Ronda, Zahara, and Setenil In A Day

If my son’s number one thing to see in Spain was the Alhambra in Granada, mine was the bridge in Ronda and the white towns of Andalucía. I knew our best opportunity to get there would be from our stay in Seville, so I did some research. The more I read, the more I became overwhelmed with the logistics of it. We could get to Ronda and a couple white towns on a group tour, but we would miss the town we most wanted to see. We could rent a car, but I realized that would be zero fun for the driver, aka me, and we would miss the cultural aspect provided by having a local show us around. So, I splurged and booked a guide/driver for a private tour.

A good tour guide can make all the difference between a positive, enriching experience and a miserable one. We lucked out. Enrique picked us up on time at 9:30, took the locations we wanted to see into account, and planned the day for us. It turned out that he and I had many things in common, and the conversation between the three of us was continual and easy. During our time in the car together, driving to the first town, then to Ronda, then to the second town, and then back to Seville, we discussed professions, politics, religion, climate change, travel, and more. I was so glad I spent the extra money to hire a private guide. One of the most important aspects of travel is the opportunity to learn about life in this different place from someone who lives it. Enrique got us to everything we wanted to see, avoided the traffic that would have ruined a day in a rental car or large bus on a busy tourist Saturday, taught us many things about his life in Spain, and made us interlopers feel welcome. Priceless.

While we had picked two things we wanted to see, we let the expert choose the last destination for us. He chose Zahara de la Sierra, a picture-perfect white town in the hills. In my research, I had seen photos of this town, and it did not disappoint. Perched on a hill with the remains of a fortress above it and a reservoir below it, Zahara is somehow quaint yet impressive. The fortress atop the hill was built in the 13th century by the Moors who held that territory at that time. We discussed hiking up and around it the fort, but decided we wanted to spend more time in our other destinations, so we simply walked the small town, taking photos, and enjoying the beautiful day.

Our next stop was Ronda, which Enrique told us would be busy. He was not wrong. This town (technically a city of 34k people) has surged in popularity since photos of its 18th century bridge, which spans a deep gorge separating the old town from the new town, became widely circulated on the Internet. I often see the bridge pop up in the rotating photos on my Echo Show. There are actually three bridges that span the El Tajo gorge and connect the two sections of the clifftop town. We walked to and over each of the bridges in turn, taking in the scenery before heading into the town. The famous Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most impressive.

Labeled the Most Romantic Town in Spain, there are cute shops, pedestrian streets, and plenty of restaurants. I can’t attest to how romantic is it, but it is definitely popular and busy. Perhaps the most famous attraction in the town, aside from the bridge, is the bullring. Built between 1779-1785, it is the only bullring in Spain constructed entirely of stone (rather than stone and brick) and it offers covered seating. Enrique told us that bullfighting in Spain is highly controversial. Some consider it cruel and would like it discontinued, while others contend that it is part of Spain’s unique cultural heritage and should be continued as a tradition. I understand the arguments on both sides and, because I am not Spanish, I will refrain from offering my opinion in that debate. I will, however, be interested to see what happens with it.

It was lunchtime, so Enrique guided us to a local restaurant that offered many traditional dishes. Joe had a beer and we shared several tapas, the mushroom croquetas being our favorite. Joe and I also tried the fried anchovies stuffed with ham and piquillo peppers. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I generally only like anchovies in small amounts, but these were pretty interesting.

Afterward, we traveled to the spot where the most iconic photos of the Puente Nuevo are taken so we could add ourselves to the long list of people who have been there. We took the requisite selfies because you gotta. It felt incredible to be standing there finally, years after I discovered its existence and decided I had to see it in person. We didn’t linger long because we were excited to get to our next destination and optimize our time there, but now when that famous bridge pops up on my Echo Show I think, Hey…I’ve been there!

Our final destination was Setenil de las Bodegas. Joe’s girlfriend had sent him photos after she visited there earlier this year and he immediately sent them to me, asking if there was any way we could get there. After seeing the photos, I knew I had to make it happen.

Setenil consists of buildings and cave homes built under and among rocks in a narrow, protected river gorge. The hilltop fortress above the town was built by the Moors. During the Reconquista, the Christians came to take the fortress, which proved to be more difficult than they expected. Due to the settlement’s hidden placement under rocks beneath it, the Moors were able to surprise their attackers from different angles and directions as they approached the fortress. The story goes that the Christians battled for fifteen days to take the town, trying seven times and failing before finally figuring out how they were being defeated and eventually triumphing. The name of the town is believed to be derived from the Latin “Septem Nihil,” which refers to the seven lost battles, “seven times no.” If you find yourself in Andalucía, do not miss this town. It’s something else.

