Part 1: North-East to South-West Spain
10 days travelling from Pamplona in the north-east, cutting in to Madrid in central Spain, then continuing on to the south-west.
The initial plan was to head to the north of Spain, loop around Portugal then explore the south and central parts of Spain, but with rain in the north for the next week and sun in the south we decided to reverse our plan! This is the beauty of having nothing set in stone, with no bookings, no deadlines, only adaptable ideas.
The road tolls in Spain can be pretty massive so if you aren’t in a hurry it’s best to avoid the big highways. The smaller roads are also much more beautiful so well worth it. The roads in Andalusia and south of Pamplona were especially stunning.
- A small town we stumbled upon accidentally. Houses on the precipice of rock faces, a maze of small streets and hidden alleyways, situated amongst cliffs and protected by an ancient rock wall.
- Madrid may be a massive city but there is a lot of amazing things that can be seen within 2km from the city center. In particular the Royal Palace, San Miguel Market, Plaza Mayor and the small streets surrounding the city center.
Los Cahorros Monachil, Granada
- Crossing under waterfalls, walking over swing bridges with the odd wooden plank missing, crawling under overhanging rocks and hanging onto the side of cliff faces while balancing on a thin concrete pathway, a lot of fun! After walking through the cayon the path turned up over the mountains with stunning views of the canyon and surrounding hills.
- This town is famous for its impressive 120m tall bridge, but has so much more to offer than just this. Stunning views, impressive cliff faces, beautiful buildings down hidden alleyways and a lively atmosphere are just some of the things that give it a unique character.
Seville and The Alcázar
- A stunning city to be in with beautiful architecture from a unique history. An area well known for flamenco dancing and the Alcázar of Seville, a stunning palace in the heart of the city.
Mosteiro de San Juan de la Peña, Park and Surrounding Roads
- The roads to and from this area are beautiful, first through dense bush followed by stunning views over the surrounding mountains. The park here is also a great spot to relax in the sun with nothing but the sound of the birds in the surrounding trees.
Torcal de Antequera
- A beautiful area of unique rock formations and small hikes around them.
Andalusia, Roads and Landscape
- Driving through this area is stunning. Rocky mountains, olive groves, forests, beautiful beaches and abundant wildlife.
The Travellers Tips
- The main highways can be very expensive. If you aren’t in a hurry take the smaller roads, they are free and far more beautiful. You can set the GPS in Google maps to avoid toll roads in settings.
- Camp grounds here are very basic. You will not find a kitchen, and sometimes need to provide hand soap and toilet paper. There should be hot showers, but very rarely hooks to hang your things while you are in there. Don’t go in expecting too much. Free camping in a tent is potentially possible if you are well hidden from the road, not on private property and are respectful of the area BUT if you get caught you could be charged 40e per square meter. A big reason is due to frequent bush fires, so take care, and don’t light your own fires.
Tourist Attraction Bookings
- If there are things you really want to see you may need to book well in advance. The Caminito del Rey was booked out for a month and a half when we looked at the end of March, and other similar places hikes can be the same. It’s a risk with the weather but if it’s a must do for you be onto it and book. Other attractions such as the Alhumbra Palace were booked out for a couple of days in advance. But if you’re an easy traveller with a decent chunk of time, staying plan free is a great way to be.
Day 1: Pamplona
Our first experience of Spain was spent in the home of the San Fermin Festival, at the heart of which is the Encierro or Running of the Bulls. The streets were familiar from videos I had seen of the run. Beautiful old buildings full of colour lining narrow streets with cobblestone floors. There reminders everywhere of the festival; pretend bulls in many shops and even in the main center there is a clock counting down the seconds to the start of the festival.
We were showed around by a couple of Elric’s friends who then showed us the best spots for Tapas. In Spain most nights out are a bit like pub crawls. You don’t stay in one place for long and instead have tapas and a drink in one place and move on to the next. It’s pretty cool really, you try lots of different things and see lots of different places. I think I like this Spanish way of doing things!
Day 2: Pamplona → Jaca
Our initial plan was to check out the north of Spain first and then loop around to the south, but with the weather looking average in the north and stunning in the south we reversed our route. The beauty of no plan!
After a delicious 3 course local lunch we hit the road south, our plan to take the back roads to Barcelona.
First we headed to a small town called Agüero. The road there was stunning, beautiful mountain ranges and close to Agüero we stumbled across Mallos de Riglos, a massive rock formation shooting 300m out of the ground. I didn’t know existed but it seems it a great climbing spot!
Continuing on to Agüero, a cute little village located amongst some more unique rock formations. It is a very quiet place, and feels hidden from the rest of the world.
Our next planned stop was a tent site. Elric had found a free spot we could stay so we got back on the road and aimed for that. Finding a beautiful waterfall on the way hidden just off the road.
The route took us up a small road into the hills, then out of nowhere appeared a huge monastery and a large park with picnic tables and walks through the trees. Its name, Monasterio Viejo de San Juan de la Peña, a bit of a hidden gem. There was no one around, just the sound of birds in the trees. Stunningly tranquil.
