Ah, Andalucía. An evocative name, of olive groves and endless sunny days. I wasn’t in the slightest bit disappointed. My crossing of the ‘border’ as such came shortly after leaving Caravaca de La Cruz, on the endlessly winding country road. As with all of the best days, this had more than a hint of serendipity. Happy accidents of route that turn a good day into a great one.
I’d left Caravaca earlier than planned, mainly because I was seriously concerned about finding the road closed and being stuck in Caravaca. I’d chatted with the receptionist whilst checking out, and she had a distinctly jaded view of the weekly fiestas this time of year. “Noisy” and “annoying” are not words that you’ll find the average Spaniard dishing out willy-nilly. I took the hint and got the hell out of Dodge.
I’d planned my day in a series of waypoints- Next time I’m going to buy a proper paper map since Google Maps is a bit rubbish when it comes to the seriously tiny roads that make up the majority of the network around here- Virtually impossible to see/trace them, let alone find a sensible route. So, I was heading from random place name to random place name in the vain hope that they’d head somewhere I wanted to go.
First stop of the day was Moratalla, heading north on the RM-715. A typically workaday little town, I’d hoped to stop for a cup of coffee and a pastry but it wasn’t that kind of place. A Saturday market seriously complicated the navigation of virtually footpath-sized cobbled streets so just time enough to plug in the next waypoint. I was slightly disquieted by the strange KKK-style drummers though…
From Moratalla, I followed the RM-703 east towards El Sabinar. I definitely wasn’t getting my coffee and pastries here. Murcia does ‘two horse towns’ very well, and this was one. Just a dusty Main Street with a few little workaday Tiendas and the obligatory starey locals. Yep, moving on. Still east, towards Nerpio. Again, here I was thwarted with a Saturday market and plenty of closed roads, but crucially no cute little patisserie. Dagnabbit. So, I parked on the outskirts and had a minor wander, but fairly soon decided to press on.
You’re certainly out in the wilds here, small hamlets interspersed with miles and miles of…sod all. I certainly wouldn’t fancy breaking down here, I rarely passed more than 2 cars an hour. And a few tractors, naturally.
Still, at least the roads were picking up. The A-45 north was a right little cracker. Windy, well-surfaced and more than a little fun when taken at speed. There’s clearly a lot of cycling round here, I saw loads of little peletons heading out into the hills and the roads bore evidence of bike racing with motivational messages on all of the steep bits!
Navigating by means of just picking interesting-sounding waypoints was going great, apart from a couple of dead ends. Sometimes there’s no obvious ‘right’ way and then you end up in a bemused farmer’s front garden. Some of the most spectacular scenery was just beginning to present itself.
My first proper stop of the day was in the fantastic little town of Yeste. Leaving the sinuous mountain road down into town my first view was of its monolithic castle, standing proud over the town and luminescent in the warm Andalucian sun. Fantastic. I pulled off the main road down a now typically vertiginous side street and parked the car (handbrake on, in reverse, pointing into kerb!). After the merest hint of sightseeing my stomach couldn’t be ignored any longer. First order of the day was to find grub.
A working town, it wasn’t over-endowed with eating establishments, however the Hotel Yeste on the main road punched well above its weight in terms of a great-value €8 Menu Del Dia including 3 courses and a beer. Well, 2 beers in fact. A proper bargain. I started to bake on the unshaded terrace, and took advantage of their wifi to book the night’s accommodation. I’d planned to be a lot further south but was seriously enjoying this area so didn’t set my waypoint too far- Just a seriously well rated guesthouse in Penolite, a couple of hours away.
Unfortunately putting my stomach first had denied my brain of a cultural opportunity- The castle had closed for siesta time. No tour for me. Another time then. Quick fuel stop and off onto the winding roads again. If I’d have had my time again, it would be worth stopping for the night in Yeste- There’s a well-signposted and very interesting looking series of walks around the town and surrounds. It’d merit an overnighter at the least. Great little place, although I suspect it’s very much ON the beaten track in summertime.
