Spain is roughly the size of California and is in many ways similar, especially in geography and climate. Winters are mild, summers are dry, and the country even has its very own Sierra Nevada. What better way to explore it for the first time than a road trip?
A week's worth of paid-time-off afforded us a taste of Madrid, scenic hikes in the Picos de Europa in Spain's Cantabrian Mountains, leisurely strolls through the historic towns of Salamanca and Seville, and tasty tapas in Granada at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. With so much driving involved, the Rock of Gibraltar was not part of our original itinerary, but unlike California, Spain's roads are remarkably well-maintained and such a pleasure to drive on that it felt natural to extend our road trip further south. This spontaneous excursion was quite worthwhile.
MadridWe arrived in Madrid in the early hours of a Sunday morning, much too early for our hotel to be able to check us in. Being on the westernmost limits of its time zone, the Madrid sun rises late, which shifts most quotidian activities forward. It felt odd to land past 7am and encounter total darkness outside.
After dropping off our bags, we went out in search of coffee, strolled through Parque del Oeste and the immaculately manicured Palatial Gardens. Around noon, a jet lag induced nap was unavoidable.
Culinarily, Spain is best known for tapas. It is also known for great wine. What it's not known for is craft beer. But craft beer it most certainly has, and I was pleased to find an hours-long beer and tapas tour, right on the Bilbao metro stop. We were lucky to have the tour guide to ourselves, who gave us history lessons and valuable tips on where to go and what to do the rest of our trip. If you are a beer lover and ever in Madrid, this is a must-do.
Picos de EuropaEver since I started training for my first ultramarathon, finding good running routes has become an essential part of my travel planning process. The Pyrenees were an obvious choice for trail runs but, unfortunately, would add too much driving time with everything else on the itinerary. The Cantabrian mountain range in Northern Spain, just west of the Pyrenees seemed more appropriate, and its Picos de Europa turned out to be what I like to call Spain's Yosemite.
Sadly, I came down with a cold just before we reached the peaks, so running wasn't in the cards, but a hike permitted more camera time, which was well worthwhile. This turned out to be one of the few moments on the trip I exercised my DSLR, and the majestic landscape was easily the highlight of the whole trip.
As we left the Picos, the weather started to turn, and the windy roads towards Spain's route 66 became slick, so we stopped for lunch at a tiny mountain town. Other travelers had the same idea, it seemed, as the town's only restaurant was at full capacity with the service staff struggling to meet the demand. The meat-heavy, Spanish-only menu required extra time for us to process, and when our waitress arrived, we managed to utter, excruciatingly slowly: “necesito... mas... tiempo.” She rolled her eyes impatiently and stormed off, angry to have wasted precious seconds at our table.
SalamancaWhile traveling, I was reading Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. Set in the mid- 1930s just before the start of the second World War and featuring a young Bulgarian protagonist, the story moved to Spain during the fascist uprising and civil war just as we arrived in the country. It felt good to recognize the names of small towns on road signs as we drove across the countryside.
My dad has been learning Spanish in earnest for several years now, and one of the books he has read and reread is set in the middle ages in the town of Salamanca. The book put Salamanca on the map for us and made a worthwhile stop as we headed down towards Seville. The town wall still stands many centuries later and offers some lovely views from the horticultural serenity of a garden.
SevilleSeville is a popular destination for those visiting Spain. I found it a bit dull and overrun with tourists. The cathedral and town square were fun to walk through, but nothing memorable really stood out for us.
GibraltarThe next day, rather than head straight east to Granada, on a whim, we decided to continue further south towards the Strait of Gibraltar. This detour added two-and-a-half hours of driving, which did not strike us as terribly excessive for the opportunity to see a British overseas territory of great historical significance.
About half a mile or so from the border, traffic really jams up, so we decided to park on the Spanish side and walk across. This turned out to be a smart move. The border guards did not seem interested in our passports and simply waved us through.
The very first thing one sees when crossing the border, besides the giant prominence of the Rock itself, is an active runway. With flights being fairly infrequent, cars and pedestrians move across it freely, and it was quite thrilling to see the tarmac up close and personal.
Just as we crossed, barriers came down and lights flashed in preparation for a landing. We hung around for ten minutes or so waiting to see a plane land but quickly lost interest and moved on.
Most of the western, low-lying seaside is lined with shops and restaurants, bustling with tourists. It was the view from the top of the Rock that we were keen on, so we made our way up the steep, zigzaggedy, narrow alleys in the direction of the highest point we could see. Every minute or so, a loud scooter would break the calm as it struggled with the grade.
There is a cable car that can take visitors to the very top in a mere three minutes, but we chose the exercise option, costing us just two Euro and a pound of sweat to enter the park. The ride down on the cable car is free!
Barbary macaques are the permanent residents at the top of the Rock, attracting a lot of attention from visitors. Although it is illegal to feed the monkeys, the primates are resourceful and adept at finding food, mainly from absentminded patrons of the sandwich shop at the observation deck, which also serves some lovely British beer purchasable in pounds sterling.
The view at the top is breathtaking. On the southern end of the ridge, one can clearly see the northern tip of Africa, only eight miles across the strait. A secluded beach lies on the eastern side, at the bottom of the vertiginous precipice that is the Rock of Gibraltar. Just leaning over to photograph it gave me the shivers, and I am not typically scared of heights.
The ride down on the cable car was splendid. Sensing I'd want to preserve the view for posterity, I captured the above video.
GranadaAfter a much needed lunch of decent British fish and chips, washed down with London's Pride, we continued on to Granada. This part of southern Spain right along the coast is speckled with condo buildings overlooking the water, the side effects of countless boom and bust cycles in the Spanish real estate market.
Leaving the coast and heading north towards the mountains, the landscape remained largely unchanged for a really long time — countless miles of olive tree orchards as far as the eye could see. Spain is, by far, the largest producer of olive oil in the world, more than five times the next biggest producer: Italy. Our beer and tapas guide in Madrid said that some Italian firms sourced olives from Spain for oil production, exporting under their own flag, much to the consternation of the Spaniards.
Granada has loads of history, its most popular tourist attraction being the Alhambra, an Arabic palace built in the ninth century. The city is laid out along rolling hills that provide panoramic views of the Alhambra from across the river.
We were shocked to see an uncomfortable dose of graffiti in every city we visited, and Granada was no exception. The beautiful architecture is tattooed sadly all too often, and it's not the artsy kind of graffiti. That, combined with the scooter noise and air pollution, made strolling through town not all that enjoyable. I wished more residents chose bicycles as their preferred mode of transportation.
Granada has a reputation for tapas being included free with every drink one orders, and they are far more elaborate than the simple potato pancakes and french fries we encountered in Madrid. We were even able to find an exclusively vegan tapas restaurant, which was superb.
On our last day in España, we went to visit the nearby Sierra Nevadas. Running these trails felt as though I was back in the Laguna Mountains of California. The vegetation, views, and crispy dry air at elevation felt all too familiar.
With so much left to see, I know I have to return to the Iberian peninsula,
and maybe next time also visit neighboring Portugal as well as the Spanish