Spain, Andalusia and Madrid: Winter 2016

I visited Spain in December 2016, would definitely say it’s my favorite european country so far.

Highlights of the trip:

  1. The Alhambra! Especially the Nasrid Palaces.
  2. Pueblos Blancos, or the white villages, particularly Zahara Del Sierra and Ronda.
  3. The Mezquita, Cordoba.
  4. Cathedrals of Toledo and Segovia.
  5. The food in Spain, most of it, and I am a vegetarian.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Lisbon, this day was supposed to be spent at Seville, but a flight caused me to spend the whole day here.

Day 2: Seville

Day 3: Zahara Del Sierra, stopping at Arcos Frontera on the way.

Day 4: Ronda

Day 5: Getting to Granada, stopping at Olvera and Sentenil Bodegas on the way.

Day 6: Granada, visiting the Alhambra.

Day 7: Granada: downtown, Sacromonte and Albayzin.

Day 8: Cordoba, staying at Madrid.

Day 9: Day trip from Madrid to Toledo.

Day 10: Day trip to Segovia from Madrid.

Day 11: a little Madrid, and departure.

While I agree this itinerary is a little rushed, I found the time adequate at most places, since the day light was long enough, and I didn’t want to visit all the attractions at every place.

I wanted to cover a large part of Andalusia, going to sea side towns didn’t make much sense, I also wanted to really see Toledo and Segovia. So I skipped Madrid and Barcelona, also I didn’t want to see a big European city, since I was in Paris just a few months back.

Transport:

I got a car to travel around the white villages, booked it through auto-europa, everything was great, except that they had told me there wouldn’t be any extra local charges, but I had to pay a 25 EUR fee while collecting the car from the train station. Also, they had changed my pick up location on their own from the train station to the airport, so you need to be careful. I had to call them up and get it corrected. Cordoba to Madrid was with Renfe, a very pleasant and quick journey, and not too expensive. Day trips to Toledo and Segovia were by buses, pretty convenient, fast and cheap.

Traveling in December, how is it?

I wasn’t fortunate enough to get sunshine all through my trip, all the days before and after I visited had abundant sunshine. However, even when I was there, it didn’t rain much, usually a few showers in the day, skies were only partially cloudy for the most part, so there was always a little sunshine, nothing too gray like Northern Europe. Crowds were minimal, infact I saw very few tourists in Cordoba and Seville. So December is definitely a great time.

Favorite Restaurants: Now I’m a vegetarian, and I ate very well across Spain. While getting (good) vegetarian food is not the easiest thing, with a little research you can land up in really good vegetarian friendly restaurants and tapas bars.

Places I really liked a lot:

  1. Bar La Carcel in Arcos Frontera.
  2. Cerveceria el Gallo in Zahara De La Sierra
  3. Albacara in Ronda.
  4. Granada: Oum Kalsum, El Trasgu, Teteria(one of them, don’t remember which), Babel World Fusion, Poe Bar. Café Pasteless for desserts.
  5. Madrid: Taberna El Sur and Yerbabuena(a vegetarian restaurant) . La Mallorquina for desserts. The stuffed olive stand at Mercado San Miguel.
  6. Cordoba: Almatea.
  7. Segovia: El Sitio, for desserts, Pasteleria Lemon Y Minta.
  8. Toledo: La Abadia, their desserts were good as well.

Sim Card: I got an Orange sim card, 20 Euros for 4 GB and 30 minutes of calls, which was good enough. It’s important to have Orange’s English customer service number, since my internet went off one fine day, and I had to call them to reset it.

Day 1: Lisbon

Now I was supposed to spend 2 days in Seville, but a missed connection made me stay in Lisbon for about 10 hours. It actually worked in my favor, since I wanted to go to Lisbon since a long time. I certainly had a great time. Fortunately, I did get an hour to research a little about Lisbon before leaving( I knew I was going to miss the connection because of the delay).

I arrived fairly early in the morning and took a bus to the city centre from the airport. It was a pleasant 20 minute drive, mostly through the downtown. You could see a very clear south European touch to all the buildings and plazas. It was a clear, sunny, beautiful and warm(for upstate NY standards) day. I got off at the Rossio square. The Metro station’s luggage drop was full, so I deposited my luggage at a private company as suggested by the information desk at the square.

