Southern Spain Costa del Sol March 2017
Around spring break is a good time to take a break from the UAE. I have a number of friends here who have said great things about southern Spain and especially the Sun Coast (Costa de Sol). So, in the last week of March Katherine and I were off for a week to explore southern Spain.
There is an easy connection from Abu Dhabi directly to Madrid. We were only in Madrid for one day on arrival and then back the night before we left to return home. However even in that short amount of time we could see that Madrid is a beautiful city. We got in on Friday morning and had all day to do some tourist walking and use the Big Bus. Madrid has many wide boulevards and a lot of green space for such a big city. Our hotel, Catalona Atocha, was a good choice (Bookings.com), centrally located with an extra large and well-appointed room. The next morning we took the high-speed train from Madrid directly to Malaga. Malaga is the big city on the Sun Coast and gives you access along very good highways to all of the southern coast from Gibraltar in the west to Almeria in the east. The train trip only took 2 1/2 hours going up to 250 km/h.
We decided to upgrade our rental car at Malaga to a Mercedes 220 as we considered all the driving we expected to doing that week. That was a good choice and added to the enjoyment of the trip, as we drove a lot of kilometers above the coast and through numerous tunnels on excellent highways. Our plan was to leave Malaga and go west to stop in a few towns on the way to Estepona and then later head east to Almeria.
Our first stop was Marbella for lunch. Marbella has a large marina and a small commercial port as well. The nearby hills have many villas and high-rise apartment buildings, all with great seaside views. We walked along the ocean side streets and finished up on the wide promenade running aside the beaches. The next stop was Estepona. This seaside town also has a small port and is a popular spot for expat retirees, especially from the UK. Estepona had an even wider and longer beachside promenade than we saw in Marbella and we could see how this was a nice place to live the good live along the warm Mediterranean beaches. Just by chance we found a very old bullring (Plaza de Toros), on a hillside which we assumed was no longer in use. Our hotel for the next two nights was a small B&B with just a few rooms, the Boutique Al Ana Marbella, up the coast from Estepona. This was a nice change, and a refreshing difference from the big hotels, with a very pleasant breakfast room and garden.
The next day we spent exploring San Pedro de Alcantara. San Pedro is more spread out along the coast than Estepona, with a city center more inland from the beaches. We had a nice walk through neighborhoods, a very old city center, and the long promenade along several beaches. This charming and picturesque town has a large expat retired community as well.
Next we made a long trip of three hours up the coast to Almería. Almería has a large port and had more of the city atmosphere than the small towns along the western part of the coast we were in earlier. It also has a nice museum that incudes the archeology of that area of Spain. Our hotel, The Hotel Catedral, overlooked Almería Cathedral and Plaza de la Catedral Square, dated back to 1850. With the exception of the parking garage being several blocks away and hard to find, the hotel was a pleasure, with upgraded rooms and nice restaurant and great location. The tourist highlight of Almería is the 10th-century Alcazaba of Almería fortress. The word Alcazaba, from the Arabic word al-qasbah, signifies a walled-fortification in a city. For us, living in an Arabic country, this was the visual connection to the fact that much of southern Spain’s culture and history comes from the 600-year rule of Islam. In 955 Almería gained the title of medina ("city") and started construction of this defensive citadel, located in the upper sector of the city. You can easily spend a day there, walking through much of the original structures, walls and gardens and seeing restorations in progress. Please see the photos, the fortress has great views of the city and mountains in the distance.
After two days in Almeria we drove our way up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Granada. This was a spectacular drive for a few hours through some beautiful country. The route also offered an opportunity to see the extensive area of windfarms, by which Spain derives a significant amount of their electricity supply, one of the highest in the world. Granada is a large city, surrounded by high mountains and was the anchor city of Moorish Spain. The main attraction in Granada is the Alhambra (Arabic meaning red or crimson castle). This is the most visited tourist site in Spain and is a very well restored and large structure located on a hilly site just outside the city. Created originally for in the 9th century for military purposes, the Alhambra was an "alcazaba" (fortress), an "alcázar" (palace) and a small "medina" (city), all in one. The Alhambra became a Christian court in 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabel) conquered the city of Granada. On the way out of Granada we toured The Monastery of St. Jerome, a 16th century Roman Catholic Church and a still in use Hieronymite monastery. The construction of the current buildings began in 1504. The richly decorated Renaissance interior is not typical of the old churches we have seen elsewhere, highlighted by intricate sculptures.
The final part of our visit to Costa del Sol was two days in Nerja. This beach town of about 22,000 was our favorite location of the trip. Nerja has a number of beaches, a small and picturesque old town and very nice apartments and villas on the hillside. Our hotel, the Parador de Nerja, was excellent with a great location on a cliff overlooking the biggest beach. We walked most of the town over two days and enjoyed the cafes and views and especially the famous Balconia de Europa. Our impression of Nerja was that it would be a great place for a nice, quiet summer vacation or even for a longer stay into the off-season.
We returned to Malaga the following day and took the train back to Madrid for one night before catching the morning flight back to Abu Dhabi. We made the most of the evening by catching a late night (10 pm) dinner at the Asador Casa Juan, a highly recommended restaurant by our cab driver from the train station. We were not disappointed, the atmosphere was as good as the food and full of local people (dinner in Madrid begins at 9pm).
A great first trip to Spain and definitely worth many returns.