From Renaissance splendour to a town where still to this day more then half of it’s population still live in caves, Spain amazes us daily.
Downtown Guadix has it’s share of churches and charming shaded plazas, so it’s not until you wind your way through the steep narrow cobbled streets the strange Martian like landscape appears.
Russet-coloured craggy hills punctuate the skyline, with the beautiful Sierra Nevada’s in the background. But on closer inspection you see chimneys poking out of the side of the hills, and front doors cut into the side of the rock, like Hobbit homes, or Troglodytes and it’s where locals have been living in these caves for hundreds of years.
Jose has lived in a cave all his life, his family for generations beforehand, and he say’s he wouldn’t live anywhere else.
The summer can be hot in this area but the caves temperature remains a constant 20c all year. The interior walls are painted white, and the layout is surprisingly very similar to any other home. Bedrooms, kitchen, living and dining areas, bathrooms with all the modern conveniences.
There is even a terrace on top of Jose’s house with an incredible view over the Barrio de Cuevas to Guadix.
A for sale sign in front of a cave home got us thinking, it may only look small from the front, but depending on the depth of the hillside behind, you could dig yourself a palace, in time and with a few good friends with shovels.
After the beautiful Moorish architecture of Granada, and less than 100 kms north we step into the Renaissance magnificence of Baeza and Ubeda.
Nestling amid olive groves, both towns have been inhabited since the Bronze age, but it was during the 15th and 16th centuries that these towns saw their greatest period of growth due to agriculture and textile manufacturing, especially cloth dyed with red carmine from the cochineal insect that’s local to the cactus in this area.
Wealth meant beautiful palaces for the rich merchants to live in, and luckily many of those still stand to this day, some of which are now hotels or government buildings, one 16th century private palace is now the University.
Baeza and Ubeda are yet to be discovered by mass tourism, and it was only that Tom from La Maroma suggested we visit these towns that they appeared on our radar as well.
It’s often these off the tourist map places we enjoy the most.
Behind Brian you can see olives as far as the eye can see. Ubeda is one of the largest olive produces and packers in Spain, and where we visited a very interesting Olive Oil Museum.
OLIVE OIL MUSEUM
It was all very educational, and now we have even more of an appreciation of olive oil.
The soaring snow-capped Sierra Nevada’s Mountains are the highest in Spain, with fourteen of their peaks over 3,400m high.
The highest peaks are snow covered all year, while the lower peaks may be bare for only July and August until a cold night will deposit a light layer of snow once again. All that is quite extraordinary as the sunny southern coast of Spain is less than 50kms away.
Descending from the Sierra Nevada’s peaks are the Las Alpujarras, a high altitude oasis above an unspoilt landscape of deep valley’s, olive groves and dark trunked almond trees. And dotted about these hillsides are Pueblos Blanco’s or Moorish whitewashed villages, some so small they look to only have a dozen or so houses.
We have ventured into a few of these, parking way out on the outskirts as the streets are so narrow old Hermione wouldn’t fit through, often to find not a single shop or bar, but you can bet on seeing a few locals sitting about chatting, or someone sweeping out front of their home and happy to receive a ‘buenos dias’ from us as we walk past.
The Alpujarra region is famous for the weaving of Moorish-style rugs and wall-hangings, known as Jarapa.
We were also surprised to see vineyards at this altitude, around 1200m, and stopped at Bodega Fuente Victoria, for a tasting and chat to the winemaker.
He explained that the area has it’s own unique ‘micro climate’ where they get around 350 days a year of sunshine, they also sit on the southern side of the mountains, so receive a good supply of water from the melting snow, and there is also the possibility of snow falling about three times over the winter. The cold he said, kills of most of the bugs and micro-organisms so there is no need to spray the grapes.
And as they also offered a camper stop we had a very quiet, dark and pleasant night there as well. Their wine was excellent, and we left with a couple of bottles of their fine wine, and a very good everyday vino tinto that was only 10 euro for 5 litres.
So diverse is this area that near the coast of Almeria is Europe’s only desert.
It’s cactus dotted badlands with dried out riverbeds, and strange looking eroded hills made it the perfect place for filming those good old ‘spaghetti westerns’ like a Fistfull of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are three film studios here, and during the summer you can see mock bank robberies, gun fights and even re-enactments of the final moments of Jesse James.
We even saw a street named, Calle(street) Clint Eastwood.