I walked till the Sol Cathedral, which was a good one. I continued walking up into the old town. I came across a couple of “Mirador”s, or view points. The views over the old town were absolutely fabulous. You could see the white painted-red tiled houses, the Pantheon, cathedrals, the blue ocean/bay, the ultra blue skies, and even cruise ships. Absolutely worth the flight detour I had to make, and worth the walk up. I hiked up further to the castle, which was a gem. A very peaceful, hilltop place, with absolutely brilliant views over the entire city! The light fog, abundant sunshine and blue skies were a treat. The bridges and the bay at the back made for an excellent backdrop. It reminded me of San Francisco. It was a great place to sit down and relax for a long time.

I had a lunch of mainly portugese pastries and a chick pea soup at a café near the castle. Most of the vegetarian items in other restaurants were Italian, so this was a good choice. I walked about the old town, going up and down the hills, through the narrow alleys( this soon became a pastime for me in Spain, infact it became one of my favorite activities). At sunset, I went to the Mirador Alacantra , a good view point, but sort of missable. The best view was again at Mirador. I walked down to the shore, there was a beach as well, the sunset was beautiful, with the best shades of orange. Now was time to go back to the airport, took a bus from the Rossio square, had dinner at the airport, it was pretty good and quite portugese. Boarded a late night flight to Seville.

Lisbon Old Town

Lisbon Old Town


Lisbon Old Town

Lisbon Old Town


Lisbon Old Town

Lisbon Old Town


Lisbon Old Town

Lisbon Old Town


Lisbon Old Town

Lisbon Old Town

Day 2: Seville

The bus ride from the airport was pretty straightforward, so was the walk to the hotel. I had a good night’s sleep, resetting my body clock to the time-zone. Started the day a little late, got a sim card, and walked till the cathedral. The cathedral was impressive, huge, with really good and unique features, especially the towers. The orange trees were heavily laden with fruits, and everything was peaceful and relaxed. I bought a ticket to the Alcazar. The Alcazar is in my opinion one of it’s kind, though the Nasrid Palaces beat it hands down, this one has a charm of it’s own. The artwork is no doubt fabulous, but the series of gardens, patios, fountains, orange trees, lack of crowds, plenty of gentle sunlight make it a very special place. I enjoyed spending several hours inside.

Next on plan was lunch, I headed to Habanita restaurant. I had their vegetable-cheese croquettes and their Menu Del Dia, which was a good lentil soup and rice with egg on a vegetable stew. Balanced and well flavored. Next was the Plaza De Espana. This was my favorite place in Seville! I had no idea about it’s scale and grandeur, the place simply blew me away. Everything was so well preserved(or restored). One needs to explore the place well enough to get all the details. It was already later afternoon, I wasn’t exactly in a mood to explore a cathedral, I wanted to spend some time outdoors, so I skipped the cathedral(it’s sacrilegious, I know), and wandered in the Barrio Santa Cruz neighborhood. Walked across several lanes and alleys, passing through several squares and extremely narrow walk ways. Overall, a very good experience.

Spent the evening around the cathedral, the cathedral and the tower were all lit up, and the roads had a lot of Christmas decorations, and the atmosphere was vibrant. A good time to be in Seville. I had looked up a vegetarian friendly restaurant, El Paradar, which however was closed on that day. So I went to Mechala Restaurant. I had a glass of sherry, which was really good, vegetable lasagna, which was well prepared, and a noodle dish with black aioli, which wasn’t my favorite. The house salad was made of potatoes and apple, and was brilliant. Headed back to my hotel for a good night’s rest.

Seville Alcazar

Seville Alcazar


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Seville Old Town


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Seville Cathedral


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Plaza De Espana, Seville


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Christmas lights


Seville Alcazar

Seville Alcazar


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Croquettes, the olives in Spain were so delicious.

Day 3: Arcos Frontera and Zahara De La Sierra.

