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Trip Report Andalusia, Spain and Southern Portugal During Holy Week

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Just returned from a wonderful 12 day vacation in southern Spain and Portugal during Holy Week, a fascinating time to visit that part of the world. The trip started from Malaga, and included Gibraltar, the lovely White Pueblos, Ronda, Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Cordoba, Grenada, Faro (Portugal), and the the stunning southwest coast of Portugal. We rented a car to get around and stayed in hotels. We were extremely fortunate with the weather - with the exception of just one rainy morning in Portugal, the weather was superb. Temperatures were perfect for exploring the country, spring being a great time in general to visit the south of the Iberian peninsula.

We had been to Spain once before, visiting friends on the Costa Blanca (Alicante, Denia, Valencia). However, this was the first time in Spain we set out on our own, traveling much more extensively. We were tremendously impressed with the varied, dramatic landscapes - hillsides of olive, cork and orange trees, vineyards, rugged mountain ranges (some snow-covered like the Sierra Nevada, Spain's highest mountains) and spectacular coastlines. Equally impressive were the lovely small towns and the beautiful Moorish architecture, most notably the Alhambra in Grenada, the Alcazar in Seville and the amazing cathedral of Cordoba. The eating experience was also excellent - without having to drop a whole bunch of Euros.

A useful guide to our trip was "Back Roads Spain" (DK Eyewitness Travel), which suggested parts of our itinerary, including some of the out of the way roads and towns we visited, as well as some excellent restaurants.

in general we found the Spanish and Portuguese people to be friendly and helpful. We found many spoke English, though our Spanish-speaking son (who is currently studying in Grenada for a semester) usually did all the talking.

As some suggested on this forum, having a car was a pain at times - parking was sometimes hard to find and added to the overall cost. For example, in Seville, we had to park a couple of blocks away from our hotel, an added $70 total to the cost of our stay. While the roads were excellent and well signposted, we had to take great care driving in some of the towns with their very narrow streets.

Thanks to the Fodorites who made suggestions on my pre-trip posting - we couldnt take them all, but appreciated nonetheless.

In subsequent postings, I'll summarize our trip day by day.

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    I'd love to hear a little more about Portugal (well, I can't wait to hear about the whole vacation!) as we're off for a similar trip soon.
    My departure has been delayed from next week to the beginning of May and I'm looking forward to the patios in Granada.
    I hope the weather improves as the next couple of weeks look quite rainy.
    Did you use a gps?
    Any restaurant suggestions would be great.

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    Seems we timed our trip well, just missing all the havoc resulting from the Iceland volcano!

    Days 1 Malaga to Gibraltar and Ronda (March 26)

    We arrived in Malaga late at night, taking a taxi to the Tryp Guadalmar Hotel, where we stayed that night and the one before our departure a week and a half later. We picked the Tryp because we wanted to be fairly close to the airport. Actually, not a bad location, right on the beach, nice views. No complaints about the hotel - nothing flash, but clean with a very good breakfast included. The orange juice in Spain is the best!

    The next morning we taxied to the airport to pick up our rental car from Hertz. Anxious to get on the road, we headed straight out of the city along the coast toward Gibraltar. Oddly, signs to Gibraltar were few and far in-between making us wonder if it is a consequence of tension between Spain and the UK, which has held Gibraltar since the 18th century. Fortunately we had our Tom Tom GPS with us! We took the toll highway (AP7) along the coast part of the way, later switching to the somewhat slower parallel road (A7), not liking the expensive tolls on the AP7.

    Nearing Gibraltar we waited in a fairly long line of traffic backed up at the check point entry to the town. We needed to show our passports to get in - a bit of a surprise. Entering the town, it was instantly obvious this was a little slice of the UK though quite far from the mother country: signs in English, gas prices in pounds and pence, British police uniforms. I'd bet there are traditional red telephone booths too. Interestingly due to the lack of space, the Gibraltar airport runway crosses the main road entering the town, undoubtedly part of reason for the backup we encountered since a jet had just taken off.

    We found our way to the car park near the cable car that goes up the rock, which we took to the top. What a spectacular view! I hadn't expected the coast of Morocco to be appear that close or be so rugged. My wife and son loved the view too, but they were even more mesmerized by the Barbery Macaques (apes) that live on the rock and hang around the lookouts. Unfortunately, wanting to get to Ronda before sunset and enjoy places in-between, we had to forego exploring the Rock and the town more fully. But, despite some negative comments we had heard about Gibraltar, we were very glad we went, enjoying some of the sights and learning the fascinating history of this extremely strategic place.