Chris Stewart, is a writer (and the ex Genesis band drummer before Phil) who lives in the Alpujarras and has written a series of semi-fictional books about his life here on a remote mountain farm. Driving Over Lemons, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, and The Apple Blossom Appreciation Society are a few of his novels that I enjoyed
The beautiful city Granada sits in the foothills of the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains, a beautiful backdrop for the splendid palace of the Alhambra.
The old city built around the Cathedral is a maze of narrow one way streets, and the Alcaiceria, the old Moorish bazaar had a feel that took us back to our time spent in Morocco.
Steep and sinuous streets lead you up past white washed houses to the Albaicin district, and Sacromonte, where the vino tinto is cheap, and you’re more than likely to see spontaneous Flamenco dancing after too many vino tinto’s, thank goodness we didn’t have our camera with us that night.
There are beautiful white Moorish design homes and a wide pedestrian walk similar to Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
Sacromonte is also to best spot to see the famous Alhambra, and I had to elbow a tourist with his camera on a selfie stick, who seemed to want to stand right in front of me where-ever I stood, all so I could take a couple of pics to show you how magnificent the Alhambra is.
The Alhambra is a complex of palaces built by the Arab Sultans in the 14th century.
Built of plaster, beautiful tiles and timber, with open courtyards and reflecting pools, all surrounded by gardens it’s a stunning place to visit.
We were very excited that Mark and Tom accepted us to be their house/pet sitters, and look after their lovely Labs Homer and Otis, and the assortment of cats that they have adopted, or more likely, the cats have adopted Tom and Mark because they are such caring people.
The finca is in the hills of Andalucia up behind Malaga, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. It’s a beautiful area, surrounded by mountains, olive groves and almond trees, and it’s so quiet. All you hear is the occasional braying donkey, goat or barking dog.
Sadly the weather was not all sunshine, but a wood-stove, Netflix and the warm doggy breath from two lovely Labs, made those 2 days pass quickly. We didn’t get out much to explore the area over the eight days we spent here as Finca La Maroma was just too nice to leave.
Do you know how to tell the difference between stalactites and stalagmites? Well Brian has just told me a little rhyme he learnt while in school to help him remember………..’mites go up and the tites come down’ Did you learn that one as well? Leave us a comment and tell us.
So you may be wondering why the question about tites and mites, has six months on the road in a motorhome sent Julie over the edge? Answer, not yet! But we did just have a visit to some really great caves, in Aracena, Spain.
They are officially called the La Gruta de la Maravillas or the Cave of Wonders. Formed over centuries by the fusion of water and stone, there are underground lakes, sinkholes and twelve different caverns filles with stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes and size. It takes about an hour to cover 1km path that rises over three levels.
The location has been used in many films over the years, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Tarzan in King Solomon’s Mines to name a couple.
So we went to Aracena to see the caves, what we didn’t know, but were very happy to find was the annual Festival of Iberian Ham or Feria de Jamon Ibérico going on in town. For ten days this little town is all about ‘ham’. There are ham slicing contests, ham tastings, a massive food and beer hall (think Oktoberfest, but with ham as well) and last but not least for just € 1.50 you can enter a contest to win your weight in ham !!! Sadly we didn’t win, and even if we did I’m not sure where we would have put all that ham.
There are not enough words in my vocabulary to explain how much we love Córdoba This is our second time there, the first was in 2009, and after this visit I do believe I love it even more.
First a little bit of History (sorry, but I do hope you find this as interesting as we do)
The space on which the Mezquita de Córdoba, or the Great Mosque of Córdoba is built has been a holy site since the first century, when the Romans built the first temple here. In the 6th century the Visigoths conquered the Romans, and went about building their church over the Roman Temple. The city declined under the Goth rule, and in the 8th century, was conquered by the Muslims and over the next four centuries the city flourished under Arab and Berber rule, and thankfully so much of that beautiful architecture from those periods still stands. Then in the 13th century Córdoba returned to Christian power and right in the heart of this magnificent Mezquita, the Catholics built their Cathedral. How is that for a ‘I now have control and will do as I please’.
The Mezquita is surrounded by high walls, so when you walk through the first gate you enter a courtyard, with a garden of orange trees, and fountains in which purification rituals would have been held.
The Mihrab, or prayer niche, is covered with small golden colour tiles, and intricate calligraphic bands and faces towards the East, or Mecca. Above the Mihrab is a Visigoth arch, which proves how well the Mezquita has adapted over the centuries, and it’s various occupants.
