Exposing the biggest stereotype of Spain: The Climate

There’s the old saying, ‘The rain in Spain falls on the plain’, and there are stereotypes suggesting that it’s always hot and sunny in Spain, and that they drink Gazpacho and Sangria to keep cool and always take a siesta. All of this is as inaccurate as people suggesting that it rains in Britain everyday and it’s always cold, which again, is not true either. So what is it really like here?

First let’s look at geography. It’s more complicated than just looking at north and south and eat and west. Spain is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe with plateaus, lush, green hills, deserts, mountains more than double the height of Ben Nevis, and glaciers, yes you read that right, glaciers. If you decide to live in or visit a certain town here, It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Even a summer break doesn’t guarantee hot sunny weather, though it is more likely, and winters may experience colder days than back in England.

Living in Spain presents more challenges with the weather than you think. I live in Córdoba, and in winter, temperatures are around 15 degrees in January, but about 5 at night. That might sound amazing for a brit, but houses are designed differently , and not as well equipped for the cold compared to in Britain. Central heating isn’t a given in various parts of the country, and we suffer for it big time. House don’t always have balconies or terraces for us to enjoy the outdoors, but when we do have them, we have times where you don’t want to use them.

Let’s start with the North of Spain, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and most parts of the Basque Country, colloquially known as Green Spain. Why is known as that? because it has rolling green hills and mountains, and rugged coastlines that are lush and green, like England. It rains as much if not more than England too due to the Atlantic influence and the Cantabrian Mountains keeping most of the humidity on the coastal side. Temperatures are very similar to that of London during the summer, and are a little warmer in winter, so anyone complaining about how hot it is in Sevilla maybe should book a weekend in Gijón next time.

Now let’s have a look at the alpine areas of Spain, of which there are so many. The climate in Winter can be very extreme, with snow a feature in almost every autonomous community (even the Canary Islands). You will definitely experience a sub-zero experience, even at the bottom of the Valley. Pamplona, Vitoria- Gasteiz, and Teruel are Provincial capitals that are in the mountains and experience wintery weather pretty much every year, and you don’t have to travel far to reach mountains that are snow-capped. Even Granada and Jaén in Andalucía will have a wintery scene on their doorstep every once in a while. Storm Filomena in January 2021 brought temperatures as low as -29 degrees in the Teruel region, and temperatures -15 or lower in other mountain regions.

Summer in the mountains can bring some nice heat, but stay fresh at high altitude areas, especially the Pyrenees, where the glaciers are. Many Spanish people will go to the mountain areas in summer to escape the heat. the Cantabrian mountains and the Sierra Nevada will also have snow patches on the highest peaks until well into the summer which encourage hikers and extreme sports enthusiasts to visit.

The centre of Spain has one of the harshest climates in the whole country, being largely located on a high-altitude plateau called La Meseta Central. Divided between north and south via the Sistema Central mountains, the climate follows suit, and the North, being higher on the whole, has harder winters and more temperature variations between night and day. Major cities like León, Valladolid, Salamanca and Burgos are there, and some of the smaller provincial capitals like Soria, are over 1000m in altitude and have one of the hardest climates around. It’s normal to have sub-zero night temperatures in winter, and single figure night temperatures in Summer. I used to live in León, and there were spring days that would be in the mid 20’s and drop to zero at night.

The south side of the Meseta may have it a little better, but they are faced with even more distinct seasons than the north, and temperatures occasionally reaching 40 in summer and having a snow day or two in winter. Madrid is there, as well as the old Capital, Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete. Homes on the Meseta are usually well equipped for winter with central heating, but some might not have air conditioning. It isn’t as necessary in the Meseta Norte because of the cooler nights.

The majority of the Mediterranean coast, and the Costa de la Luz has the climate that is most famous for Brits abroad in the summer. Major cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, Tarragona, Cadiz and Palma are all in this zone, and have some of the warmest winters in Europe. That’s not to say that you are guaranteed an amazing life there. Winters will drastically reduce the amount of businesses staying open in. Certain areas. Salou is almost empty for 4 months of the year, but it is understandable since the sea is cold, there’s a notable chilly wind around. And it’s usually the most unsettled time.

I used to live in the Tarragona area for a couple of years, and while you could visit monuments all year round, and enjoy some quiet moments at the beach, there’s definitely a different vibe and some people don’t like this change. This is the part where Brits don’t understand until they experience it themselves, it’s warmer than Britain, but in general, it’s not much warmer. It’s one of the biggest reality checks you get when you are off-peak. Even Cadiz and Malaga is notably different during this time, but there is plenty to do and enjoy still, it just won’t be what you imagined. The Balearic Islands are in the same situation, though more extreme.

Don’t think this excludes the Costa Blanca, Costa Cálida, and Costa de Almería either, the driest part of the peninsula. Alicante, Elche, Murcia, Cartagena and Almería lie in the true desert of Iberia, but that doesn’t mean the weather is always easy. This part has more sun than pretty much anywhere else in Spain, but it also has more flooding issues, because when it rains, it pours. Don’t let that put you off though, because if you really don’t like the cold, this may be the area. Almería is the only city as of 2021 to have never registered a freezing temperature. Heat here, can be just as tough as the rest of the Spanish Costas, but if you’re by the sea, you will cope just fine. But that doesn’t stop many Brits turning into a lobster!

Temperatures along the whole coast are anywhere from 14 on the Catalan coast, to 18 or so around Malaga, Almeria and Cartagena, and any time in winter you can enjoy 20 degrees and shelter yourself from the wind. A light jacket, and your fine, protect yourself from the wind and you’ll easily get through the winter. Heaters at night, are practically non-existent, you will probably end up with some small, electric heater on at night.

The Ebro Valley from La Rioja, to Mora la Nova in Tarragona is the 2nd driest part of the peninsula after Almería, but has a lot of extremes that are more notable than the coast. Winters can be very windy due to the Cierzo, a very chilly wind that can be quite unpleasant, but rarely freezing, and subsequently, can cause fog further east. I lived in Lleida, where the Cierzo wind could be really strong, or struggle to reach 5 degrees because of thick fog.

Summers are almost as extreme as parts of Andalusia, with temperatures regularly passing 35 degrees all the way up to Logroño, and occasionally reach 40+. The dryness and high temperatures can make it a dangerous environment for farmers during that time, and there are cases of heat-related hospitalisations during this time. Take care when outside here. The positive is that it doesn’t rain much, and you for the most part can enjoy sunny weather more often than not.

Now we head to the hottest part of Spain, where most of the temperature records are, and the highest summer average in the whole of Europe can be found here. The interior part of Andalusia, majority of Extremadura, interior part of Valencia, and Tortosa in Catalonia are the places that many travellers are totally not prepared for, and those living here, will often escape to the beach when they can. Sevilla, Badajoz, Mérida, Cáceres Córdoba, Jaén, Granada, Jerez, Xàtiva, and Tortosa are the major towns and cities that are in this zone.

There’s a place, known as the ‘Frying pan of Europe’ due to it having the highest summer average at just over 37 degrees in July callied Écija, in Sevilla province. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Spain is officially in Montoro, Córdoba. You question why someone would want to live somewhere like that, but the answer is that it isn’t always, and that there are rainy days and mild to warm days for the better part of 5 months of the year, and you are more comfortable that you thought you would be.

Similar to that of Almería and Murcia, when it rains, it can be quite a sharp shower, and occasionally quite a big storm from the heat may hit these parts. Winters are a little chilly at night, but usually mid- teens during the day, though you can get a night below freezing. You can however, enjoy the winter sun and not need anymore than a jumper, or sometimes even just a t-shirt will do. After the Mediterranean coast, winters in these parts are the most comfortable. Just don’t expect to see any snow.

