West of Gibraltar, Tarifa is the most southerly point in Europe. It has a walled town with lots of character and
a long, unspoilt, sandy beach which can be very windy. There is a diving centre in the town. Those of you who don’t manage to book accommodation in Seville for Semana Santa could do worse than stay here: the festivities are very
atmospheric with processions carried along narrow, candle-lit alleyways.
A few miles from Tarifa, heading towards Cadiz, is the archaelogical site of BAELO CLAUDIA, a roman city in a
picturesque beach-side setting. Entrance is free with an EU passport.
BAELO CLAUDIA – A BRIEF HISTORY
Baelo Claudia came into existence at the end of the 2nd century B.C. Its origin and subsequent development are closely associated with the north of Africa, being the maritime link with what is now Tangier.
It is also possible that it functioned as an administrative centre. However, it was from the fish salting industry and the sauces derived from it (garum) that the settlement derived its income. These circumstances led the city to achieve a certain importance, especially during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.) who granted it the rank of Roman municipality.
The economic decline of Baelo Claudia began in the latter half of the second century, almost certainly due to the earthquake which devastated the city at this time. In the third century the city experienced a brief revival of trade, after which the city declined little by little until it was abandoned completely in the seventh century.
The importance of the site lies in the fact that in Baelo Claudia all the elements that make up a typical Roman city are preserved: the forum, the temples of the Capitol, the temples of oriental character like the one dedicated to Isis, the basilica, administrative buildings such as the curia, or the municipal archive, market, theatre, warm baths, an industrial area, a complete city wall with the main gates, streets and aqueducts etc. In no other part of the Iberian Peninsula can you obtain such a perfect idea of Roman town planning as you can by visiting Baelo Claudia. Herein lies the real importance of the site, framed as it is by a spectacular natural setting.
The province of Almeria is one of the least touristy. It has some of Spain’s hottest summer temperatures and hence some fairly arid landscapes. It was here that Sergio Leone made his legendary spaghetti westerns – and there is a Mini Hollywood park you can visit. West of Almeria town the coast is totally ruined with plasticultura which covers the hills with acres of polythene cloches – the ugliest thing you ever saw. The Cabo de Gata is a nature park and so is totally unspoilt, although it can look a bit barren in full summer and the sand is greyish.
The city of Almeria merits a visit if you have plenty of time in the area – but not in high summer when it is unbearably hot. Drive right down towards the port and park in one of the signposted underground car parks on the right.
The city itself is a shabby, lived in sort of place but with reasonable shopping and pavement cafes on the Paseo de Almeria (Mango, Zara and some good shoe shops).
The Tourist Information office is opposite the sea on c/Parque de Nicolas Salmeron, 3 blocks west of Rambla Frederico Garcia.
The guide books will mention Plaza Vieja, an enclosed square with entrances on each corner. It’s a quiet spot away from the traffic .. but some bright spark needs to set up a bar there! Don’t go looking for a cafe on Plaza Purchena either – it is supposed to be the ‘hub’ of the city and is, in a Piccadilly Circus type of way. There are few interesting buildings except the Alcazaba which sits up on a hill overlooking the tangle of city below.
The Alcazaba may not compare with Granada, but it is worth a visit as, unlike Granada, you may find
yourself the only visitor. Follow the route on the guide around the gardens and up to the towers at the highest level. From the castellated ramparts you can look out over the town toward the sea or, more interestingly, out over the gypsy area of town known as La Chanca.
This poor, run down area is in the process of being smartened up by the government with the folk being persuaded away from their cave and slum dwellings into smart new faceless apartments. Nevertheless you can still wile away an interesting half hour watching and listening to all life drifting up to you on the bars of a flamenco tune! From the walls you will also see a small herd of gazelle (!) which belong to the wildlife rescue centre which studies wildlife in danger. The entrance to the Alcazaba is on c/Almanzora and entry is free to EU citizens. The area around the alcazaba is noticeably poor and tourists are warned not to wander around after dark.
For tapas, try the wonderfully old Casa Puga on c/Jovellanos, redolent with old fashioned Andalucian atmosphere and fresh cooked food at 6€ a racion.
Some 30 km north of Almeria, off the Autovia de la Mediterraneon (E15) lies the resort of San Jose. Small but growing – 2 or 3 cranes visible – San Jose makes a pleasant day out. The beach (a Blue Flag) is good, yellow sand and framed by mountains; the sea is crystal clear turquoise-blue (it shelves quite steeply however), with a marina at one end. There is one hotel at the beachside – the 4* Don Ignacio – but the majority of the accommodation seems to be apartments. The beach has loos, lifeguards, bins and kayaks for hire. The town has a couple of the usual beach shops and a ‘funky’ gift shop that also sells loose beads and thongs for making your own souvenir necklaces. There is a general market on Sunday mornings, which in common with most Spanish markets, packs up at 2pm – just in time to go seek out a restaurant for lunch!
