We found it: Great scenery, historic regions, fascinating architecture, awesome cuisine and an unbelievably economical getaway from the winter in the Mid-Atlantic. That is not a typo: Economical.
Spain is right there with Ireland as a European bang for the buck. Expect first-class hotel rooms with great views from around $100 a night, half that if you wish to go economy. Food? A bottle of nice wine and 4 appetizers for $18 – split four ways that’s only $4.50 each – tip included. A dinner for four with two bottles of wine, appetizers, fine entrees and desserts and you’ll likely be under $100 — tip included. Similar savings can be found shopping for leather goods and other souvenirs. Their economy is challenged and it is to your advantage so get it while the going is good. We selected Spain primarily because of this and the warm weather in the winter months averaging 55-65 degrees by day.
The best place to fly into is Malaga (pronounced MAL-ah-gah) located on the Mediterranean coast dotted with resort towns frequented by British seeking a warm getaway. Roughly the size of Baltimore, there are about a dozen beach resort towns within an hour’s scenic drive up and down the coast. Flights are easy to find and the airport is large. Expect to rent a large (by European standards) late model station wagon for about $100 a week from dozens of companies.
Granada is an easy 1- to 2-hour drive and served as our first stop. Don’t miss a tour of The Alhambra and learn the history of this fortress dating back to 889AD. A guided tour provides insights on the history of Muslim and African influences as Europe went through its myriad of power changes. You’ll gain a better understanding of the architecture and culture of the Spanish people (Be sure to book ahead for this experience since it is mandatory to have a tour guide and the tours sell out quickly, especially in the summer months). Granada has neighborhoods within the city to delight those who like to wander through cobbled streets full of traditional shops, restaurants and tapas bars where you can get a small tapas plate of your choice for free along with your glass of wine or beer. We found the carrillada (beef or pork cheek stewed in red wine) to be heavenly.
The next stop on our itinerary: Seville, which is an easy two-hour drive from Granada. Don’t miss the Plaza de Espana with its palatial building and towers, moat, bridges and surrounding park. Another must-see is the 500-year-old cathedral, the largest gothic style cathedral in the world and third largest church in the world. Everything in Seville is walkable, but why not treat yourself to a one-hour carriage ride, $45 total for up to four people? No need to go to an expensive restaurant or tourist trap to experience flamenco. There are wonderful, authentic flamenco performances in and around the Plaza de Espana, as well as in the area near the cathedral where you can watch a performance full of heart and passion for the cost of a tip.
The drive from Seville to Ronda is spectacular and varies as highway gives way to rural roads through rolling hills and farmland, to mountains and rivers. Ernest Hemingway thought this was the most beautiful spot on earth and wished to be buried here. The town straddles a spectacular gorge, connected by a bridge built in the 18th century, with the old town on one side and the newer town on the other. Walk along the gorge with roughly a one mile path with views from all angles. Dine at a restaurant overlooking the gorge and don’t miss the oldest bullfighting arena in Spain and museum.
As you arrive in Tarifa, the spot in southern Spain with the shortest ferry rides to Morocco and the African Coast, you initially feel it’s just a small ferry and port town without much to see. Don’t let that fool you. We strolled through the winding alleys and side streets and found fantastic bistros and thriving village life. At night, we sat on our balcony and saw the flickering lights of the African Coast. For just about $60 per person you can take a high-speed ferry to Morocco in under an hour. This fascinating town is a melting pot of culture meeting together to trade. This has gone on for countless centuries and today it thrives as well. We recommend getting a guided tour. For 50 euros, four people can expect a five-hour guided tour that takes you on roughly an hour drive through the town pointing out sights from the famous Café de Paris, as seen in numerous movies, to the toney, wealthy neighborhood called California, and a stop for a camel ride. Once at the top of the hill overlooking the Mediterranean, you spend the next three hours wandering through the streets of The Casbah. Study the interesting architecture, sample local cuisine, bargain away at the shops and watch a snake charmer and his cobra do their dance of life. It’s a must see.
There were several resort towns we could choose to stay a few days and we selected Nerja based on advice of veteran travelers we met along the way. They were right. Of course, like any old European village, the charming, narrow, winding side streets are alive with shops and eateries, but the highlight is the Mediterranean coast. Beautiful sunsets and sunrises can be viewed over pebbly beaches in stretches separated by steep jagged cliffs, some with houses embedded in them. Visit and discover why it is called the Balcone de Europa — the balcony of Europe. Your eyes will never tire of the breathtaking scenery that winds along the Costa del Sol.