Essential Spain: Off the Beaten Track

Don Harris | January 2004

This is an itinerary I designed for a couple who wanted to get immersed in the heart of Spain while avoiding the usual tourist destinations. This was a little over two weeks, which I think is the minimum to do Spain justice. Even with that, we only concentrated on perhaps one third of the country, always bear in mind that there are 17 autonomous regions with their own distinct styles and sometimes languages. So it is essential to linger here and there, then come back again another day.

Day 1 - Arrival Madrid

Rent a car and drive to Santiago de Compostela. Stay at the San Francisco Hotel Monumento.

Day 2 - Santiago de Compostela

Tour the city of Santiago de Compostela, beginning with the Cathedral where pilgrims flock from all over the world. If you stand in the plaza facing the cathedral you will see on your left, a hotel built by Ferdinand and Isabel. Note the stone arcaded streets. Undoubted you will encounter some students from the University of Santiago. The school of medicine as well as the school of music are prominent.

Day 3 - Lugo

The walled city of Lugo is a remarkable place where you can walk around the stone battlements. Take time to visit the Municipal Market where you will find fresh seafood and bowers of fresh greens and vegetables and loaves of Pan de Gallego – Galician bread with its crunchy crust and a glutinous interior filled with holes. The city is famous for its Tetilla cheese.

Day 4 - Depart Santiago de Compostela and Drive to Zamora

Drive to Zamora (4 hours from Santiago de Compostela). Through gorgeous mountains and meadows is the Zamora old Roman fortress: it was held by Christians of Zamora. It was also where evil Queen Urraca lived – launched an army against her brothers. The Semana Santa (Holy Week celebration) is famous throughout Spain for its serious piety. It is a home of 27 Romanesque churches.

The neighboring town of Toro has an exquisite Romanesque cathedral. It is also famous for its wine. Stay at Parador de Zamora, a lovely 15th century Renaissance Palace.

Day 5 - Ciudad Rodrigo to Cácares

On the next day, drive from Zamora to Cáceres via Ciudad Rodrigo. It will take you around 4 hours. Stay at Parador de Caceres – Torreorgáz Palace, a 14th century palace, which was once Moorish.

Ciudad Rodrigo is one of my favorite cities reflecting rural ambiance. Good chorizo, sausages and it has warm and cordial people. Its history stretches back to pre-Roman times. The Parador in Ciudad Rodrigo is a restored Roman fortress. From its windows you can see a Roman bridge whose road leads to Portugal.

Drive 2 hours to Cácares. The modern city is dominated by the University, but within the medieval walls is a magnificent fortified city with large, old stone houses. Cácares is famous for its Jamón Ibérico, the rare ham from black-hoofed pigs. You might see some of the free range animals as you drive through the Dehesa – the pasture land. A great place to have dinner is El Fagón de Eustaquio on Plaza San Juan. Their jamón Ibérico raised by Pedro Lancho is among the best in the world.

Day 6 - Guadalupe and the Conquistadores

Visit Guadalupe, a charming town in the mountains – Ferdinand and Isabella’s favorite place. The cathedral contains the 12th century statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Neustria Señora de Guadalupe). The cathedral itself is an example of the fusion of Moorish and Christian architecture. The Plaza Mayor of the little village is charming. Then, drive Trujillo: a classic town of Extremadura. Below the ruins of a castle is the dramatic plaza where is the statue of Francisco Pizarro. He and his brothers together conquered Peru.

Day 7 - Córdoba and Carmona

Proceed to Carmona, via Córdoba where you can visit La Mezquita /Catedral- one of the greatest mosques in the world. Surprisingly within the mosque you will also find a full scale cathedral! The architecture is such that many people of all faiths sense a profound spirituality. So, your visit should be unhurried. The Alcázar is another great place to see. It is a palace built over a Moorish palace with formal gardens. From its tower you can see all of Córdoba.

Near the Mezquita/ Catedral are many shops including great Cordovan leather at famous Meryan store, tucked in a side alley. Some people like to visit Medina Azahara, which is a fascinating archeological project seeking to restore a Moorish palace outside the city. Much of the funding is coming from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

On the way to Carmona, you might drop by the Almodóvar Castle. As you approach Carmona you will see a dramatic city high on a hill. It was a Roman stronghold of Hispania Baetica. The city was made even more impregnable during the long occupation of the Moors, who erected walls around it, and built fountains and palaces within. In 1247, Ferdinand III of Castile captured the town. Stay at Casa de Carmona, a marvelous 16th century villa in the center of town. You might want to visit the Parador which is on the site of a fortress built by Pedro the Cruel. The vistas are breathtaking!

Day 8 - Sevilla and the Sherry Cities

Depart from Carmona and drive through Sevilla and Jerez de la Frontera and then on to El Puerto de Santa María. On the way, in Seville, visit the stunning cathedral Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, where Christopher Columbus is buried. Park in the underground garage near the cathedral. All gold from New World came though Seville. Finally, visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, one of Spain’s best art museums. Stay in El Puerto de Santa María at Los Jandalos Vista Hermosa – do not confuse it with Los Jandalos Hotel Santa María/Puerto de Santa María.