I had a couple of memorable Sunday lunches here. The row of bar/restaurants by the marina offers a variety of food – Spanish, pizza, crepes and Italian – with a good view.
Recommended is Cala Chica, the smallest of the row. We shared a racion of mussels for 6€ which were generous in
number and divinely cooked in a fragrant lemon and lime ‘jus’ that we have been unable to reproduce. The mixed salad was excellent, too. Oh and the Parrillada de Pescado looked fantastic at €18 – share a racion.
I also recommend Bar Vittoria,c/del Anclathe Italian ice cream/pizzaria on a corner opposite the beach. With its own pizza oven, the results are thin, crispy, real Italian pizzas ranging from €4 – 7.2. They are dinner
plate huge. G&T €3.7.
CUEVAS DE ALMANZORA
There really are caves here! Follow the signs and pay a couple of quid to have a guided tour of a
dwelling cave by the man that grew up in it. Well worth the money.
Following the coast round you come to Mojacar which is fairly well-known amongst the British, though I don’t like it much. It’s tourist popularity means tourist rip-off prices, especially in high season. The town inland is a ‘white town’ of cubic houses atop a hill (which books say is picturesque but to me looks like an artificial urbanisation) and there are plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops. Mojacar Playa on the coast is flat, backed by a string of soulless hotels and complexes. Better to drive north up the coast beyond Villaricos. You’ll find totally undeveloped spots along the way where you can pull the car off the road and while away the hours alone (even in August) among the rocks and sand. The sea is perfectly clear. Villaricos itself is a fishing village that is undergoing rapid development. The cranes are very evident but there is a nice seaside paseo, a pleasure marina and harbour (with well-positioned bar) and a couple of bars and restaurants to chosefrom.
Garrucha itself is a pleasant traditional resort with a large and popular (with the Spanish) beach and plenty of restaurants serving reasonably priced meals (thanks to the Spanish – no ridiculously high foreign tourist prices for them!). It’s a working port and harbour, famous for its ‘gambas’ – said to be the best in Andalucia.
The north end of the resort is the prettier. There is a very good market here on Friday mornings: park down by the beach and walk UP. Once you’ve had a good wander, head back down to the front and go for lunch at Meson
Another good beach resort to visit is San Juan de los Terreros further north up the coast – but only in the summer; it’s completely deserted out of season. The beaches are good and there are a couple of restaurants to
If you fancy something different, head out to the swimming pool lake at Cela which is fed by underground thermal springs. The temperature is a constant 26 degrees. It’s free to use and there are 2 or 3 restaurant/bars to eat at, and some grass to sit on. It’s set in lovely countryside ringed by mountains. The waters are supposed to be good for the bones! The bottom of the pool is pebbles so it’s a good idea to take some beach sandals to swim in.
To reach it, head west along the Huercal-Baza road, passing through Olula del Rio, Tijola and just past Purchena take the right turn posted Lucar. At exactly 2 km from the turn ignore the sign on the left Termas de Cela – Prohibido banarse and carry on to a fork in the road. Take the left fork, signposted Banos de Cela and follow the road
This pretty pueblo was left high and dry when the river running around it changed its
course and left it almost an island. Sorbas is a pottery centre and the cheapest place to buy all sorts of ceramica and pots. There is a car park at the entrance to the town, then walk up and follow the brown signs to the alfararia. There is a good bar on the quaint, orange tree lined main square – we had 9 tapas and 4 drinks for 13€.
If you don’t mind driving, take the route over the sierra to Nijar. The scenery is good and the mountains are awash with poppies and wild flowers in the spring. It takes around 45 minutes.
Do visit Nijar, a pretty little town (you could do it on the way to San Jose) famed for its ceramics, esparto basketware and ‘jarapas’ the rag and wool rugs. The prices for these last are unbelievably good and you’re bound to be tempted. They look brilliant on Spanish ceramic floors.
Cordoba is a good 3-4 hours’ drive from Malaga airport. A smooth, super-quick journey which takes an hour and three quarters. It’s so efficient that you get a full refund if the train is more than 5 minutes late! Take a look at the www.renfe.es to get an idea of times; tickets can be booked in this country through Rail Europe
Direct on 08705 848848 / www.raileurope.co.uk.