We decided to stick to the rules and not camp next to a ‘no camping’ sign and instead made our way over the hills to Jaca to tent for the night. This road was stunning, and we were travelling just as the sun began to set over the valleys.
Day 3: Jaca → Barcelona
Barcelona! I’ve heard so much about it and can’t wait to finally experience it. We left Jaca relatively early, but after a pretty icy night we needed a bit of a sleep in. The main road to Barcelona in pretty bland so we took some off roads travelling through what looks like the wild west (and apparently a cheaper location to film some movies of this genre).
We then took the road through Sierra del Montsec. Stunning. The Montsec Range and turquoise lake below are truely amazing.
Coming into Barcelona you immediately get a sense of the enormity of it. We were staying at a hostel on the other end of town and even travelling on the motorways with no traffic it took a while to get there. After checking in we caught the subway into town for some tapas and a wander. After getting off the subway we turned around and saw a massive cathedral, the Sagrada Família. It is an enormous building and the detail in the design is stunning. Pretty impressive start.
Day 4: Barcelona
Early start and out to Park Güell. The park was designed by Antoni Gaudí as a technologically advanced community (for 1900) with symbolic and artistic elements in the creation.
Unfortunately entry tickets had sold out when we arrived, but to be honest we are a bit lucky we missed out seeing as though a huge chunk of the park was under construction, not to mention bursting with people. You can also wander around a large portion of the park for free, we just missed some of the tiled artworks.
We took a long walk back to the subway and stumbled upon a wine bar that was just opening up, Bodega Iturre. The owner was lovely, and the tapas were amazing! As usual Elric did the translations, turns out he is pretty good in Spanish!
We took the subway to La Ramba (the main street) to wander around town. It was alive! It was a beautiful sunny day and Easter holidays so everybody was out and about. We took a walk through the Gothic center where there was beautiful dark architecture and an huge chapel, photos do not do it justice.
We then attempted a tapas crawl home. With Easter not everything was open, but we still managed to find a few. Bodega Iturre still wins best tapas though, and best wine, and least expensive, basically all round great place.
Day 5: Barcelona → Albarracìn → Cuenca
We traveled along the coast out of Barcelona, first stopping for lunch in Torredembarra. The beach here was stunning; long and wide with golden sand and perfect waves for surfing. We ate at KU Bar which was a great spot directly on the beach. Spanish people eat a lot later than we are used to; lunch starts at 2, dinner starts at 9, so we got in before the rush (which was a necessity given the holidays and the stunning day).
After a walk along the beach we hit the road for Cuenca. Huge regrets for taking the main highway along the coast, the tolls are huge, 26 euros for about an hours travel along the coast… so we quickly cut into the smaller roads going to central Spain.
We took what looked like a pretty road on the map. We knew it went through a couple of national parks, but didn’t really have any idea what they would be like. Pretty soon we came to the most amazing village, Albarracìn. There were houses on the precipice of rock faces, blending into the surrudings. Mazes of small streets and hidden alleyways, rock paths and stairs etched into stone. The whole village was situated amongst cliffs and surrounded by a large castle wall. Incredible.
We then passed through Sierra del Albarracìn and Sierra del Cuenca. First the drive consisted of large cliff faces with overhangs over the road, then became forrest, then snow, then an expanse of dry land. It was a picturesque road, not to be missed for any roadtrip.
Day 6: Cuenca → Madrid
On the last day of skiing Elric injured his ankle, this has meant we have skipped the hikes so far. However today it seems right enough to give a small hike a go! We headed over to Los Callejones de Las Majadas for a bit of a walk.
Definitely more of a walk than a hike, but a good start for a recovering injury. It was around an hour of wandering through some interesting rock formations created by water and wind erroding the limestone. This was also a filming location for James Bond, The World is not Enough in 1999.
We then drove into Cuenca, home of the hanging houses. These are homes built literally on the tip of cliff faces, some overhanging the cliff. We walked to them over a tall bridge, the heights definitely got me a bit. The village is also beautiful with coloured houses and huge cathedrals.
We arrived in Madrid just before dark. A big day of exploring tomorrow then off to the South West, from what I’ve seen this area is stunning…
Day 7: Madrid → Sierra de Andújar
We spent most of today wandering around Madrid. Neither of us are the biggest fans of big cities but this is a pretty amazing one. A lot of things to see within around a 2km walk from the city center, beautiful old buildings lining every street, not too busy that you feel crowded and easy to loose yourself in the quieter small streets near the main attractions. Some of the favourite spots were the Royal Palace, San Miguel Market, Plaza Mayor and the small streets surrounding the city center.
Around mid afternoon we headed off south. I had seen photos of the Alumbra Palace and thought it would be quite cool to see so I put Alumbra into the GPS and we headed off. As we got closer I found it odd that there were no signs, as it’s a pretty big attraction… 4km out there was a small sign ‘Alhambra’ so we followed it into a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. As it turns out Alhumbra is a town, without a palace, the palace is much further south in Grenada… at least we did find quite a cool castle by a turquoise lake on the way! And parts of the road were pretty with trees in blossom and olive groves further than the eye can see.
As it was getting late so we found a place off the road, in the trees and with a nice view of sunset to camp for the night.