Now, I could try to describe my route but the truth is, I haven’t got a clue where I got to. I’d set the sat nav to take me to Penolite, but to be honest it really struggles on some of these roads. Did I say “take a paper map”? I definitely ended up going round in circles at one point, but when you stumble across lakes and views like this, and you’re not a million miles from a bed for the night, who cares? Some tentative off-roading (Nothing drives like a rental) seemed to go well. Just as well as I’m not sure the breakdown response to such a location on a Saturday would have been, er, timely.
After a while it was starting to get towards beer o’clock so. I decided to stop faffing a little and to press on towards Penolite, actually putting a bit of effort into navigating. West on the AB-513, more or less. But then another sight presents itself… Getting close to Penolite, I saw a National Park sign and decided to have a gander. It turns out that this was a great idea!
A proper travel blogger would no doubt have actually noted the name of the place, or how to get to it, but the truth is I haven’t got a clue, and I can’t find it despite significant Google-Fu either. Serendipity- If you pass it you’ll see it. So, with the sun fading, just the final stretch up to my lodgings for the night- El Jaraiz de Penolite…
Just… wow. The setting here has to be seen to be believed. Perfect peace, a small hamlet perched above hundreds of miles of olive groves. A sunny terrace, friendly resident dogs and super-friendly host Angel, the current custodian of the house which has been in his family for 7 generations.
Whilst I gather that the price gets much higher in high season, I got my room for a scarcely believable 30 Euros. Absolutely amazing value, even if the swimming pool wasn’t due to open for another 2 months. The weather here is extreme, just 2 weeks earlier they had been blanketed in heavy snow and here I was, happily sitting out on the sunny terrace in shorts.
Well refreshed by a decent night’s sleep in the old farmhouse, I set off pretty late the next morning with my usual lack of a decent plan. Geography and time suggested that I ought to start heading South, so that’s where I headed. I started getting a bit adventurous and heading up a random unsurfaced road, but soon reminded myself that I am a complete idiot in such situations and turned back to the paved road… winding down from the outpost of Penolite and out across the plains.
Not a million miles later, and again the landscape started to get spectacular, azure blue lakes nestling beside the olive groves with fantastically empty windy roads. And of course high ground in this historically turbulent area means… CASTLES.
Another stunning little whitewashed village overlooking the vastness of the countryside- You would expect these kind of places to be stuffed with turista-nonsense but the really aren’t, just a couple of sleepy restaurants and nary a soul to be seen.
And so I wandered on, from one impossibly beautiful vista to the next. I was heading now for Granada, one of the larger cities in the region. And to be honest, getting pretty weary. It was very much lunchtime, and of all the small towns I encountered there really wasn’t anything around in the way of lunch opportunities. However help came from an unexpected source…
Very close to the colloquial Spanish verb for ‘fucking’, this town promised little at the unprepossessing dusty little junction from the main road. However actually it turned out to be a classic Plaza-oriented Spanish small town which saved my day. Pavement cafe, tapas, a couple of canas… Perfect. Suitably refreshed I hit the autoroute for Granada.
Granada, by any stretch of the imagination, is a beautiful city. Sun-kissed sandstone buildings and the imposing Alhambra towering over the Centro Historico. It’s a nerve-wracking city to drive into- I had blown the budget to nearly 60 Euros that night and as a result was staying at the beautiful Hotel Las Nieves right in the centre. To get to it you have to drive down nearly pedestrianised shopping streets and also put an unholy amount of trust in Google Maps and my rudimentary traffic Spanish that it’s taking you the right way around the myriad pedestrian zones, taxi lanes etc etc…
I didn’t have long enough in Granada. It’s definitely a city worth devoting a couple of days to, such is the scale of the history here and also because it’s just a pleasant place to be for a while. I suspect the tourist hordes might get slightly overwhelming in peak season though… Even in March there were more than enough ‘all the sights’ tourists and pavement-hogging, enormous bored school groups.