Even though there must be at least 100 people visiting at the time we are, it’s quiet, and you feel the reverence, or maybe it’s just awe.
The Cathedral in my opinion is obtrusive, and I find it hard to write anything positive, except I’m so glad that it’s is no larger than it is, so that I can try to dismiss that it’s not even there.
Once outside of the walls of the Mezquita, is the old city of Córdoba that has seemed to have been able to retain it’s charm, even with number of tourist buses arriving daily.
A Roman bridge still takes you across the river, And there are winding pedestrian zones you can wander and get totally lost amongst, we did more than once. And the old Jewish quarter now thrives with restaurants and bodegas, often with live music from the students from the Cordoba University Music department.
So if you are ever in Andalusia, I strongly suggest a visit to Córdoba.
I just realized that now with this post bagging the Catholic Church, and the other recent one about the Top 3 plus 1, I’ll probably be struck off the Vatican’s Christmas card list. :)♥
On this stretch of the Portuguese coast, a rare union of environmental and geographical conditions conspire to create some of the world’s biggest waves. Nazaré hold the Guinness World Book record for the largest wave ever surfed. It’s all far to technical for me to understand the mechanics of the Nazaré canyon wave, let alone explain here.
To say we had been looking so forward to this place would be an understatement, and although it is a beautiful place, Nazaré failed to turn on it’s brilliance for us.
This area of Portugal has been recently hit with a hurricane which has made the sea rough and messy with no good surfable waves.
Still the atmosphere was great, and we had one of the best camping sites, although a little frightening for me so close to cliff edge. The town itself is a fishing village still, with tall prowed, brightly coloured fishing boats, and a funicular that takes you to the village from the cliffs and the old castle on it’s rocks.
For two quite non religious people we have just ticked the top three Catholic landmarks of the list. Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela and Fatima.
Lourdes, a little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees in France was a while ago, 2009. We drank the holy water from the spring, followed a procession of candle holding clergy and parishioners to a cave, where they gave a sermon, and we stood in the rain. And marvelled at the gaudiness of the souvenir shops that lined the streets around the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Then I had the great idea to walk the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, The Camino. Brian being the good sport that he is said OK. You have a love a man that agrees to walk nearly 400 kms carrying all your possessions (and some of mine) on your back. When we finished I was proud of our achievement, did we get the promised pardon for our sins, I don’t know, but it was a great thing to do and we meet some wonderful people over that 3 1/2 weeks.
So Fatima being the only one left, and on right our way to the west coast of Portugal had to be a stop. Fatima was a little known place until on May 13th 1917 three little shepherds, Jacinta and her two cousins, Francisco and Lúcia witnessed successive apparitions of Our Lady of the Rosary in a oak tree. Today at one end there is a massive Basilica with a 65 m tower, a chapel where the apparition occurred, and the destination of thousands of people, daily, and thankfully only a couple of souvenir shops.
And I probably need to mention the Christmas we spent in Rome with Jess and Chris. I did drag them all to the Vatican early in the morning of Christmas Day to see the Pope give his Christmas blessing to all in St Peter’s Square. So that’s really four I guess.
It was a very round about way to reach Portugal, but we have finally made it!
I must read too many Dan Brown books, because when I heard about Tomar being founded in the 12th century by the first Grand Master of the Order of Templars, and it’s castle where Templar rituals were practiced is still standing, it landed on our must see’s.
During the 12th and 13th centuries the crusading Order of the Knights Templar helped the Portuguese in their battle against the Moorish infidels, and also protected the pilgrims on their journey to Fatima and Santiago de Compostela. In return they were rewarded with extensive lands and political power. Castles, churches and towns sprang up under their protection. Then in the 14th century Pope Clement forced the shutdown and death of the Templar Knights, but the Portuguese King turned it into the Order of Christ which inherited the property, privileges and power of the Templar’s.
In the 15th century Prince Henry the Navigator became their Grand Master and invested their wealth in exploration, and that is why the Portuguese sailing ships bore the red squared cross on their sails.
Over the next five centuries the Convento de Cristo was expanded and used continually. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s truly one of the best preserved sites we have seen anywhere.
So if you are a Robert Langdon fan like I am, and ever in Portugal I would highly recommend a visit to Tomar.
Although the Knights Templar were supposedly shut down in 1314, anyone who reads mystery novels about the Vatican and the Catholic Church will not be surprised to learn that in the very castle in Tomar I have just written about, the Order of the Knights Templar still hold their annual meeting on the third weekend in April, every year.