Slow Spain - 2010

The first three times I ever left my native England, it was by sea. Maybe that is why, as a mode of travel, ships for me have never lost their magic. So last month, when we stepped aboard the Pont Aven in Portsmouth, the old, familiar excitement rose in me, as it invariably does. Once again, I found myself relishing the sight and sound of ropes lifted from bollards, splashing into the water and being slowly winched aboard, still dripping. And once again the child in me watched with delight as the gap widened between the ship’s steel flank and the wharf. Here we were, off on another adventure.

As we steamed away from the dock we sailed past some much older history than my own: 
Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, incongruous in its modern surroundings.

My first encounter with the Bay of Biscay was over half a century ago. That was where I first learned to walk on sea legs. And I remember, with an inner smile, how my little brother and I were almost the only people at breakfast, that morning in 1953. Nowadays, presumably because of all the improvements in ship design, mal de mer claims far fewer victims than it did in those days and the restaurant at breakfast on the Pont Aven seemed busy as ever. Though clearly the Bay had been a little choppy, for an announcement told us that the Captain had slowed the ship down in the night, for our greater comfort, and we would be arriving in Santander an hour late.

In Santander, we disembarked, walked up to the railway station and caught a train south. The first part of the journey, through the mountains and valleys of northern Spain, was very scenic. It became less scenic as we drew closer to Madrid.

In Madrid, we spent the night at the Hostal Barrera , a delightfully inexpensive and very well-placed little hotel near the main, Atocha railway station. Next day, we caught another train to Sevilla. the first stopping place on our journey.

From the station, we used a map to find our way through the streets and alleyways and finally, waiting for us behind four locked doors and iron gates (for which the owner, a charming Englishman called Hugh, gave us a colour coded set of keys) and up 54 stone steps was our little gem of a studio apartment with its roof terrace.

How fortunate we felt to have a sunny roof terrace all to ourselves right in the middle of the city. (See arrow)

 It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) and we were right on the route of some of the religious processions.  Below us on the street, the crowds gathered. Hundreds of robed and hooded figures, brass bands and lurching pasos (sacred, religious floats carried by unseen men) passed beneath us in an endless stream as the various religious brotherhoods made their annual pilgrimage to the cathedral. All very fascinating.

We enjoyed Sevilla. But after a while the noise and bustle of the city, which at this time of year is packed to capacity, became a bit overwhelming and we were glad to escape to the more peaceful surroundings of Vejer de la Frontera. 

Vejer is said to be the prettiest of all the pueblos blancos—the ancient, white-painted Moorish settlements of this Andalucía region—and we could see why. 

Our rental house in Vejer was every bit as lovely as it had looked on the Internet and we spent a peaceful and restful eight days there. I developed a chest infection the day after we arrived there, but if one has to be sick while on vacation, this is the way to do it. The little cottage with its two roof terraces was a perfect place to rest and heal. And by the time we left again, to travel by local bus to Cadiz, I was feeling much better.

After a brief exploration of the 3,000-year-old city—the oldest in Europeand a one-night stay in the Hotel Argantonio  we caught another local bus for the three-hour ride eastwards to Ronda and then down the valley a little way to the village of Jimera de Libar and another rented cottage . We loved this one too, especially the garden. And now, finally, we were in real walking country.  Hiking, for us, is the heart of our vacations, and we revelled in the beautiful mountain scenery.  

The paths we followed mostly ran along the valley, sometimes high above the single-track railway line and the river and sometimes dipping down to meet them. There were wildflowers everywhere.

This little train line, which runs through the scenic river valley from Ronda down to the coast at Algeciras was in the process of being upgraded so after our stay in Jimera we were taken by bus back to Ronda.

Ronda, posed improbably on top of a deep gorge, has the reputation of being a spectacular town and we certainly found it so.

We found our hotel, the Jardín de la Muralla  in the oldest part of the city, snuggled right  up against a church. With its terraced gardens and the original furnishings from its days as a rich man’s house, this place was amazingly atmospheric.

You wouldn’t get bathroom fittings quite like this at the Travelodge!!

After three weeks in Andalucía, we retraced our steps, taking the train from Ronda back to Madrid and from there back to Santander. This time we stayed over in Santander—a pleasant enough town which seemed to be geared mostly towards shopping—and were happy with our choice of the  Hotel Escuela Las Carolinas a hotel that is actually part of a school where people come to learn the hospitality trade. Once again, we chose it for its garden.

With European travel in disarray, airports closed and travelers stranded because of the cloud of volcanic ash from the eruption in Iceland, we sailed smoothly—and, I confess, rather smugly—into Plymouth in bright sunshine. Two local buses and we were home. Once again, slow travel proved itself to be, for us, the very best way to go.