef with creamy mushroom sauce and a cider, everything magically worked out, as the phantom bridge decided to appear in the form of a ferry boat that smoothly took our car and our full stomachs to the other side of the river so that our journey could proceed.
Our next random stop was Zahara de la Sierra, which trapped us into a visit by presenting a beautiful lake before our eyes. We had to stop at a town that was high enough to have a clear view from the whole lake, such as this one. It was a 20 minute stop that was totally worth it.
Did you think Paris was the city of love? Well, according to our recent discoveries, the Spanish have their own city of love. And they must be a pretty romantic people, since once we get anywhere near this city, every single street sign leads you to Ronda, that appears to be reachable from every cardinal direction (roundabouts where each of the 3 exits pointed Ronda, street signs with arrows to the left and right both pointing Ronda…. all very confusing but a proof that love is literally everywhere).
I don’t like touristy places that much and because of that I don’t intend to go back to this city, but it was nice to be there for a day. Its most impressive features are, without a doubt, the three bridges that span the canyon – Puente Romana (“Roman Bridge”), Puente Viejo (“Old Bridge”) and the imposing Puente Nuevo (“New Bridge”), the tallest of the bridges, towering 120m above the canyon floor. Another interesting building is the Plaza de toros de Ronda, the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain, that hosts every year the historical bullfight “Corrida Goyesca”.
Setenil de las Bodegas
Much nicer than Ronda is the small town of Setenil de las Bodegas, about 25 minutes away from it. The town extends along the narrow gorge of the Trejo River, with lined up white houses built into the rock by enlarging natural caves.
Tradition holds that the town’s Castilian name came from the Roman Latin phrase septem nihil (“seven times nothing”), referring to the Moorish town’s resistance to Christian assault, allegedly being captured only after seven sieges in the final years of the Christian Reconquest.
We walked amazed along the gorge, watching every tiny tapas’ restaurant full of life, the air filled with music echoing in the caves everywhere. My favourite detail about this place was a heart-shaped traffic sign stating “No Violencia Machista” (“No sexist violence”) installed in an awareness campaign against domestic violence in the whole Malaga province. I unexpectedly had found a place where feminism was law and I didn’t want to leave.
Doing a brief online search for cheap hostels in the outskirts of Malaga we came across what became our home for the next few nights: El Refugio de Cartajima. About 16km from Ronda in Andalucia, in the little known Alta Genal valley, the laidback atmosphere of it and the stunning view from its tiny terrace was just what we were looking for. In a town that was roughly comprised of two main streets, with a pub owned by a Czech old mate at the entrance and a church at the top as the two main meeting points for the locals, everything was quiet and peaceful most of the time. It was an absurdly safe place as we found out after forgetting the car keys inside our car and leaving it open for an entire night without it being stolen, as expected in pretty much every other place across the globe.
The owner, a British former garage band rockstar from the 60s, named Botts, not only showed us the best hiking trails to take around that area but also kept our hearts warm with black tea in the nights and english breakfast of bacon and eggs every morning. It was nice and easy to talk to him, and we ended up all sharing life stories in that cozy refuge (which half the construction was actually illegal, made possible to maintain thanks to the incompetence of Spanish inspections to the place – or the lack of it for the past 17 years, as Botts admitted with a relieved look on his face) nestled within the mountains.
According to Botts, there are 3 rules you must follow while traveling, that I am sharing here in case you have been traveling the wrong way your entire life (you can thank me, and Botts, later):
- Eat the local food
- Drink a beer at the local pub and make new local friends there
- Fuck a local
On our last night we found out, in the most delicious way, that Botts had been a cook for many years, by enjoying a paella he free-styled in his small kitchen especially for us. So yummy.
After dinner we headed to Fuengirola for a couple of drinks, but since all the bars were closing at midnight we ended up drinking rum and coke on the beach. The weather was perfect for a night of drinks on the beach, if only the Spanish police had not shown up to ruin the party and sent us all home. How rude.
El Chorro (“The Cascade”) is a little village that is one of the most famous rock climbing spots in Spain. After attempting to hike the Caminitos del Rey (“King’s Pathway”) and realising that when it says online that all tickets are booked for the whole summer there is no way our puppy eyes will work at the ticket office by the entrance, we decided to go for a fresh water swim at the nearby lake. The whole canvas was unrealistic and the vivid blue waters were blinding us with intense reflections of the burning sun rays. We ended up spending the whole day there, watching amazed how locals climbed up and down the rocks to the lake with so much ease.
Our last stop of the week was Mérida, a city full of Roman ruins, such as the Temple of Diana, and the enchanting Puente Romana (“Roman Bridge”) over the Guadiana River that is still used by pedestrians (and also the longest of all existing Roman bridges!).
It was lovely to walk around a city that seems all built in pleasant shades of warm and earthy colours, with orange and light browns dominating the picture. The city’s most important event of year, the International Festival of Classical Theatre of Mérida (the oldest classical theatre festival held in Spain), was taking place the week after we were there, and all the streets were decorated accordingly, with posters of famous international actors hanging from street lamps.
After a busy week enduring the extremely hot weather, the messy combinations of greasy food on the table, the lack of sleep thanks to nights of sharing life stories, the grumpy mood and terrible driving of the Spanish, and my annoyingly sweet friends, all I can say is that I would gladly do it all over again, as it was much more than a road trip, it was us creating shared unforgettable memories.
Wishing everyone safe travels,