Enrique led us up back roads and seemingly endless stairways to a lookout point from which we could see the fortress, now surrounded by olive trees. It was easy to see how if you approached from one direction you would have no idea what lurked beneath. Joe and I snapped endless photos and, as we walked, I could not stop muttering to no one in particular random phrases like, “Wow. This is crazy. What? Whoa.” We stopped at a small coffee/dessert shop located in a cave under a large section of rock for an afternoon espresso and torrejas (kind of like a Spanish French toast). Our torrejas came served in a white chocolate sauce. Are you kidding me? It was an apt end to our time precious time in Setenil, sitting at a cafe table outdoors, rock overhead, watching people walk by and cars (yes, cars) pass. When we were preparing to head back to Seville, Joe and I snapped a selfie. Joe did what he often does, posing for the photo with a random expression. I adore viewing my photos at the end of a travel day and finding at least one where Joe’s expression makes me laugh. Love that kid.

We arrived back in Seville around 7:30, ten hours after we had begun our journey. We heartily thanked Enrique for the memorable day and headed off to dinner, tired but not yet ready to throw in the towel. We had a couple last things we wanted to do in Seville, so after dinner we walked 20 minutes to find this structure.

Officially named the Metropol Parasol, it is known more casually as Las Setas (the mushrooms). It is one of the largest wooden structures in the world and at night multicolor lights undulate through the grids. It’s such a juxtaposition to the buildings surrounding it, yet somehow it seems to fit in just fine. I’m glad we went to see it lit up at night. I now wish we had gone up to take in the night view from the top (we didn’t realize you could do that), but at least now I have another reason to return.

Exhausted, we walked back to the hotel and collapsed. Fitbit recorded 23,516 steps and 86 floors for me that day. I would do it again tomorrow.

A Day In Seville

Narrow pedestrian street in Seville

The next stop on our whirlwind Spain trip was Seville. We had limited time there, so I had it planned with little room for error. We hopped on a 6:30 a.m. train from Granada and arrived around 9 a.m. After dropping our bags at our hotel, we hit the Starbucks that was on the way to our tour of the cathedral and the Alcázar.

Although I normally eschew American food chains in other countries, one great thing about them is you usually find foods and beverages you can’t get in the US. And we did. In addition to my compulsory oat milk latte, we ordered bocadillos so we didn’t start our day hungry. Bocadillos had quickly become Joe’s favorite new thing. I mean, how do you go wrong with crusty bread, Jamón Iberico, and manchego cheese? You don’t.

We headed to the meeting spot for our tour and prayed we would find our guide among the throng of tourists. We must have looked lost because someone with a tour group list approached us and got us sorted. The Seville Cathedral (Catedral de Sevilla), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Our guide said it is also the third largest cathedral in the world. I thought the Granada Cathedral was impressive, but this was something else. So large and grand, it was impossible to capture it all (or even most of it) in one photo or in one visit. To demonstrate the scale, I had Joe stand next to a pillar.

Feeling small in the big, wide world

Our guide first showed us an impressively large painting called The Vision of St. Anthony, painted in 1656 by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In 1874, some knuckle-headed thieves cut St. Anthony out of the painting and made off with him. They then attempted to sell the canvas to an art gallery in New York. Fortunately, the owner of the gallery recognized it as the missing piece, bought it for $250, and returned it to the Spanish Consulate. If you look at the section of the painting above St. Anthony’s head you can see a line that shows where the cut was made. Funny to think St. Anthony, patron saint of missing items and lost causes, managed to get himself returned. He does good work. Another item of note in the cathedral are the remains of Christopher Columbus. Yes. THE Christopher Columbus. Or, as our guide explained, about 300 grams of him. No one is entirely certain where the rest of the remains are. But at this time, in the Seville Cathedral there are verified remains of Christopher Columbus, a man who traveled more after his death than during his life. There is also an impressive altar, Altar Mayor. The altar features wood-carved depictions of the lives of Jesus and Mary and took 80 years to complete. Hard to tell from the photograph because of the gates protecting the private chapel, but the altar is 66 feet high and 60 feet wide.

After the cathedral tour, we had the opportunity to climb the Giralda Tower. Thirty-five ramps and 16 stairs transport you the top where Seville spills out in front of you. It was definitely worth the trek up. The tower itself was initially built by the Moors as a minaret, but after the Catholics took over they added a Renaissance-style belfry to complete the tower we see today.

Next stop was the Alcázar of Seville, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. Its name means “fortification” and, indeed, you pass through a fortified stone wall to enter the courtyard where the palace sits. The Alcázar appears Moorish, however it was designed and built by Muslim workers but commissioned by a Christian king more than 100 years post Reconquista. In addition to the ornate palace, there are nearly 25,000 acres of gardens to visit. I wish I could say we had time for all that but, alas, we did not. Still, here are some photos.

