21 February 2012

Spain - without the Bulls!

Spain - without the Bulls

Sunny Spain beckoned for a whirl-wind tour but we landed at a freezing Heathrow and had to wait for the National Express bus to take us to Gatwick for the flight to Malaga, Spain. The BA flight was very noisy with screaming kids and I was sooooo tired. We were told to wait at a mini bus stop for the lift to the  Car Hire place but the driver shook his head at us and trundled off. So we waited! It was the correct bus so after a phone call the chap came back – very surly and not much of a welcome to Spain. The car hire place was very busy so we were handed the car and off we drove. Only later did we discover it was a diesel model.  Next came the fun part – we were on the road to Benamaldena when James decided that we had to go to Malaga!! 2.5 hrs later, after getting horribly lost in Malaga, and many phone calls to the resort we headed back the way we had come and eventually found the Timeshare Sahara Sunset Club in Benamaldena. Never trust a man with directions! They refuse to ask for help and will make you suffer for so long before admitting that they are LOST!!! The staff at the resort were very pleasant; but told me I looked totally shattered and should get to bed soon! So we ate a quick pizza in the restaurant and then collapsed into bed. So tired I did not even wake for the loo that night!! Which is a major miracle!

Refreshed, we awoke the next morning and headed off to find food. We found a great café for breakfast just down the road from the resort on the beachfront called “The Last Resort” The Vegetarian Breakfast consisted of egg, tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns, toast, marmalade and tea/coffee. Excellent value at E3.50 and very consistent. We returned there every day -it was so good.  As we had been travelling for so long and felt quite stiff, we decided that today was a “walking” day so off we set to explore Benamaldena. We found a lovely park, full of locals and their children, then walked further and took the cable car up the mountain for stunning views of the Costa da Sol.  We also enjoyed a raptor display – amazing birds.

The section of the Costa del Sol from Torremolinos going west to Fuengirola and including Benalmadena is characterised by high-rise tourist developments. This can be seen from the cable car. Apparently, recent developments have much stricter planning regulations than in the early days with a focus on better quality tourism.  
The mountain air was very bracing and certainly cleared away the stale aircraft air from our lungs. After the long walk down we were peckish again so walked towards the yacht club. There are lots of pavement cafes with the owners “braaing” (barbecue) either meat or fish and trying to tempt you to a table. We opted for roast beef and pork but it was very bland and, sadly, not worth a repeat visit.

Ronda was on the agenda today so off we set, enduring a rather a torturous climb. The roads are not very well sign posted which did not help matters. Despite being Andalucía's fastest growing town, Ronda retains much of its historic charm, particularly in the old town. It is famous worldwide for its dramatic escarpments and views, and for the deep El Tajo gorge that carries the Rio Guadalevín through its centre. The 18th century Puente Nuevo 'new' bridge, which straddles the 100m chasm below, is usually the first stop for most visitors as it enjoys amazing views out over the Serranía de Ronda Mountains.

Ronda is also famous as the birthplace of modern bullfighting but we don't really like the idea of this sport so did not visit the famous bullring. We decided to take the “old Mine” tour  and went down many, many steps right to the bottom. The problem was that we then had to go all the way back up again! Good exercise if the knees can hold out!

 In the middle of the bizarre mountain range Serranía de Ronda, at the edge of a 120 meters deep and 70 meters wide canyon, there is Ronda - certainly one of the most incredible spots to visit.

The famous and really breath-taking bridge alone is worth the travel, but Ronda has more to offer: the only bullring in all Spain which is entirely made of stone, and several interesting buildings from the Moorish period.
We did not find the food in Spain very exciting - we visited a pizzeria where the food was positively the worst we have both ever tasted. Perhaps they try and please the many British tourists and in so doing, have lost the Spanish plot. 
We headed out to Nerja on the N340 - although only 50 km there are lots of stop/starts with the many traffic lights and the  area is extremely built up. But Nerja is certainly worth a visit - it is well-kept with lovely, old winding streets, lots of Spanish pubs, a great beach and tons of interesting looking restaurants. After our hearty breakfast, we could not try them unfortunately. Much to our sorrow!   
With over 400 pubs and restaurants, there is a great choice and there are many other things to do in the area if one is staying longer.

The best village visited during our stay was Frigliana - what a delight. Narrow cobbled streets in this "white Village" just beg to be explored, - you never know what you will find - a pub, a shop selling interesting goods, a beautiful planter of geraniums, or a friendly soul who speaks English.

In the "new" part of the village we came across a "graveyard" next to a church. The memorials are all stacked one upon the other, with photos of the deceased, gorgeous flowers - it was a delight to view such a peaceful haven for those departed - not like so many lonely graveyards.

