Last year I visited Spain for the first time and fell in love! On that trip I went to Barcelona, Seville, Granada and Toledo. These towns reminded me so much of Italy, a country near and dear to my heart: narrow, cobblestoned streets, soaring Cathedrals, town squares, terracotta roofs -- be still my heart!!! This year when I returned to Spain I decided to rent a car and get off the well-worn train route. My goal was to photograph even smaller towns, so after a few dreary days in Madrid (see my post here) and some time spent with maps, I hopped in my rental car and took off.
I decided to focus my roadtrip in Andalusia, the large region of hills, rivers and farmland located south of Madrid. This area was under Moorish rule from the 8th - 15th century, and that influence is evident in the architecture and soul of Andalusia.
The rolling hills filled with olive trees and white villages captured my complete attention...and having the freedom to go where I wanted to go was worth the extra planning and cost! Are you looking for great photography opportunities in Spain? Then follow me on my roadtrip around Andalusia and get inspired!
The Picture Perfect Andalusian Roadtrip
Not officially in Andalusia, Consuegra is in the province of Toledo in Castilla-la-Mancha, but since it was on my way to Cordoba, I made sure to stop by. Consuegra is famous for its charming white windmills, the same ones that Don Quixote mistook for giants and attacked in the book "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha". The windmills stopped being used for grinding grain in the 1980s. The weather hadn't improved much since I had left Madrid, and the sun was playing peek-a-boo while I was there, which made for some pretty moody images.
TIP: Because of the windmills, Consuegra is part of the 'Don Quixote trail' which takes travellers around the main sights mentioned in the book. As such, you will likely see several tour busses while you are there. Most of the tour busses go all the way up to the collection of windmills at the end of the paved road. Instead, park at the first large windmill you see on your left going uphill (i.e., the one now used as an ice-cream shop!) and climb up to the the windmills closest by. From there you can get up close with a few windmills, but also can get a good shot of the collection of windmills beyond without all the people at your feet.
Oh, Cordoba! I could write a love letter to this town. This was the biggest and best surprise of my entire trip through Andalusia. I was continually delighted and inspired here, with the cobblestoned streets and narrow walkways being exactly what I was craving after my time in Madrid. The heart and soul of Cordoba lies in the amazing old city, and the main things not to miss are the Mezquita, Alcazar and gardens, Roman bridge, and Juderia.
It might seem hard to imagine today, but there was once a time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and worshiped side by side. The town of Cordoba, Spain is a living, breathing testament to that time of peace. In my opinion, the highlight of Cordoba is the amazing Mezquita -- and I find it hard to capture it's breathtaking beauty in either words or images .
The Mezquita contains a cathedral (including an altar and choir), as well as a mihrab (a niche in the wall, at the point nearest to Mecca, toward which the congregation faces to pray). The overall architecture itself is largely Islamic, and the cupola in the cathedral is as spectacular as any Roman Catholic church that I've been to. The Mezquita might be the only place in the world where Christians attend Mass in a mosque, and services are still held daily.
Tip: Get to the Mezquita right when it opens at 10am. While the Mezquita is free from 8:30am - 9:15 while the church is prepped for Mass, everyone seems to know that now and it wasn't nearly as quiet as it was when I arrived at 10am.
While the castle in Cordoba (Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos) itself is quite impressive, I was more enthralled by the gardens. Perfectly manicured and full of fish ponds, statues and topiary, it was an amazing place to sit and ponder the wonders of Cordoba
The Juderia (Jewish quarter) of Cordoba is worth spending a few hours wandering around. The maze of whitewashed building and flower boxes would be the perfect place to get lost on purpose!
Lastly, the Roman Bridge of Cordoba deserved a mention. The bridge was first built in the 1st century A.D., but has been rebuilt many times since then, and in its present form dates mainly from the Medieval period (with the latest changes being made in 1876.) There are sixteen arches, four of which are pointed and the rest semi-circular. The Roman Bridge was featured in Season 5 of Game of Thrones.
This town was easily the highlight of my entire time in Andalusia; I could spend a week or two here just roaming the streets and sitting in the plazas drinking Rioja!
Tip: Every spring Córdoba celebrates big time, particularly in the month of May: there's a parade known as the “Battle of the Flowers”; a May Crosses festival usually takes place during the first week of the month; and Patio Contests are held during the first few weeks of the month. I visited in late March, but would come back to Cordoba in May just to see these festivities!!!
3. OLVERA: A typical Pueblo Blanco (White Village)
I have seen countless photographs of the Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) of Andalusia, a key reason for my deciding to travel to this part of Spain. As I drove south, these small hilltop towns -- distinguished by their simple whitewashed houses influenced by the Berber architecture of North Africa -- kept coming into view.
I decided to stop in the small town of Olvera for a driving break and to walk around a bit. You can look at a map and/or consult Google and likely come up with several alternative towns that are very similar to Olvera. As I climbed up the steep streets I thought to myself that this must be what all the "pueblos blancos" are like: small, cobblestoned, empty of people at 2 pm, hilly...in other words, awesome!
In addition to the white villages, what you will notice as you drive through Andalusia is the amazing countryside: lush green hills and olive trees as far as the eyes can see. The miles flew by as I drove toward my next stop.