Day 9 - El Puerto de Santa María

Visit the sherry Bodegas at Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. I especially like the boutique Bodegas Gutiérrez-Colosía in El Puerto de Santa María and Pedro Romero in Sanlúcar de Barrameda when you visit the Gutiérrez-Colosía bodega, which is on the El Puerto waterfront, ask for Carmen. She and her husband Juan Carlos represent the best of Andalucía, and you will receive a warm welcome.

Pedro Romero in Sanlúcar de Barrameda has an unique bodega dedicated to some of the finest sherry vinegars. It is worth of visit. Sanlúcar de Barrameda has a gorgeous plaza where you can while away many hours under the Bougainvillea and palms feasting on Langostinos and Manzanilla wine. There are several excellent restaurants situated along the banks of the Guadalquivir River. I can’t think of a finer place to enjoy amazingly fresh seafood. Then take boat to Coto Doñana, the stopping place for hundreds of migrating birds from Africa. Undoubtedly you will see some flamingos feasting on shrimp.

Then, return to Los Jandalos Vista Hermosa and enjoy El Puerto de Santa María. It is a lively port and vacation spot at the mouth of Guadalete River which feeds into the bay of Cádiz. I lived here for many years with my family.

Day 10 - Cádiz

Take the ferry from the port of El Puerto de Santa María to visit Cádiz. The hydrofoil takes 20 min. to old Cádiz. It is an ancient city founded by the Phoenicians 3 thousand years ago. You walk across the peninsula in 15 minutes. It is a great place to wander, with good restaurants. For a treat we dine at the classic El Faro Restaurant. Don’t forget to visit the public market where you will see an amazing array of creatures from the sea. Some of them you have not even imagined. Underground parking is available near the cathedral.

Day 11 - Priego de Córdoba

Drive to Priego de Córdoba via Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda, and Antequera. It is approximately a four hour drive via Arcos. First is Arcos de la Frontera: a dramatic white city perched on the top of very high bluff, with very narrow streets and great vistas. Next, drive to Ronda, which is a spectacular town built around a mountain gorge According to tradition t is known as the birthplace of the corrida –bull fight. The handsome bull ring includes quite an informative museum concerning the history and heroes of the Ring. The vast plaza is a great place to people-watch.

Next, go to Antequera, known as “the heart of Andalusia” (el corazón de Andalucía) because of its central location among the provinces of Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, and Sevilla. It is noted for two large Bronze Age dolmens. Drive up to the center of the city at the plaza mayor and stop to gather the essential flavor of this ancient city.

Finally, go to Priego de Córdoba, a dramatic town on the top of a hill. It is surrounded by olive trees as far as the eye can see. At the foot of the mountain you can find Fermín Rodriguez maker of Señorio de Vizcántar, the most popular olive oil within La Tienda community. Fermín is an affable man, and a good friend, who happily will tell you all you ever need to know about the production of extra virgin olive oil. Stay at the small hotel in Priego de Córdoba – La Paloma – in Moorish quarter with Arab baths.

Day 12 - Almagro

Depart from Priego de Cordoba via Alcala la Real. In 973 AD the caliph Al-Hakam II built a series of battlements in order to defend against Viking and Norman invaders. Twelve of the 15 original towers remain. Around the year 1000 La Mota,the main tower, became a true fortress, the mainstay of the Al-Andalus defense against the Christian Reconquista. From here they launched raids across the frontier against Castilla. You can drive up the hill into the bowels of the castle where archeological digs are underway. The project is is described in a video presentation in the church. It is a castle to explore. Lunch as the Parador precariously perched on a cliff next to Jaen, the olive capitol of Spain Drive through the windmill country to stay at the Parador de Almagro, a 16th century Franciscan Convent which is amazingly tranquil!

Day 13 - Toledo

Depart Almagro for Toledo. Toledo is the soul of Spain in successive eras it was the seat of Visigoth, Muslim, and Christian monarchs until Felipe II moved the government to Madrid in the 17th Century. Muslim, Christians and Jews lived together there for hundreds of years. The Sephardic academy for translation was world famous. It was there that hundreds of classical Greek philosophy and Arabic science were translated into Castilian Spanish. The whole city is a living active museum. I especially like the beautifully execute museum located in the Hospital de Santa Cruz. It has many El Greco paintings and the spectacular battle banner from the Battle of Lepanto where the Christians finally defeated the Ottoman Turks in an epic naval engagement.

The cathedral has an awe-inspiring gilded hand carved altar piece. Across form it is intricately carved choir stalls. Do not miss the Sacristy in the cathedral. Here is a succession of paintings of the twelve apostles, with all the emotional and spiritual impact that only El Greco can inspire. His Burial of the Count Orgáz can be viewed in the small Santo Tomé nearby. Visit also the Plaza Santo Domingo El Antiguo El Alcazar – Roman/Moorish fortress converted to palace.

Continue your tour, visiting Santa Maria La Blanca – 12th century synagogue and El Transito – splendid 14th century synagogue designed by Medéjar Muslim architects. Finally, see San Juan de los Reyes, a grand Gothic monastery. Stay at Hostal de Cardenal, the 18th century residence of cardinals. Tastefully decorated, modestly priced. The dining room there is excellent.

Day 14 - Depart Toledo

Depart from Toledo to Madrid Airport — an easy drive of less than 90 minutes.