The last climate Spain has to offer, is the sub-tropical area of the Canary Islands. I haven’t explored this area yet, but from what friends have told me, is that it is dryer the further east you are, and temperatures are warm to hot, all year round, except the peaks of the higher mountains, which can have snow on them during the winter. Despite the dryness at times, heavy overnight dews can give the impression that it has rained in these areas. A similar thing happens in places like Florida. I totally understand why somebody would want to live somewhere like the Canary Islands. The cold practically doesn’t exist, you can find it if you want it, and rain is a similar level to that of Murcia, depending on the island. But just like the rest of Spain, nothing is perfect.

There you have it, a country that has a bigger variety of climactic differences than probably any other European country. In conclusion, plan for the weather properly here, because Spain is not just Mediterranean, it’s alpine, arid, British and everything else in between. Make sure you have a just in case section in your luggage.

City Guide: Córdoba, Andalucía

A city with a name that is replicated all over Latin America, Córdoba is growing in reputation as a city that must be visited during any visit to Andalucía. It usually isn’t even in the top 3 for visitors, who often put Sevilla, Granada, Malaga and Cádiz higher on the list. After visiting this city, you might reconsider a few things. I first visited Córdoba in 2013 with my brother, and spent just one night there. 6 years later, I moved there permanently, and haven’t looked back since, and this blog, along with all the others to date, have been published directly from this place. Welcome to a very personal guide of Córdoba, Andalucía.

First things first as always with my guides, is how to get there. Córdoba is very well connected with the rest of Andalucía, and has direct train services to all the provincial capitals except Almería and Huelva (Change at Sevilla and Granada respectively). It is also on the AVE line which from there, the main railroad splits and heads to Sevilla, Malaga and Granada. The other direction is from the very first AVE connection to Madrid, and subsequently connects to Zaragoza and Barcelona. Valencia is also connected with one or two daily trains via a different route.

Buses will pretty much take you to almost any other part of the country directly or via a connection. When I moved from Tarragona to Córdoba, there was just 1 connection at Ubeda and I only paid 75€ for it. Alsa and Socibus make the majority of the long-distance routes, whereas Carrera will take you to more local places like Lucena, 2nd largest city in the province. The airport in Córdoba does not currently have any commercial flights, so the nearest airports are Sevilla, Malaga and Granada. For me, the best ways back to England aren’t usually via Granada, so compare your flights with the other two.

Despite being the third biggest city in Andalucía, The infrastructure of Córdoba is quite basic. There is no metro, nor tram, but an extensive bus network by Aucorsa, where journeys cost 1.30€ each (buying a card for 5€ reduces the price to 0.76€ a journey, but this isn’t worth it for visitors). They are pretty efficient and can take you to most parts of town easily barring the old quarter, where you will have to walk more often than not. The chances are that you would never need to use a bus in order to see most of the attractions, though for transit between the city centre and the train and bus station.

The climate of Córdoba is extreme in summer, and mild or cool in winter. At an average of 37 degrees in July, The city has the hottest average summer high in the whole of Europe Only Ecija (Sevilla) is higher. During the summer of 2020, the mercury reached 45 on several occasions, and this kind of extreme temperature reflects the dip in number of tourists during June, July and August. The busiest times are actually around April, May, September and October when the weather is a more comfortable. Winters are usually a little wetter, and night temperatures can drop below freezing, so a jacket is advisable. Even in winter, you can easily enjoy the outdoors in jeans and a t-shirt on occasions as the temperature can reach 20+ degrees even in January.

On to the sights and one thing you must be aware of, is that the old quarter is one of the biggest in Europe, and I divided it into 4 sections: the commercial centre, the Judería, San Basilio, and Realejo/ San Lorenzo/ San Pedro. Here’s what you need to know about them.

The commercial centre/ centro commercial is as the name suggests where the majority of the shopping areas are in the city, and is where one of the main squares, the Plaza Tendillas is. This is the part of town that has seen the most changes over the last 100 years, with various buildings typical of eras ranging from the 19th-20th centuries. It is also a very popular place for locals and young people, who often meet in Tendillas and may fill the bars nearby.

Many of the narrow, windy streets have been changed over the years and made wider like the main shopping street, Cruz Conde. There are actually indications on the floor detailing the old streets and even a model showing the different eras. Many old streets still remain, and among some of the churches in the area, you can still find old classic white buildings even in this part. The Plaza de Capuchinos and Calle Conde de Torres Cabrera are the best examples of this.

San Basilio is the smallest neighbourhood, and has some of the most important attractions that aren’t in the Judería, Such as the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, and next to that, Córdoba Ecuestre. The Alcazar and its extensive gardens are a must see, and has some examples of Moorish architecture and views of the city along the walls. The Gardens however, are my favourite part, as they show the impressive irrigation system that’s been in place for years. During the night, especially in summer, there are light and water shows there which when I first visited, were free with the ticket (5€), but during some periods they now charge you. The Ecuestre centre is the place famous for the andaluz horses, and you can visit the stables, as well as enjoy the dressage shows in the evening.

San Basilio is also famous for the Patios de Córdoba, and some of the most beautiful are usually judged to be here. The museum of Patios Cordobeses is in this Neighbourhood, and the narrow streets, almost entirely surrounded by the castle walls are nowhere near as busy as the Judería. There is also the Museo de los Baños del Alcazar Califal, which takes you underground and enjoy the sights of the old moorish baths, on the border between San Basilio and the Judería.

The Realejo/ San Lorenzo/ San Pedro area is the biggest part of the old quarter and possibly the most underrated part of town. You can easily get lost in almost endless, narrow streets which are almost always photogenic as they always seem to have a church or two in the background. Here, you can find the Plaza de Corredera, the only square in Córdoba with passageways and arches and is full of life, with restaurants and the local market. You also have the Palacio de Viana, known for it’s courtyards and gardens and during the COVID pandemic, it’s also free to enter if you book.

What you might end up doing however, is enjoying the walk down various narrow streets, visiting any church, of which there are many, and relaxing in one of the many squares around, many of which have bars taking advantage of the area. I happen to live in this area, and it is surprisingly easy to get lost, and live a normal life without having to walk miles to do your weekly shop. The closer to the river you get however, the more touristic it becomes, though you will very likely see locals around these areas too.

The Judería is definitely the most popular part of town for tourists, is the oldest part of town, and the whole neighbourhood is a UNESCO world Heritage site. The Mezquita, the city’s cathedral has quite possibly one of the strangest, but also most spectacular interiors of any other cathedral in Spain. It follows hundreds of years of building and expanding and changes in religion, resulting in a gothic and moorish fusion of architecture. There are hundreds of arches surrounding the Christian scene in the centre, and you can tell which parts of the cathedral are older. A standard ticket to enter costs 11€ which is 3€ more than when I first visited in 2013, but there is a hack to this. If you enter the Mezquita between 8:30-9:30, it is free entry, for everybody. This does however exclude certain religious days, and many Sundays, so be aware.

The Judería is also home to a number of other sights, including the synagogue, Casa Andalusí, Patios Andaluces, Museo Taurino, Puente Romano and the Calahorra, the two latter monuments being on the Guadalquivir river with the Mezquita overlooking it. Some of these places charge a small fee of a couple of euros, but there’re no charge for the Patios, nor the Puente Romano, the oldest bridge in the city. With just these attractions alone, you can probably make a good day of it, depending on how much of a rush you’re in.