Day 8: Sierra de Andújar → Granada
We packed up the tent before sunrise and hit the road into the national park. Pretty soon we were introduced to the vast wildlife in the park as a herd of deer crossed our path and started playing in the field next to us. As we continued we saw a group of wild pigs, many different species of deer and a fluffy tailed fox running across the road. This national park is also home to the endangered lynx as well as wolves and many other types of wildlife.
We continued on to Grenada, the actual home of the Alhumbra Palace… With tourists crowding around the entrance we took a walk around the back of the palace and up a small unmarked dirt path to see if we could get a view from the top. This path was empty of people, and took us first to a view over the city and then the Palace. It looks like a very amazing place that would be quite cool to wander around, but that would require planning several days in advance and racing other travellers for tickets.
After this small walk we wanted a bit more of a hike so we drove a little out of town to Los Cahorros, a small hike through a valley which looked pretty nice from the pictures. It was far cooler than anticipated… Crossing under waterfalls, crawling under overhanging rocks and hanging onto the side of cliff faces while balancing on a thin concrete pathway, walking over swing bridges with the odd wooden plank missing, all was a hell of a lot of fun!
After walking through the cayon the path turned up over the mountains with stunning views of the hills surrounding the canyon. There were barely any tourists, which is pretty crazy when other hikes in Spain with other unique hikes that need to be booked months in advance…
We continued on to Los Bermejales to stay in a campground close to the lake for he night. Campgrounds in Spain tend to be very basic, but this one was pretty decent, cheap, quiet, with hot showers and I’m pretty sure we were the only ones in the campground which was pretty great.
Day 9: Granada → Ronda → Zahara de la Sierra
The first part of our drive took us over rocky mountains and olive groves, so many olive groves! The hot dry weather here must be great for them.
We had a pit stop in Villanueva de la Conceptión for a bite to eat and a wander. When I think of classic Spanish village this is what I think of with small white houses lining the streets. Just out of this town there is Torcal de Antequera, an area in the hills with amazing pancake rock formations. It’s hard to believe it but 200 million years ago this mountain used to be submerged in water. The limestone rocks formed from shells and skeletons of marine life, and over time the compression of stone caused it to shoot out of the ground in pillars. The variation in mineral composition within the limestone pillar caused differences in the reactions the different layers of limestone with rain water. The end result, pancake rocks. Pretty cool I reckon.
We then headed off to Ronda via El Churro, home of the Caminito del Ray, a hike on paths attached to the side of a cliff. The road we took here was stunning, winding through the hills. Was pretty bumpy though!
The numbers of people that can walk the Caminito del Ray are limited due to safety reasons, and tickets to do the walk sell out months in advance so it’s definitely something you need to plan for well in advance, but if we were planning a trip here it would be a must do! We wandered up to the entrance and saw some of the paths hanging off the cliff, it is really pretty spectacular! It’s crazy to believe that this path was made in 1901 to allow workers to walk between hydropower plants. Obviously it has been vastly refurbished since then, but still very impressive that it was built.
On to Ronda, the town famous for its enormous concrete bridge. The bridge sure is incredible, but the town is so much more than this. It is definitely a tourist hotspot, but the town has a very unique character with so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered. We took one short walk down to a view point, but then went a bit further to find a beautiful river hidden by cliff faces covered in green foliage. Many of the streets away from the bridge are quiet with some magnificent architecture. A truely beautiful town.
Day 10: Zahara de la Sierra → Seville → Playa de Mazagon
After a sleepless night of barking dogs that stay up past 1am and Roosters that get up before 4am, we opened the tent to a beautiful sunrise on the lake. It is off to Seville for the day!
We started the day with a stroll through the gardens to the Plaza de Espange. Seville is filled with beautiful grand buildings and this is one of them! This province has a very unique history from Roman roots, through Moorish ruling from the 8th to 13th centuries and more recent Spanish influence. This mixed history is echoed in the architecture throughout Seville and the wider area of Andalusia.
After seeing an excessively long line for Alcázar we booked tickets online to visit later in the afternoon. It’s a couple of euros more expensive but lucky we did because the line stayed that long all day and didn’t seem to move.
We spent the morning getting lost in the tiny streets of Seville, finding hidden cathedrals, getting shots of the classic tourist spots and watching a flamenco dancer in the street. We then had the most classic paella we could find with some tapas on the side. In Spain tortillas are a kind of potato omlette rather than a kind of wrap, really good, and croquettes are everywhere and insanely good. Also found out that sour cream and garlic makes a really good dip. Basically I love Spanish food.
It was then time for us to head to Alcázar of Seville! The Alcázar is a large palace with several large gardens, grand buildings and hidden staircases. It is a UNESCO Herritage site and it is clear to see why. It was amazing to get lost in the maze of buildings and gardens (there is even literally a specific garden made into a maze). Stunning place to spend a couple of hours.
In the evening we headed south to Playa de Mazagon. It was so nice to walk along the beach, finally feeling the sand under our feet, then watching the sunset over the ocean from out tent site. Perfect farewell to Spain, for now… Next it’s off to explore Portugal, then the north of Spain!