    From Gibraltar we headed inland toward Ronda and the White Pueblos on the A405. Soon we were driving through lovely countryside, very green after all the winter rains. Our first stop was the White Pueblo of Jimena de la Frontera, where we stopped for a tasty lunch at the first little cafe restaurant going into town (sorry, forgot the name). Like almost all the towns in the area, Jimena's buildings are white washed and a Moorish castle dominates the high point in town. We learned the "de la Frontera" part of the name, appended to names of several other towns in Andalucia, alludes to the time early in the last millennium when the town was on the frontier between Christian and Moorish (Islamic) areas of control.

    We then up through the pretty, narrow streets of Jimena, then out into the beautiful countryside heading toward Ronda. The road steadily climbed higher and higher. Because of the steep shoulders on the road, it was tough to stop for pictures. Fortunately, there were several "miradors" along the way, places you could park to enjoy the views. Most memorable were those near the White Pueblo of Gaucin with gorgeous views over this pretty town and back toward the coast, Rock of Gibraltar in the distance.

    The road continued higher and higher, through rugged-rock strewn mountainous slopes, then through a pass to a high plateau near Ronda. We arrived in Ronda late in the afternoon on this Friday, many people out and about. We found our hotel, the Acinipo, and found a garage to park our car. The Acinipo was quite nice, clean, and very well located right near the center of town and the main sights. The girl in the office was very sweet and helpful. After settling in, we took a walk through town, first along the cliff walk to the famous Puente Nuevo, the bridge over the deep gorge that goes right through the middle of town. It was sad to learn that here, during the Spanish Civil War, prisoners were forced to jump to their deaths. We then walked the plaza in the "new" part of town which was being prepped for Holy Week processions - chairs, barriers, etc. Now night time, we then headed over the bridge to the older part of town, which was a Moorish citadel in times of yore. Taking the recommendations of our guidebook "Back Roads Spain" and that of our hotel receptionist, we found the Almocabar restaurant on the Plaza Ruedo Almameda. An excellent choice indeed, one of our favorite meals on the trip; Arab-Andalucian dishes. About 75 euros for the three of us.

    Next: Day 2, Ronda in daytime and our drive to Grazalema, then Faro in Portugal.

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    great report so far, thanks! I appreciate the driving details because we'll be covering some of that ground too, hopefully! While I feel awful for the travelers stranded right now due to the volcano, I am so hoping the ash is all gone in 4 weeks when we are set to land in Amsterdam on our way to Barcelona to start our 2 week trip to Spain.....oh my.....but, you're right, your timing was perfect!!

    Ronda and Grazalema are on my list too so I'm anxious to see your report on that as well.

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    Thanks tobyo!

    Day 2, Mar 27. After breakfast at the Acinipo, we took another walk around Ronda, a beautiful morning, cool, clear and crisp. We first retraced our walk the night before along the cliff to the Puente Nuevo, taking in fantastic views over green fields below and mountains in the distance. Crossing the bridge we made our way through narrow streets with white-washed buildings to the path that heads down into the gorge. In some disrepair, the path took us quite a ways down to a point where we got a good look at the bridge (built in the 19th century) and the town high above us. Then we turned around climbed back up and made our way down to the oldest part of town to have a look at the beautiful Plaza de al Duquesa de Parcent and the town's main church, the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Mayor, with its Roman and Moorish features. Like a number of places we visited, orange trees lined the plaza- such a interesting sight for us high latitude folk. Enjoying every step, we made our way back to the bridge, this time taking in a lookout on the other side with another wonderful view.

    Next we visited the Plaza de Toros, the bull ring, touted by our guidebook as one of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in Spain. It was indeed beautiful, and we also greatly enjoyed the exhibits on the history of bullfighting, guns and dueling. Interestingly, Orson Wells had his ashes scattered here.

    Sadly, to keep on schedule, we had to depart Ronda early afternoon. My son had previously been there and was keen to see other places in Iberia he had not been to....like Portugal. If I were to do it all over again, we would definitely had stayed another night in Ronda. It is a stunning gem of a town, one of the most interesting and beautiful towns I've seen anywhere - no trip to Andalusia, (or Spain for that matter) should go without seeing it!