Souvenir shops are quite a prominent feature in this part of town, mostly on the streets surrounding the Mezquita and some of the streets are extremely photogenic, specifically the Calleja de las flores which I would visit as early as possible and your quality of the photo will depend on the season due to the flowers. There are also a few Arab baths in case you want a proper chill out, the Hammam and the Baños Arabes de Córdoba are located here and easy to find.

Outside the centre, There are some attractions a little out of the way that are more than worth the journey. The Medina Azahara, a UNESCO world heritage site 8km or so from the city centre, and is accessible by bus and bicycle. There, you have a visitor centre and the ruins of the ancient moorish kingdom that that offer views of Córdoba city in the distance. If you’re looking for more views though, I would recommend Las Ermitas on the tallest hill that immediately overlooks Córdoba. This place is series of crosses and shrines that is popularly hiked up to, from the city and only cost a couple of Euros to visit, should you decide to enter the premises.

Eating out in Córdoba was a pleasant surprise to me, as I realised just how many unique dishes were on offer here that were local. The typical dishes here include; Salmorejo (cold tomato soup with eggs, Jamón and bread) Flamenquín, Berenjenas con miel (fried aubergines with honey or sweet wine), San Jacobo (similar to a cordon bleu) and Rabo de Toro. Other dishes popular here are Naranjas Picadas which often go with salads and fish, Berenjenas a la montillana, a different kind of aubergine and tortilla. Many places often compete with each other for who has the biggest flamenquín or biggest tortilla or best rabo de toro, nice to know they want their customers to have the most unique experience ever, right?

In most restaurants you are going to see at least one of the aforementioned dishes on the menu, given how good they are, and how much the locals like them. Now let’s explore where are the best places to eat. The Judería is going to throw traditions at you and understandably, there is a mark-up on the prices, but the difference isn’t that big. you can enjoy the food as well as the odd flamenco show which are on offer in many places there. The Judería is also a minefield of tourist traps, and I can tell you now, if you are paying more the 3.50€ for a tapa, it has to be pretty special to be worth that much. One place around the Mezquita where locals keep coming back for more is Santos, where you can sample a slice of one of the biggest tortillas in the country at a reasonable price.

Other zones around the city are notably cheaper for the most part, the better places being around Avenida Gran Capitan, In the city centre, Ciudad Jardín near the train station, and scattered around the San Lorenzo area, where there are some amazing places like Taberna Santi and Sociedad Plateros. most places in the city, will give you a tapa free with a drink, though it is often Olives and crisps. In Ciudad Jardín, you are more likely to get something different. All I can say is, they are a very light bite and are more an appetiser for you to order a media ración of something.

It’s worth noting that the Plaza de Corredera has nice places to eat, but it’s a little more expensive there, and quality of the food is a little hit and miss there, but the atmosphere makes up for it. The Mercado Victoria is like the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, amazing food, buzzing atmosphere, but a bit pricey. It does have some night life there to keep the locals beyond midnight.

Speaking of nightlife, Córdoba has quite a lot of places for going out, but not in the Judería, which is empty for the most part after 1:00, but the commercial centre has places scattered around that keep going until sunrise. There are also notable spots by the river and in Ciudad Jardín which may be worth checking out.

While there may be events all year round in Córdoba, the springtime seems to be the most active. Easter, with the huge parades Feria de Abril and Los Patios all happen around this time. You will also see pop up bars from around February-May selling Caracoles (snails) in many popular places in the city. There is also San Rafael in September which is the patron saint, where people party for a three day weekend. During these times, crowds and one-way systems are formed in the centre, and while the atmosphere is amazing, it makes mobility slow- going. In fact, around the Mezquita during Easter, panels are set up preventing people from seeing the parades without paying for a seat. It can all be a hassle and a more expensive experience, but there are more positives than negatives, so don’t let it put you off.

Hotels and hostels are abundant in Córdoba, and even during peak times, it’s easy to find a bed for the night. Of course the majority of these places are, yep you’ve guessed it, in the Judería. There are some hostels around that cater for younger people, hostal Osio was a good place to stay, just a stone’s throw away from the Mezquita. Esencia de Azahar was also a very pleasant experience. During off peak times, you can easily find a private room for 30€ a night, and they will very likely have some amazing chill out spots on the roof if you are in the older part of town.

There you have it, my adopted city, and I feel so lucky to be living here. I hope you will understand why when you are able to visit Córdoba for yourself. If you want to see a city with so much colour, historic culture, and monuments that are unique, I would highly recommend this place becomes part of your itinerary if you are visiting Andalusia for a week. Just be aware that in summer, you are in for a sweltering time.

Cecina de León, The beef equivalent of Jamón Serrano

Throughout the whole of Spain, its not surprising to notice that dry cured meats in their various forms are ever- present in the culinary scene. Of course jamón and chorizo are found everywhere, but there is another big time player that you may come across in various parts of the country, and that is cecina. I actually discovered this dish while preparing for my Erasmus year in León and was determined to give it a try when I arrived.

Castilla de León is the place of origin, specifically León, and is most famous there, as well as in neighbouring provinces of Palencia and Zamora. Two types has a protected geographic indication status, in León and Vegacervera respectively and the taste is distinct. The word cecina doesn’t exclusively refer to beef, but also horse, goat, lamb and rabbit, though these varieties are not as easy to find compared to the beef version, which is available around the whole country in restaurants and most supermarkets.

cecina is usually served cold as a tapa, an appetiser, or first course, but many people may order it as a ración to share alongside other dishes round the table. Just like jamón ibérico, or serrano, it’s normal to have it served with bread and olive oil, with the only difference being that the colour of the meat is usually darker. Some people who have tried it, have claimed the taste and texture is like beef jerky, but I disagree with that. It’s texture is a fraction tougher than jamón, but less than jerky, and the taste is mixture of dry cure and a mild beefy taste. It’s very difficult to describe, but I can say, if you like like Jamón serrano, you are probably going to like this too.

There are not many recipes that actively use cecina as a key ingredient, but many other local dishes combine with it to make an ultimate Leonés experience, especially queso de valdeón and pimientos de Bierzo. The standout recipe I have seen in restaurants when I visited león however, were croquetas de cecina, but I’m in two minds on whether they are better than the standard jamón version. The croquetería, Rebote serves them as one of the 7 varieties that comes free with a beer, so if you’re in Barrio Humedo, see what you think for yourself.

The cost of Cecina, doesn’t vary nearly as much as jamón does, and there is no official grading system like ibéricos. The cost usually is based on how long the meat is cured (which is a minimum of 7 months), and the quality of the cut. The pack I usually buy at the supermarket, costs around 2.50€ for a 100g pack, whereas in restaurants, you can find it for over 10€ for a Ración. Many places may include it in the set menu, of which it would be real value for money. All I can say, is that it is worth every cent.

So there you have it, cecina. Rich in history, rich and flavourful in taste, and a nice change to Jamón once in a while. This is testament that Spain love dry-curing almost everything and they all deserve the same treatment. Whether it’s an appetiser, a tapa or part of a banquet you have decided to order at once, take your time, and enjoy the flavour for what it is. You’ll understand what I mean when you do.

Traversing the Parrizal de Beceite, Teruel

The comarca of Matarraña, the easternmost of Teruel, is a land of mountains, beautiful villages, and one of the few Catalan speaking areas outside of Catalonia that few know well. Beceite (Beseit in Catalan) is the nearest village to the trail, where many people like to spend the night, prior to setting off. The route essentially takes you along the Río Matarraña to a narrow canyon which eventually becomes impassable for regular hikers without experience and/or equipment depending on conditions.

