Road Tripping in Andalusia, Part One

by Michael

The typical tourist route through Andalusia runs south from Madrid to Toledo, then on to the triangle of Granada, Sevilla, and Cordoba. The cities are easily accessible by train, bus, or car. So, for the first time on this trip — and any of our prior international trips — we rented a car. Elizabeth visited these cities back in 2006 when she was studying abroad, this is (still) my first trip to Spain. Renting a car gave us the flexibility to see parts of Andalusia that Elizabeth didn’t get to see previously, while still allowing us to see the big sights. We are pretty museum’d and cathedral’d out by this point — we only have the patience/interest for one or two sights a day and prefer to spend our time walking around town or sitting in a park. Neither of us have driven a manual transmission in the last decade (or in Elizabeth’s case, ever), so we paid a bit extra for an automatic. Both the rental and extra cost for an automatic were well worth it.

But before we could enjoy traveling by car, we had to figure out how to get out of the airport. In the US, occasionally a freeway has two or maybe three assigned numbers (Bay Area folks may be familiar with the segment of 80 East that overlaps with 580 West, which heads due North just to add to the confusion). In Spain, it seemed like the freeways had up to a dozen number designations, plus a letter for each number. We made only one wrong turn (getting out of the airport…)!

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We passed a convoy of windmill arms!

The drive to Toledo was a taste of Spanish countryside quite different from what we saw on the Camino. While we had expected parts of the Camino to be brown hills like California, even the Meseta (the “desert of the Camino”) was mostly green. We finally found the familiar golden brown landscape as we headed South out of Madrid toward Toledo.

Toledo and Around

Our first stop was the town of Toledo, which is perched high on a hill.  In the past few years, escalators have been added to assist with the walk up! Toledo was home to painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco, and houses a museum with exhibits on his life and his art. The museum was intended to be in his former house, but the benefactor bought the wrong house. It was an interesting visit, especially when viewed in historical context of what other painters were doing at the time.  The museum was next door to a former synagogue that has also been turned into a museum. Most tourists visit Toledo as a day trip from Madrid, so we especially enjoyed exploring the city after the masses had left for the day (and the temperature went down).

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We braved the sun/heat and took a peak in the only remaining mosque in Toledo’s historic district.

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Inside the synagogue (random band setting up for unknown event).

In addition to being tourists wandering the old town and museums, Toledo gave me another chance to run. Toledo is on a hill with a river that runs more than half of the way around the city. From the city we saw the ruins of centuries-old bridges, and I saw on the map that there is a running trail along the water. So the next morning I went for a run along the river, under the new bridges and past the former bridges. It’s a great way to get a feel for the place, and I highly recommend it. Non-runners can enjoy the path as well — I crossed paths with an English fellow I met the day before as he was walking his dog along the path.

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Early morning shadows in the canyon below Toledo’s historic district.

By having a car, we were also able to explore some smaller towns nearby. On our second day, we drove from Toledo to Granada, with a couple stops along the way. At our first stop, Almonacid de Toledo, we drove up to an old abandoned castle and walked around the ruins. It was a one-lane dirt road, so we were lucky no car came the other way. The view was fantastic.

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Check out our orange and cream car! Not pictured — the dirt road leading up to the castle ruins.

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Looking down from the castle at Almonacid de Toledo.

We also drove up to Castillo Penas Negras near Mora, where again we had amazing views. This time there was a walkway and stairway structure, and a crane that looked like it could work but was not functioning. I guess Spain’s austerity policies applied to castle restoration.

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Castillo Penas Negras.

While I enjoy traveling with just a backpack and no car, this is something we could not have done without the car. It was a nice change of pace.

Two other quick notes from the towns between Toledo and Granada:

1. We saw the Camino symbol on a wall. There are Camino routes all over Spain, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.

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Driving along the Camino instead of walking (note the blue and yellow scallop shell tile above the window).

2. We had a nice picnic in the park for lunch. Gazpacho (Spanish cold tomato soup) is sold in cartons like milk, so it’s easy to use that as the base item for lunch.