    From Ronda we then headed west on the A374 and A372, through very scenic country to Grazalema, a very scenic white town set on the side of a craggy mountainside. We had no trouble parking our car here, and walked through town to a small plaza where we enjoyed an lunch and a couple of cervezas (beers) in the sunshine. We then continued west over the mountains and through the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema - more gorgeous vistas. We noted parking areas for hikers - would love to go back some day and do some hiking there ourselves!

    Needing to get to Faro by 6:00, we pretty much made a beeline for Portugal, continuing west through El Bosque, Arcos de la Frontera, and Las Cabezas de San Juan. Though we weren't wasting time, we continued to enjoy the scenery immensely. This changed quite dramatically as we head down out of the mountains to the floodplain of the Guadalquiver River. We then caught to highway (AP4) north, skirted Seville and continued west to Faro on the A49.

    The outskirts and parts of Faro looked a bit seedy, but we were quite pleased when we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Faro, in a nice section of town on a beautiful old cobblestone plaza near the waterfront. I would not put Hotel Faro as the nicest hotel we stayed in, the decor wanting to be very modern, yet looking dated at the same time. Yet is was clean, the breakfasts were very good and it offered a great view over the plaza, the marina and the River Formosa. My son stayed in the room to watch his critical NCAA final game (the reason why we absolutely had to be in Faro by six), while my wife and I took a stroll around the plaza and adjoining streets, also enjoying a lovely sunset over the estuary of the River Formosa.

    For dinner we walked around the Marina to the Restaurante Faro E Benfica - think it was one of the places recommended by the check-in girl at the hotel. Lots of locals, plus a nice nighttime view of the town over the marina. Specializing in seafood, everything was very good. Only trouble was we ordered too much - think our waiter should have given us a heads-up about the portion sizes.

    Next- Day 3: Sagres, the southwest Portuguese coastline and our inland drive back to Faro.

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    ah....I'm already regretting not being able to spend more time in Ronda! We'll be leaving Sevilla and headed to Malaga taking some of the same routes you mention (thru Grazalema and the parque). well, we will just have to note all the things we'd like to see more of next time we're in Spain right? :)

    thanks for the report! oh, is Faro in Portugal then? I'm not familiar with that town but it sounds like it.

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    Day 3, Mar 28. Southwest Portugal. We woke up to a fine Sunday morning and enjoyed a good breakfast and nice view in the dining room of Hotel Faro. Here we finalized the plan for the day. Our impression from reading on the internet (including this Forum) was that a lot of the south coast of Portugal is quite heavily developed along the coast as a holiday destination for sun-seekers. Thus, we decided to forgo exploring the south coast that day, and instead head straight on the main highway (IP1/E01) to Sagres in the extreme southwest and then explore southwest coast, which green areas on the map indicated to be largely protected by national parkland (Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina). As it turned out, we were very happy with this decision.

    Sagres, maybe 75 miles west northwest of Faro, turned out to be a very interesting place. We headed straight through town to the old fort, the Henry the Navigator Fortaleza, set on an imposing headland with shear cliffs and crashing waves below. We must have spent an hour and a half here strolling around the fort and beautiful headland. Besides enjoying the views, we enjoyed watching dozens of people precariously fishing off the high cliffs. There were also interesting displays on Henry the Navigator, Portuguese exploration and navigation, as well as alternative energy sources such wind and waves (we had already seen seen several wind farms en route to Sagres).

    We didn't explore the town of Sagres that much, just grabbed a beer and bite to eat at a small cafe and continued north along the coastal road (N268 and N120), enjoying countryside resembling areas I had been to in Australia and California with eucalyptus trees lining the roads. At Carrapateira, we got of the main road for a short drive around the headland. Very spectacular scenery!! - superb views up and down the coast, huge surf off the Atlantic Ocean crashing ashore. We parked the car and took a stroll along a boardwalk to a viewpoint over the nearby beach. Magnificent!

    Continuing north on the N120, we took another side trip toward the shore at Aljezur, this time the road taking us along the Ribeira de Aljezur to the north side of a beautiful, fairly isolated beach with a parking lot and a little cafe overlooking the shore. We were glad we stopped there for a snack and, in my case, another Sagres beer. We felt we were the only foreigners there, mostly locals enjoying the sun and surf on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Friendly waitress and friendly people, my wife striking up a conversation in broken English with folks at the table next to us about their puppy.