The only realistic way to get to this place is by car, so you either need to hire one for the journey if you are going at the weekend. Alternatively, Hife have bus services from Monday to Friday from Zaragoza, Alcañíz and Tortosa, but extremely irregular. The route also has a control which charges for parking to enter, though there are days which are free. Depending on where you have parked, the minimum distance of the walk is about 8km, whereas the longest can be 13km if you leave from the village. You can go any time of the year, but I wouldn’t recommend going when it’s raining, due to potential storm surges of the river. Another point to be aware of, is that Pets are not allowed on this particular trail, but many people ignore this rule, do so at your own risk.

Starting from one of a few car parks, The path takes you to a small hydro station, where the valley, wide at first, will take you through as short tunnel. There are 2 detours from the start, the cave paintings or Pinturas Rupestres de la Fenellassa is just before the tunnel, while the Cueva de la Dona just afterwards is a nice detour. That, will warm up the legs a little for the main event. Only 1km or so into the hike, and the valley already starts to narrow and you will start to traverse the river, by crossing via suspended wooden walkways.

The valley heads southeast the majority of the time, and the mountains will start to get more dramatic early on. There isn’t much climbing involved during the whole hike, what can be a challenge though, is keeping your feet dry, the odd occasion. The walkway gets narrower the deeper you go, and continually combines, with boardwalks and occasional island hopping. You also don’t completely follow the course of the river, and will encounter some woodland paths, even nearer the end.

The walkway makes a pretty abrupt end where the rock faces twist around and can no longer be safe for any more boardwalks, and so the main path ends. This is where we stopped, but for anyone up for a little challenge, could continue going upstream at their own risk and reach another path at the Font de Tex where you will have crossed the border into Catalonia, and be close to peaks of 1200m+ as a result. For any novice hiker, of which there were some in our group, It is not recommendable, and this is a really nice spot to stop and enjoy until the walk back.

There’s nothing to report about for the way back as it’s exactly the same as the way there. All I can say that conditions and certain days can greatly affect the experience, and there are junctions where you need to respect other hikers passing more so than usual because of how now parts can be. This hike is perfect for people of all abilities and you can reward yourself afterwards with a visit of one of the many stunning villages around the region, particularly Valderrobles, Calaceite, Horta de San Joan and of course Beceite itself. Enjoy!

Any additional information about the Parritzal hike can be found here.

Camino de San Salvador Day 1: León- Pola de Lena 95km

If you were to attempt the Camino de Santiago, you would quickly discover that León is a very important city on the most well known route, the Camino Francés. However, before crossing the Roman bridge of the Río Bernesga, you might have stumbled across a signal showing an alternative route on the wall of the Monesterio de San Marcos. That sign, is the starting point of the rarely used Camino de San Salvador which connects León and Oviedo in Asturias. Any unsuspecting pilgrim might be confused by this alternative direction, especially given that Oviedo is north and totally the wrong way to Santiago. So why does it exist?

Well, the most condensed version ever, The Moors were taking over Iberia, the Christians fled north to prevent their valuable religious relics from being seized by the Arab forces. Later, pilgrims in Medieval times would divert to Oviedo to see the Catedral de San Salvador (hence the name) and continue directly to Santiago. During the Reconquista, the popularity of the route dropped in favour of the Francés due to the shift in political power south. Nowadays, it still is not a particularly well-known route, nor do many people use it. Therefore, I had to give it a go.

I had completed the Camino Francés just 6 weeks before setting off on this two- day excursion. The bike I had used, was swapped for the one that had some suspension and tailored more to my size. The weather was notably warmer despite snow having cut off major passes the week before, and I prepared a little better for this journey. To complete this journey, you can obtain a different booklet than the one you pick up from the Camino francés, though the original is still completely valid for use. At the end, you can obtain the Salvadorana providing you show stamps at the relevant locations. It’s also very useful to have local information at hand for guides and the oficina de turismo de León as well as most pilgrim hostels will have lists and numbers to help out.

I bought a book specifically for this journey and it suggested for a hiker it would take about 4 days to complete, but other guides go for 5. It was clear that there were few hostels for pilgrims for this route, which limits your flexibility of how much you want to walk during the day, for us as cyclists, that didn’t apply. If you have a good set of legs and a good bike, you could actually reach Oviedo in just one day. I went with the same person who accompanied me on the last trip, Rafael, and we set off on a bright Saturday morning armed with as much as possible.

We merged the first three stages from the book, to just one day, which would mean crossing the highest parts of the Cantabrian Mountains. Starting from León, you follow the Rio Bernesga north out of town, and within 5 km you are well and truly out of town and cruising through Carbajal de la Legua, which is where things dramatically changed. This track is not suitable for road bikes, and is a challenge for any mountain bike, so I wouldn’t recommend taking this route, and instead diverting to the CL- 623 to Lorenzana, and turning to the LE-4514. The track followed the Bernesga at times, while occasionally climbing the ridge to the right, it’s not really obvious where the signals take you either.

After at least an hour, you find a small hamlet called Cabanillas which was where we diverted back to the main road towards the first major town, La Robla. should you continue on the actual camino, you would stop through the villages of la Seca de Alba and Cascantes de Alba. The road itself is not challenging yet, and you are on the verge of entering the mountain phase, so the scenery starts to get better. La Robla is the last crossroads before you enter the Cantabrian mountains, and you do need to be careful here. It’s also the crossroad for another Camino called the Camino Olvidado, which connects Bilbao and Pamplona to Cacabelos on the Camino Francés.

La Robla itself is not a overly spectacular, it is workers town, known for it’s mining and industry, not much more. On the other hand, it is the perfect place to rest and top up on supplies, if need be. There is also a hostel for pilgrims leading out of town, and a train station in case you need it. Providing you stay on or near the N-630, the yellow arrows will guide you north. The camino actually stays right of the Bernesga and intermittently connects to the main road, before diverting to the hamlets of Puente de Alba and Peredilla the later of which has some beautiful stone houses, but little more to write about. There is also the Castillo de Alba, visible from various points of this road, but is a notable diversion and again unsuitable for bikes.

After about 4km, The Camino diverts from the main road towards Nocedo de Gordón, and the Valley gets a little wider. The road took us away from any cars and was a pleasant experience especially the scenery at this point. The Camino diverts you right of Nocedo towards Pola de Gordón under a tall bridge and from there we could see snow patches on some of the mountains for the first time. The condition of the Camino is actually very good, and the climb is gradual and you for the most part are running near the railway. Upon entering, you can notice fairly quickly, that this town is more picturesque than La Robla, and you cross the Bernesga to the centre to Calle de la Constitución. It’s worth noting that this one of the last notable town of any kind until you reach Asturias, so anything you need, like banks, supermarkets, post office etc, Pola De Gordón has them.

Pola De Gordón is kinda the start of the next phase of the Journey, and my guide suggested that too. We rejoined the N-630 very briefly before turning off the LE-473 where you will pass through the small hamlet of Beberino before going through a major valley road with impressive views albeit briefly before turning off into another road, the CV 103-1to Buiza. If you are using a road bike, I recommend you stay on the N-630 as the section after Buiza is not suitable at all. The Camino from Pola de Gordon splits three times but all reconnect at the same main road eventually.

Buiza is a small village with a hostel for pilgrims and is practically the end of the road where the Camino splits into two, and both go off road, and climb. the most traditional route heads northwest and eventually connects to the N-630 via the ski resort of Valgrande Pajares. The other, which we took, headed over a mountain pass and connected to the N-630 via Villasimpliz. The road is called Calle Iglesia and the track practically disappears at the very top, and its a steep dirty descent to the village. You are met with spectacular views from the top of the pass, as well as the village of Buiza (which also has a hostel for any pilgrims on the journey).

