Andalucia Travel Dairy 2013

andalucia

My recent trip to Andalucia was as evocative as ever. With its stunning landscapes, rich culture and passionate people, this is a region that never fails to impress. For those prepared to delve behind the gloss of the package holiday brochures and immerse themselves in the history and romance of this complex land, there are priceless rewards to be gained.

The first few days were spent in Malaga - a city that is so often overlooked by the hoards of beach-bound visitors to the Costa de Sol region, but one that has so much to offer. I was travelling with my partner and we based ourselves at the excellent Hotel del Pintor - a modern boutique hotel right in the heart of the city. As with many Spanish cities, the best way to discover them is to stroll at leisure in the general direction of your planned point of interest, but allow yourself the flexibility to be side-tracked at any given point. Also, try not to eat or drink in one place, instead, just grab a bite here and there as you wander off down another interesting looking back street.

The choice of food in Malaga can be bewildering as there are places to eat and drink at every turn but the standard is fairly consistent. The location can affect the price dramatically, so if you don’t mind straying off the tourist trail you can eat at very reasonable prices. If you find an out of the way place that looks busy full of locals, then it is probably worth popping in. You can still get a beer for around one euro and a tapas dish for about the same and many places still serve a beer and small tapa (cana y tapa) for a fixed price or even give you a free tapa with each drink you order.

It is inevitable that at some point you will encounter the local speciality of fried fish. You can specify individual portions of your preferred fish or you can order Fritura Malagueña which is a plate of many different fried fish to share. The fish is usually served simply with lemon, alioli and sometimes salad.

One place worth visiting is Cortijo de Pepe on the Plaza de la Merced, a well established tapas bar and restaurant that is popular with the locals and easy to find. If you are looking for tapas just grab a seat at the bar and order from the extensive menu - much of which is on display - or if you prefer there is a restaurant upstairs. It is really great value and has the reputation, atmosphere and location to make it an essential recommendation.

Another popular place with the locals is La Taperia de Sybaris on Calle Alamos. This great little bar is very compact but worth squeezing into for a few drinks and a bite to eat. The bar area is usually covered with fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs which are used throughout the evening to prepare the small tapas dishes that appear with each drink you order. La Taperia de Sybaris is a great bar with excellent service courtesy of the amiable Manuel, who may just wander pass and randomly thrust a bunch of fresh herbs under your nose for approval. Look out for the specials board or just get Manuel to recommend a dish for you.

If you over indulge on fried fish and feel in need of something a touch more healthy you could pop into Lechuga and order one of their impressive salads, or you could try some of their contemporary tapas dishes inspired by flavours from around the world; not traditional but certainly tasty and inventive.

I should also give a mention to La Tranca - a small bar just a few minutes’ walk from the City centre and a fast-becoming a favourite drinking spot amongst locals and travellers. This atmospheric joint is owned by Ezequiel, a charming character from Argentina who acts as chef, barman and chief entertainer. Ezequiel made his way to Malaga via Madrid and Ireland (I will let him tell you the full story) and opened this bar about 10 months ago, undeterred by the bleak economic backdrop. A mixture of hard work, great customer service and dubious vocal abilities has proved to be a success and La Tranca has been well received by locals and tourists alike. Pop in, show your support and enjoy a great evening.

It was not all about food on our visit to Malaga – our busy three day schedule was a blur of museums, cathedrals, parks, shopping and sightseeing; we even managed to catch a football match at La Roselada stadium and enjoyed a few pre-match beers in the nearby bars. The Malaga fans have just won the coveted 12th man award after being recognised as the best supporters in Spain.

My visits to Spain invariably involve some sort of mix-up that leads to a heated exchange with a local resident. The situation is usually compounded by my inability to adhere to the correct rhythm of the argument due to my slow and broken Spanish. On this occasion it was a parking attendant who decided to challenge me over a ticket issue. When I parked three days earlier, I paid for three days parking, but his colleague had written down the wrong date in their book (due to the fact I had arrived just after midnight) and the attendant believed I had been parked for four days. A debate ensued that went on for 45 minutes and involved myself, the hotel (via telephone) and several members of the public who decided to join in and, fortunately, were on my side. Eventually the guy relented, muttered: “OK” and walked away.

The following morning could not have been more of a contrast as we paid a visit to the Valley of Springs - about an hour inland from Malaga - to visit family. Breakfast was served on the patio as young eagles practiced flying in the azure blue skies overhead and Griffon vultures circled ominously near the hill tops. Various lizards scaled the nearby walls and a chorus of frogs and toads provided the sound track - Andalucia is a must for nature lovers.