Time then for a change of pace… Less than 20km out of the city and you’re climbing up the Sierra Nevada, a popular ski region in the right period. And it really is right on the doorstep of Granada. A cracking road takes you all the way up. I was now en ruta to Malaga and it seemed like a good diversion. Having checked out the amazing views and found all of the interesting coffee shops closed due to being out of season, I decided to head back down.
I am so frequently the master of my own demise when it comes to stupid, un-necessary feckups that it barely comes as a surprise now. So, when I deliberated between the autoroute-class road I’d come up or another one I could see on the map winding steeply down the mountain and through a couple of villages the choice was obvious. Passing the ‘dangerous road’ sign, obvious. Realising it was pretty potholed and virtually a gravel track, obvious.
Rounding a corner I hit one such pothole. ‘Ouch!’ I exclaimed, ‘That was a big one!’. Sure enough, down the road a few metres and ‘wobwobwobwob’. Fuckadoodledoo, another blowout. In my final 24hrs with the hire car. Echoes of Miami.
Sure enough, the point where my car decided to desert me was on a really steep bit of road, in the entrance to a farm. From which, naturally, a farmer wished to emerge. Thankfully though he was not a pitchfork-wielding militant farmer, and we chatted pleasantly, but largely unsuccessfully due to his local dialect and my rubbish Spanish, as I whipped the wheel off.
From then on, whilst the road remained interesting, it was very much a case of hitting the Autoroute as soon as possible towards Malaga, in a bid to prevent me from screwing things up any further. I headed south on the no doubt incredibly expensive but smooth, straight and fast ribbon of tarmac. Well, fast provided you’re not a muppet tourist with a space-saver on.
Having reached the coast I calmed down slightly and allowed myself a diversion onto the ‘old’ main route, which takes you though the Costa towns and villages towards Malaga. More interesting than the autoroute. Unfortunately the chiringuito on the above perfect beach wasn’t serving food, so for lunch I drove up to the attached village. Spanish, but with a distinct whiff of costa del retiree in the air. A bunch of them were holed up on adjacent tables moaning about ‘The Chinese’ and mocking the parking attempts of nearby tourists. Ordering their lunches in English despite having obviously lived here a while and just generally bringing the place down. At least the restaurant didn’t disappoint- an amazing 3 course Menu del Dia for 8 Euros including a beer. Naturally ordered in perfect charming Spanish and with a healthy tip to remind staff that we’re not all bitter old xenophobic prunes.
I cracked on to Malaga. Booking.com had again come up trumps- I’d bagged a 1 bedroom apartment for a ridiculously cheap 43 Euros, crucially including overnight parking which, in the centre of Malaga can easily run to 15-20 Euros or more. I was met at the place by the cheery owner, a lovely guy who even let me leave the car parked until 3pm the next day, saving me even more cash.
Sun City Apartments weren’t exactly far from the centre either. So, I headed out for an evening stroll. Malaga is frequently voted as one of the most liveable cities in the world, and in the warm sunshine it was very easy to see why. Historic sights, amazing art and museums and a relaxed atmosphere… A good place to end my trip.
And so, after a day soaking up the intense Malagan sun, plus plenty of art and culture, it was time for me to collect the car. My flight wasn’t due to leave until much later so i had time to check out the impossibly stylish automobile and fashion museum near the beach…
So, that was it. An immensely restorative short break in the sun, over. Ryanair didn’t disappoint with an on-time flight back- Provided you follow their rules and don’t expect frills the budget carriers always seem to do pretty well. In total my 5 night trip came in under £500 including everything- Airport parking, flights, accommodation, hire car and food/drink. Great value for money, and with a few tweaks such as NOT hiring a car one way, as well as the obvious accommodation savings with 2 people sharing you could reduce this even further.
In many ways this was a great blueprint for the kind of getaway that’s easy to squeeze in- Book flights for weekends well, well in advance and then sort the rest out nearer the time. If nothing else, it’s a ray of hope in the British winter, March in southern Spain is more than pleasant…
…although, desperate to make the most of my 6 days off, arriving home at 1.30am and then starting work at 7am didn’t make for the most pleasant of days!
Next up, closer to home adventures- walking and wild camping along the South West Coast Path.