The drive to Toledo from Zaragoza is long and tedious through mostly flat lands that give way to urban sprawl around Madrid which we must circle to get to Toledo in the southwest. The five-hour journey leaves us tired and hungry because we can’t find the convenient, bright, cheerful, and clean roadside stops we’re used to in France and Italy. In Spain, food stops require a long exit from the freeway to dusty, fly-flecked places that look derelict from the outside. Inside, they are dark with open platters of mostly fried tapas laid out on the counters where they stay open to the flies all day. And that’s only the ones we can find. For most of the trip, we barely see gas stations, never mind rest stops. There must be plenty; we just don’t see them.
We arrive in Toledo feeling a trifle cranky but are soon charmed. Our hotel, the Abad Toledo*, is at the base of the city and thankfully easy to find with a massive car park close by. The city on a hill is a World Heritage Site famous for its monuments and awesome cathedral and for being the “City of the Three Cultures” thanks to the cultural influences of Christians, Muslims and Jews. The city was also the capital from 542 to 725 CE of the Visigothic Kingdom which I think is kind of cool. Here’s the class view of Toledo made famous in a painting by El Greco.
For the first time since entering Spain a few days earlier, we run into busloads of tourists huffing and puffing through the narrow streets in the stifling heat. We dodge around them to get a quick look inside the Cathedral which is particularly stunning and worth the hype. Here are some of the choir stalls. The carving on each one is different; I was mesmerized.
After visiting the cathedral, we go on the hunt for several pair of Toledo sewing scissors to take back home as presents. Toledo is famous for its steel. Display windows bristle with swords and knives and other sharp things that would never make it through airport security.
In the evening, we enjoy a hearty meal of hearty Spanish food (they do hearty very well), then get our picture taken in front of a bull. An English tourist offers and we accept, happy to model our new hats. Gregg bought his the same afternoon in Toledo for half the price the same hat would cost in France and I bought mine on a day trip to Aix-en-Provence.
Heading South to Andalucia
We keep hoping that all the long drives are behind us but no, Spain is a very large country. The next morning, we leave Toledo for one of the longest drives of the trip—over 500 kilometers south to Ronda, one of the famed white towns of Andalusia. We have booked a place out in the country—a real find. The Hotel Cortijo Las Piletas is a paradise on earth with a wonderfully friendly owner who regales us with stories about Spain back when she was young in the 1980s and how things have changed now. Here are a few pictures of the place – highly recommended.
Searching for Prehistory in the Caves of Pileta
The owner tells us about the Caves of Pileta (Cueva de la Pileta) a few kilometers up the road. We go there the next day because we are super suckers for prehistoric art and the caves are supposed to be full of it. We are not disappointed. The hour-long tour in the dimly lit cave takes us past paintings that are at least 30,000 years old. We are in awe of the freshness of the paint after such a long time. Although not as vivid as the reproductions at Lascaux, the paintings are authentic and evocative. The tour takes us through narrow, damp-walled passageways past small stretches of water and into larger rooms dripping with prehistory. My imagination goes into overdrive as I contemplate the people who came into the cave to paint animals and shapes so many millennia ago. Who were they? Why did they paint the animals? How did they think about their world? Did they find roadside restaurants when they needed them?
Evening Trip to Ronda
On our second evening in the region, we drive up to Ronda to view the famous gorge and to have dinner. On another trip, we’ll spend more time in Ronda. It’s an appealing, compact town with breathtaking views that doesn’t appear too overrun with tourists. We are hooked on southern Spain.
The next morning, we set off past several of the famed White Towns of Andalucia. Here’s Grazalema.
Pit Stop in Cadiz
We vow to return to explore the region more fully, but now it’s off to Cadiz and a spot of Atlantic swimming. We stayed at the stylish and comfortable Monte Puertatierra* hotel just steps from this amazing view. The swimming was great.
Swooning in Seville
The highlight of our entire trip is our two days in Seville. We adore Seville. We’ve visited before and are head over heels in love. This time, the affair is even more intense, perhaps because of the 40-degree heat that wraps its way around and through the town and yet is not unbearable. What just about killed us in southern France is tolerable in Seville, probably because the city is accustomed to heat and is set up for it. In the outdoor cafés, water sprays from the awnings to cool hot skin and more awnings are stretched across many of the small streets to shade them from the relentless southern sun. Also, we learn that survival depends upon the siesta. We check out a few galleries and museums until about two, then lie low in our air-conditioned apartment until the sun sets at seven before setting out for a night of sultry fun. Here’s the tower of the cathedral at night.
Our stylish apartment overlooks the river with a view of the cathedral beyond. Kayakers and paddle boarders float lazily past and all is right with the world. The apartment is highly recommended and very reasonably priced for the location and quality. Parking is close by which is a boon in Seville, and the location across the river from the old town is perfect. If you’re driving to Seville, you really don’t want to get a place in the old town–or at least not if you value your sanity! The narrow streets and crowds of tourists make driving a nightmare. Our apartment is called the Betis 7 Luxury Apartments*. In terms of cost, Seville borders on cheap. Our air-conditioned, sleekly modern apartment with its riverside location costs about $120 CDN a night, while lunch for two of paella and sangria sets us back about $16. Compared to France, it’s a bargain. Here’s the view from our balcony at night. Across the river is Seville Cathedral.
We stay two nights and on both nights, we see flamenco. Since seeing our first flamenco show back in 2010, Gregg and I have been hooked. Gregg has created several pieces devoted to flamenco and by the end of this trip, he’ll have created many more. Both flamenco performances are mesmerizing and highly recommended—one at the Museum of Flamenco and the other at Los Gallos, a small club. Both shows are intimate, passionate and explosive. After the performances, we waft into the warm streets in search of dinner. That’s another thing about Seville—the food is divine. We never have a bad bite. And while wandering through the moonlit streets of Seville, we come across these lovely ladies in a shop window.
We bid farewell to Spain after eight days and six destinations. It’s too much. We vow to fly directly to a specific destination such as Seville or Santiago de Compostela for our next trip and then rent a car for a full week to explore the area. Driving the long, empty distances in this huge country is doable but not recommended.
But a great side effect of our Seville trip are the pieces Gregg created after seeing two flamenco performances. Here are four of them. You can see lots more on Gregg Simpson Art.
Onwards now to Portugal. The end is nigh!
*This blog post contains affiliate links from booking.com to hotels we actually stayed in and recommend. If you click one of the links, I could be rewarded credit or a commission of a booking. You don’t pay any extra. Please know I have my readers’ best interests at heart and only list places I’d recommend to my best friend.
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