Villasimpliz is nothing more than a hamlet, and has virtually nothing to offer anyone passing by, or so we thought, and kept going, joining the main road towards Villamanin, the next town. After passing through a short tunnel, we end up at the last crossroads before crossing the border with Asturias. Here, the higher mountains with a notable amount of snow on top are now becoming widespread and the natural views alone are worth the trip so far. If you have enough time, Villamanin is worth stopping at for a rest despite it being a little out of the way. This town has very distinct architecture typical of some of the mountain towns in this area, and the Plaza de la Constitución is worth checking out. This town is the last reasonably sized settlement until you reach Asturias, though there are some bars and hostels along the way.

The road is by this point, getting notably steeper, though by any standards, is not that taxing compared to most, and you are now approaching the border, where the highest mountains of the chain can be seen. The weather by this point was still holding up, but getting colder, only 9 degrees, and at this point you pass through Busdongo, which has very little to offer any traveler barring the odd bar towards the end. This village also happened to be the birthplace of one of the richest men in the world, Amancio Ortega which I didn’t know at the time.

Arbas del puerto is the last settlement before Asturias and has some amazing views of the Pico Cellón one of the many 2000m+ peaks that mark the border, and there is a large monastery, the Colegiata de Santa Maria de Arbas. It is well worth stopping for a few minutes to check it out and enjoy the views, and is where the traditional walking route reconnects. The last push to Puerto Pajares, is the hardest part of the climb to the top of the mountain pass. The top is nearly 1400m in altitude, and you are greeted with stunning views from both sides, and a notably greener looking Asturias. On a clear Day, Peña Ubiña, one of the highest mountains west of the Picos de Europa, is a dominant feature, and you can see the main road take you downhill, a welcoming change for any cyclist.

The pass is a worthy rest stop, popular for bikers and cyclists alike, the bars that are there are worth resting at before descending into Asturias. The village of Pajares is the first place you can stop at before reaching the bottom of the valley. There, you can spend the night in a hostel for pilgrims and would signify the end of the 3rd day for somebody walking. by this point, you keep descending, and after 19km, you’ve reached the town of Campomanes. It’s worth noting, that there are multiple viewpoints along the purely downhill part of the Camino, and you can easily reach the town in less than an hour, though it’s worth stopping for the endless amount of views. The Flor de Acebos is the most notable viewpoint during this stretch, and you can actually leave the roadside for it.

We noticed straightway just how different the landscape of Asturias became. The final stretch takes you to Pola de Lena via the AS 242 by bike, though the camino actually takes you directly north via the train station, where you will come across the Iglesia de Santa Maria de Lena, and connects with the cycling route about 6km later. There isn’t really any other point of major interest for the rest of the way until Pola de Lena, just the natural landscape, so go easy, and enjoy it like we did.

Within 30 mins we arrived in the town, and looked for the hostel that was on the booklet. You have to call the number, and the arrangement for us was made at the local police station, which led us to a building next to the train station. It’s a bit of a hassle, and your donation isn’t controlled, and keys to enter are limited. The lack of popularity of this route was evident as there was just us, and one other pilgrim staying the night. It’s likely that the system changes during busier times of the year, but it makes it more important than ever to retain all the information you pick up on this Camino. The most important thing is you can sleep well, as Oviedo where this Camino ends is just 36km away…

Girona/ Gerona, The Smallest Catalan capital With Big History.

Girona, one of the most spectacular places that is somewhat overlooked by brits when they come to this province. Most of us are drawn somewhat to the various luxurious spots of the Costa Brava, and rarely venture inland that much. Girona’s popularity however, has been slowly changing, and not just because of Game of Thrones. There is so much more to offer in this small but historical city, and what you’ve seen on TV leave more questions than answers. Let’s look a little more into this picturesque Catalan capital.

Girona is the easternmost provincial capital in Spain and the smallest of the 4 Catalan capitals and is quite easy to get to given that it is only 80km from Barcelona. You are just 45 mins or so from the beach and a little over an hour from the high Pyrenees. France is accessible by AVE, bus and even local Rodalies (R11) and Cercanias (RG1) services. Girona also has an airport which has regular flights to London, though flights are very irregular during the winter, so it’s normal for many visitors to fly to Barcelona and connect. The only downside to the location of Girona, is that it quite a long trip if you are travelling to/ from most of the rest of the country, so the journey may be a long one.

The seasons of Girona are a bit more distinct and not as extreme as other parts of Catalonia. Winters are quite cold, but not extreme (though it will be cold at night), and summers are hot, but rarely sweltering, and for a location that is inland, that’s quite rare in Spain. Occasionally one might need to be aware of the Tramuntana wind that often affects the Costa Brava and occasionally may affect Girona. The geographic location of this city is also favourable for anyone staying, as it’s not far from other places with distinctly different climates. Like most places in Catalonia, Girona has wetter springs and autumns, so be realistic when packing your suitcase.

It’s very easy to distinguish your whereabouts in Girona, and the easiest way to tell is via the Riu Onyar. The old part is to the east and the newer part to the west, though parts of the old part spill over a few blocks to the west side as well in the north. It kinda works the same way with shopping but the other way round. Most of the high street names are on the west side, but many spill over on the east side, mostly on Rambla de Llibertat and connecting streets. But starting on the Rambla is where you are going to connect to most of the iconic sights Girona has to Offer.

The most iconic areas are located in the El Call/ Barri Vell part, which is the oldest, and the iconic cathedral steps are usually the first port of call, and from there you are spoilt for choice on where to visit next. All I can say is that this part can get quite crowded, so avoid it at midday or early evening. I continued round the back of the cathedral and took a walk on the muralla, which gave amazing views of the city and surrounding countryside. This also separates the urban area from the suburban districts that allow you to enjoy more tranquil sights such as the Monestir de Sant Daniel or the Castell de Montjuic. Some hiking routes from the city can take you to some of the hilltops in that area as well which would take only an hour or so from the muralla.

The Old quarter itself has a lot of heavily built up narrow streets which often have tunnels or arches running through them, and you will find evidence of moorish influence such as the banys arabs, and jewish architecture, a stones throw away from the Altstadt viewpoint near the cathedral. It’s also worth checking out the basilica se Sant Felix, often mistaken for the cathedral on the banks of the Onyar, and the Monesterio de San Pedro de Galligants. Popular museums include the Museo de La Historia de Girona, the Museo de la Historia de los Judios, and The Fundació Rafael Masó. The Riu Galligants also has some impressive trails for hiking starting from the old quarter.

The most impressive part of Girona for me is the River Onyar itself, with buildings in various colours pratically hanging off the edge. There are numerous bridges crossing over into the densely packed houses, many of which tunnel through them to reach an adjacent street. It is a very romantic setting, and one of the most famous would be the Pont de les Peixateries Velles. Weirdly, you cannot walk along the banks of the river, but a number of shops and restaurants may overlook it and give you a unique perspective. The views of the river from pretty much any bridge were one of the highlights of my time there.

Eating out in Girona can be a special experience if you find the right places. Some parts of the Barri Vell offer a variety of places that often cater for tourists. The better spots in my opinion, are further north of the city, and I had dinner in a great Pintxos bar on the river, but the other side of the Barri Vell called Xibarri, and the Plaça de la Independencia has a number of bars and reastaurants that make it a popular area especially at night. There are not many dishes that stand out that are really emblematic exclusively to Girona, but dishes like mar y muntanya, souquet, and escudella de pages are the ones I noticed quite a lot, and They all taste great. given it’s location between the mountains and the sea, dishes that often satisfy any fancy is usually plentiful. If you want something from the mountains, its there. If you want something from the sea, it’s there. If you want both, try the mar y muntanya.

