History, romance stunning scenery . . . the real Spain
Sinead Ryan discovers the hidden gems of southern Spain just a short hop from the Costa resorts
One of the great joys of visiting a place you haven't been before is travelling between towns, cities and little gems of villages with minimal luggage and an open heart. It's easy to believe that Andalucia in southern Spain was almost designed for this purpose.
From the frighteningly deep gorges of Ronda to the coastline of Cadiz, it has everything the traveller could want, without having to be too intrepid. After all, we still want good food, wonderful wine and comfortable hotels.
Flying into Malaga, Seville or even Faro gives easy access to this less explored part of Spain. I started my journey in the ancient city of Antequera, about an hour north of Malaga. In this "antique area" you will be tripping over Roman ruins, old tombs and first-century pots and pans. Three-quarters of all Andalucian antiquities are here, so the museum is well worth a visit (entry €3, closed Mondays).
Don't miss the castle of Santa Maria (€3) with its fabulous views of the city and the story of Lovers' Rock which, legend says, bore witness to a tragic tale of a love affair between a young Christian and a Moorish princess. Their love was forbidden and they fled to the rock chased by soldiers. Rather than be without each other, they threw themselves from the rock in a loving embrace.
The city is a good base for trips to Ronda and Cadiz, the former boasting a gorge -- 180 metres at its deepest, seen from the bridge in the main street. Ronda boasts 100 restaurants and high-end shops, making it a charming pit-stop. A sanctuary dedicated to Don Bosco is worth a visit.
The 16th-century Church of Santa Maria la Mayor is a magnificent mish-mash of styles after being rebuilt following an earthquake. For those who wish to nourish the body as well as the soul, a tour in the local winery is a must, with €4 covering entrance and wine poured from a tap in the wall.
Cadiz is two hours' drive away and a complete contrast. This maritime city was home to the seat of Spanish democracy. The Plaza de San Antonio has four watchtowers overlooking the square used as navy quarters in the 18th century. There are four self-guided city walks and you can wander to your heart's content. The Plaza Topete was once the old flower market and is now home to dozens of cobbled streets full of bars, restaurants and shops.
Heading west towards the Portuguese border you'll find the Huelva province, and village of Magazon, from where Christopher Columbus set sail. Clamber over the full-size replicas of the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinto and visit the adjacent museum.
Nearby is the Donana National Park. It was once owned by William Garvey, an Irish aristocrat who set sail for Spain in 1800 in search of Merino sheep to cross with his own. The ship sank in a storm, but Garvey was saved. He went into the wine business and bought land at Magazon, now owned by the State. There's wild boar, lynx, fallow deer and buzzards along with 1,380 species of flora and fauna over 110,000 hectares and a trip is an absolute must. Prices are €30 for a two-hour guided safari over 70km. (donanavisitas.es)
One excellent way of touring like this is to use one hotel chain. They can book you onwards as you decide on your journey and you know the standard will be similar. The wonderful Paradores group boasts 92 hotels in Spain, all owned by the State which bought up listed buildings, castles and other properties and converted them to top-end hotels.
The range from the ultra-modern Cadiz, where you get the feeling the room is smarter than you, to the charming Magazon, which floats down to the sea. The Paradores Ronda is chic and the food outstanding, as indeed it is in all the hotels, with the emphasis on local cuisine.