Andalusia's White Hill Towns (Ronda, Grazalama, Zahara, & Arcos de la Frontera)

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March 30th 2009
Published: April 27th 2009
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Day 7 (Monday, March 30th, 2009)

Having a full day's schedule ahead of us, we woke up at the unnatural time of 06:00, leaving our hotel in Granada by 6:30. We walked through the quiet and dark streets of Granada to the parking garage. Upon arrival, we were required to insert our parking ticket into the machine so that we could pay the fee. This part of the process went smoothly, but when Mike attempted to pay with our credit card, we had problems as the machine stated “unable to read” UGH! Instead, Mike attempted to insert a 50 Euro bill into the machine, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t accept it. After about ten minutes, Mike gave up and went looking for an attendant of the garage in order to get some help. Meanwhile, I took a closer look at the machine and realized that the largest bill it accepted was a 20 Euro bill. This seemed easy enough, but the smallest bill we had on us was a 50 Euro. Mike went to a nearby newspaper stand and of course, it was too big of a bill for the man to change. Instead, Mike took money out of the ATM, and was lucky enough to be dispensed 20 Euro bills instead of 50 Euro bills. Problem solved, and we were on our way out of Granada, only 15 minutes behind schedule.

From Granada, we drove south, to the coastal city of Nerja. Although I had not planned any overnight stays on the famous Costa del Sol, I had at least wanted to make sure that we visited one of the small towns on the coast. For most of the two hour drive, it was dark out, and we did not see the sun until nearly 8:00, which seemed rather strange. Nerja is considered a rarity on the Costa del Sol. Most of the cities and towns that line the sea are filled with high rise hotels, lots of ugly concrete, pollution, and too many cars and people. Nerja, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of these other towns and has retained it's authentic Spanish charm and is not inundated with tourists; exactly the type of place we love to visit!

Once in Nerja, we were quickly and easily able to find a free parking spot. As it was only 8:30 in the morning, the small town was quite dead; I’m sure most people were probably where I wanted to be: in bed sleeping! We walked through town, eventually making our way to the Plaza Cavana where we stopped in a small café for some French bread and an insanely delicious chocolate croissant. Up until this point, the pastries we had consumed in Spain had just been only so so and not memorable, but that chocolate croissant was something else! After enjoying the ocean views, we made a quick getaway as we had lots of things planned for the day, a few of which had strict time constraints.

From Nerja, we headed west, stopping in at a grocery store in order to load up for snacks and water for the next several days.

Our next planned event was a 12:00 tour at the Pileta Cave, located near Ronda. With the help of the receptionist at Hostal Lima in Granada, we had reserved tickets the night before. When she called Pileta Cave to reserve our spot, she was informed that the only open spots for the day were on the 12:00 tour. The caves were described as being located just 14 miles SW of Ronda. Unfortunately, when I initially read these directions in the guide book, I thought it indicated that the caves were located SE of Ronda; as a result, we were not as quick as we should have been in Nerja and at the grocery store as the drive was 20 minutes longer than I had anticipated. Although it didn’t look promising, Mike did his best to make up extra time as we drove over the highways and roads. Along the way, we encountered lots of beautiful countryside, which to our surprise, included rolling hills that were bright green, and often filled with colorful yellow flowers. It wasn’t the image I necessarily had in my head of Southern Spain; I had no idea that the countryside would be lush and green, but then again, we were traveling in March, which was just at the beginning of Spring, so the rains hadn’t been too far behind us.

Unfortunately, our quest to arrive at the caves for the 12:00 tour weren’t helped by the fact that one of the highways we needed to drive on was closed. Even though an alternate route was available, it took much longer than the original route would have.

We eventually made it to Ronda, and continued onto Pileta Cave. This cave was described as having some of the best prehistoric cave paintings in Spain. Some of the Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings are up to 25,000 years old, which is difficult to fathom! Although no address was listed for the cave in either of the guidebooks, we had read that there were many signs along the way after leaving Ronda; of course, we saw none of these! After making it all the way to the town of Benaojan and obviously not finding nor seeing signs for the cave, we gave up. After all, by that point, it was five minutes past the time of the 12:00 tour, and we knew that the following tours were already filled. I wasn’t too disappointed however as I knew that we would be visiting several caves later that year while in France. Instead, we headed onto Ronda.

The drive into the narrow streets of Ronda was jam packed with cars as the city was swamped with tourists. Aside from the initial congestion however, we both instantly fell in love with the city. Ronda is one of the many white hill towns of Andalusia, and happens to be one of the largest, in terms of population. We got slightly lost trying to reach our hotel as the street was a little tricky to find. However, once we finally arrived, we were so very pleased with Boabadil Guesthouse. The small place was absolutely amazing, having been recently renovated with the most comfortable bed and modern bathroom. Our room and the public rooms were simple yet filled with so much charm and elegance; the atmosphere was inviting but incredibly comfortable. I immediately began wishing that we were staying here two nights instead of one, but that’s hindsight for you!

