Exploring Southern Spain

white village of Frigiliana and surrounding hills, an excellent base for exploring southern SpainOne of the best ways of exploring southern Spain is to pick a home base and take a series of day trips. That way you only have to unpack once, and you can relax in between excursions as you get to know your adopted neighbourhood in more depth.

I hadn’t hear of Frigiliana before planning our trip, but I’m sure glad we discovered it. We really ended up there by chance, since we chose our 3-bedroom apartment from the Home Away site based more on amenities and value than location. It turned out to be the perfect base to explore the region – a quaint ‘white village’ just a few kilometres inland from the coast and a 45 minute drive from the Malaga airport.

Frigiliana as a base

Frigiliana has a lovely and well-preserved old town. Gleaming white buildings adorned with pots of flowers line the winding, hilly pedestrian-only streets. A few tiny shops and restaurants are scattered in amongst the homes. Views of the surrounding valleys and out to the sea can be found all over the village. Frigiliana sits on the edge of a national park, so there are good hiking trails accessible from town.

streets and views around Frigiliana's old town

We spent about half of our days in the village – wandering the streets, taking short hikes, popping into shops, relaxing on our wrap-around balcony, enjoying refreshing dips in the pool and shopping for fresh ingredients for our dinners. On other days, we took day trips of varying lengths. Here are the places we managed to see, starting with the closest:

Nerja

Drive time: 10 minutes

This was the closest sizeable town; the place we went to withdraw cash from the ATM and stock up on wine and breakfast supplies. It marks the far eastern end of the ‘Costa del Sol’, and has so far managed to avoid being overrun with highrise condos, unlike the more populated resorts to the west.giant stalactites in the Nerja caves

On the edge of town are the Nerja Caves, a huge complex of caverns that are impressive to visit, despite being tarted up for tourism. Stairs and walkways join a network of caverns and the stalactites are illuminated for better viewing. The cool, dark environment provides some nice relief from the heat of day.

There’s a dramatic promenade in central Nerja that overlooks the sea from the town’s clifftop perch – the ‘Balcon de Europa’. We also found an atmospheric basement bar with a flamenco group performing. Locals were drinking some sort of bar-made hooch out of plastic cups and clapping out complex rhythms to accompany the dancers.

Based on a recommendation from the owner of our apartment, another find was an awesome casual fish joint right on the beach. To get there, we were driving so close to the water’s edge that we could have dragged a fishing line out the window!

seafront promenade with palm trees and a car on a beachfront road in Nerja, Spain

La Herradura

Drive time: 20 minutes

We drove east to enjoy a beach day along La Herradura’s sheltered cove. It’s a nice bit of beach that’s much less crowded than the busy beaches to the west in Costa Del Sol. There was a bit of a breeze on the day we were there, which felt good during the heat of the day.

Acebuchal & Competa

Drive time: 20 mins to Acebuchal, 45 mins farther to Competa

Another place recommended by the owners of our property was a dramatically located cliffside restaurant in the village of Acebuchal. Reached by way of steep, narrow hairpin roads, we never would have discovered it on our own.

It’s referred to as a “lost village”, since it was forcibly evacuated by Franco’s regime in the late 1940’s. It was towards the end of the Spanish Civil War and the dictator suspected Acebuchal residents were sheltering guerilla rebels, so banished everyone. It remained abandoned until the late 1990’s, when the man who started the restaurant spearheaded efforts to resurrect the town. Even if the hearty game-based dishes and homemade ice cream made with local ingredients hadn’t been delicious, the trip would have been worth it for the views alone.

beach at La Herradura, village of Acebuchal and white village of Competa with church steepleThere were more views down the road in Competa, and on the way there too. The main plaza and golden-domed church dominate the city centre. Like Frigiliana, it’s classified as a white village, full of gleaming whitewashed buildings, many built in Moorish styles. It was rather quiet in the heat of the afternoon, as most locals were probably taking their siesta.

Granada

Drive time: 1 hour

The magnificent Alhambra palace complex is the most famous attraction in Granada. It’s the ultimate in Moorish architecture and design with intricate carved wood panels, beautiful tile work, calligraphy-adorned walls, reflecting pools, fountains and terraced gardens.

We also went into the city centre for a few hours, getting a bit lost before finding an outdoor café. The city had a college-town feel, with an artsier, younger demographic dominating the crowd.

The Alhambra and central Granada

Ronda & Marbella

Drive time: 2 hrs to Ronda, 1.25 hrs to Marbella

Ronda’s location is spectacular. It’s surrounded by a deep gorge spanned by massive bridges that were incredible feats of engineering in their time. There’s also an 18th century bull ring, 13th century Arab baths, and of course a main square full of churches and monuments.

hill town of Ronda in the Andalusia region of Spain

We decided to drive to the glitzy Costa del Sol resort town of Marbella for a seafood dinner on the way (sort of) back to Frigiliana. It has a reputation as the most exclusive and expensive town on the coast. The sleek yachts moored along the docks supported that theory, as did the exclusive shops and galleries scattered throughout the old town.

The place felt a bit plastic to me. Probably because I’d never seen so many surgically enhanced, spray-tanned, designer-adorned women strutting around in one place before. And it could have been bad luck, but the overpriced meal we had was mediocre at best. Not my cup of tea (or glass of sangria) at all.

Gibraltar

Drive time: 2 hours

This place is an amusingly exaggerated British outpost, complete with red telephone booths, bobbies, pubs and fish & chips joints. After a pub lunch, we took the cable car to the Top of the Rock to watch the ships coming and going while admiring the views across to Morocco.

In addition to the main observation tower, a network of trails winds around the mountaintop. A colony of apes roams freely around the site. They’re technically wild, but so used to tourists that they’re a bit of a nuisance.

Gibraltar_016

Cordoba

Drive time: 2.5 hours

The Mezquita is the largest religious structure I’ve seen yet, and the only mosque I know of that has a cathedral built into the middle of it. It was built as a mosque in the 8th century, and the cathedral was added about 900 years later. The mix of architectural styles in the vast interior is fascinating and mind-boggling.

Leading away from the mosque is a jumble of streets and alleys punctuated by plazas. You can’t walk far without finding a tapas board advertising its selection of tidbits, often only 1 or 2 euros per dish. Yum.

Cordoba landscape with palm trees and interior arches of the Mezquita mosque

Cordoba was the longest drive we took. Visiting on a day trip certainly made for a tiring day, but it was do-able. If you prefer a more relaxed pace, it might be better to actually pack up and spend a night or two in in the city.

Here’s the lay of the land:

 

There are many places you could base yourself in Andalucia; Frigiliana is an excellent choice for its combination of location, beauty and low-key vibe. It also feels a lot more authentic than the resort areas lining the Costa del Sol.

Buen Viaje,

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