Granada

Granada is home to the Alhambra — home to the Moorish Emirs of Al-Andalus until 1492, then to the Spanish “Reyes Catholicos” (literally Catholic Monarchs). The style is remarkably similar to what we saw in Morocco a couple months ago — though unsurprising since the Emirs of Al-Andalus were the last of the muslim rulers of Spain, whose reign began with an invasion from Morocco. It’s a bit strange thinking about Catherine of Aragon, who would later marry (and be divorced by) Henry VIII, growing up here. It’s a beautiful place, and we tried our best to get a few pictures that capture the beauty of the buildings and grounds (including a large redwood tree!).

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Sunset view of the Alhambra from the Mirador de San Nicolas.

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View from the top of the Alcazaba (older section of the Alhambra complex).

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Looking back on the Nasrid Palace from the Generalife gardens.

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The Alhambra is filled with amazing water features.  Perhaps the most amazing part is that they are all gravity powered and still work!

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Tree hugger.

We spent two nights in Granada, with most of our tourist activities focused on the Alhambra.

Tip for last-minute (or poor planning) travelers considering visiting the Alhambra: There can be a long line to get in and not enough tickets in a day. If you book ahead online, that can resolve the problem. Reserved tickets can  sell out as far as two weeks or more in advance. If you are traveling without planning very far into the future (like us), a certain number of tickets are reserved for same-day sales, meaning that you have to trek up to the Alhambra early in the morning to buy your tickets for timed entry that day.

The easiest way to buy tickets in the morning is with a credit card from a machine. In the morning, potential ticket buyers line up in two, separate lines. There is a line to buy tickets from a live person, where you can pay with cash. This probably works, but there is a long line. There are also machines less than 100 meters away — a fact that many people do not seem to realize.  When we showed up at the ticket line at 7am, there were already a bunch of people in the live cashier line but only one person in line for the credit card machine line (neither line officially opens until 8am). We used our American credit card and it worked fine to give us morning tickets.

Around Granada

Again enjoying the use of a car, we went for two hikes in the Sierra Nevada mountains (because we haven’t done enough walking on this trip!). No, not the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Sierra Nevada is Spanish for snowy mountains, so they have them all over. We did two hikes, one over a pass and through a valley (about 16km including approach), and the second through a canyon (called the Cahorros). The first hike felt very remote as we didn’t see anyone for the entire hike. The views were nice and it reminded it of some of our hiking in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The canyon hike was much shorter but exciting — there were segments where the trail is blocked by rock, but there are metal hand-holds attached to the rock so you can pull yourself along the path. We took a video showing how narrow the walkway was at one point. We lucked out and found a great English-language resource for hiking the Sierra Nevada mountains at www.treksierranevada.com.

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Up in the mountains again! 

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View from our first hike along Canal de Espartera.

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The hike through the Cahorros canyon required some unusual hiking methods.

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180+ degree panoramic in the Cahorros canyon.

Although the Sierra Nevada mountains are very close to Granada, we chose to stay for three nights in Monachil, though there are several towns like this where you can stay to visit the mountains. It was a much more relaxing atmosphere than staying in Granada.  Our hotel had a small pool (much appreciated in the hot afternoons), there was a great little bar along the river, and we were surrounded by the quiet mountains instead of city noise.  Also, we didn’t have to walk 20 minutes from our hotel in order to find free parking (yep, that was our general parking strategy to make sure that our daily budget wasn’t eaten up by parking charges).

With the exception of the narrow canyon with handles along the walkways, the area where we hiked in the Sierra Nevada mountains was not stand-out great but still offered solid hiking. On a shorter trip, we might have skipped it. But having been gone for so long, this was our chance to get out on our own.  It’s also worth noting that it was really hot while we were in Monachil (highs in the mid-90s each day).  The only way that we could bear to do any hiking was to get up early each morning so that we’d be done hiking no later than 1pm.  However, we noticed that most Spaniards did not do the same, and it seemed that they were all heading out to hike as we were back to town.

[We’re making an attempt to finally get caught up on getting our blog posts up.  This post describes our visit to Toledo, Granada, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains on June 22-25, 2016.]

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