Several lazy days of eating, drinking and catching up were enjoyed before heading off on our next jaunt to the ancient city of Antequera - otherwise known as "the heart of Andalucia" (el corazón de Andalucía). The city is nestled at the foot of the nearby mountains of El Torcal and boasts a prime central location in the province. As you approach the city by road you encounter a modern industrial area that flanks its eastern side and gives no indication of the diverse archaeological and architectural heritage that lies within. Antequera is a city that boasts a multitude of attractions including megalithic dolmens, an abundance of churches and convents and many other buildings of interest from a variety of styles and ages.

We stayed right in the heart of the city at the Hotel Plaza San Sebastian which was only a short walk from the main points of interest and a wealth of bars and restaurants. The hotel is a real gem with its ornate decor, friendly service and central location. The rooms are basic but very cosy and the hotel has a bar which gets packed full of local workers at about 10 o’clock in the morning; a great place to drink morning coffee, read the paper and watch the world go by.

There are plenty of tapas bars in Antequera and a walk down the main street can become quite time-consuming if you allow yourself to be tempted by the numerous blackboard-scribbled menus. At some point you should probably order Porra Antequera; a Gazpacho-style dish that is found all over the region but, as the name suggests, has its origins in the city.

A highlight for us was an evening spent at Meson Iberico Dehesa Las Hazuelas on Calle de la Encarnación. Situated by the Plaza del Coso Viejo Antequera, this pleasant and welcoming restaurant offers traditional cuisine that is genuinely good value. You have a choice of eating in the busy bar area or retreating to the more traditional comfort of the restaurant for a mesmerizing choice of tapas, raciones and a la carte menu options, complemented by an excellent wine list.

No trip to Antequera would be complete without a drive to the top of El Torcal, the spectacular national park situated just to the south of the city. The landscape is dominated by 150-million-year-old Jurassic limestone that was formed in the Tertiary era when ancient sea beds were elevated to a height of over 1300 meters. Further weathering, geologic disruption and dissolution by water has resulted in the distinctive shapes of the rocks that can be seen today. The park boasts incredible views, underground caves and a huge variety of biology, making it a popular spot with nature lovers. It also has an observatory and hosts regular astronomy courses and star-gazing events.

From Antequera we headed south-west to the Sierra de las Nieves Natural Parque to explore the idyllic villages of El Burgo, Yunquera and Alozaina. The panoramic landscape of the Sierras is dominated by pale limestone and contrasting red-ridged mountains that rise up to sky-kissing peaks of nearly 2000 meters; providing an irresistible lure for intrepid mountain climbers. The challenging roads that snake their way up the mountainsides are a draw for cyclists who endure the gruelling ride up just so they can enjoy the exhilarating thrill of the ride back down again.

As we drove, we watched the early morning clouds tumble over the mountain peaks like slow-motion waterfalls before they succumbed to the blaze of the unforgiving sun. We then headed onwards, towards the tranquil white villages that lay scattered like un-melted pockets of snow amongst the mountains and later, as we strolled lazily through their sun-bleached streets, time seemed to slow down and wait for us. Spain had worked its magic again.

A few more days were spent exploring the area, including a day spent in the town of Coin, before returning to the family roost and enjoying some time in the kitchen, preparing a spread for a gathering of neighbours. Eventually it was time to leave and time to reflect.

Andalucia is a region experiencing difficult times; it has always been one of the poorest regions in Spain and it has been hit hard during the economic downturn with 36% unemployment, compared to 16% in Cantabria or 24% in Catalonia. Despite the gloom, the Spanish people are no strangers to dealing with tough situations and they seem to have a natural instinct to pull together. Family has always been important in Spain and during hard times they provide a vital support network that is often absent elsewhere. They also become very resourceful and many families are going "back to the land" to supplement depleted incomes.

To suggest there is much positivity in Andalucia may sound absurd but it is true. The people here have been through much worse than this and they know how to get by. They also know how to appreciate what they have and to live without the relentless pursuit of material desire. Good food, good drink, family and friends; these are the things that bring value to everyday life and put a smile on your face. It is this simple pleasure of enjoying life today because the world might end tomorrow, that always stays with me when I visit Spain. And always draws me back.

Andalucia travel dairy 2013 was written by Neil Morris, Editor of Delicious Spanish Recipes - you can follow Neil on twitter @spanishrecipes1

Andalucia travel dairy - featured restaurants:

Meson Cortijo de Pepe

La Taperia de Sybaris

Meson Iberico Dehesa las Hazuelas

Restaurante Lechuga Malaga

Andalucia travel dairy - recipes (coming soon!)


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