Trying to fit in as much of Spanish culture and time with actual citizens as possible on this trip, I had booked a guide for a food tour and a flamenco show. Elena is a Seville native with a foodie instinct. A teacher by day, she does these tours in the evening to fund her love of travel. First, she took us to try an aperitif of Spanish vermouth, white wine fortified with spices, herbs, and botanicals and then aged in barrels. So delicious. Joe and I were surprised how much we liked it. After all, it is called vermouth.

After our aperitif, we went straight into the pork. The Spanish love pork. The black-hoofed hogs that graze on acorns in the Spanish countryside are the reason. The acorns are filled with lovely fats that make their meat like nothing else, melt in your mouth gold, similar to Italian prosciutto but with a more intense flavor. Elena made a point of telling us that these pigs are free range and live great lives, until they become dinner, of course. After eating Jamón Iberico, I began to understand how one would arrive at that justification to ease your ham-eating guilt.

So many different ways to have it prepared, using as much of the animal as possible. All of them are amazing. After our snacks, we headed to a restaurant that prepares serves up Spanish dishes with little modern touches. The food was wonderful and the prices were quite reasonable, so we returned the next night for ensaladilla de Rusa (potato salad with tuna), patatas bravas (potatoes with a red sauce the Spanish call “spicy”), and squid ink spaghetti with scalllops, prawns, and seafood. While we were eating, Elena talked to us about the history of flamenco, the costumes, and the how the performances work. Her father was a student of the different flamenco styles, and he passed his love of the art onto a younger Elena who learned to dance “for the dresses.”

After we were stuffed, we walked to the show. What made it so much more impressive than I expected is that Elena explained that the shows are not choreographed. The music, the vocals, and the dance are all improvised. Clapping by the performers creates a percussive beat. We observed each performer watching the other performers for cues and changes so they could work together to create a cohesive performance. The singers, dancers, and guitarists combine their unique styles of flamenco and somehow manage to finish the performance in sync, despite not being choreographed. At the venue we were at, the performers are changed daily. So it is likely that the five persons on stage have not all performed with each other in that exact combination before, which demonstrates just how improvisational flamenco is. Photos and videos were forbidden during the show, but they did one last short song so we could get the obligatory photo.

The show finished around 9:30 p.m. and, although we had already garnered over 20k steps, we decided to go to the Plaza de España in case we ran out of time for it the following day. Built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 in Maria Luisa Park, the buildings in the plaza form a huge semi-circle and the buildings are accessed by crossing bridges over a moat. It is now is used as a government office building, but you have to see the architecture because it is iconic. We were walking around the plaza and being silly, pretending to fall into the moat and fountains, when we were spied by security personnel. Apparently, we were there past hours. In our defense, the gates were open and nothing suggested we shouldn’t be there until a guard showed up in an electric vehicle and started yelling “Cerrado” at us. Oops. So, I guess the area closes at 10 p.m.

We beat a hasty retreat and returned to explore the hotel. The hotel is music themed with rooms named after famous composers, and it has small salons where musicians can practice. We stopped in at the rooftop patio, which featured a hot tub, a small pool, and a bar. From the roof, we took a pause and our final photos of the day.

The Seville Cathedral lit for the night

Next up, Ronda and the white towns of AndalucÍa.

You Oughta Go To Granada

In mid-January, I seized upon an opportunity to plan a quick spring break trip to Spain with my son. With two months to prepare, I cashed in my United reward miles and booked hotels, train trips, and tours. Then I began the arduous task of determining how to fit 9-days worth of clothing into a backpack, and I learned packing for a trip is the quickest way to figure out you hate all your clothes. Still, I made it work. The bag was not light and I am not the fittest, but I was going to Spain and I could suffer for 9 days. As it turns out, I didn’t suffer much.


Our first stop was Granada, a city of about 115k people in the Andalucía region of Spain, where Joe planned to spend as much time as possible with his girlfriend who is studying there this semester. I planned to take some tours and relax. The one thing Joe and I had scheduled to do together in Granada was tour the Alhambra, the most visited site in Spain and a masterpiece of Muslim art in Europe. This is where things went awry on our very first day. Not a good sign. I had a tour booked for us, but when we got to the meeting place there were so many other groups of tourists we could not find our specific group. There were no signs to aid us in our search, so Joe wandered from group to group asking if we belonged there. But the guides kept pointing us in different directions toward other groups. In the end, by the time the tours had begun, no one had claimed us. That was strike one. Undeterred, I went to the ticket window figuring at least we could do our own viewing, and I purchased two tickets. Sadly, they were not the right tickets, as tickets to the palaces we most wanted to see were sold out. I didn’t catch that with my measly Spanish. That was strike two. Joe was devastated. He tried not to be too upset and to play positive because he knew how miserable I felt for twice messing up the the ONE thing he wanted to do. Still, he was visibly disappointed, and I was disconsolate for failing my son. We did the sightseeing we could at the Generalife (the gardens and vacation home for the inhabitants of the palace) and the Alcazaba (the fortress that is the symbol of the Alhambra complex) and went our separate ways for the evening.