Picked up my car from the train station. I initially had a little issue using the stick and loading my luggage into the car, since it was really small. But everything worked out, and I was on the highway. I took the toll free way to Arcos. Initially, the traffic was slow, but slowly turned sparse. The landscape became beautiful as I approached Arcos, I mean really beautiful. I followed the signs to the parking lot and parked my vehicle in, the fee was 3 euros for a few hours.

I walked all the way up to the centre, this was my first white village, I was amazed at how narrow the roads and lanes were, and how people drive through them. I entered the Parador and went to their terrace, the view was mind blowing. I found some interesting houses and another view point. It was really quiet, and the weather was turning stormy. I then had lunch at Bar La Carcel, the food was extremely good. I had mushroom croquettes, aubergine with goat cheese, pastry stuffed with nuts and cheese and some spinach and cheese pancakes. The menu was very varied. I then headed out of the town, and went to the bridge which has very good views of Arcos, the views were no doubt brilliant.

The drive to Zahara De La Sierra was very pretty, especially the area just before Zahara. You can see the huge rock and the castle and the village well perched above. Reached the top, my hotel was right at the top, found parking right next to it, thankfully! The roads up to the village were pretty narrow and steep, pretty typical for the white villages. Checked in into the hotel, was glad to have a room to myself after staying in dorms. I decided to rush up to the castle, since the weather had dramatically changed, with rain clouds hovering right above. The climb up to the castle was slightly steep, but the view was so good! Zahara looked like a toy-town below, the buildings looked so white, absolute bright white and glowing, when just a little sun would fall over it. The dam backwaters looked very dramatic, and you could see huge mountains and olive plantations till far away. Exactly how I imagined Andalusia, rather Spain, to be. Very beautiful.

Soon it started pouring, and now it was time to go back to the hotel. Relaxed for a while and then had dinner at Cerveceria El Gallo, had a goat cheese toast, vegetable stew garnished with egg, some local cheese, eggplant fritters with honey, spinach croquettes and a glass of sherry. All of really good quality and taste. One of my best dinners in Spain.

Arcos Frontera

Arcos Frontera


On the way to Zahara De LA Sierra.

On the way to Zahara De LA Sierra.


Zahara De LA Sierra.

Zahara De LA Sierra.


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Goat cheese and walnuts on bread.

Day 4: Ronda and a failed attempt to visit Grazalema.

Woke up to a wonderful morning, had a good breakfast at the hotel, and headed towards Ronda. Grazalema is supposed to be just off the way, so I decided to give it a shot. After crossing e narrow winding roads, I finally got to Grazalema, but nothing was to be seen, fog and clouds had covered absolutely everything!

So I took the road to Ronda, passing exits for Montejaque and Acipino on the way, but I couldn’t really slow down and turn off, I should have planned better. I reached Ronda, parked at one the expensive public parkings(18 Euro a day, I couldn’t find a spot) and checked in. Headed to the bullring, which was very close to my hotel. Unfortunately, it was closed. So I walked around the terrace El Tajo taking in the beautiful views of the countryside, walking over to the view of the bridge. The view of the bridge was absolutely fabulous! You could look at it for a long time, it was massive. The town hanging from the cliffs looked very dramatic. Lunch was at Arminan 25 close to the bridge, had a really well flavored vegetable stew with bread, olives and eggs.

Spent the afternoon wandering around the town, walked down to the point where you can see the entire bridge. This is where the sun gave a guest appearance and wonderfully lit up the bridge! By late afternoon, the light turned pretty dramatic. I spent most of the remaining evening around the bridge area, Ronda isn’t very big, but the area around the bridge is very captivating, and one could spend quite a bit of time.

Dinner was a grand one, at Albacara Restaurant. I had a chick pea mushroom stew and grilled vegetables with goat cheese, both the dishes were very well made. The restaurant also had a great view of the lit up bridge. That was a good end to a good day.