After settling into our room, we left and began a several hour long walk through Ronda. We explored many of it’s nooks and crannies, from the winding and narrow streets, to Jardines de Cuenca Park with amazing views of the bridge, to the plazas further into town where only locals resided. I was reminded of the time I spent in the Cinque Terre in Italy several years prior. Aside from the obvious differences (country, language, a little rougher around the edges, etc) I saw and encountered many similarities; local people going about their day, almost oblivious to the incredible charms their city possessed. They have no idea how lucky they are to live in such a place; for the visiting tourists, these type of places seem unreal, and almost too good to be true. The town was so charming and most of the buildings were well cared for. Many of the other buildings that weren’t in the best of shape appeared to be undergoing renovation, so it was obvious that the locals understood the importance of maintaining the beautiful town.

While we were immensely enjoying our walk and the beautiful sun, we were definitely not enjoying the cold temperatures and frequent winds, which made it very miserable to be outside.

The first major sight we actually saw was the bullfighting ring (Plaza de Toros de Ronda). This is one of the oldest operational bullrings in all of Spain, with construction of the building having been finished back in 1785. We paid 6 Euros each to enter, which included entrance to two small museums within the grounds, along with access to the ring. Upon entering the ring, I was surprised and blown away with the beauty of the place, which I had not been expecting. There was just something magical and special about the bullring that I couldn’t quite wrap my fingers around. It was as though you could feel the excitement, energy, and euphoria of past crowds floating through the air. As an animal lover, I’m obviously not a fan of the idea of bullfighting, but I was definitely a fan of the stadium, for it’s architectural beauty. After sitting in the stands, we eventually made our way into the ring. It was actually thrilling to stand in the very center, and circle my head and eyes around the stadium, imagining I was a bullfighter, about to risk my life with thousands of people cheering me on. I can only begin to imagine the amount of life and death this place had seen in it’s 225 year history. Whether you agree with bullfighting or not, I would recommend to all a visit to the stadium; it was unlike anything else I had ever seen before.

We continued walking though town, and eventually made our way back to the hotel to rest for a bit, and then headed back into town. By this point, the blue skies had given way to clouds. We continued to wander through town, first stopping at Santa Maria la Mayor Collegiate Church. As many churches in small cities are free to enter throughout Europe, I expected the same of this one. Unfortunately, this was not the case as the entrance fee was a steep 4 Euros per person. Mike opted out on touring this one, and waited behind for me. The interior of the church was neither dull nor fascinating; it was just simply another church that blurs together in my mind with so many other churches of Europe. However, I will point out that as our visit to Spain occurred within only days of Holy Week 2009, there were at least a dozen people inside the church, frantically and methodically cleaning every little detail they could get their hands on. This was quite interesting to watch, but not so good to smell; the air reeked of chemicals, so I didn’t stay very long as I figured it wouldn't take too long until I began to have a headache.

From the church, we walked to Monodragon Palace. This Moorish building was built sometime in the 14th century and later restored in the 16th century. After paying 3 Euros each to enter, we wandered the building, admiring it’s unique architectural beauty. We also made our way to the upper floors, where there was several local exhibits on the town and the surrounding region. While I wasn’t particular interested in those exhibits, I did find it impressive that a town of only 35,000 residents had a museum of that quality.

Afterward, we went back to the hotel and rested again. Shortly thereafter, the clouds slightly parted, so we went and got the car and drove down below the city for a cloudy view of the Puente Nuevo bridge. The Puente Nuevo Bridge is the newest and largest of three bridges that span the 390 gorge that divides the city. Although it's called "New Bridge", it's really only a relative term as it was built back in 1751. We stayed for awhile, hoping that the sun would eventually break free of the clouds and light up the bridge. Unfortunately, this did not occur, so we left after waiting for nearly 30 minutes.

Low and behold, just as soon as we returned to the room, the sun came shining back out. I began freaking out, knowing that I was missing a great photographic opportunity and insisted that we leave immediately, even though we had just returned! Mike wasn’t thrilled to say the least, but the things one will do for love, especially when you understand how important it is to your spouse!

The second time around, I was able to get some great shots of the Puente Nuevo bridge. Although conditions weren’t ideal (a cloudless backdrop behind the bridge would have been nicer!) I knew I couldn’t complain and was happy that I had lucked out once again on the trip with the sun!