LA MEZQUITA DE CÓRDOBA
By far the main attraction is the phenomenal Mezquita. Enter via the Patio de los Naranjos, (this is where the ticket booth is). In fact it’s pleasant to while away time in this pretty patio with its orange trees and fountain any time as you don’t have to pay for this bit.
Prepare to be stunned by the inside of the Mezquita: you are greeted by the most amazing forest of double-decker arches in alternate red brick and white marble stripes. They are all perfectly aligned and an exact distance apart, which says much about the architectural and building techniques in 785 AD when it was started. The arches are mostly very restored; there are some in older state and it’s nice to see the mixture. Imagine the 100s of worshippers on their prayer mats beneath.
Bang in the middle of this overwhelming Moorish place is a huge Christian nave, the fiddly renaissance detail clashing with the clean lines of the Islamic.
At the opposite end to the entrance is the Mihrab, or holy Moorish ‘altar’, which is an intricately carved marble work of art. This would have been the most important part of the Islamic church, but now all the additions to the interior
mean you find it almost accidently!
Not much to see inside (the building was used as a prison until quite recent times) the main attraction is the lo
The Alcazar is known as the Palacio de los Reyes Cristianos – Ferdinand and Isabel, the great uniters of Spain. They received Columbus here before he set off for the Americas, and there is a statue commemorating the event in the gardens.
MUSEO TAURINO (BULLFIGHT MUSEUM)
Located in the Juderia, it’s worth a visit to this museum even if you don’t think you’re into bullfighting. There are exhibits to all the Cordoban greats, including the so-called greatest of all, El Manolete. You can see the entire skin of the bull that killed him in 1947 as well as his blood-stained suit of lights.
Jaen province is olive oil country; the distinctive rolling bobbly landscape is due to the hundreds of thousands of olive trees. This province has one of the few Denominaciones for its oil and wherever you travel the cooking reflects this. Jaen is also one of Andalucia’s least touristy provinces, so there’ll be plenty of opportunity to practise your Spanish.
Perhaps the reason Jaen remains little visited by the rest of Europe is that you have to have the will to get there! It is served by good motorway links from several international airports with approximate driving times as follows: Madrid (335 km) – approx 3 hours; Malaga (209 km) – under 2 hours; Sevilla (242 km) – approx 2 hours. Cordoba and Granada are both around 1 hour’s drive.
The city has a cathedral, a castle, a Parador and shopping! The best shopping is on and around c/Estacion, where there is a Corte Ingles and good clothes and shoe shops. You’ll come across more ‘individual’ shops as you wander around the old part of town. Stop and have a drink in shady Plaza San Francisco, in the shadow of the cathedral – Bar del Posito still provides a free tapa with your beer and G&T (5€)!
The arab baths, on Plaza Santa Luisa de Marillac at the north end of c/Martinez Molina, are said to be the largest of those that can be visited in Spain. They were built in the XI century and then used as the foundations for the Palace of don Fernando de Torres y Portugal at the end of the XVI century. They were discovered in 1913 and the restoration, interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, was completed in 1984.
The Castillo de Catalina affords fantastic views 5km up over the town. It opens at 10 am and entrance is free – if you can find it! Driving to it is more than a challenge in a city with missing/inaccurate signs. (Entering the city on the N323, turn left to the bullring and follow the road upwards, past the convento.) The castle, of Moorish origens (this being frontier country with the Moors for years) has been heavily restored and now houses an exhibition centred around its use as a garrison and prison of war by the French in the Peninsular war. You can wander at your own pace but there are guides to give you more information on the prison cells and a mini film about a captured Spanish guerilla .. oh and several talking rocks!!
Entrance is free to EU citizens. The Parador occupies the eastern end of the castle. A controversy now, I believe it demonstrates Franco’s will to turn the economy of his country around. Having seen so many historical treasures left to ruins in Spain, the Parador makes the best use of compromise.
BAEZA & UBEDA
It strikes you in Baeza that you may not be in Andalucia at all! Its well preserved Renaissance architecture reminds of the Cantabrian town of Santillana in the far north. Baeza is a pleasant hour’s wander around its picturesque old town, wondering at the very age of its monuments. The tourist office is in the Plaza de los Leones, with its lion fountain so old that the lions look like crouching ferrets!
Ubeda mimics Baeza on a grander style. Its old town is a warren of streets (most of which are one way) which make arriving by car a challenge. There is free parking on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (if you can find it!).