Ronda

Ronda


Ronda bridge

Ronda bridge


Cliffs of Ronda

Cliffs of Ronda


Cliffs of Ronda

Cliffs of Ronda

Day 5: Olvera and onto Granada

Olvera is used by several brochures and guidebooks, as the perfect hilltop perched white village. It indeed lived up to the image I had of it. To get to Olvera, I drove across Setenil De Bodegas, I couldn’t really find a way to get through the streets of the town, so I just drove across it. The road from there to Olvera was absolutely spectacular. Passing through the countryside, large mountains at a distance, with fields and olive groves and tiny winding roads all around. And then you could see the towering town of Olvera at a distance, it looked very very dreamy!

Entered Olvera, parked my car at the base and walked up to the church and the fort. The view from the top was fabulous! The arab fort is a must go, I mean that’s one of the main reasons to come to Olvera. Unlike other white towns, this one is absolutely not geared for tourists, absolutely no english is spoken, not many restaurants around, and you can forget about vegetarian food. Thankfully, I found a potato omlette. I wouldn’t stay here, but it’s definitely worth a few hours.

Now was time to march onto Granada. Again, for a large part, the scenery was atleast mildly dramatic. Very  Spanish, olives and distant mountains and all. Reached Granada in the evening, returned my car and took a bus to the hostel in the downtown. The “big city” felt different after living in cute little beautiful villages for 3 days. Plenty of crowds, christmas decorations, there was a marathon as well. Checked in and headed to Oum Kalsum, a middle-eastern themed tapas place.  I ordered a falafel, a cheese pastry, couscous, a spicy preparation of spinach and olives, cauliflower cream and foul ( fava puree). All of it was good.  Picked up some muffins and croissants for the next day from a bakery. Slept early, since I had to wake up for the 8.30 AM alhambra appointment.

Setenil Bodegas

Setenil Bodegas


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Andalusian landscape near Setenil Bodegas


Olvera

Olvera

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Day 6:Alhambra and the Alhambra again!

I spent the entire day at the Alhambra. I woke up early enough to reach by the 8.30 AM Nazrid Palaces appointment, I had a little trouble finding the ticket counter, but I managed just in time. The Nazrid Palaces were absolutely fantastic, so much richness, so intricate and you could see the efforts and the grandeur that went into it. I spent almost about 3 hours in palaces, every minute was worth it. Then I walked all the way to the Generalife gardens. The sun was well out by now, and the lush gardens soaked in the  previous day’s rain looked so beautiful. Such well laid gardens, with loaded orange trees, which were exuding fragrance. You could easily go back to the glorious times Granada had in the past. Apart from the Nazrid Palaces, this was another highlight.

By now I was really hungry, went to Mimbre, close to the Alhambra ticket place. Had a huge Spanish omelette, made with peas and vegetables and topped with a tasty tomato sauce. By now you could see the snow mountains behind the Alhambra, so I decided to head to Mirador San Nicolas to catch a view of Alhambra with the snow mountains in the background. It definitely was worth climbing all the way up, the view was absolutely brilliant, the Alhambra looked a little too majestic, and the Sierra mountains looked just amazing. I was fortunate to get a quick window of the view, because clouds came down very soon and all of the view was gone. Then I headed back to Alhambra, went inside the Alcabaza, the structure was interesting, and view of the Albayzin district was really good. The Charles Palace was worth a look, but both of these pale infront of the Generalife and the Nazrid Palaces. It was almost closing time by now, and a friend was arriving from UK. He planned his trip after I had made the Alhambra bookings, so he had booked for the next day.

We headed to a Teteria in Albayzin, can’t really recollect the name, but it was really good. I had a chamomile and mint tea, with hummus and pita. All of it was really good. We then headed back to the Alhambra for the night visit. This again visit was also very interesting. The palaces looked very beautiful in the night light. It would have been better with lesser people, but even then the crowds weren’t too bad. For dinner we went to El Tragsu, an Asturian restaurant. I had a toast with olives, tomatoes, pesto and Asturian cheese and a ginger carrot cake and some pickled vegetables. All of it was excellent and filling. So ended the day.