The people in Girona may appear have a traditional take on things, but they celebrate a party just as well as anywhere else in Catalonia, just a little bit later than the rest. Sant Narcis is patron saint of the city and celebrated on the 29th October, which is one of the biggest events of the year, and compared to the other celebrated saints of the other Catalan Capitals, this is held a month later. Other than Semana Santa and Sant Joan, the Temps de Flors flower festival celebrated towards the end of May is a more recent fesitival that has grown in popularity, though it isn’t exclusively a Girones thing.

The people of Girona, like in most of Catalonia, will principally speak Catalan to you should you interact with anybody from there. But many will immediately switch to Spanish if they identify you as not a Catalan speaker. You may find that in the Barri Vell that some establishments may speak English as there are more tourists there. If you happen to know any Catalan it’ll go a long way, especially as Girona is one of the most important cities of the language and it’s accent is considered one of the most stereotypical. They love speaking it, and may love you a lot more if you can too.

Accommodation in Girona is quite abundant in all parts of the city, and it is often cheaper to stay here compared to a seaside town during the summer. Prices for a private single room are usually minimum of 30€ a night. While doubles are around a similar price. There aren’t many backpacker hostels here, but the ones that I saw in the off season cost about 20€ a night. It may be better value for money to get a double room to yourself if you’re travelling solo. Realistically, if you are planning to stay just to enjoy the city, one night may be enough, whereas two nights would definitely be enough. Both of my visits were purely just for the day.

So there you have my brief overview of Girona, a city steeped in history, and with appeal for pretty much any type of visitor. Whether you are staying in the nearby Costa Brava, or Barcelona, or even passing through on a road trip, Girona will not disappoint you. Enjoy!

Travelling during COVID-19 in Spain.

It’s no surprise that one the worst things to happen in 2020 is ruining people’s livelihoods and plans running into beyond the new year. But here in Spain things haven’t been impossible for the most part, and travel to some extent has flexed up and down with restrictions. There are some things brits should know about travelling during these testing times. I live in Córdoba at the moment, and I know people’s experiences will vary depending on the region.

Madrid battleground

Madrid has been and very likely will continue to be one of the main problems areas for travel. The first outbreak of the 2nd wave in Córdoba was traced from a group of people travelling from the capital, making it one of the riskiest trips, not for fear of getting infected, but because your stay may have more restrictions than anywhere else. Madrid has closed its borders to other comunidades autónomas during the Christmas period, and has had various zones cut off when there has been a spike in cases. Unless you have permission, you can’t visit or leave, unless you have a connecting journey to another region. Even when restrictions are lifted, either get a last minute deal, or don’t plan to visit at all.

Services still go ahead regardless

You might be wondering who could possibly be on a train or a bus during restrictions? Why haven’t they cancelled the service? The truth simply is this; the government subsidises the companies responsible to keep things moving, and there are people who do have permission to travel. Train companies like Renfe and Feve cannot deny people’s entry into a restricted area, though now they might ask for ID, which wasn’t required before. The responsibility of entry falls on the police and security forces in position at the stations, which has led to people questioning how risky it is to travel if they aren’t allowed.

The simple fact is that the staff in the train/ bus station do not know whether you can legally travel or not to restricted areas. I went to there recently to enquire about travel to Valencia (which I had booked when I knew we could travel) about the new restrictions in place, and they told me that they can only give you information about the services that are running and availability of tickets. THEY CANNOT tell you about whether you can legally travel or not. I went to customer service and they said the same thing, though they also said that occasionally a policeman may be stationed in the office to answer such questions.

The only ways you can definitively find out about restrictions is via the government website, going to the police station and asking a member of staff like I did, and calling one of the services the Ayuntamiento provides. Going to the police station is the best way in my opinion, as you can explain your personal situation and they can tell you whether you can travel or not. In the case of Valencia, it was a no go for me and my other half on this occasion. Andalusia, among many regions have opened their borders to allow travel over the festive season, and some may remain open depending on the how well the virus is contained.

Cancellations

While most Bus and rail services have continued, many time tables have been reduced, and it isn’t certain when they will resume if at all once the pandemic eases. Some timetables however have been left completely unchanged, so my advice is to check online for any announcements of service alterations. The main cancellations occur at either the very early morning or late night journeys due to curfews in place. That isn’t always the case though, I travelled from Huelva to Córdoba back in September at 22:00 and arrived at 1:00, but that bus is still running, so it’s purely pot luck. Rail services have less services too, but unless you are a frequent traveler, you may not have noticed. Many companies post a modified time table in the stations and online to help clear the confusion.

Getting Tested before you travel

The worst affected regions in Spain have different requirements for entry as mentioned before, but some places like the Baleares have asked for negative PCR tests to be taken a maximum of 72 hours before your departure. However, the most common requirements for such a test are when flying, even nationally. The chances are you will need to pay for two tests to enter and leave the region if you are flying or unless the local government requires you to do so.

Air travel, is it worth it?

The big issue with travelling around Spain by air is the lack of updated information given about the rules, is that it takes time for the official AENA website to update any new changes, and it changes almost daily. Airlines operate on the same level as Renfe, meaning that they have rules but won’t deny you access to flying unless the security and border control say otherwise. The information and rules as you may know by now are subject to change fairly frequently, so it’s advisable to check news websites or government website ahead of any other source of information.

The upside is that flights are likely to reduce in prices compared to any other public transport, though not guaranteed. That may not be worth the hassle and cost of getting two tests done, unless you know you are saving a fortune. I wouldn’t travel by air unless it was absolutely necessary. It might be the lowest risk of getting infected, but all the other risks of actually getting there trouble- free is greatly reduced.

Accommodation always available.

While many hostels and hotels may be shut depending on the situation of restrictions, but it is almost certain and every reasonably-sized town will have some places open, especially during the weekend. Hotels and hostels are very good at communicating any changes and new guidelines to guests, and measures are usually taken to protect you during your stay. Prices don’t really change all that much compared to normal, so you aren’t guaranteed to save much unless you book during a time when there usually is a festival that’s been subsequently cancelled. I think on the whole you are safe.

That’s my experience so far about travel in Spain during COVID. My advice is principally to check the news and with the local authorities before making any arrangements to travel long distances. Make sure you can legally travel and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Spain is still open, and while the experience may be unusual, people will still try and accommodate you the best they can, and there is always a way to discover new places and try new things. Proceed with caution and take care.

Five festive treats of Spain

Back in the UK, it is typical of us to gorge on as many chocolates and sweets that only come out at christmas time in the evening time. Some of my family’s typical favourites were quality street, matchmakers, gingerbread among many things, though we weren’t fussed. In Spain, families also have their own favourites of which many are consumed across the country. Here is a short list of five Spanish treats that are not consumed in the UK, but worth trying for yourself.

Just a disclaimer, I’ve saved talking about turrones and roscón de reyes for future blogs, as there is way more to write about for them.

  1. Pestiños

Pestiños are a very typical dry pastry commonly found in the south of Spain. In Cádiz, they have more tradition and there is an organized event every December for them, and in other parts of Andalusia, such as Córdoba and Jaén, they are a really big deal. Not only are they eaten around Christmas time, but also Easter, and I’ve seen them in many bakeries all year round. Basically, they are just thin, fried squares of dough which are folded over to give the iconic shape, but in many other Gaditana towns there are more variants. They are often are flavoured with sesame, and topped off with sugar or honey. Again, I tried a variant that was more bite-sized and covered in a sugar glaze, very moreish. The honey ones are the traditional ones and not as dry as the sugar ones.

