Discover Europe in the fall when the crowds are gone and the weather's just right!
A day trip to Africa? Sounded like a good idea. After all, it was just an hour's ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco's exotic port city, from the south of Spain, where Peter and I were spending a week in a small town called Puerto de la Duquesa.
Our original plan was to take it easy in Southern Spain and enjoy the beaches and mild autumn weather. But we couldn't help thinking we should take advantage of this chance to set foot in Africa if only for a day. We booked an excursion with Julia Travel that included transportation, lunch, and a guide, and early one morning found ourselves waiting in front of a McDonald's for the bus to pick us up.
Sixteen hours later we were back in Spain. We did step foot in Morocco, toured the warren-like souk, or open-air market, in Tangier, dined on a tasty Moroccan lunch, and even rode a camel. But the trip was too quick, and passport control lines were long and tedious both coming and going. Plus we were harassed by Moroccan hawkers, who popped up everywhere, trying to sell us trinkets and carpets and jewelry. The brief trip was not worth all the hassle.
We learned a lesson. Traveling well shouldn't be about checking destinations off your bucket list. Traveling should be immersive with lots of time to wander. So once we were back in Spain, Peter and I decided to slow down and enjoy our time along Spain's Costa del Sol at our own pace.
Rooftop Views from our Penthouse Condo
Dine in Estapona on Fried Boquerones and Olives
I discovered our cute condo in Puerto de la Duquesa, Spain, while searching for accommodations online. The 2-BR penthouse featured Spanish-style architecture, a rooftop terrace, covered balcony, and views of the Med. It was perfect—and affordable. The sparkling pool was still open in early October, but the water had already cooled down to barely splash-worthy. Peter and I dutifully jumped in, however, then quickly jumped out and lay on comfy lounge chairs as the warm Spanish sun erased the chill.
We shopped in local grocery stores and cooked fabulous meals using fresh veggies, local meat, and olive oil, which we enjoyed al fresco as we watched ever-changing sea views from our balcony. Some evenings we strolled around the neighborhood, and I would think, "I could live here. Good climate. Beautiful views. Affordable cost of living."
I'm not the only person to think Southern Spain is a great spot to settle. Much of Northern Europe has invaded Spain, and in some areas it seems there are more non-Spanish people than local residents. Travelers tend to shy away from the Costa del Sol because it doesn't feel as authentic as other parts of Spain. But we visited in the shoulder season when most of the tourists had gone home. Our goals were to discover the hidden secrets of the region and enjoy this slice of paradise—just the two of us.
The largest town near us, Estepona, welcomed us with its long, wide sandy beaches. Palm trees offered shade, so Peter and I were happy to sit and read and relax by the shore for a while. Soon we found our way to a seaside café right on the beach with chairs and tables in the sand. We ordered drinks and a plate of fried boquerones, delectable sardines fresh from the sea. For bigger appetites, you can try a plate of mixed fried fish—fresh off the boat.
Ronda's Dramatic Setting Offers Amazing Views
Step Back in Time at the Arab Baths
Lying on the beach or by a pool can be nice, but before long curiosity invariably sets in. Peter and I can't help it—we're explorers and Spain's rich culture and heritage beckoned—so much for R & R. Our first outing was to a touristy spot in the Andalusian mountains called Ronda about an hour away. Known for its dramatic setting above a deep gorge called El Tajo, Ronda has two towns: a circa 15th-century "new" town and an old town dating back to the Moorish occupation (around 1000 AD). Joining the two halves of the city is an engineering marvel, Puento Nuevo—or "new" bridge—dating to the 18th century and rising 390 feet from the canyon floor.
Peter and I hiked down a trail one sunny afternoon to view the bridge from across the gorge and take a few photos of the spectacular sight. It was a rough hike: steep steps, switchbacks, and finally dirt paths next to steep drop-offs, but the effort was worth it. Stunning views of Ronda and Instagram-worthy photos awaited. Climbing back up was even more difficult, but we rewarded ourselves with cold drinks at a shady café in the old town, where we enjoyed a soft breeze, people watching, and the feeling of accomplishment a good hike always brings.
You can also find incredible views from the main square in the new town. Ronda sits on a fertile mesa about 2500 feet above sea level. From the square you can see farms, fields, and even vineyards. It's like the rooftop of Spain, and the locals say summers are searingly hot and winters are bitter cold. Spain's milder coast is more to my liking.
One architectural marvel is the Real Maestranza, a magnificent bullring built in the new town in 1785. It features Neoclassical architectural style with 136 pillars supporting 68 arches, and it's the only bullring in Spain where all the seats are covered. Rarely used for bullfights, the ring attracts tourists who come to admire the beautiful architecture as well as to visit the bullfighting museum featuring weapons and costumes. Ernest Hemingway visited Ronda a few times and likely attended bullfights at this ring.
