I just spent a week in southern Spain and did not once drink sangria. What, you say? Is it possible to travel to the land of tapas bars and not enjoy a jug of the iconic fruity concoction? I studied abroad in Barcelona one summer in college and drank loads of the stuff. But in fact, I only saw it one time the whole week I was just in Spain, and on our very last day. Because here is the secret- locals generally don’t drink it.
This speaks volumes to the types of experiences I was so incredibly grateful to enjoy recently in Spain. Super local, off-the-beaten path places and activities that many people don’t even know are possible. I visited a private horse farm, a local art restorer’s home and a small olive oil producer, just to name a few. Entertaining and historical commentary from the best local guides brought sites to life for me that I might otherwise have passed by. I dined at very local restaurants where there was no English spoken (and no sangria consumed). By the end of the week, my high school Spanish flooded back to me as the conversation flowed more easily, generally over a cava or sherry, por supesto! Sunny weather, passionate people, laid-back culture, great food & wine.. I’m pretty sure Spain and I could be besties.
It all began with a direct flight from Dallas to Madrid. AA flies this route daily, and it is super easy to take. After a few glasses of wine, a couple movies and quick hop across the pond, we touched down in Madrid, the cosmopolitan capital of Spain. Having not visited Madrid in 15+ years, I was immediately struck by how clean the city is. Beautiful tree-lined streets, open plazas like Plaza Mayor, important museums such as the Prado and the the Reina Sofia, and the huge oasis that is El Parque de Retiro (college memories flooded back of renting little paddleboats there to wile away an afternoon) fill the city. The gastronomy is burgeoning with celebrity chefs and great local tapas bars, and the locals appear effortlessly chic (what is in the water here, seriously?) Regarding weather, Madrid sits at just over 2,000 feet above sea level, which helps keep it drier. We enjoyed perfect sunny 75 degree days in early October!
And then one of the best highlights of our trip was to partake in a local bullfight with renowned bullfighting expert, Tom Kallene. It is not necessarily for the faint of heart, but a Spanish bullfight is steeped in tradition and a truly local experience to immerse yourself in. I must say that I would not have wanted to do this without Tom’s expert commentary and explanations of what was happening at every moment, as well as the history behind the ritual- it just wouldn’t have made as much sense otherwise. The Plaza de Toros filled with well-dressed locals, as the corrida is as much of a sporting event as it is a social scene. We shuffled in right behind them, and I nervously sipped on my cold can of Mahou beer while waiting for the event to begin. Tom explained every moment as it happened as I watched on in fascination the matadors daring the bulls to charge their waving capes. “Ole!” we yelled a few times, getting into the spirit. When it was over, we all had a new appreciation for this ages-old ritual.. and a definite need for another Mahou!
After the bull fight, we enjoyed a wonderful private cooking class with a local foodie & chef. Many hours later, our bellies were full of beetroot gazpacho, roasted vegetable salad, pasta paella, and santiago almond cake. These recipes now sit in my home kitchen where I can only hope to recreate them as well as the chef’s!
Madrid has no shortage of great properties on which to rest your head after a busy day of sightseeing, eating, and shopping! I loved the Villa Magna, a boutique property with great outdoor patios, in the chic Salamanca district. Even better, my clients at Villa Magna enjoy complimentary daily breakfast for two, a complimentary wine & tapas pairing for two, and upgrade if available. The rooms are very well-appointed, and the bathrooms spacious!
The Hotel Urso is another chic choice in Salamanca, as is its sister property, the newly opened and more lifestyle-driven Hotel Totem. Finally, art and design afficianados will love the Gran Melia Palacio de Los Duques near the Royal Palace. Newly renovated and reopened, this building used to be a palace of a duke from Granada. A palette of gold, white & black with pops of color, and tons of Velazquez art reproductions decorate the property. Please ask me about the best deals at these, or any other Madrid properties, and how to best incorporate into an itinerary!
The next day, we moved on to Cordoba, just a short two hour ride on the AVE fast train from Madrid’s Atocha station to Cordoba. In 1994, the historic center of Cordoba was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is fun to amble around, taking in all the whitewashed walls and pretty potted flowers. The highlight of our visit was definitely the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Cordoba was a Muslim city for approximately 500 years, from 711 to the 1236. Upon reconquering, the mosque was converted to a Christian cathedral and a Renaissance cathedral was erected right in the middle of the former mosque in the 16th century. The maze of candy cane striped archways and unique Moorish Christian architecture is fascinating to explore!
