Fresh off the boat from Morocco, Spain felt sterile. The people seemed reserved, the traffic tame, the clothing dull, the architecture mundane.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about Spain knows that it is anything but sterile. But I was looking at Spain with Negative Nancy goggles on. It was hard not to – after spending three months in such a fabulous, exotic, interesting, and alive country as Morocco, almost anywhere would seem boring.
Plus, we were on the Costa del Sol, one of Spain’s number one tourist destinations and a coastline reputedly so overbuilt with resorts and casinos and clubs that one would have to look hard – really hard – to find even a shadow of Spanish culture amid the generic architecture and modern, could-be-anywhere culture.
If it weren’t for the climate, we would have skipped this coastline entirely. But, it was early March, and we didn’t fancy coming face to face with the late winter in the rest of Europe.
It appeared we weren’t the only ones thinking along these lines. Andalucía has literally hundreds of campsites – most of them like all-inclusive resorts – dotting the coastline, and all of them were filled to overflowing with retirees. Seriously, the campsites here made those in Morocco seem empty. Apparently the south of Spain had become the new winter migration spot for European retirees scared-away from North Africa by the media.
So now, we were in the Cancun of Europe with almost all of its snowbirds.
Picasso and Flamenco in Málaga
With my sunny attitude in tow, Bruno and I stopped in Málaga, the largest city on the Costa del Sol, and the birthplace of Pablo Picasso. It was indeed for the Picasso Museum that I had dragged Bruno into town at all. I’d discovered, years ago in London, that I liked Picasso – that I “got” his work in a way I rarely manage to grasp with artists. This museum boasts almost 300 works unseen anywhere else.
I soon learned why. Almost all of them were donated to the museum by members of his family, and almost all are unsigned. Picasso could do a sketch in a matter of minutes, and often paid for restaurant meals with a doodle. That’s what most of the works in this museum seemed like – doodles, studies, or exercises created by the artist and stored away, never intended to see the light of day.
Uninspired, Bruno and I wandered the historical district of Málaga, a fairly large pedestrian-only chunk of town. We looked at old decorated churches, wandered down small alleys, browsed restaurant and café menus, and window-shopped on wide boulevards.
In other words, we did what we always do as tourists visiting any city. And it was getting old. The truth is, unless you have time to stay longer and dig deeper, European cities kind of all look and feel the same. You don’t really get much from the experience of wandering around for a day or two. You get photos, sure, and you get to forevermore name-drop all the cool cities you’ve been to, but that’s more or less it.
At lunch that day, we sat at the large terrace of Málaga’s infamous El Pimpi Bodega and gazed out at the nearby Roman amphitheater as we munched on the tiniest meal that 25 euros has ever bought me before. At least we’d always be able to say we’d eaten in the same restaurant as Antonio Banderas.
If there was any saving grace in Málaga, it was the flamenco performance we attended. I’ve been fortunate to see flamenco several times on giant stages in North America because I’m a huge fan of the late Paco de Lucia. But there’s something about witnessing this sensual dance on the land where it was born that feels even better.
There were no authentic flamenco performances until the weekend, but I found a tiny restaurant called Vino Mio that does a dinner performance every night. There may not have been enough space for more than a single dancer, accompanied by one guitarist and one singer, and they were truly only an average group, but it was still really fun and I didn’t much care that I’d fallen into a tourist trap. (I’d had just as much fun at the tourist-trap Fado performance in Lisbon). The performance was enough to make my Negative Nancy goggles fall off and remember to enjoy whatever the Costa del Sol had to offer. I was in Andalucía, after all, the most infamous region of Spain!
The Pueblos Blancos of Andalucía
Andalucía’s pueblos blancos are villages of whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs. From afar, these totally white towns, perched on green hills overlooking azure seas, look like they should be part of Khaleesi’s kingdom (from Game of Thrones). Close-up, they are just as charming; in fact, Frigiliana, the pueblo blanco Bruno and I visited, was the first town in Spain (including my two months in Northern Spain last fall) that aesthetically wowed me.
Frigialiana was totally charming. The small alleys were paved with carefully-placed stone mosaics, and as you weaved up the stairwells, you passed perfectly-restored old village homes. They all had tasteful doors, pots of blossoming flowers, cute window shutters, and antique tools on decorative display. And once you reached the top of the hill on which the village was placed, you had a view of the hills and sea that definitely inspired deep breaths full of whimsical reflection.
