WRITER, TRAVELLER AND ENTHUSIASTIC ICE-CREAM EATER SYLVIA MCKEOWN ROAD TRIPS THROUGH THE SOUTH OF SPAIN AND SHARES THE KIND OF ADVENTURE THAT Wilderness 36 HOURS Safaris AND A TINY CAR WILL GET YOU Jao Camp
through the south of Spain
Standing atop a mountain, I could see the endless tapestries of green quilted together and forming a spectacular view. Curiosity had caused us to take a random turn on the back roads near the Caminito del Rey and we landed up driving up the side of a dam, nested into a mountaintop. ‘It’s fine – let’s just keep going. We’ll make it to the other side, I’m sure,’ I said. We hit a dead end, but a dead end with this view – a far cry from the busy, touristy streets of Málaga. The airport central of Andalusia was packed with holidaying Europeans in various tones of self-tan spray. We had the option of taking a horse-drawn carriage to the car rental area, but instead, we opted for a regular taxi from the busy shopping district in the old centre of the city. We’d rented an apartment there and were kept up all night by the throngs of bachelorette parties and a very annoyingly, persistent flautist at 3am. Now everything was quiet, save the odd rustle from the plants as my mother tried to find a spot to pee. ‘Who doesn’t like a pee with a view?’ she asked from under some shrubbery. Every year since my father died during my final exams at varsity, my mother and I travel somewhere together to reconnect. Although she suffers from intense backseat driving tendencies, this road trip idea has been a winning formula so far. It was one that came to me the day before I journeyed to Spain, after a friend told me about the famous Spanish sherry region. I clicked, paid and called my mom to tell her: ‘I’ve bought us a tiny car. We’re going on an adventure.’ We then took said tiny car up alongside the Caminito – a cliff-face walk that used to be the most dangerous in the world – and up the side of this mountain by the dam. The dam fed water to a tree-lined lake down below, where we’d eventually sit and eat ice-cream – our daily ritual on this trip. I’d told myself it was a good idea to have one, consistent thing to do every day if you’re away and have no real plan; it ensures a bit of purpose to all the wandering – and ice-cream’s never a bad idea. We meandered our way west, along less-driven byways, and arrived in Seville. Fun fact: it’s a nightmare finding parking in any of the Spanish metropolitan areas. However, once the bickering died down, we found ourselves walking the streets of Seville’s
old town. The Lonely Planet named this the top place to visit in 2018. It’s cheaper than its hipper Catalonian cousin, Barcelona and has far more elegant charm. With its mix of Moorish and Gothic quarters among cosmopolitan life, it’s easy to see why it landed the top spot on the list. The best example was displayed the next day, as we walked in the rain down winding streets towards a modern, mushroom-like structure called the Metropol Parasol that was built in 2011, while eating fresh strawberries from a local market. On the way, we randomly stumbled into an old villa that was frequented by counts and kings with the most spectacular gardens, just because we could. All this and the best avo toast of my life, complete with crispy, soft egg and chorizo at Michelin-recommended restaurant La Azotea, for the same price as back home. With a limited amount of time, don’t let wanderings allow you to arrive in Jerez too late to drink sherry at the many bodegas in this sherry region’s capital: indeed, capital to the point where ‘Jerez’ is actually the Spanish word for ‘sherry’. Jerez’s fortified winemaking prowess goes as far back as 1100 BC with the Phoenicians, but it was the Moors in the eighth century who used the land’s grapes in their distillation process to make it what it is today. You’d be surprised how many places close in Spain by midday under the guise of a siesta, never to re-open again. But the sprawling town of many, many traffic circles instead provided us with food, mini-tourist souvenir sherry bottles and an Ikea, much to my mother’s delight. Then we were off again, newfangled Swedish homeware in tow, down to the small harbour town off the Mediterranean peninsula via a few whitewashed towns and hilltop churches. Cádiz is the perfect spot for an American romcom: it’s quaint, soaked in history and wonderful in every possible way. The old town’s littered with buildings from the 13th century alongside much older churches that passed hands several times between the Christians and the Muslims. It’s about 1,5km across, a minute walking space