After we explored the center of Cordoba, we drove a few minutes out of the city to a private Andalusian ranch and horse farm for an incredible visit and show. The beautiful Andalusian horses have been bred and raised off and on for over one thousand years here. After a delicious lunch we enjoyed a truly special performance by the horses and their riders, accompanied by flamenco dancers and a small band. These horses are trained in performance and they literally danced across the pasture in front of us, in time to the music and the dancers.. I was mesmerized. This is not a place that anyone can just pop into! But for an unforgettable local experience, I am able to arrange this for my clients. 🙂
After the ranch visit and horse show, we continued on our way approximately two hours by car to the charming city of Sevilla. Upon arrival, we settled into the beautiful and well-located Hotel Alfonso XIII, one of the best 5* properties in town! A grand traditional hotel constructed in 1929, rooms are outfitted in either Moorish, Andalusian, or Castilian style. Enjoy breakfast or drinks in the central courtyard, or any of the cozy armchairs and sofas scattered around the first floor. There is even a large outdoor pool as well as tapas bar on a wraparound terrace. So many facilities of a larger hotel, but the intimate atmosphere and service of a boutique property. LOVED my stay at the Alfonso XIII!
My clients enjoy extra amenities (such as complimentary breakfast, one complimentary lunch or dinner, and upgrade if available) and VIP status here!
The next day we set out to explore this charming Andalusian city with our enthusiastic and knowledgable guide, Jaime. Romans and Muslims originally formed Seville, which was reconquered by the Christians in 1248. This city, the 4th largest in Spain, is rich in history, including ties to America, as Seville is where Christopher Columbus lived and mapped out his endeavors along with other explorers. His remains today are buried within the Cathedral of Seville. We explored the cathedral and climbed the 30+ short ramps that lead to the observation deck of the top of the Giralda belfry, the original minaret of the mosque when the area was ruled by Muslims in the 12th century.
We also enjoyed a thorough visit to the Royal Alcazar Palace, a gorgeous old castle and a great example of Moorish design filled with elaborate archways, colorful tiles, and outdoor patios. Since it was built by the Arabs in the 8th century and subsequently expanded upon by later Christian kings, the architecture is a bit of an eclectic mix. Jaime explained all the history to us in exquisite detail, and his commentary added so much value to our visit!
Flamenco is a dance style typical of the Andalucia region in southern Spain, and we were lucky enough to be able to enjoy a private performance by a beautiful gypsy family and their friends. Flamenco is characterized by a rhythmic combination of dance, guitar, hand claps and foot stomps. I sat mesmerized in the tiny theater as the group performed passionately just 10 feet in front of me. They had explained that they freestyle, that is, they just feel the vibes and music from each other, and of course, from the audience. If we were feeling it, too, we were told to let them know! Flamenco is an art designed to evoke emotions in its viewers, and I admit I let out several excited “ole!”s as I scooted forward in my chair. Nothing says more about a local culture than its tradition of dance. I have loved attending sultry tango performances in Buenos Aires and melancholy fado shows in Lisbon, but flamenco is just plain fun! The dancers are so into their performances and also love for the audience to be involved, which makes for an excellent show. (And can I admit, that I wanted badly all of their fun swirly dresses and bold jewelry?! They are girls after my own heart here!)
Taking in an intimate performance by local gypsy flamenco dancers is not an experience you can google! But I am happy that I am able to arrange this for my clients- it is an experience that you will never forget!
One more experience we enjoyed in Seville was a visit to the private home of a well-known couple who specialize in art restoration. They taught us a bit about how they restore old art as well as catalog and value clients’ private art collections. This fantastic and super local experience was capped off when the couple joined us for cocktails in their parlor. Que bueno! (Art buffs and those seeking more authentic experiences will love this! Ask me for details, I am happy to arrange it for my clients!)
Seville (Sevilla in Spanish!) is a gorgeous city with so much to see and do! I would recommend at least 3 nights to experience it all. Between the requisite sites (palace, cathedral, etc), you’ll want to stroll the streets and soak up the local culture, perhaps taking in a unique private experience as noted above. And for an extra local flavor, explore the Triana neighborhood, a gentrified district along the river that is known for its super local tapas bars, shops, and flamenco scene.
After we enjoyed getting to know Sevilla, we journeyed approximately 1.5 hours by car to Ronda, with a stop en route at a private olive oil producer. Spain, and especially Andalucia, is known for its large production of olive oil, which we were able to learn a bit more about, along with the pressing process, by the owner Juan.
Ronda itself straddles the deep El Tajo gorge and is connected by Puente Nuevo, the “new” bridge, built in the 18th century. While this romantic town lends itself to strolling through the narrow alleys of whitewashed walls and majestic wooden doors, there is a lot of history here, too. The world’s oldest bullfighting ring is in Ronda, but they only hold bull fights once a year- for one week in September. Feel free to explore inside of it the other 51 weeks of the year, and imagine what it would be like to be a matador! Famous Americans Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, their works inspired by Spain, spent time in Ronda.. and recently in 2015 statues were erected in their honor near the bullring. Welles’ ashes are even buried here, and in fact having identified so strongly with Spain, it was Welles who stated “A man is not from where he is born, but where he chooses to die.”
After exploring Ronda, we visited a small winery (there are approximately 25 wineries near Ronda!) called Descalzos Viejos, which loosely translates to barefoot old men, per Flavio, the owner. He then showed us around the historic monastery turned bodega (Spanish for winery) complete with 16th century frescos still showing on the walls. The outdoor patio was a lovely place to enjoy a taste of their wine before heading to our accommodation for the night!