I lost it as soon as I got to the rental flat and cried for a while. Then I did what I always do. I got determined to find a way to make it happen. Searching online for at least an hour, I discovered there were zero tickets available for the Nasrid palaces for the next few days, either from the site itself or as part of any regular tour with any tour company I could find. Then, finally, some light crept in. Around 9 pm, I discovered there might be a possible opportunity via a private tour. It was not inexpensive, and after my two previous ticket foibles I had already exhausted too much money in this quest. But it made zero sense to have traveled all the way to Spain not to see the one site Joe, a religion and middle east studies major, most wanted to see. So, I booked it.

Turns out it was the best money I have spent in a long time. Our tour guide, Isa, was a delight. She’s an architect who literally grew up at the Alhambra because her mother, also an architect, had worked on restoring the site when Isa was a young girl. We couldn’t have lucked into a better situation. While we toured, Isa told us the history of the location, pointed out small details she knew about that others might not, and spoke Spanish with Joe’s girlfriend who wanted the practice. We spent three hours touring with Isa, talking with her about the site and about Granada, and we learned so much more than we ever would have learned in a 25-person tour. But my biggest takeaway from the series of events in those 24 hours is that sometimes when the lights fade on your vision in one way, they illuminate elsewhere and lead you to much better opportunities you might never have encountered otherwise. And yes, the third time’s a charm.

The Nasrid Palaces, built between 1238 and 1492, are awe inspiring. Although my photos miss much of what you see in person, let me use them demonstrate the beauty of the architecture and design.

Most of the color on the walls has faded with time, but if you look carefully you can see remnants of what once was there. Can you imagine how beautiful the interiors here were seven hundred years ago? You were meant to feel small here, humbled by the wealth and power of the Nasrid dynasty. I wish I could have spent days wandering and taking it all in but, alas, all good tours must come to an end. And so we said goodbye to Isa, and I went back to the flat feeling so much better than I had the night before.

Once solo, I toured the Granada Cathedral. I love visiting cathedrals. Some are so ornate and overwhelming they border on gaudy, but the Granada Cathedral is gorgeous. The first part of the church, built by Queen Isabella after the Reconquista in 1492, was completed in Gothic style and is now the Royal Chapel. This is where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel are interred. We viewed their simple caskets on display underneath the chapel floor. The cathedral was built later in Spanish Renaissance style. If you want to feel small and insignificant, step inside a building meant to portray the greatness of God.

I also toured the Albaicín and Sacromonte areas of the city. These sections are located across the Darro River on the hillside opposite of the Alhambra. The Albaicín settlement is where the original palace workers lived back in the day after they were forced into conversion by Ferdinand and Isabella. In the Sacromonte neighborhood, Roma people (called gypsies) settled into cave houses built into the hills. You could spend days wandering the narrow, often car free, streets here. Joe and I visited the courtyard of the St. Nicolas church, located on a hill directly opposite the Alhambra, multiple times at differing hours of the day to take photos. One morning, Joe pulled out a flag he had brought from home, the Andalucían one his brother bought for him in Granada four years ago, and asked to be photographed with it. He usually only buys flags from places he has been, and prior to our trip he said he felt like a fraud for having this flag. At last, he could legitimately claim ownership for it.

Segways lined up for our group

I like to try new things. On this trip, I determined that would be taking a Segway for a spin. There was a tour of the Albaicín and Sacromonte offered via Segway. Joe did not want to participate, so I went with seven people I just met at the tour office. Operating a Segway is fairly straight forward with some practice. I had about 1 minute to practice before we took off. I didn’t feel fully confident, but everyone else in the tour had already ridden one and I was holding up the group.

Acting confident

As I previously mentioned several times, this area of Granada is hilly. Some of these hills are rather steep. With my uninformed mind, I imagined this would make the Segway an ideal mode to get around. At least I would not struggle. That was a miscalculation for a first-time rider. When I booked the trip, I didn’t understand just how narrow, windy, and treacherous these hills were in places. At our first steep incline, the tour leader dismounted and said he personally would coach each one of us up and over the first curve in the hill. Yikes. I could go into gory details about how the rest of this tour went for me but, suffice it to say, the next time I book Segway tour, I will make sure it is in a flat area so I don’t endanger anyone else. I enjoyed the experience, but I’m not so sure the tour leaders and the woman from England who fell off her ride when she ran into cautious me on my slow-going machine felt the same about their trip .

Of the places we toured on our brief sojourn in Spain, Granada was at the top of our list. It’s small, easily walkable, and beautiful with its position at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas. I will definitely return. Next time, I will bring my husband. And I will know the correct way to visit the Alhambra so we only have to pay for our visit one time.