Frigiliana was also, however, totally touristy. There were more shops and restaurants than private homes, and all of the shops sold artisanal chocolates, natural soaps, and hand-crafted artwork. I found myself wanting to buy stuff, wanting to spend money, and I sensed that uncomfortable ball of dissatisfaction lodge itself in my gut when I realized I just couldn’t buy all that stuff. Spending most of my time, as I do, in nature, this is a ball I’m fairly unfamiliar with, and I didn’t really appreciate its entrance-on-scene. I’m glad I fought against my consumer desires, however, as I soon realized that all these “unique” artisan products could be found in every single tourist village along Andalucía’s coast.
A few days later, when Bruno and I were driving through the Sierra Nevadas, we stumbled upon more pueblos blancos. I’d dragged Bruno to these mountains – where night-time temperatures were still falling well below zero – for the simple reason that I’d loved a beer by the same name in college. I hadn’t expected this mountain range to be so rocky and arid – an effect of its proximity to the Tabernas Desert – and I especially hadn’t expected to see more sparking white pueblos standing out in the dull, earth-toned landscape.
The best pueblos blancos that we encountered during our drive through the Sierra Nevadas were three mountain villages – Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira – in an ascending line along the edge of the Poqueira Gorge. With the snowy peak of Mt. Mulhacén behind, they make for a dramatic panorama.
I especially liked Pampaneira. It was perched on the edge of the hill looking out onto the gorge and the mountain like seats in an amphitheater surround a stage. In the center of the streets was a sort of open-air drain used to collect and direct the flow of water from the top of the village to the bottom. On the rooftops were thin, tall chimneys that looked like an army of men wearing cowboy hats. And to top it off, there was a tiny local market where I was able to buy fruit and vegetables. Even though I couldn’t bargain for prices, it felt good to buy my produce in open – albeit chilly – air.
The Mediterranean Coast
As I mentioned before, the Costa del Sol, was incredibly built-up. At times, all we seemed to drive past was hotels and apartments, resorts and holiday villas, bars, restaurants, and kitsch tourist shops. This theme continued throughout almost all the Mediterranean Coast of Andalucía. I read later that over 70% of tourists to Andalucía congregate around the coast, so despite being disheartening, the infrastructure makes sense.
Nonetheless, it was a pleasant surprise to occasionally find a few Parques Naturales along the coast. The first we stumbled upon accidentally after our visit to Frigiliana. The monstrous buildings of Nerja suddenly gave way to foliage and rugged cliffs, and a dirt track veered into a small parking area at the edge of a cliff. A few camper vans were parked here, and we chatted for a while with an English couple that had a very cool vehicle and had been camping here for several days. It turns out they knew Phil and Angie – what a small world is that of overlanders!
We spent a very lovely 24-hours in this parque watching the sunset, eating dinner with the view of the water from our back window, walking along the tiny secluded beach, and having a lunchtime picnic at the edge of the cliff. We’d have stayed longer, but bush camping is apparently illegal in the Parques Naturales, and we were all photographed and shooed away with a warning by a park guard.
A few days later, we visited Cabo de Gata-Níjar Parque Natural, the largest coastal protected area in Andalucía. The arid, hilly landscape reminded me a lot of Morocco, actually, and it was a wonderful breath of fresh air after endless kilometers of man-made scenery. We would have loved to bush camp there, but after our warning at the previous parque, we opted for a campsite. At least we got to take advantage of the coast with a nice long afternoon walk on a marked hiking trail departing from the campsite’s little private beach.
All Things Andalucían
Andalucía is reputedly one of Spain’s most interesting regions. It has a complex history involving the Moors that shows itself even today in everything from its architecture to its name. It is the source of such infamous Spanish symbols as flamenco and bullfighting. And it encompasses cities like Seville and Granada, the highest mountain in Spain, and coastlines along two major bodies of water.
My experience of Andalucía was far from complete – I didn’t experience bullfighting in Seville or visit the mighty Alhambra in Granada; I didn’t sun myself topless along the Costa del Sol or visit the Mosque of Córdoba; I didn’t get to sample much tapas (more on that in a future post) or see first-rate authentic flamenco. I didn’t even really learn much about the history, culture, or people of Andalucía.
What my experience in Andalucía was, however, was an apt and honest portrait of the great, average, and less-than-amazing moments that traveling full-time around the world involves. Travel isn’t all breathtaking inspiration and dramatic mishaps – just like regular life, there are plenty of just average moments in between. Our time in Andalucía was a mixed bag. It might not make the best blog entry, but then again, at least it’s a true one.