After a long day exploring, we were THRILLED to finally arrive at Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera. This 12-room property just 10 minutes from Ronda is the perfect romantic break from exploring the surrounding areas. Each room has a fireplace and is decorated with personal items from the owners, a very charming Dutch-German couple. The outdoor pool is fringed by colorful blooms and tall cypress trees, with a couple of oversized rubber duckies floating cheekily in the middle. The chef is the owner’s son and made one of the very best meals I have ever had- if you visit, you must try the veal cheeks cannelloni!! The living room area contains an honor bar, and I honestly felt like I was visiting a private home and not a hotel property. I so hope to return here soon!
CAMINITO DEL REY
Once we were all checked out of La Fuente De La Higuera, we continued on to the Caminito Del Rey, once dubbed the world’s scariest hiking path. It was initially used for local workers commuting through the gorge in the 1920s, but was closed for 15 years in 2000 following several tragic accidents involving hikers. The 3km long Caminito just reopened in early 2015, and is tightly regulated, allowing just 600 visitors per day, all of whom are required to wear helmets (due to threats of falling rocks from the sheer cliff walls). The $6M in improvements include a wooden slat pathway secured by thick wire rails. But this doesn’t stop one from peeking over the edge and seeing the old concrete pathway just below.. It is hard to imagine anyone walking on that!
We entered the path about 2km early and walked on a scenic path up to the gate of the Caminito where we had to present our entrance tickets (pre-purchased in advance). We had an awesome hiking guide with us, James, who actually typically leads hikes through the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, as well as trails in Spain. He added great history and commentary to our experience, as well as secure the tickets in advance for us. Highly recommend! (Of course, I can set this up for my clients.) Then we traversed the 3km Caminito, staring in awe at the river below and gorge which slices through the canyon, and of course, the old precarious path below! The last section included a suspension bridge, and then we were done! And finally, we took a 2km path to the final exit where our driver was waiting (or a bus will take you back to the start if you self-drove). Checked off a bucket list item that I didn’t even realize was there. Caminito Del Rey is a very unique experience, a must-do if you are an adventure-seeker in the south of Spain!
MALAGA (but first.. LA BOBADILLA)
Once we completed the scariest hiking path in the world (!) we continued to make our way towards Malaga on Spain’s sunny southern coast.. but, we had one stop first. We stopped to enjoy the afternoon and spend the night at Barcelo La Bobadilla, a full service resort situated right in between Malaga and Granada. A member of Leading Hotels of the World as well as Virtuoso, this is a gorgeous property made to evoke an Arab village, with a chapel. With just 67 rooms, the amenities seem to far outnumber the rooms! There are several restaurants, two huge adjacent swimming pools (one is heated, and I thoroughly enjoyed a swim the first week of October!) and pretty grounds to stroll around. There is also children’s programming, making this a great choice for families. Haute Holidays guests enjoy at La Bobadilla extra perks such as free daily breakfast!
Next up… a quick 45 minute drive from Barcelo La Bodadilla and we arrived at the seaside city of Malaga, a city that is quickly becoming a cultural capital in the south of Spain. Wide, tree-lined streets with chic shops and cafes spilling out onto the sidewalks made for a fun morning stroll. Throngs of locals gathered their produce, olives, and fish at the Mercado de Malaga (local market), and I couldn’t help but to purchase some of the local Spanish almonds for myself.. delish! We then made our way past the cathedral and to the Picasso museum, as Malaga was the birthplace in 1881 of the famous artist and where he resided until he was 19 years old. Great experience- especially with our expert guide! Finally, don’t miss lunch on the terrace at El Pimpi, one of Malaga’s most famous cafes!
The port of Malaga accommodates cruise ships, and we saw an Oceania liner in the day we visited. Palapas and playgrounds dot the public beach and many little restaurants are lined up just behind them. Malaga was a pleasant surprise to me! It is a great place to spend a couple days soaking up the sun and culture of southern Spain before heading inland to explore the smaller towns. And from the US, there are direct flights from JFK to Malaga, making this a great gateway from which to explore Spain’s Andalucia region!
I enjoyed the most incredible trip to southern Spain thanks to my best on-the-ground partners at Madrid & Beyond! They help make my clients’ experiences in Spain so special, and I was thrilled to be able to visit myself, meeting with their fab team of guides and drivers, and of course inspecting many hotels! It is my job to match my clients to the right experiences and properties, and trips like this definitely help me to do that! (If you would like me to help craft your perfect Spanish itinerary, please fill out the form on the “set sail” tab of this site.)
Spain is a wonderful destination, filled with great people, culture, history and food & wine. It is the first country in Europe that I truly explored (way back when!) and I already can’t wait to visit again. And do you know what else? I didn’t even miss the sangria. Hasta pronto, Espana!! xo