From the capital to the southern coast – exploring Spain independently

By Susan DeMaggio
This article appears on page 6 of the October 2019 issue.

View of the walled city of Ávila from the Mirador Los Cuatro Postes.

My husband, Emmett Lee, and I are avid travel enthusiasts (65 and 70, respectively) who enjoy the planning process as well as the actual travel experience, and we almost always rent a car to travel our own itinerary. We travel about four months per year, and when we aren’t traveling, we’re planning our next trip or the one after.

To celebrate my 70th birthday, we decided on a trip to Spain, spending three weeks on the Costa del Sol and 10 days in and around Madrid in February 2019. All the arrangements for this 35-day off-season trip were made from our lounge chairs at home.

Although many Northern Europeans, Norwegians, Brits, Germans and Dutch do winter in Spain (with temperatures in the 60s, it’s far more comfortable than in summer), we found few Americans. We did find English menus and speakers to be prevalent.

Getting there

We flew into and out of Madrid on Norwegian Air, where premium class is comparable to business class on other airlines but significantly less expensive. Since connecting flight times would have put us into Málaga near midnight, we decided to overnight (E132, or $146) near the Madrid airport at the Melía Barajas hotel (Av. de Logroño; melia.com).

The neighborhood was a delightful stop-off point, where we enjoyed our first Spanish dinner and rested before our Iberia flight on down to Málaga the next day. This gave us a day to recuperate from jet lag and made it easier to find our timeshare on the Costa del Sol in daylight.

We are avid timeshare travelers, and we love the options that timeshares have given us to travel the world. For this trip, we found three weeks available trading through RCI (rci.com) in two resorts: Crown Resorts Club Marbella in Mijas and Club Delta Mar, just a couple miles east. Two nights between those two resort stays were unavailable, so we added a side trip to Tangier to fill the gap.

A flamenco dancer performs in a square in Seville.

One benefit of using timeshares is being able to make breakfast and coffee before each day and have snacks in the evening. A second (huge) benefit is that our lodging costs for our three weeks on the Costa del Sol were under $600.

We were 15 to 20 kilometers from the wonderful seaside towns of Marbella and Fuengirola and within sight of the sea. From our temporary home, we explored the local restaurants within walking distance for lunches and dinners on our “local” days. We found dining and grocery shopping in southern Spain to be very affordable.

We dined at tapas, seafood and Andalusian restaurants all along this stretch of coast. One of our favorites was Café-Bar El Estrecho, located on a small, alley-like walking street just off Plaza de la Victoria in Marbella. It’s in a pedestrian-only zone, so you have to park outside the Old Town and walk in.

Day-tripping

From our bases in Mijas, we planned three overnight trips to historical sites in southern Spain, visiting Seville, Córdoba and Granada. Considerations for our choice of lodging in each city (as well as for our 2-night excursion to Tangier) were having parking available nearby and locations within the Old City, where we could enjoy the paseos, restaurants, shopping and sightseeing on foot.

In Seville, we reserved a room at Legado Alcázar (legadoalcazarhotel.com), a lovely boutique hotel that backs up to the English Garden of the Alcázar. You can drive into the restricted traffic zone to drop off luggage, but you must park at the nearby underground garage, Roma. Plan on spending about 20 ($22) per 24 hours for parking anywhere in these cities.

This hotel was expensive for us ($186), but since this was a birthday celebration, it was worth the splurge. The view from our window into the English Garden was just lovely.

We reserved a free evening walking tour about the history of flamenco with freetour.com. Miguel, our guide, was very informative and ended our 2-hour walk at the location of an authentic (and free) flamenco show, just 20 minutes before their first show at 9:30. However, we followed his advice to eat elsewhere first and come back for the second show at 10:30. The show was wonderful — not a big, colorful touristic show but an enthusiastic, staccato, dramatic dance performance.

First thing the next morning, we visited the Alcázar. I’d suggest prepurchasing your tickets for a shorter entry line. Our wait was 30 minutes, but during high season it could be a much longer wait. The gardens of the Alcázar were wonderful, even off-season.

Our second overnight excursion was to visit the Mezquita in Córdoba. This amazing cathedral inside an ancient mosque was a highlight. The bright, gleaming basilica, built among the 800 dark-red-and-white arches, was strikingly beautiful.

