Ah, the road trip. Endless miles of asphalt sprawl out in every direction, all kissed with the thrilling prospect of unwrapping a country’s hidden gems one by one and on your own time. Nothing but speed, the wind in your hair, and Tom Petty’s greatest hits pouring out from the speakers and into your ears like a heady 80′s cocktail. This, my friends, is what freedom feels like.
Our Spanish road trip began in the country’s southwest corner, where olive trees cloak every hillside and the streets seem to grow more narrow with each ancient city you pass. Andalusia makes up the most largely populated autonomous community of Spain, offering its guests a vast array of sights, tastes and sounds. Here are five that have stayed with us, long after the wine was drunk, the music sighed a breathy diminuendo, and the sun set on our time in Spain.
One version of history tells us that tapas – small plates of food – originated in Andalusia during a time when sailors frequented the small towns along the coast. They would just stop in for a drink or two and some R&R, but you know how it is.
Before long, the tiny winding streets of the villages would be flooded by inebriated and boisterous seamen. So the innkeepers decided to start providing small plates of food along with the drinks in an effort to keep the noise levels down. Not sure how effective this strategy was, but the idea stuck and the tapa was born.
In some cities like Granada, tapas are still provided free of charge with a drink order. In most places, though, they cost between €1-5 and come in a wide variety. From cool cups of gazpacho to piping hot plates of unctuous pork jowls, there’s something for everyone. Bowls of fresh, oily olives, crusty warm bread and plenty of vinho tinto de la casa round out meals that are eaten slowly over the course an evening with friends.
Like tapas, flamenco originated in this part of Spain. The early history of flamenco is not well-documented, but the major styles come out of the triangular region between the towns of Jerez, Cadiz, and Sevilla – each still vying for recognition as the birthplace of this style of music and dance.
Flamenco is made up of four elements: Voice, dance, guitar, and something called jaleo, which roughly translates as “hell raising” and involves the clapping of hands, stomping of feet, and shouts of encouragement. If you go to a show, also listen for the duende, a mysterious and despondent element that often comes through in more intimate performances.
At this performance we felt like we’d just showed up to a family’s home where they were singing and playing together as part of Sunday dinner. It was a large group of men who seemed like a family that spanned several generations. This type of show is more familiar and less polished, and while you’re less likely to come away with great photos of the performance, you’ll feel like you’ve experienced authentic Spanish flamenco.
Throughout southern Spain you’ll witness a flourish of influence from bygone eras. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, and Christians – to name a few – have all ruled over the Iberian Peninsula at some point during its 32,000 years of human history.
Every town will have a castle or a fortress, a cathedral, old stone walkways, and wrought-iron balconies on which artists and musicians have whiled away days of brooding or reflection. And most retain some mark of the Muslims and Jews who carved out their own place and space – an old Jewish quarter, perhaps, or remnants of a minaret from which calls to prayer were once sounded out to the Muslim shopkeeper, to the Muslimah mother who pointed her children towards a faraway Mecca.
This sense of amazement at a place so laden with history often profounds those of us from the New World, where our recorded history and influence can seem simple in comparison. If nothing else, noting the storied history of a place like Andalusia is both insightful and humbling.
4. Pueblos Blancos
The Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos, or “route of the white hill towns,” can be easily overlooked by visitors without private transport. Marked by their uniformity of whitewashed facades tumbling down steep and slender cobblestone streets, the towns are strewn throughout the hills in and around the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park.
The towns themselves were mostly built during the Moorish occupation of Spain, and weren’t whitewashed until the early twentieth century. Many of the names are followed by “a la frontera,” which reflects their place on the front line of the Christians’ centuries-long fight to reclaim the land and slowly push the Moors back into Africa.
While you can drive through most of the white towns in a day, we wish now that we’d have spent more time lingering in the town plazas, soaking in the sunlight, and watching evening unfold as the tiny tabernas lit up the streets.
5. Spanish Countryside
Andalusia is about the size of Maine, meaning that there’s a lot of ground to cover. You’ll see dramatic shifts in scenery, from fields of olives that seem to go on forever, to mountains of limestone reaching up into the sky, to ribbons of rocky coastline where the sea air billows over the land in salty gusts.
Maybe it was just that the year-round Andalusian abundance contrasted sharply to the harsh winter we saw during our visit back home, but the green knolls, red fields of fertile soil and bright blue skies seemed hyper-vibrant there.
These first couple of weeks in Andalusia have imparted on us the nostalgic romance of the rolling hills, the deep rosy notes of the wines, the throaty, mournful soul of the music – some essence of what it means to be Spanish.
But the road stretches further after this, through the mountainous passes of the Sierra Nevada and up to the imposing medieval bastions of Granada and Cordoba. There lie more of Andalusia’s charms, waiting to draw us deeper into the Spain of the Moors and of Ferdinand and Isabella. Stay with us as we put the car in drive and continue the journey north.