Alhambra

Alhambra


View of Albayzin

View of Albayzin


Inside Nazrid Palaces

Inside Nazrid Palaces


Alhambra at night

Alhambra at night

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Nasrid Palace


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Nasrid Palaces

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Day 7: Granada: Sacromonte and the downtown

We headed to the downtown early in the morning, unfortunately the cathedral was closed for a while, and my friend had a booking at the Alhambra. So we walked around the downtown for a while, checked the small museum infront of the Cathedral. The cathedral looked interesting from the outside. While my friend headed to the Alhambra, I decided to go to the Sacromonte neighborhood. The bus drive was very interesting, just in a few minutes it felt as if we were right in the middle of the Sierra Nevada. The villages were very rustic, the views of the snow capped mountains were pretty gorgeous. Some of the houses around were really interesting. I went to the cave museum closeby, the museum was quite well done and informative. Then I walked all the way back to Albayzin, the entire area was very atmospheric. I had lunch at one of the buffet restaurants, this was my worst meal in Spain, I really had a gut feeling I shouldn’t be going for a buffet, but then the spread was tempting.  After lunch, I headed to the Chapel of San Miguel Alto. The views were really beautiful from up there! To find the way up, you need to go navigate your way to Calle Cruz de la Rauda and follow the steps up.

Soon, my friend was to come and we headed to the Mirador San Nicolas, where we stayed up to sunset, enjoying the views of the Alhambra. We also went to Cafe Pasteless closeby, which had really good sweets, Biono being the favorite. We then headed down towards the entrance of Albayzin, the tourist shops were actually interesting, I picked up several teas and tea pots and some souvenirs to take home. We then had headed to Babel World Fusion to have some tapas. We had a combination of Spanish and international tapas, all really well prepared and very flavorful. The spinach-chickpeas, rice balls in a yoghurt sauce, hummus, falafel and patatas bravas were all brilliant.  Next, we went to a Moroccan place closeby to have some more food, however, the food wasn’t too great. Next was the Flamenco show at El Rocio in Sacromonte, we were tremendously impressed by it, pretty touristy, but very well done.

Granada cathedral

Granada cathedral


Sacromonte

Sacromonte

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Sacromonte flamenco

Sacromonte flamenco

Day 8: Cordoba

We left for Cordoba by the morning ALSA bus. The journey was quite interesting, passing through nice Andalusian landscapes, a couple of white villages and olive groves. Nothing new for me, but my friend found it pretty exciting. Cordoba felt very similar to Seville, flat and more tropical in nature than Granada or the villages. Plus very warm. We checked our luggage into the luggage storage at the bus station. They accommodate bigger bags and after hours as well. We went to the Mezquita straightaway, purchased an audio guide and went in.

I really can’t express how amazed I was. I had no idea about the scale of the place! It was simply huge, and so beautiful. And very few people and quite quiet. I traversed through the entire Mezquita listening to the audio guide, taking plenty of stops for just admiring and photographing. This certainly was another high point in the trip. The light varies as well, making it very interesting, some parts are naturally lit, some aren’t, both look beautiful. After spending about 3 hours, we decided to head out. The courtyard of the Mezquita was pleasant, the oranges trees, warm sunlight and sense of space made it a nice spot.

We then headed out for lunch, we went to Almatea which had a vegetarian friendly menu. We had a gazpacho, muhammara, a vegetable lasagna and an artichoke based pasta dish. Pretty good. We spent some of the afternoon near the Roman bridge and then proceeded to find some of the patio places. Fortunately, one of them was open at 44, San Basilio. The courtyard was beautifully decorated, certainly worth the hunt we had to do, to find the house. The area around the house was very quaint, infact the old town in Cordoba was my favorite among all the 3 biggies, Seville, Cordoba and Granada. I wish we had some more time. While walking back to the train station, we passed across several historic buildings, and we stopped at the Hermanos bakery, we had a couple of their special cakes. The late night train ride to Madrid was very smooth(rather boring, no town,no lights on, no stops the way).