    After Aljezur we followed the N120 northeast for quite a while through pleasant towns and countryside. At Telheiro we decided to explore more inland, heading on the N123 toward Monchique in the Serra (mountains) de Monchique, cutting back toward the south coast. This was a very pretty and hilly rural area, a very "Mediterranean" feel. We started seeing lots of trees with the bark peeled off the bottom, which I soon figured were cork trees as evidenced by stacks of cork bark piled outside of barns. Further along the road got very, very windy as it wound its way up to Monchique, the scenery unexpectedly becoming less interesting - lots of pine plantations about. After Monchique, we descended back to the highway, which whisked us east back to Faro in time to watch the sunset over the River Formosa from the roof of our hotel.

    We had dinner that night at the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) restaurant specializing in seafood, not far from Hotel Faro. it was a good meal - I had delicious sea bass. However, just like dinner the night before in Faro, we felt the waiter was just a bit pushy. Nevermind, it was a pleasant end to what was a great day.

    Next, day 4. A rainy drive part of the way to Seville; our first Semana Santa procession.

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    Day 4, Mar 29, Faro to Seville. For the first time on the trip, we looked out the hotel window in Faro that AM to see grey skies threatening rain. Since only a few rain drops were about, we took a walk around the old section of Faro, close to our hotel, enjoying the pretty tiled streets (some lined with orange trees), whitewashed buildings, Faro Cathedral, the Civil Gov't Building and the remains of the Moorish fort that protected the town. By the time we returned to the hotel to get our car, it had begun raining steadily.

    On the drive to Seville, we were hoping to explore some of the southeast coast of Portugal, having read this was somewhat less developed and that places like Tavira were well worth seeing. We did take the coast road (not the main highway), but unfortunately it continued to pour. We didn't stop in Tavira, but continued on. Soon, however, the rain abated so we took a random side road toward the coast to see what we would find. This took us to a pretty village called Cacela Velha, with its old fort looking east and west along the Algarve coast. Too bad it started raining again, as it would have been nice to look around there some more and take a walk along the pristine beach. (Looking on Google maps, the coast here is still part of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa).

    Now close to the Spanish border, we decided to look for a place to have lunch, ending up in the resort town of Monte Gordo. Just as we parked the car, the sun came out! We ate lunch in a beachfront Dutch cafe - we were clearly not the only foreigners here. After lunch with a warm sun burning off the clouds, we walked down to the beach and sat to sun ourselves for a short while.

    After Monte Gordo, we got back on the main highway (E01) that took us over the bridge over the Spanish border and straight into Seville. To our delight it had turned into a beautiful afternoon. In Seville, we stayed at Hotel Becquer. We were very pleased. The rooms were clean, well decorated, and very quiet (we were probably lucky to not have a room facing the street). The staff were helpful and accommodating. The hotel was also well situated within easy walking distance of the cathedral, the river and other attractions.

    Once settled in our rooms, we set out on the streets of Seville, heading toward the cathedral. My wife loved looking in shop windows, many having Semana Santa (Holy Week) displays and related things for sale. In the Plaza Nueva, it was clear that things were happening - many people walking about, stands with seats set up for parade-watching. For the first time, we caught sight of a couple of "nazarenos", people wearing the robes and the pointed hooded masks that Americans immediately associate with the KKK. In fact, the outfit has nothing at all to do with the KKK, but is steeped in the tradition of Catholic church Holy Week in Spain, or at least in Andalusia.

    Looking down the Avenue de la Constitution, we saw chairs (set up in box enclosures) lining the street as far as we could see. A police officer explained you needed to have already purchased a ticket to get a seat, so we proceeded to try to find a good vantage point to view the procession, which seemed imminent. Access to the square in front of the cathedral was barricaded, so we settle on a spot right below the huge cathedral bellower near the entrance to the square. With time more and more people gathered on the streets, and then it all started. It was all VERY fascinating.

    The procession involved participation of several religious brotherhoods (hermandades), each with dozens of robed hood-wearing nazarenos. Different colored outfits and emblems for each brotherhood. Each was led by a group carrying a large ornate cross, banners, and staffs with lantern-like tops. Each group also had an associated marching band, some quite large. The music was stirring, the bass and snare drums, castanets and trumpets adding distinct Latin overtones. The biggest highlights were the "pasos" - floats carrying life-size wooden figures depicting a scene from the New Testament, on this occasion the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. These huge floats are carried by 2-4 dozen men wearing sacks on their heads. Each float was preceded with non-hood-wearing clergy and acolytes, some wafting clouds of incense. Also associated with the paso were men in suits (local dignitaries?) and woman wearing black dress and hair pieces called mantillas.