The streets are uphill so some stamina is required to view this town properly but it is well worth the effort. The houses are Moorish in appearance and so well kept. Its built high up on the hillside so enjoys lovely views and it must be good to live in this town. We spent a number of hours exploring before heading back to Benamaldena.

Thankfully, we did find a good restaurant - called la Taberna Santa Ana where the service was excellent and the food was very good. A little pricey for our budget but well worth it. It's is family run and has been in business for 15 years now so well established. We returned a few times and were not disappointed.

After a hearty breakfast we decided that Marbella would be a good spot to visit to enjoy a swim. Oh my, the highway is pretty fast and it's so built up, that we missed the turning to Marbella and just went whizzing past! So we did a quick consult with the map and decided to head for the hills and Istan instead. It turned out to be a good choice - a very windy road with many twists and turns brought us to a gorgeous authentic Spanish village high up in the hills. We wandered around and kept bumping into a fish peddler selling his wares from the back of his van. He would stop every now and again, shout himself hoarse, sometimes somebody would come out and sometimes not! He was quite amused that we wanted to take his picture! He sold a fair amount of his sardines before we left him for a cold beer in the village square. Life appears very slow in these parts - no rush at all. There is always tomorrow! And tomorrow.....!

A swim was on the cards so we headed off to Estapona where we found a quiet local beach but the water appeared rather dirty. We did enjoy a little time out in the sun before heading back. I kept seeing these little green crosses which I took to be traffic lights (lucky I was not the driver!!) Gosh, I said, the Spanish must truly be devout Catholics to have all their traffic lights in the forms of crosses. Well, James exploded and nearly drove off the road - those are Pharmacy signs, you idiot, he said! One lives and learns!!

A long drive to the Sierra Nevada Mountains which I just had to visit for myself having always heard so much about this beautiful range. And guess what? There was still snow to be had on the mountain tops whilst it was blazing hot down at the coast. Two climates within a few hours of each other! The Ski village we came to must be a hive of activity during the ski season but now it was just a load of hotels, backpackers, hostels, etc all shut up tight until the next ski season. The village looks very forlorn all closed and shuttered - like a lost orphan waiting for it's mother to return. We walked up to play in the remaining snow drifts as the weather was pretty warm. Having grown up in Oudtshoorn with extreme heat in summer and chillblain cold in winter, snow is still a novelty for me as the only snow we ever saw was on top of the Swartberg Mountains, high up on the slopes with not a ski lift in sight. We certainly felt the ice-cold during winter from those mountains, which are incredibly beautiful, but offer no fun and games in the snow!

The roads in Spain are very good, mainly dual-carriage ways, fast moving but good driving. The road signs had us confused on many occasions until we sort of figured out the Spanish way of thinking. The take-over by the British on the coast has spoilt Spain to my mind - it is so developed as to be "characterless" in many places.

With much more to see but no time left in our whirl-wind tour of the Costa da Sol and surrounding areas , we decided on a "car-free" day and set off on the walk from Benamaldena to Torremolinos. The walk along the beachfront goes on for miles, with loads of beach restaurants and bars, we heard many different languages being spoken and the area is very lively. The beaches all had the obligatory beach umbrellas, there was an area with paddle-boats which we would have loved but they were quite large and required a minimum of 3 persons to man them so we had to ditch that idea. There was quite a bit of topless bathing - James eyes were out on stalks! As you can gather, we don't have too much of that in South Africa! Beer and Tapas were enjoyed at various spots along the way and we thoroughly enjoyed the walk although it was fairly long. As I did not want to be hampered by my heavy camera, there are no photos of this area but the walk was great and can be recommended.

For our last night we decided to give all the British restaurants a miss and eat in at the resort's Casbah restaurant. The food was pretty mediocre but a singer came on and livened things up well. Two old Spanish dears kept dancing to the music and asking for more Spanish songs. Four ladies in a room across from the restaurant were dancing away with beer bottles in their hands - they were having a ball and eventually arrived at the restaurant in hysterics at their own antics! It made for a very amusing evening and kept us laughing.

It rained that night - sad to see us go? The drips keep me away all night which did not bode well for our day's travelling the following day.

We enjoyed Spain but do feel that it has lost much of it's Spanish identity as the Spaniards seem to pander to the tourists  - perhaps this is only true of the Costa da Sol? We loved the tiny villages where life seems to have stood still, the snow still clinging to the Sierra Nevada mountains and the lively feel of the Costa da Sol with it's many holiday makers. So, despite not seeming so very Spanish on the coast, it's a great area to visit and there is loads to do to keep one occupied. It was impossible to cover every nook and cranny and many folk return year after year to enjoy the sunshine, the beaches, the shopping and the many pubs and restaurants.

Hopefully, we will be back as there is still  much more to explore in this country!

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