From here, we headed to Restaurante Bar Flores for dinner. Of course, like so many other times on this trip, we were the first ones to sit down inside a completely empty restaurant; the Spaniards eat way too late! We selected this restaurant due to the three course meal they had advertised for 11.50 Euros per person. The food was great; for our three courses, we both ordered a soup that was made with eggs, ham and rice, the main course was chicken with a yummy sauce along with French fries, and rice pudding and flan were our dessert choices. During the one hour that we stayed at the restaurant, only one other couple showed up; crazy!

After dinner, we began the bone chilling walk back to hotel, which seemed to take forever, especially when a planned detour to a chocolate shop turned up empty handed!

Day 8 (Tuesday, March 31st, 2009)

Trying to enjoy every last moment in the most comfortable bed ever at the Boabdil guesthouse, we did not end up getting out of bed until 9:30, finally leaving around 10:00. It was very difficult to say goodbye to that room.

We got into the car, and headed off to Grazalema, which is a small village located in the foothills of the Sierra del Pinar mountain range and home to about 2000 residents. It is known as one of the "pueblos blancos" or "white towns" because most of the buildings within the town are white.

The drive to Grazalema took a little over an hour, and was quite scenic and even a little adventurous, as it included driving over muddy dirt roads with random, wandering horses. One of the horses seemed to be quite perturbed that we were in his territory, and began to run towards our car as we drove by. Luckily, we were able to drive more quickly than he could run.

We saw gorgeous Grazalema from a distance as we drove around the curvy roads; it was quite a sight to see a white washed town tucked away into a mountainside; unfortunately, there was no good turn off points that had views of the city, so I have no panoramic shots to show you.

Once in Grazalema, we found a place to park for free and then simply wandered the town. As with so many other white hill towns in Andalusia, there isn’t necessarily anything to do in these cities except to enjoy the quiet atmosphere and local hospitality. After walking through Grazalema for about 45 minutes and stopping to buy some pastries, we left and headed for Zahara de la Sierra.

Zahara de la Sierra (more commonly referred to as Zahara) is yet another small but quaint and beautiful Andalusia town with about 1500 residents. It is perched up on a small mountain and overlooks the surrounding valley, including a man-made lake formed by the dam that must be driven over to access the town. Zahara is also home to a Moorish castle, which is free to visit.

The portion of the drive from Grazalema to Zahara took much longer than did the drive from Arcos to Grazalema, but we were rewarded with the most stunning scenery. We were driving within the boundaries of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, which is known in Spain for it's rugged mountain landscape and it's relatively rainy climate. Surprisingly, 1/3 of Spain's flowers bloom within this park, which would make sense when taking into account it's abundance of rain. I was so surprised to see that this area of Andalusia was covered with lush green hills and sprinkles of colorful wildflowers; for some reason, I had anticipated seeing brown-colored parched fields. Aside from the gorgeous views, this ride also included lots and lots of hairpin twists and turns, which made for an interesting ride!

As we approached Zahara, we could see the tower of it's castle in the distance, standing proudly over the small city. When we finally reached the city, we drove all the way through it, in an attempt to find a parking spot. We did not find one until the very end of the city, near the entrance to the castle. Luckily, (and surprisingly) there was no entrance fee to climb up to the castle. We huffed and puffed our way up, as the climb was quite steep and the temperatures were quickly accelerating to over 70 degrees. The hard work was worth it though as the views from the top of the surrounding valley were unbelievably rewarding. All we could see for miles around us was bright blue skies, green hills, and emerald-colored water, with the white washed town of Zahara below us. After climbing the tower, we made our way down. I had wanted to immediately go into the town to take some photographs, but having just finished that hike, Mike thought the distance down into the town was too steep, so he recommended that we drive back to the start of the town and try to find another parking spot. This unfortunately, proved to be a mistake. Our navigation system could not get us back to the start of town, so we drove in circles for quite some time before we were able to eventually find the road that led into town. We parked the car, walked down into the town, and I took photographs for about 20 minutes, and then we headed out. In terms of sights, aside from the climb to the castle, there wasn’t much else to do except wander the streets.

When comparing the two towns, I preferred Zahara to Grazalema. Even though Zahara was smaller than Grazalema, it seemed to offer more in terms of restaurants and overall ambiance. Although most of the buildings were whitewashed, there were a few that were painted different colors, which broke up the sterile white. In addition, while the views from both towns were beautiful, the view from Zahara was unlike anything else we had seen before, especially with the emerald green waters.

From Zahara, we headed towards Arcos de la Frontera, stopping at Puerto Boyar for a great viewpoint (albeit a cloudy one) of the valley and also in the town of El Bosque. We had planned on touring the visitor center of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park in El Bosque, but unfortunately, when we arrived it was closed. Instead, we sat on a bench outside of the bullfighting ring, soaking up some sun.