    Into dark the mood changed with the light of the large candles carried by the hundreds of nazarenos. As is a tradition, children tried to catch dripping candle wax to make wax balls. Some, evidently female, nazarenos carried baskets of candy that they handed out to the kids. The grand finale was the huge paso bearing the Virgin Mary, decked out among a sea of candles. So ended what was the first of several Semana Santa processions we encountered in Spain that week, not only in Seville but in Cordoba, Jerez de la Frontera and Granada. We never tired of seeing them.

    After the parade, we squeezed our way through throngs of people to take refuge in English pub-themed bar where we grabbed a couple of beers while the crowd thinned. We then ate a light dinner at the bistro adjacent to our hotel. I had a delicious Andalusian stew with pork chunks and chick peas. We had coffee and toast here each morning - very popular with the locals.

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    My daughter is studying in Granada this spring (2011) and we areplanning a visit during Holy Week. I have heard mixed things about going at this time. Will things be open? Will it be too crowded? We will only be in Spain for 6 days and werethinking of renting a car and driving the whit hill towns and that general area. Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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    pattie...things wiil be open for sure. It is a busy time, so I would book well ahead. But I think it was a great (!) time go, and the weather was perfect. It's a shame I never finished this trip report: our visits to Cordoba and Granada were fantastic.

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    Has anyone been in Portugal during Holy Week? Would appreciate info re Fatima on Good Friday and a small port in Andalucia Portimao on Easter Sunday. Does anyone know anything about these tow sites during Holy Week?
    Thanks in advance.
    D. Sobul

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    Patticlement, during the Holy Week, everything is open from Monday to Wednesday, and streets swarms with people, the amosphere is very nice and festive. But on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday shops are closed as they are Andalusian holidays. If you want to visit the Alhambra (the most visited monument in Spain) do it in advance, and through internet, since there will be 'millions' of people in the city. In the morning, Try to visit the churhes which have processions inside, it's a good oportunity to see a float so near! If interested, I can tell you my favourite ones. As I've been living in Granada for 20 years I can tell you some nice tips regarding the Holy Week. If you happen to go to Malaga, try not to miss it, since the floats there are impressively big, specially those of the virgin, they're so spectacular. As I know both cities, I usually spend some days in Malaga and others in Granada, depending on the day I like the best. Important, do not think that people that see the processions are very religious. Wrong! There are obviously religious people, but most of the people go just because it's a long tradition or because it's related to their brotherhood or their quarter. For example, I am an atheist but I can't miss just one procession!

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    Sounds great and now I'm exicted about going there during Holy Week. I have a trip book there april 2014. Flying into Malaga wed before easter, and staying there a couple of nights, then to Ronda a couple night, then sunday thru wed in Granada. Does this sound like a good plan? Too much time in Granada? Thanks! mel

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    Hi Ralph,
    I know this comment is many years old, but I would like you to DELETE part of it.

    This is what your comments did to me.

    After spending an incredible full day in Ronda, admiring the bridge, hiking down into the river below etc, fully experiencing the beauty of Ronda, I googled "What is highway 405 to Ronda like?"

    Your comments popped up, so I read them. Now all I can think of is the horrific account of Spanish prisoners being made to jump to their deaths from the bridge. Now that beautiful valley under it makes me ill to think of it. Its a cementary of sorts. And I could not get that vision out of my head, still can't a few weeks later.

    You ruined my beautiful day and memories of Ronda for good.
    I wanted to write, so you remove it and no one else gets affected like I did. It should be up to an individual on their own to find out horrific information like that if they want to.
    Please remove that comment asap.
    Thank you

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    Very strange comment above. Stick your head in the sand about history if you like but to ask someone to remove a comment because you (a first time poster on this forum) find it upsetting (???)

    I did not know that about the bridge and am glad to have learned something, albeit something very sad.

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    I knew about the tragic history but it didn't affect my enjoyment of Ronda. Terrible things happened in the past, especially in war or civil war situation, and we just need to take note and move on. Did you know Nazis tortured prisoners under the Eiffel Tower?

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