2. Alfajores

I was extremely confused when I first encountered alfajores, because I first tried the Latin American versions which resemble more dulce de leche sandwiched between two biscuits. Spanish alfajores are notably different, being oblong-shaped and not usually crumbly like a biscuit. They are commonly found in Murcia, Andalusia and parts of Castilla and Extremadura, though some variants are almost identical to alajú, which looks notably different. However, in Cádiz, they seem to be common all year round compared to the rest of Spain, and completely contrasts the traditions of pestiños.

3. Polvorón

Polvorones are common for Christmas in pretty much every part of Spain, and they are a rather strange type of shortbread in which you crush the biscuit in your hand before you eat it. I got told off by several friends when I first tried them when I didn’t do that, but I don’t there’s much difference, just makes it easier to eat. The most famous places for these treats are Estepa (Sevilla), Antequera (Malaga), Valladolid and Navarre, but they are not the exclusive areas of production. Most Polvorones are individually wrapped, and come in a variety of flavours, notably cinnamon, chocolate, fruit, just to name a few.

It’s very easy to confuse polverones with mantecados. Polvorones are a type of mantecado, but you can find many types of mantecados which are not the same, and the only similarities are that they are sweet and contain lard (manteca) hence the name. There are so many situations where they are exactly the same thing, that I have often been confused on what I’m actually eating, and in my opinion, so do most of the locals.

4. Batata Glaseada

This treat is actually one of the few instances where a sweet potato is actually sweet! You can find these in most bakeries in various parts of Spain and I must admit, I was curious when I first saw these. They are peeled and glazed in the same way as a doughnut, and they do have a a glossy shine to them. Compared to the other desserts on this list, it may be one of the more expensive things to orderfrom this list, and is almost always charged by weight rather than units. In all honesty, there isn’t much to them other than it tastes like an ultra sugary dough with essence of sweet potato. It’s weird, but nice at the same time, but I would go for the other things on this list before choosing this.

5. Inxtaursalsa

This last treat is a lot more difficult to eat on the road compared to the rest, and is very much exclusive to the Basque area of Spain, but seasonally, it is more than worth being put onto this list. It is exactly what it is translated from Basque, walnut cream, but their name sounds cooler. It has a similarity and consistency of another Spanish dessert called natillas, but has a stronger flavour, and with some added extras like cinnamon sticks or whole walnuts to garnish.

I have only tried it the once, and I would definitely have it again, as the walnuts give it a very hearty kind of feel when you eat it. Though it isn’t exclusively eaten around Christmas time, it is a lot more common during that period. Renowned Basque chef Karlos Arguiñano took this dish one step further by making it into a flan which sounds amazing. So yeah, if you’re thinking about going to the north for Christmas, give it a go, I’ll say no more.

So there you have it, five festive treats that you will have to come to Spain to try. 2020 is the first year I’ve been forced to stay here, so I have no doubts that having these, among many other delights of my adopted city will take the edge off not not seeing my family. For my fellow expats having to deal with the same situation as myself this year, make the most of things, and start by getting fat on as many turrones, polvoróne, and alfajores as you can. That’s my plan.

Enjoying the villages of the Alpujarra region: Pampaneira, Bubion, Capileira.

Nestled deep into southern Granada on the south side of the most prominent, and highest mountains on the peninsula, lies a true Spanish gem hidden away from most people passing from Granada to the coast, Alpujarra. Leave the autovia and connect to the A-348 and then the A-4132 from Orgiva and the mountain road takes you to Pampaneira, and you’ll be more than impressed when you get there. you are now in a valley with a clear view of the often snow-capped Sierra Nevada, and presented with an opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful villages in Andalusia.

Despite The valley’s remote location from other major towns, you can actually do this hike in one day if you are staying in Granada, as there are buses to get to Pampaneira and Capileira and the return. Should you decide to do that, you would have a gap of 5 hours between arriving in Pampaneira, and leaving Capileira, which would be easily enough time. Alternatively, you could stay the night there and make a really nice day and a half out of it. I went there by car and it does leave you a slightly awkward position of having to double your hiking distance, or getting a bus back to your starting point.

The climate is something to take into account when doing this. snow can fall at the highest point of this hike at a timeframe of more than 6 months a year. The heat of the summer isn’t so severe compared to Granada city, but it can easily reach 30 degrees. I went there in April and it was around 27 degrees, but a few days later it reportedly snowed in Capileira. In winter, you are almost certainly going to have sub-zero temperatures first thing in the morning. Plan your equipment carefully.

The hike is not long in distance, just 7km or 3km if you are finishing in Capileira, but you are going to be climbing quite a bit in that short space of time, just under 400m, but you are not going to struggle. This hike is more designed to enjoy a culture unique to this region and enjoy the views and villages in a relaxed fashion. I started in Pampaneira, at the bottom of the valley, and the car was parked in one of 2 car parks of the village, near the church. One thing you need to know is that all three of these villages are listed on the ‘pueblos más bonitas de España’, and Pampaneira was one of the first to be included.

You start by the church which includes the main square, and see the numerous handmade rugs and towels on sale draped over the wall and running water down some of the narrow streets. you have to climb these streets towards the top, which is a spectacular maze offering at times the ever-widening views of the valley. the trail leading out of the village is via the lavadero. The road leads you to the last few houses and by this point is signposted to Bubión, and according to guides, this was the way people used to get there. from the top of the village you get a good perspective and will probably have noticed by now of the unique roofs or ‘terraos grises’ of all the buildings. These grey, fragile-looking roofs, covered in material similar to an English garden shed called ‘launa’ are emblematic of the Alpujarra region, and there are no examples of these anywhere else.

Once you leave, you will encounter a lot of the cultivation practiced here that are directly involved with the uniqueness of the region and you get to sample that in pretty much every local shop in all three villages. after about 15 minutes you join the Barranco de Cerezo which leads you uphill until diverting off to the lower part of Bubión, the next village. Here, the route takes you past the ayuntamiento and the church, and you won’t see many places to eat around here, unless you divert towards the main road. The best thing is that Bubión is the easiest of the three villages to get around and you have some of the best views of the valley and the high mountains. You can see Valeta, the 2nd highest peak of the range, but that will partially disappear from view when you reach Capileira.

The next part of the hike runs almost alongside the main road to get to Capiliera. This part is largely uneventful, but you are climbing about 100m or so to get there, and you will divert again towards the bottom of the village. Capileira is the largest of the three villages on the trip, and towards the top, is where there are the majority of the bars and restaurants, as well as many shops which sell plenty of local produce. This was where we ended our journey. and made our way back to Pampaneira by road as we were heading to Malaga from Granada. However there are several ways out of the lower part of town, towards the Puente de Molino or Puente de La Higuerilla.

From these places I know that you are presented with views of the Mulhacén, the highest mountain of the whole peninsula. I know that if you have the time, you should try this stretch of the hike, and guides say it’s one of the easiest hikes of the whole region. But it really isn’t any rush, Capileira is well worth exploring, and it’s where me and my parents had lunch. I highly recommend the ‘plato alpujarreño’ a hearty dish of meat, eggs and potatoes, and after the number of calories you are going to burn for the most part, you won’t feel guilty eating it.

This valley is one of the most impressive and unusual places to visit in the whole of Andalusia, and it boasts a number of hiking routes that can quintessentially take you to the top of the world. My hike is just scratching the surface as to how much exploring you can do there. The best part is how accessible it is and how beautiful the place is all year round. This area is evidence that there is more to Granada province, than just the Alhambra.