that Google Maps told us to navigate in our tiny car nonetheless. Truthfully, if our ride was one centimetre bigger, we’d mostly likely still be stuck in those alleys. However, we persevered and squidged our way through, making it to the sun-soaked coast, dotted with majestic gardens and filled with trees rumoured to have been stolen and brought back by Columbus from ‘the New World’. It was so beautiful that we didn’t want to leave. That, and the fact that we’d eaten the best ice-cream of the trip so far from a small, family-owned spot nestled in a medieval courtyard. Not to mention the best Bocadillo sandwich my tastebuds ever had the luck to encounter – freshly baked crisp bread, thin, crisp Andalusian bacon, roast pork and a thick slice of organic tomato, all perfectly toasted with oozing, hot slices of cheese. That sandwich was so good that we sat, forlorn, on the city’s domed cathedral steps counting our euros and trying to work out whether we could hustle our room and car for one more day. Instead, after doing some research on a few travel blogs, we ate some miniquiches, bought some ham and climbed back into the car. Zahara de la Sierra is on a hill in the middle of a sweeping national park and lake, where we climbed all the way up to La Torre del Homenaje fort at the very top of the town of charming white houses among many a winding road. We then wound our way down and across to Setenil de las Bodegas, practically Instagram heaven inside a cave-like wonder, where rows of restaurants are carved into a cliff-face gorge. Cascading plants from the houses and the fort above hang down all the way to the Río Guadalporcún river below. The perfect place to walk – and eat ice-cream, of course. Cities on or inside cliff-faces and hills appeared to be the theme of the day as we hit Ronda. This city’s gorge, El Tajo, is famous for its vertigo-inducing bridges, like Puente Nuevo, which stands 120m above the Guadalevín River canyon floor. It connects Ronda’s old town and the 15th-century ‘new town’ and is thick with tourists, who all had to part like the
Red Sea when we drove over it in our tiny car. Interestingly, the first thing that comes up when you Google the route we picked to the seaside is: ‘How scary is the drive from Ronda to Marabella?’ But don’t be put off. Sure, it leads you along white-knuckling, zig-zag hairpin bends down a mountain for an hour and 40 minutes, but the adrenaline washed away nicely when I was finally able to dip my feet in the ocean at a small beach spot called Farro off the highway, on the way back to Málaga. Waves of relief and seawater are a potent mix, as is driving along the last stretch of coast with the top down, watching the sunset over an adventure.
TIPS FOR YOUR ROAD TRIP: The car
Get the car for the road trip you want. In our case, since we were going to frequent very old Spanish towns with cobbled roads that make Cape Town inner-city streets feel like canyons, the smaller the car, the better. Car rental companies are everywhere – www.doyouspain.com offers great deals. Also, driving on the wrong side of the car takes some getting used to, so opt for a mini car with maxi insurance.
This is a ‘hey, what’s that over there?’ high-on-spontaneity kind of trip. The joy comes in taking the time to
lose yourself along the way. While Airbnb is usually a great idea, hotels can actually come in as the better option, allowing you the freedom to adventure and the flexibility of not having to plan too far in advance. You may be in luck and get a great deal on an apartment-style hotel, like we did with the Cadiz Inn Apartments (www.innhostels.com/cadizinnapartamentos). If you’re looking for old-school charm, there are a number of old villas-turned-hotels in Seville, such as the Hotel Patio de las Cruces (www.hotelpatiodelascruces.com), or an 18th-century farmhouse that’s been made into a boutique hotel, like the Hotel Molino de Larco in Ronda (www.hotelmolinodelarco.com). You can also get some great deals on last-minute one-night stays.
Snacks are one of the most important cornerstones of any road trip. Every European region has its own specialty food. Make sure you visit the fresh food markets, where the cheap, fresh food is a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. Don’t get tricked into spending huge amounts of money in the touristy part of town. Cured meats and special cheeses are commonplace and some of the best and least expensive places to buy are the local supermarkets. You’ll get Andalusian cured meats in the south of Spain for the price of peppered salami back home. Check out theculturetrip.com or, better yet, download its app. There are also a surprising number of English local blogs, like spanishsabores.com that steered me towards Wendy Gamba in Malaga and a mini oxtail cheese burger that changed my life.