Cazorla town is a pleasant enough, unspectacular town east of Jaen; its main claim to fame is that it is the gateway to the Parque Natural de Cazorla. It has shops, bars, traffic and the world and his wife and 6 kids (in August
PARQUE NATURAL DE CAZORLA is a natural park that takes in the sierras of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas. It is a temperate haven in the height of summer.
As you climb up into the park, leaving the mile upon mile of bobbly olive groves below, you begin to recognise other more familiar trees: poplar, willow, holly. This parque natural is the largest such designated area in Spain and stretches north to south between Genave and Pozo Alcon. A series of mountain peaks (the highest at 1848m is Gillio – pronounced hillyo!) interspersed with lush and dense valleys, rivers and reservoirs. It holds the source (nacimiento) of several rivers, including the Segura, Borossa and the Guadalquivir; this last is not worth seeking out as a sight in August, when your tedious 20k+ journey may only reveal an unspectacular trickle. Once in the park, signposting is pretty good, though bear in mind that any distances covered will be at a maximum speed of 50k on the twisty roads. Plan yourself a car tour to get the feel of the park, taking in a couple of the tiny hilltop villages.
Segura de la Sierra, for example, sits high atop a hill, presided over by an even higher castle. Segura is one of only 4 olive oil producing areas in Spain that has been officially recognised for quality with a DO (Denominacion), so make sure you buy some – the acid content is particularly low: <0.4. There’s a tourist shop with free maps and leaflets and a range of craft-type souvenirs, including olive oil in a variety of sizes and containers. There is also a bar whose terrace affords a fantastic view – just the spot for a refreshing cerveza/G&T! Hornos is also pleasant. La Iruela, just outside the park boundary, has the ruins of a Knights Templar castle above it, which you can drive up to and then actually climb up onto. Not for the faint-hearted, vertiginous or mothers with children of any age – no handrails, no barriers, no officials, no signs; just uneven, ruined steps, sheer drops and the temptation to climb as high as you can! There are also the ruins of a chruch burned down by the French in the Peninsular war.
The main reason for coming to the parque is to enjoy the fresh air and countryside, so ditch the car and plan to do some walking. There are lots of marked footpaths to wander as well as set routes. The Lonely Planet ‘Walking in Spain’ book details 3. The most popular is the Rio Borossa Valley walk along this pretty river’s course up to its source, a total of 12k (and then 12k back!) The Lonely Planet guide defines it as an ‘easy-medium’ walk: the first part is certainly easy and, if you’re a plimsols and vest type of walker, you might like to tote a towel and swimsuit, do a bit of walking and find a spot in the river in which to swim. The last part of the walk, after the hydroelectric plant (see below) requires a deal of determination, decent walking shoes and fit thighs – VERY Medium! The first part of the walk is the prettiest: the river has oodles of trout, plenty of rocks and pools of varying depths. There are several spring pipes by the side of the path, so as long as you take a bottle, you won’t go short of drinking water. If you are going to try the whole walk (detailed below) do set off early and take a picnic and book, with a view to spending the hottest hours relaxing under the shade of a tree at the river’s source, before starting the return journey. Most of the guide books warn of crowds during Easter and high summer, but we found that the level of people was not overbearing in August.
The Borrossa Valley Walk
Drive to the Torre del Vinagre Centre (well signposted) and at the Centre, drive down the turning opposite, signposted Centro Electrico. Drive across the Guadalquivir river and park the car in one of the parking areas near
the piscifactoria (fish farm).
Once parked continue on foot across the bridge over the Rio Borrossa. Immediately on the right is the start of the walk, a wide track following the river on its left. Follow this track for around 45 minutes, crossing the river twice. Then the track opens out into a wide area with a path leading of to the right (signposted Cerrado de Elias tacked to a tree). Following this path as it cuts through a gorge along the river’s course. It rejoins the main track after some 30 minutes. From here, it’s about another 45 minutes to the Centro Electrico, a small hydro electric station. This is the last place to fill your water bottle at a spring pipe. From here on, you need some energy! The path climbs steadily up for some 45 minutes passing a high waterfall; the last part zigzagging steeply up towards a tunnel through the mountains. The tunnel follows the water channel and is narrow and profoundly dark in some places, others lit by holes in the side. The first tunnel is some 5 minutes long; then 5 minutes in the air and then another much shorter tunnel. A very short while after this, you arrive at the embalse (reservoir). Follow a narrow path tot he left of the reservoir, following the sound of the water, to arrive at the source of the river – an ideal place to slip off those boots and refresh those hot feet! The water is icy: painful after 10 seconds . . in August!