High Speed Trains and Highways Make it Easy to Explore Southern Spain
In early 1492, an explorer and risk taker made a plea to the king and queen to invest in his journey west to prove the world was not flat and to discover and claim ownership for Spain of any new lands he and his crew would discover. It took several tries, but he eventually sold the royals on his idea, and they made the capital investment he needed to equip and supply his three ships. His name was Christopher Columbus — and the rest is history.
Spain is steeped in history, with settlements dating back more than 2,000 years. And more than four centuries ago, the royal government recognized the value of and acknowledged its responsibility to restore, maintain and invest in the preservation of the country’s rich heritage.
Since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Spain has made considerable investments in creating a highway system that connects most of the major cities. In addition, it recently completed and opened a high-speed rail system that allows the leisure and business traveler the ease and convenience of rapid access to almost all major cities in Spain (and they are working now on a high-speed train between Madrid and Lisbon, Portugal).
On this journey we chose to explore Andalusia, a Southern region of Spain that encompasses the Rock of Gibraltar and most of the southern coastline. Although Madrid is in the middle of the country, with direct flights from Philadelphia and Atlanta, it was our chosen point of entry. After a mid-morning airport arrival, it was a short cab ride to the train station, and after just a two-hour, 175 mile-per-hour trip, we were in Seville, Andalusia’s largest city.
Seville is a city of 800,000-plus, which requires using public transportation and walking. Dating back to BC period, Seville is steeped in history and home to Alcazar, palace of the kings and queens that you need at least a half-day to wander through. Tour the El Toro Museum, housed within the ancient bullring or, if your timing is right, attend a Sunday bullfight, a ceremonial activity that has not changed in centuries.
Once in Seville, a rental car, which cost about $250 for a week’s use, was delivered to the hotel. Ours was equipped with a GPS navigation system that took 95 percent of the pain out of traveling the roads of Spain.
Make the time to explore the 1,250-square-mile Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, just a short drive outside Seville. The Fuente Lodge overlooks the pristine mountain town of Grazalema. One of Andalusia’s “white villages” — where all the buildings are whitewashed — it is a place where one can experience the simple daily life of rural Spaniards. There are many wonderful hiking trails well marked and designed for the simple to the most advanced hiker abilities. Ubrique, another white village of the region, is known for its leather industries with a shop-lined street filled with international designer brands selling at a fraction of the cost those goods go for after making their way to America. One could complete a holiday shopping list and come home a hero.
For those who hike, or just love the outdoors, the trail system within the park is incredible. There are trails for all levels of experience, from a day trip to venturing deep for the overnight stay in a region where nature has created a breathtaking experience.
The delights of other Andalusian cities are easy drives away.
The three-hour drive to Granada takes you through agricultural regions of olive and almond orchards and wheat fields as far as the eye can see. They’re all immaculately groomed by generations of families living off their land.
If you plan early and are lucky, you’ll land a reservation at the Parador de San Francisco in Granada. The present-day five-star-rated Parador owes much of its architectural heritage to the construction of a Franciscan convent on this site soon after the fall of Granada in 1492. The Parador overlooks the Alhambra, a sprawling palace-citadel filled with royal residential quarters, court complexes flanked by official chambers, a bath and a mosque that can take most of a day to fully explore.
Also, consider a side trip to Cordoba, with a cityscape that showcases a whole world of striking history. People of diverse cultures and religions (Jews, Muslims and Christians) have greatly contributed to the beauty of this outstanding place. Contemporary Cordoba is home to those most culturally “Spanish” activities — flamenco and bullfighting — and is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous places to visit in Southern Spain.
You might also choose to head westward to the coastal city of Cadiz, a trading port between Africa and Europe that pokes into the Atlantic Ocean and is connected to the Spanish mainland by a tiny isthmus. A city guide would be a good idea to help new visitors take in the high points and gain a more thorough historical insight. You may recognize some of Cadiz’s beaches and buildings, which were used to portray Havana in the 2002 James Bond film “Die Another Day.”
If you have time left on your itinerary, head back to Madrid and catch another high-speed train to Barcelona, in the northeast of Spain.
A trek to Barcelona is well worth the effort. Home of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona’s waterfront is lined with fabulous modern art and five-star hotels. The ultra-modern Hotel Arts Barcelona (a Ritz-Carlton property) was named one of the top hotels in the world, and the service, room layout and location overlooking the Mediterranean are all worth the investment.
The two-day bus tour pass is the only way to get around, allowing you travel on the three city routes and get on and off anytime. One of the most incredible sights is native son Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family) cathedral. It is designed in his original, sensuous curving avant-garde style with elements of Gothic and Art Nouveau. Under construction since 1882, this architectural marvel was consecrated just last November by Pope Benedict. Even though modern methods have speeded up the construction process, it isn’t scheduled for completion until 2026. Once finished, it will definitely be a monument for many centuries. Tours are available so one can see the many master craftsmen at work.
For more information on Spain, check out spain.info, the official Spain tourism site in English.