City guide: Cuenca

My ventures into the central region of Castilla La Mancha have been fairly few and far between so far, and I hadn’t heard much of Cuenca when I first visited it. I had been told that it was worth visiting from the very few people who knew about this city, and my research didn’t do it justice when I was preparing my trip there. I loved Cuenca so much that I returned there a year or two later with my parents, and no doubt I’ll go back the next available chance I get. It was one of the best traveling surprises of the year for me.

Cuenca itself is not too difficult to get to from both the Mediterranean, and the Capital despite its seemingly remote location. There are regular AVE services from Madrid and Valencia which stop at the Fernando Zóbel station on the outskirts, and Regional services which connect the station in the city with Madrid via Aranjuez and Valencia via San Isidro station (sometimes they stop directly at Valencia Nord). The AVE takes about an hour both ways and the regional takes about 3 hours both ways as well. There’s no airport in Cuenca, so again, Madrid or Valencia are the nearest airports and regularly connect to various parts of the UK. Buses can take you to many major cities including Teruel and Zaragoza, as well as other provincial capitals of Castilla la Mancha, but these are very infrequent and some destinations, such as Tarragona have only one bus per day.

Cuenca is a really strangely located city, and you are going to need some good shoes for walking. The old centre of town straddles a ridge and overlooks the newer part which is sprawled across the plains, and the two rivers, the Jucar and Huecar meet at the bottom of the old quarter. When you enter this part of town, you quickly notice that you are overlooking two canyons with virtually no buildings on the other side of them. Cuenca is also one of the highest provincial capitals in Spain regarding altitude, reaching more than 1000m high. Only Segovia, Ávila and Soria are higher.

The Altitude does play its part and winters here can be cold, especially at night where it often goes below 0 degrees, and daytime temperatures are around 10 degrees in January. Summers are hot, around the low 30s more often than not, but nights are usually comfortable. I went there around April both times I was there, and I was wearing a light jacket in the morning and taking it off, or unzipping it by the afternoon. Cuenca has so many steep hilly parts in the old part, so you may feel rather hot and sweaty more from the exercise rather than the temperatures. Take sun cream though, as the sun here is really strong, and I got burned the first time I was there.

Cuenca is a bizarre place to get around, and my advice is to have good walking shoes, because you are going to do a lot of it. What you need to know straight away, is there are not many places of interest at the bottom with a few exceptions of the parks and area around the river, as well as the Plaza de España. The commercial centre of Cuenca is also the best place for shopping and many bars line streets leading up to the old quarter and are notably cheaper. The neighbourhood of San Anton is also worth a look on the other side of the Rio Júcar. When you cross the much smaller Rio Huécar, you are instantly climbing and this is where your sense of adventure starts to run wild.

You will notice quite quickly, that the multicoloured buildings are rather stacked and high compared to other cascos in Spain, and you can easily get lost. Your objective is to first head to the Torre de Mangana, a small clock tower on the hill, and there, you are greeted by your first views of the city and the plains, and you start to see impressive views of the Júcar Valley and that there is still a lot of exploring to go. Within 5-10 minutes you make it to the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor and you would’ve walked through the arches of the Ayuntamiento to get there.

This is the area that is a must visit, and the Cathedral has a rather unusual façade and no towers, and from here, you can reach the most iconic views and monuments of the city, stick to the main street, and you will reach the highest point and ruins and remnants of the old castle and muralla. The neighbourhood of El Castillo is the end of the city where not only are you greeted with beautiful stone houses like a village, but with views of practically the whole city and the plains. You are literally at the end, and there isn’t another settlement for another 15km.

The biggest attraction by a mile, which you can also see from the highest point, is the Casas Colgadas or hanging houses, which you can see from the Puente de san Pablo, an Iron bridge which connects the old quarter with the San Pablo Monastery now a Parador hotel. These houses are the last examples of architecture of its kind in Cuenca, and are part of the UNESCO world heritage site. Inside, you will find a modern art gallery, open all year round. My advice is to really take your time and explore and don’t just walk through the heart of this city and out the other side. My favourite street is actually Ronda Julián Romero, where you can enjoy the maze of the ‘Rascacielos Medievales’ or Medieval Skyscrapers and the views of the Huécar valley.

The natural features of Cuenca are one of the most prominent of the whole country, and you don’t have to walk far to reach it. Just follow either of the rivers, or the main street to the top of the old quarter and you find yourself in the canyons and mountains of the Serranía de Cuenca. It’s common to spend a weekend here with one enjoying the sights of the city, and another hiking along it’s many routes, all of them will lead to either a view point from the top of the mountains, such as the Mirador del Rey and the Cerro del Socorro, or to religious sites such as the Ermitas de San Julian and San Isidro and natural sites like the Cueva De La Zarza. La Ciudad Encantada is another really popular natural park easily accessible 25km from the city.

After walking around for hours and climbing some serious steps, you’re probably thinking about looking for something to eat right? Luckily for anyone with a big appetite, Cuenca has a lot of hearty dishes and many places don’t skimp on portion sizes, especially in the older parts of town. There is a notable difference in cost if you eat in the old quarter compared to the commercial centre of the city, with menus del día costing about 3€ or so more from what I saw. The old quarter has a number of bars for a night out, practiaclly next to the Plaza Mayor, but many locals like the district around the corner from the Diputación de Cuenca in the newer part of town. A restaurant I went to on the plaza mayor was well worth the 15€ menu del día, and is called La Mangana and I’m surprised at the 3,7 rating on trip advisor, should be way more.

The food in Cuenca is has a great mix of meat and vegetable dishes and doesn’t offer so much in the way of fish dishes compared to the coastal regions understandably. A lot of the dishes are not well known in the rest of Spain which is why I want to go back and try some more. Dishes most iconic of the region are zarajos (balls of fried lamb intestines, tastes better than it sounds if you like lamb.), pisto manchego ( similar to ratatouille served with a fried egg on top), sopa castellana, gachas (a paste made with flour, garlic, and pancetta), borrachos (cakes soaked in alcohol, and alajú ( a sweet nougat type with honey and almonds). But the most iconic dish which is ironically considered a starter, is morteruelo, a hot paté served with crackers and toasted bread.

One of the best things about morteruelo, alajú, and many other dishes in Cuenca, is that you can find them in numerous shops around the whole city, ready made, and the taste is practically the same (locals might contest that though). It must also be mentioned that a liquer from here is extremely popular locally, known as resolí. There are variants, but you will have either coffee, aguardiente, or aniseed types, all sweet and go great with alajú. You can buy ceramic bottles in the shape of the Casas Colgadas filled with resolí in many shops around the city, which would make an amazing gift for someone.

Easter is a big deal in Cuenca, like pretty much all of Spain. But the processions, known as Las Turbas is very famous nationally, and having seen them, it is well worth it. The only thing you have to be aware of is the stream of one- way pedestrian systems in place during those times, which includes lots of queues and going up and down stairs naturally. The fiestas of San Julian, the patron saint of Cuenca, has tonnes of teatrical displays, bull fighting and open-air concerts. The Fiesta de San Mateo, alongside Asturias, is celebrated here, but adds a twist of bulls roaming around the Plaza Mayor, though nothing like the Encierro of Pamplona from what I’ve heard.

So that’s pretty much it at first glance for Cuenca. It’s not well known to brits at all, and you can find so many things to do there, and it is a place with a lot of pleasant surprises. You can eat like a king there and since you are going to be walking a lot, you will welcome those portion sizes. Despite the hassle getting there, Cuenca should be on any list to visit if you are spending time in Madrid or Valencia and fancy an adventurous weekend. Go there, that’s all I’m telling you to do.