We chose a boutique hotel, Las Casas de La Judería (www.lascasasdelajuderiasevilla.com), close to the site and to parking, in the Jewish section of the Old Town. Our room (102) was on a lovely courtyard with a fountain in this stately former nobleman’s home.

Tangier

We traveled on to Tangier, where we had arranged a tour just a couple days before we arrived. The tour price (82 each) included a full day of sightseeing with a private car and guide plus FRS ferry tickets from Tarifa — just a few euros more than the ferry fare alone would have cost! (We booked private guide Ahmed Taoumi online at www.visitangier.com.)

Reflection in a pool at the Alhambra in Granada.

We arrived in Tangier in the early afternoon for a planned visit with friends from California, 7-year residents of Morocco. This was a spectacular opportunity for us to experience the daily life of an American couple in Tangier. We went shopping in the medina for flowers and food and ate a traditional Moroccan couscous dinner.

For our 2-night stay, we chose the Grand Hôtel Villa de France (leroyal.com) for its location close to the old medina and the ferry port. It was the residence of Henrí Matisse during his two visits to Tangier (in 1912 and 1913), where he painted this city that he loved. Our lovely 2-story villa suite, overlooking the pool and with a Mediterranean view, cost just 118 per night.

In the morning we were met by our guide, a retired journalistic photographer named Aziz, who shared a wealth of knowledge about Tangier. The 7-hour tour included a camel ride, visits to the Cave of Hercules and the Kasbah Museum and a walking tour of the old kasbah, medina and socco (market), with an hour-long lunch stop at an authentic Moroccan restaurant in the kasbah.

Back in Spain

Day trips to Ronda, Nerja and Málaga filled in days here and there during our stay in Spain. In Ronda, the most prominent and famous of the white hill towns, we enjoyed a lunch of tapas and sangria on the terrace of the Parador de Ronda, overlooking the city’s famous bridge.

In Nerja, the Balcony of Europe offered a spectacular view of the Mediterranean, and we had paella for lunch at Ayo, within walking distance and on the Playa de Burriana beach.

In Málaga, a visit to the Alcazaba (fortress) involved a long, strenuous climb, so it’s not for the weary or those with bad knees. (A taxi option might be available.) However, the view from the top was spectacular and worth the hike for me. The cathedral in Málaga is also well worth a visit.

Granada was our final Andalusian side trip. We booked a room at the Eurostars Gran Vía (eurostarshotels.com), close to the medina, for 80, with discounted parking available at the closest structure, San Agustín, right behind the beautiful cathedral.

We again booked a free walking tour for our first day. Our guide, Borja, was extremely interesting and enthusiastic. We toured the Albayzín, the old Moorish section, departing from Plaza Nueva. The tour lasted about 2½ hours, with stops for some history, views of the city and cultural talks.

Since Borja wasn’t available the next day, we arranged for his colleague and friend Eduardo Diaz to lead a private tour of the Alhambra for us (100, with tip, for groups of two to eight people). Both are official guides for this amazing structure. Contact Edu directly to arrange a private tour (edudpgr@gmail.com). We highly recommend them as private guides, as they were very knowledgeable and personable and moved at our “senior” pace.

We wanted to celebrate our last night in Andalusia with a special dinner at a carmen. Carmens are old homes with lovely gardens once owned by wealthy Moorish families. Our hotel reserved dinner for us at carmen-turned-restaurant La Borraja San Nicolás Restaurante, located near the San Nicolás viewpoint, with a romantic view of the Alhambra lighted at night.

Our dinner was a special treat, and it was our biggest dinner splurge — much anticipated and memorable but still under 45 per person with wine.

Cities of Castile

Leaving the Costa del Sol, we traveled to Madrid to visit the cities of Castile, including Toledo, Segovia and Ávila, and sites such as El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen monument. Again, we chose central hotels close to the sights.

While in Madrid, no car was necessary, as the major sights were central. For our stay in Toledo, we traveled by train. We rented a car for the last section, our tour of sites outside Madrid and our stay in Ávila.