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Cordoba Old town


Mezquita

Mezquita


Mezquita courtyard

Mezquita courtyard


Cordoba Old Town

Cordoba Old Town

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Patios of Cordoba

Patios of Cordoba

Day 9: Toledo day trip from Madrid

Our objective of staying in Madrid was to do day trips to Toledo and Segovia. For Toledo, we left for the Plaza Elliptica by Metro, had breakfast of churros and chocolate at one of the places at the bus-stand and headed out for Toledo. We reached Toledo, walked up to the hilltop oldtown, visited the Tourist centre and planned a route. First, we went up the library next to the Alcazar, got an amazing view of the cathedral and the town, then went down to the Alcantara bridge where you get a nice view of the Alcazar, and then came back to visit the cathedral. The cathedral was so beautiful! So different from the cathedrals in North Europe or Italy. It was really really big, and there were so many features in the cathedral I had never seen before. After spending a pretty long time at the cathedral we decided to have lunch. We went to La Abadia, we got eggs on a vegetable stew, grilled vegetables with beetroot cream, stuffed mushrooms and marzipan cake with cream. All of it was extremely delicious. I was initially wary vegetarian food in Castille Leon may not be so easy to get, but I was fortunately wrong.

Unfortunately a lot of the monasteries were closed for the pre-Christmas week. So we were left with few options, We wandered about the streets, which were quite like the Tuscan towns I had been to. A world away from Andalusia, but no less beautiful. We took at the home of El Greco, I fell in love with the Mediterranean kind of villa, with beautiful courtyards and open spaces. We then took a taxi to Mirador Del Valle. The view from the up there was one the highlights of Toledo. The light turned from orange to golden to pink. It was a very calm evening and the view takes you back to the Middle Ages. We then walked to the bus station and took a bus back to Madrid. Dinner was at Yerbabuena, a vegetarian Spanish restaurant, we had a vegetarian Paella, which was pretty good, although I’m sure it wasn’t very authentic.

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Toledo Cathedral


Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

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Mirador Valle, Toledo

Mirador Valle, Toledo


Toledo

Toledo

Day 10: Segovia day trip and some Madrid

We left for Segovia early in the morning, the bus was from Moncloa bus station with the company Sepulvedna. It was very cold and foggy when we reached Segovia. We visited the aqueduct, climbed up, it looked beautiful, but we decided to come back after the sun came out. We headed to the Cathedral, which was one of the most wonderful buildings I saw in Spain. While I really loved the Toledo cathedral, I liked the Segovia one even more. The ceilings and the pillars were absolutely beautiful. We spent quite a bit of time at the cathedral. Lunch was at El Sitio, Segovian style beans, Old Castille style soup, asparagus with mayonnaise and Segovian cake.

We then walked around for a while and went to the Alcazar. It was very well restored, we went only up the tower. The view of the town, the cathedral and the snow mountains at the backdrop was phenomenal.  The views into the barren countryside and far off villages was interesting as well. The sun was out again, so we headed back to the Aqueduct, and wow, it looked so amazing with all the sunlight falling on it. We spent some more time savoring the historic town, had a couple of pastries at one of the sweet shops, Pasteleria Lemon Y Menta,  and headed back to Madrid by the bus.

In Madrid, we went to the Temple of Debod, which was well lit at the time we were there, walked across the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor and quite a few parts of the old town. Dinner was at Taverna El Sur, we had the Patatas Brava, Quiche, some mushroom croquettes and some dessert. Pretty good food, plus there seemed to be several food shops in the area.

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Segovia Cathedral


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Segovia Alcazar


Segovia Cathedral

Segovia Cathedral


Segovia Aqueduct

Segovia Aqueduct


Temple of Debod

Temple of Debod

Day 11: 

My friend left early in the morning, I decided to devote all the time I had in Madrid for food, I started with La Mallorquina with a chocolate Neopolitana, then several kinds of stuffed olives and Tortilla patatas at the Mercado Miguel, then I picked up different kinds of Turrones from Turron Vicens. Soon it was time to leave, I headed back to the hotel and left for the long metro ride to the airport. And so ended the trip.

Definitely one of the best trips I’ve had in Europe, the food was surprisingly good (I hadn’t expected much vegetarian in Spain, I liked Andalusia more, especially the rural areas, they were my favorite. I would definitely return back to Spain soon.

Madrid downtown

Madrid downtown


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Mercado San Miguel