Another interesting site is the Arab Baths, which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. For a small fee, you can tour the baths, which were built underground to better control the temperature. Interestingly, these were not typical baths, where you soak yourself in hot water. These used steam to rid the body of toxins, just like a sauna. It was a little claustrophobic in the baths, so I preferred exploring the surrounding gardens under the open sky.
Ride Horses with Paddock Paradise Ronda
Enjoy a Decadent Lunch at Restaurant Azahar
Peter and I liked Ronda so much we returned for a second visit. This time we chose to ride horses to view the gorge and the Puento Nuevo. After a long, winding drive in the countryside, we met Fernando at Paddock Paradise Ronda. An affable young man, Fernando said he loved being outside with the horses, so taking tourists horseback riding was his way of pursuing his passion while making a living. After mounting up, we began our easy saunter toward the gorge.
The terrain we would ride through was described in the brochure as Mediterranean forest, but we were mostly riding under the hot sun with very little shade. The horses were well-behaved and the scenery was gorgeous, so pretty soon I forgot about the heat and just enjoyed the ride. Soon we could see Ronda rising up like a city in the clouds. We took photos, quenched our thirst with cool water, and drank in the fabulous views. There's something about seeing sights on horseback that makes the experience that much more memorable.
After changing clothes and saying farewell to Fernando, we headed toward Restaurant Azahar in an exclusive hotel in Ronda for a decadent lunch. The beautiful dining room overlooked the gorge and you could see for miles. A patio offered the same incredible view, but we opted to dine in the swanky interior.
Our lunch began with an amusé bouche of soft cheese with green tomato jam on a spoon. Yum. For my first course, I tried the Andalusian version of gazpacho known as salmorejo, simply made with tomatoes, bread, garlic, and olive oil. Mine was topped with a huge prawn and was incredibly rich and filling. Peter's first course, Iberian pork carpaccio, melted in your mouth.
My main was entrecôte, which I cooked tableside on a hot salt stone, served with fingerling potatoes and asparagus. Peter had delicious wild venison with a potato puree, leeks, and beets. We should have shared an entrée instead of ordering two, we realized too late. I enjoyed a delicious garnache-syrah blend with my beef, which I finished on the patio, where a fresh breeze blew and the late afternoon sun made us sleepy. I love the Spanish tradition of eating your main meal in the mid-afternoon, especially when you can enjoy a siesta afterward.
But we had one more stop to make before heading back to our condo. One of my new hobbies is seeking out natural mineral springs when we travel, and I read about one near Duquesa. We had trouble finding it and stopped to ask a local lady sitting beside the road with a small table of vegetables and fruit for sale. She was so sweet and offered us dried grapes as Peter inquired in his broken Spanish where the springs were. We bought a few tomatoes and potatoes, and she thanked us with a warm smile.
It was a weekend, and the springs were pretty packed with locals. I didn't see another tourist anywhere. The springs came out of the ground into a manmade grotto surrounded by benches on which dripping Spaniards sat. As we walked up, I wondered why more people weren't in the water. As soon as I stuck my toe in, my vision of lolling in a hot spring quickly vanished.
These springs were decidedly cool. But Peter and I braved the temperature and plunged in. The water felt tingly—probably due to high acidity—and good on my skin, but we didn't stay in for long.
Malaga: An Oasis of Beauty on the Coast
Enjoy a Sherry in El Pimpi Bodega
One day we went to Malaga, a large city about an hour east of Duquesa. We had thought about staying a few days in Malaga, and this brief visit confirmed that it's definitely worth a longer stay. After a fabulous lunch of fresh fish at an outdoor café, Peter and I went exploring. Overlooking the town is Mount Gibralfaro, atop which sits the Castle of Gibralfaro, built by the Moors, which is connected to Alcabaza, an ancient fortress. Both structures date back to the 11th century. Ruins of an old Roman theatre sit next to the fortress, a reminder that the Romans were among the first to settle in this region.
Malaga has a fabulous pedestrian street with shops, lively bars, and restaurants specializing in Andalusian cuisine. One famous bodega, El Pimpi, opened in 1972 inside an 18th-century Malaga mansion. Beautiful tiles decorate the numerous dining rooms as well as El Pimpi's bars, terraces, and courtyards, each with its own cozy vibe and eclectic artifacts. The city also has lovely beaches and marinas, perfect for late afternoon strolling. Peter and I also explored the city's majestic botanical gardens, an oasis of beauty on the edge of town.
We left Malaga wanting more. That's the problem I have with traveling in Europe. There's so much to see and experience, and even though I try to slow down and get to know each place I visit, there's always something astonishing around the next corner. Spain is a country that casts a magical spell. Every time I go, I never want to leave.
Read more of Peggy's travel adventures at www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel.
Life's short. Plan a trip!