As we neared Arcos, we decided that it was a good time to find a grocery store to stock up on some more snacks for the following days. For some strange reason, we thought it was a good idea to listen to our navigation system when they said the closest grocery store was in Jerez de la Frontera, a good 25 minute drive from Arcos de la Frontera. Arcos, with about 30,000 inhabitants, obviously had some form of a grocery store, but we were too intent on listening to our navigation system instead of finding one ourselves in Arcos.

About 20 minutes into our journey, I began to realize what a mistake we had made, realizing how much time we were wasting driving in the car when we could have been spending it in Arcos. On top of all of this, we both had to pee like you wouldn’t believe! Unfortunately, just as our navigation system stated “arriving at destination” we saw that the grocery store was closed. We turned right back around in frustration and eventually found a shopping mall to stop at so that we could use the restroom. At this point, we decided it was a better idea to head back to Arcos and find a grocery store there instead of searching for one in a large city that wasn't necessarily easy to navigate.

Sure enough, once near Arcos, we found a large grocery store and loaded up on food. Afterward, we headed into Arcos. The old town of Arcos de la Frontera is situated on top of a narrow hilltop, and it's new town is spread out beneath it's ridge. It's old town is filled with labyrinth after labyrinth of narrow winding streets that seemed to do a great job of disorienting us when we walked through it.

Unfortunately, after leaving the grocery store, we got lost driving into city as we attempted to find our hotel. The incredibly narrow streets did not make our frustrating situation any easier, as there were times we almost thought our car wouldn't be able to turn a corner. Because the town obviously wasn't designed to accommodate cars, the roads are one way only, so if one misses their turn, they must drive through the entire city and then down into the new town in order to drive back into the old part of the city again. We had to completed this circle twice before we finally figured it out and found the parking lot behind the church at Plaza del Cabildo. Luckily, this small parking lot was quite cheap in comparison to others we parked in during our trip and only cost four Euros per night.

From Plaza del Cabildo, it was just a short five minute walk to our hotel La Casa Grande, which was a great hotel with lots of character and the most amazing view we’ve ever had from any room we've ever stayed in. The only downside was the price, at 84 Euros per night, which was slightly more than we usually like to spend.

After settling into our room, we wandered through town. In all actuality, there was not much to see, and we were somewhat surprised with the lack of “things to do”. We literally seemed to be the only tourists in town as the streets were practically empty, give or take a few young locals who would go zooming past us on their noisy and annoying scooters. I had really wanted to be able to get a shot of Arcos from a distance, but after our stressful entry into the city, Mike had no intentions of leaving
Church of Santa MariaChurch of Santa MariaChurch of Santa Maria

Arcos de la Frontera
until the following day.

We eventually made our way back to the hotel, where we stopped in to surf the internet as they offered free wifi. While we were sitting in the lobby with our laptop, another set of guests arrived, who looked just as exasperated and stressed out as we had a few hours prior. I thought I would try to ease their frustrations by admitting that we had also had just as many problems as they had trying to find the parking lot, so not to worry. They appeared to look a little more relaxed and calm after we shared and vented our experiences.

Afterward, we consulted our guidebooks in order to find a good restaurant for dinner. As this was our seventh day in Spain and we had not yet eaten at a tapas bar, Mike decided on a place called Bar la Carcel, which was about five minutes away from our hotel. For some reason, I was nervous and quite apprehensive at the thought of eating at a tapas bar; I'm not completely sure why, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I was unfamiliar with the food served in tapas bars and that I was worried that the language barrier would be too difficult. I'm glad I finally caved in and listened to Mike as we had one of our best meals of the trip this night. We ordered several tapas plates, including croquettes (deep fried béchamel sauce with tiny bits of ham mixed in), prawns wrapped with jamon (ham), chicken strips, and chicken with béchamel sauce. All of the food was great, but the croquettes were out of this world; I had no idea that these little bits of deep fried goodness had been missing from my life for so long. We vowed to find a recipe for croquettes as soon as we got home so that we could continue to enjoy them. After our first tapas experience, I realized that there had been absolutely no need to be nervous about not finding food I would like in a tapas bar ,and that even though the workers in the restaurant spoke no English, it did not prevent us from having a great time!

We walked back to the hotel from Bar la Carcel and quickly headed to bed as we had another long day ahead of us.

Additional photos below
Photos: 266, Displayed: 38


9th July 2010

Amazing pics
I found your blog entry while doing a google search for the white hill towns... absolutely amazing photos! Your notes will be very helpful for us... thanks!
23rd January 2012

Just read this whole post with great interest as we'll be in Andalusia this summer and I'm looking for lots of info on the white hill towns. Loved your detailed descriptions of the good and the bad. My husband will be driving the car, so I'll be sure to use your advice.

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