Perilously clinging to a sheer cliff, Ronda stands at a dizzying height. The fact that this town is even able to exist where it does seems impossible. Besides its spectacular setting, Ronda is famous for bullfighting and its Plaza de Toros is Spain's second oldest bullring.
The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) spans the 390 ft-deep chasm that divides the old and new parts of the city of Ronda. The construction of this bridge started in 1759 and took 34 years to build. There is a chamber above the central arch that was used for a variety of purposes, including as a prison. That's probably the best view - ever - from a prison cell!
The town is full of quaint narrow streets and whitewashed buildings, with a deep Moorish influence. There are pedestrian zones lined with cafes and shops, beautiful terraces with views, and even ancient Arab Baths. Ronda deserves a few days for exploration, and unfortunately I did not have the time I wanted to spend there. Next time I will make sure to hang out and let the vibe sink in.
Tip: While the views from the top are incredible, to get the best photos of the bridge you need to go down into the gorge -- and it's not as easy to find the spot as you'd think. There is a walking trail that leads down. By car, put Albergue los Molinos into your GPS and once you get to the Rutas a Caballo (horse riding) entrance, stay on the cobblestone road to the right, which will lead you to the parking area.
5. UBEDA AND BAEZA
I didn't think it was possible to see more olive trees, but there they were -- completely covering the hillside in the Andalusian province of Jaen. I really felt like I was in Italy when I pulled into the town of Baeza, as both it and it's nearby neighbor Úbeda have a different look to them than other towns in Spain. Recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, both towns are shining examples of all the grandeur of the Renaissance in Andalusia in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Baeza is much smaller than Ubeda, and is where I stayed for two nights. If i were to return, I would stay in Ubeda, as it's "bigger" size means that there is a little more there to do and see. Both towns are similar though, and full of tightly packed streets and plazas filled with amazing churches, palaces and stately houses -- all being painted by artists.
The highlight of Ubeda is the Sacra Capella del Salvador. The interior is stunning and was a complete surprise. It's simply amazing to think that a church so spectacular exists in such a small town.
I spent a lovely day wandering the streets of Ubeda, including getting free tapas with my wine while sitting in a piazza in the bright afternoon sun. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my trip!
Tip: Be careful driving and parking in Ubeda or Baeza. The streets are extremely narrow. I inadvertently parked in front of a garage (which looked like a door to a house, honestly!) and woke the next morning to find my car towed! A brisk 20 minute walk to the police station and €71 - problem solved!
IN SUMMARY: I loved Andalusia and would return again, and the only changes I would make would be to extend my visits to both Cordoba and Ronda. That said, if you are considering coming to this part of Spain, I believe you must add Granada, Toledo and Seville into your itinerary as well!
ANDALUSIA ROADTRIP: THE DETAILS
Madrid - Consuegra - Cordoba - Olvera - Ronda - Baeza. Roughly 1200 kms including side trips
I rented a car at the Airport in Madrid. I used Auto-Europe online to make my arrangements, but ended up with a car from Avis. The rental car process was super easy and straightforward. The roads in Spain are excellent; most highways were nearly empty when I was driving. I used a Michelin map as the backup to my phone's Map app (my US based T-Mobile plan provides me with free data in most European countries)
Cordoba: I stayed for 2 nights at the lovely Viento10 (room was €100 per night, plus €13 for parking and €8 for breakfast). The hotel was designed exactly like a riad in Morocco, which was a nice surprise once you entered the front door. The hotel is located on the outer edge of the old town, with a nice 15 minute walk to the Mezquita. The owner Gerardo could not have been any nicer. Breakfast was served in a lovely room off the center courtyard. I highly recommend this hotel in Cordoba
Ronda: I stayed for 2 nights at the Hotel EnFrente Arte (room averaged €100 per night, inclusive of breakfast and "open bar", parking was free on the street). I had read about this quirky hotel on Trip Advisor, and the reviews were spot on. I was asked to switch rooms because of my late booking, so my first night was in a room off the garden that was less than ideal. Very small and narrow, with three stories. The bathroom was TINY and on the first floor, but the bed was on the third -- very inconvenient. On the 2nd night I was switched to the Madonna Room (yes, Madonna actually slept in that room when she was in town to shoot a video). This room was great! Nice and big; large bathroom; lovely deck overlooking the pool. The included breakfast was quite nice, and it was a pleasant surprise to be able to order eggs! The location was great.
Baeza: I stayed for 2 nights at Hotel Puerta de la Luna, which is directly adjacent to the Cathedral in the old town (€89 per night not including breakfast or parking). Great location. Nice, big, modern'ish hotel. My room was perfect, with a small balcony. The hotel has a lovely outside courtyard with a pool that i am sure is fabulous when it's open in the summer months.
When in Andalusia, make sure to try some of the specialty dishes of the region. Restaurants that i really enjoyed include:
- Cordoba: Bodega Mezquita, Macsura and Bar Santos. When in Cordoba, make sure to try the Salmorejo, which is a similar to gazpacho but creamier; and aubergines lightly fried in olive oil w/ a sherry and honey reduction.
- Ronda: restaurant Toro Tapas
- Baeza: cafe Virolo for breakfast (coffee and tostada) and restaurant Taberna El Pajaro (for the bacalos frito and tomate con AOVE)