Strolling through a sleepy Sevilla Sunday morning it feels like an off-duty backlot Fellini movie set. We find an open bodega and enjoy a simple breakfast of bread, cheese, ham and coffee, then quietly roll out of our apartment and into a taxi for the short ride to the train station. There I check in to Hertz, and after loading up into an amply sized compact SUV, I have second thoughts. Skinny roads and break-ins are an issue, so I inconvenience my family and the Hertz folks by belatedly squeezing us into an Opel Astra with blacked-out windows and a better obscured trunk. We have to re-pack to cram backpacks into suitcases, but it all squeezes in and 40 minutes later we’re rolling.
We’ve reconfirmed our preference for villages, so for the next 3 days I’ve routed us Andalusia’s Pueblos Blancos – the white hill towns. A one hour drive south from Seville brings us to Arcos de la Frontera, perched majestically cliff-top west of Jerez. The guidebooks advise us to park in the lower new town and hike rather than drive the skinny roads to the mountaintop old-town sites, but confident in my tiny Asera I charge uphill. As warned the streets get narrower and narrower… eventually we have to fold in the mirrors, but larger cars have made it through and so can I. Sue’s watching the starboard side and all four car sensors are bleeping red alerts as I squeeze beneath the church’s’ flying buttresses, but we make it through unscrathed, and my famous “parking spot karma” applies up top… no sweat.
Time to stroll. First stop is El Mirador, where we take in a falconer with his leashed owls and falcons… we’re reticent to photograph because we feel birds should be free, but it’s interesting to see the beasts up close… the owls’ black eyes are intimidating. Strolling down from the hilltop church we find lunch in a prison-turned-cafe, then reverse course and wander through town in search of the convent, where our Rick Steves guidebook advises we can buy cookies. His directions are bad but that makes the search more worthwhile, and after some hilly wanderings and local inquiries we find the sisters cloistered behind a walled lazy susan that obscures the nuns but allows you to trade euros for cookies. They’re out of the Chocolate and Peanutbutters but they recommend the freshly baked Chocolates. One must obey the nuns, so we do and they’re right… the cookies are as delightful as the exchange. Good deed and good fun duly noted, it’s time to move on to our next adventure… but first we have to squeeze down the narrow streets. With help from Sue and the screaming sensors we slip out and turn west on A-373 towards Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema.
We’re catching the tail of some unsettled weather, and the moisture condenses and falls as we climb the mountains. Clouds obscure the peaks but it’s beautiful nonetheless… take the drive slowly to preserve Sue’s fragile stomach. Crossing the small range we descend to its namesake village Grazalema, where we park and pursue another stroll. The Tourist Info office is closed (it’s always siesta…) so we wander aimlessly through the whitewashed, iron grilled streets just for the wonder of it. Where is everybody?
The boys are antsy so we perk them up with a soda, meander back to our car and head for the day’s final destination and our home for the next 2 days, Julie’s place in Algodonales.
We’re out of the hills now and to Sue’s great relief the road’s less windy… it’s a pastoral drive north to Algodonales. Julie’s left good directions so we find her place easily, perched hillside on a sunny slope overlooking her pool, stables and garden to the peaks overlooking Olivera. This is Paraglider country… British ex-pat Julie and her husband started a school here 20 years ago; they likely contributed towards the many pilots we see flying about above us. Her place is relaxed and comfortable, we’ll enjoy chilling here. After a siesta we walk 10 minutes up the hill to the town center, and enjoy a sidewalk meal while families meander about – its Saturday Night and Communion we’re told, so shops are closed but locals paseo all night. It’s lovely and relaxed.
Monday I have a big bike ride planned – Via Verde is one of many rails-to-trails bike path conversion in Spain; with Julie’s counsel we modify our route and bike reservations so we start with a climb and finish with a descent. The departure station is quite rural but GPS gets us there, and the bikes are good quality and well maintained if a bit uncomfortably aggressive in geometry. The Spaniards take their biking a bit too seriously – clothing and bike quality exceeds the need – but it’s all good. The ride is leisurely and lovely… we have clear warm weather, and frequent tunnels add a twist that’s cool in tone and temperature. An hour out and back is enough for the boys, so we have time for another site.
I choose Zahara, another hill town conveniently close to Algodonales, and famous for its hilltop castle. The streets are again quite narrow and I’m happy to have our tiny car. Tom’s Parking Karma holds, and soon we’re enjoying another cobblestoned lunch amidst ancient castles and whitewashed homes. The boys negotiate for pool time in lieu of a castle climb, so back home we go for a waterside siesta and journal time. We repeat our restaurant for a Mom’s Day dinner – a little familiarity is welcome in these trips – before strolling home through the warm welcome night to bed.
Tuesday my plan is to visit Ronda – the queen of these hill towns – but a morning chat with Julie changes my itinerary. “Ronda by day is not crammed with cruise ship tourists from the coast.” The guide books suggest as much – “stay the night to avoid crowds” – but our itinerary is to see it en route to our next lodging near Malaga. On Julie’s advice we first go to Setenil de las Bodegas, famous for its troglodyte dwellings. The drive out is rolling and bucolic – it feels like napa with olive and grain in lieu of grapes. As we enter Sentinel I pass a tour bus – a sure sign that upcoming roads are not forgiving – and indeed the roads again narrow. Perhaps overconfident from prior successful squeaks I brazenly descend into the river gorge, with whitewashed homes closing in all about. The streets keep narrowing but chest high scrapes tell me cars have passed before, so in we go. One turn leaves about 2” on either side of our mirrors – but we make it through and are rewarded with prime parking near a row of restaurants built into the cliff’s caves. Breakfast is coffee and the locally famous olive oil on toasted bread with salt and tomatoes, and it’s delicious.
A stroll through town brings us up the hill past the inevitably closed Tourist Office to the top of the moorish tower for a view of the town and across the hills to Olivera. Ben bets that we’ll hear the church bells ring… he’s right, it’s noon and we get a rooftop serenade. Descending, we follow a fallen orange back down the hill and eventually cross the ravine to find our car and our way out. We’ve had a good dose of 5 hill towns so Ronda now feels redundant… we agree to skip her crowds and roll west to our next destination at Rincon de la Victoria, west of Malaga.