Four nights in Madrid allowed three full days of sightseeing. We enjoyed the view of the Puerta del Sol from our balcony at Hotel Europa Madrid (hoteleuropa.eu). The hotel’s location was central, with easy access from Madrid’s airport via express bus to Atocha Station (5 each), continuing on the C train one stop to the Sol metro stop (1.60 each), just a few steps away from our hotel.

At the Prado Art Museum, we found a wonderful collection of masterpieces by El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and Rubens. (Audio guides are available.) And don’t miss the Reina Sofia, just a couple blocks away, where you can see “Guernica” by Picasso, his famous painting of the horrors of the destruction of that small Basque town, bombed in 1937 at Franco’s invitation as he practiced for urban warfare.

Three kilometers in the other direction from our hotel was Madrid’s Royal Palace, one of Europe’s greatest, on a par with Versailles and Schönbrunn, with much of its original interior and furnishings intact. It is still an active palace, used by Spanish royalty for official events.

Audio guides were available, but we downloaded their official app to use as a guide. (It required two or three separate downloads, so be sure to do both before you go.) It was worth the $2.

Hotel Europa’s location allowed easy access to great pastry and coffee shops as well as tapas bars, so we ate well in Madrid. Try the napolitanas pastries at La Mallorquina, on a corner of the Puerta del Sol.

We did find the cost of dining a bit higher in Madrid than on the Costa del Sol. Tapas seemed to cost about 50% more than in Andalusia.

The skylight in the ceiling of the cathedral in Toledo allows light to shine down on the sculpture called “Transparente.”

We chose to take the train to Toledo from Madrid’s Atocha Station, traveling on the AVE lines of Renfe for just 11 each way with a round-trip fare; a 5 taxi ride got us to our hotel.

Just a quick 45 minutes from Madrid, Toledo seems a world away. It is the ancient capital of Spain and offers an Old World view of the country.

We chose another boutique hotel, Carlos V (carlosv.com), inside the inner Old Town. To see the sights, like the city walls from outside, we took the hop-on/hop-off bus, which included a great view stop for photos and a walking tour of the city in the 15 fare.

Toledo’s cathedral has a magnificent collection of works from Spanish artists in its Sacristy. In the Treasury, be sure to see the monstrance — 10 feet high and 430 pounds, with an inner part to hold the host — created from more than 35 pounds of pure gold said to have been brought back to Spain from the New World by Columbus. The sculpture titled “Transparente,” incorporated into the back side of the altar, was astonishing for the hole cut in the dome to create a skylight, illuminating this amazing work. I’ve never seen anything like it.

On to Ávila

We took the train and bus back from Toledo to Madrid’s airport to pick up our rental car. On our drive to Ávila, we passed the huge cross monument of the Valley of the Fallen, visible from the highway. It was worth an hour’s stop to visit the basilica where the war dead from both sides of the Spanish Civil War are interred.

Our next stop on the way to Ávila was El Escorial, the monastery of San Lorenzo and the Palace of Philip II. The audio guide helped us understand this structure and its place in Spanish history, and we found it very interesting.

In Ávila, we stayed in a beautiful old palace, now Hotel Palacio de los Velada (hotelpalaciodelosvelada.com), on the cathedral square, just a short walk from one of the city gates. We upgraded to a view room and added a full buffet breakfast each day and underground parking, and our cost was still only about 137 per night.

Tapas bars and restaurants, several specializing in Castilian food, were easy walks from our location, some outside the 12th-century walls and others within. We enjoyed the evening paseos, strolling around the squares of the Old Town and the Santa Teresa square outside the main gate for an hour or so before dinner.

The red-and-white columns inside the Mezquita in Córdoba.

Restaurants we highly recommend in Ávila are La Bodequita de San Segundo (Calle San Segundo 19) and Alcaravea Restaurante, the latter in the building right across from the cathedral doors.

Our last day trip out of Ávila was to Segovia, about an hour away. The remnants of the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct there are impressive.

The cathedral and Plaza Mayor were great places to people-watch as everyone enjoyed the Saturday afternoon sun.

After three lovely nights and quiet days in Ávila, we drove back to Madrid for our nonstop flight back to Los Angeles, feeling we had seen a great portion of Spain, learned a lot about its history and appreciated its culture and cuisine.

Feel free to contact us personally (suedemaggio@gmail.com) with any questions about our itinerary or sites visited, and enjoy your travels in Spain!