Southern Spain

Roadtrip through 
Southern Spain


Sep 28th - Oct 15th, 2021

This is a blog about my two and half week road trip starting in Madrid, visiting many of the most beautiful small towns in south-western Spain and ending in Sevilla.

I decided to skip Madrid, which I had visited previously, and drive straight from the airport to my first stop - the city of Salamanca, located about 1.5 hours west from Madrid. Alongside Oxford, Cambridge, Padua and Bologna, Salamanca is one of the ancient university towns in Europe. Founded in 1218 Salamanca University is the oldest university in the Hispanic world. It remains one of the top universities in Spain and attracts students from all over the world.

Also known as the Golden City, Salamanca's seems to be built entirely in this yellowish beige stone, which is particularly beautiful in the light of the setting sun.

The old town of Salamanca was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1988. There were fortifications here probably as early as the 4th century BC. The fort was captured by Hannibal in 220 BC and remained in the hands of the Carthagensians until their defeat to the Romans. It then became the Roman city of Helmantica, which grew into an important commercial center in Roman Hispania. From the 8th to the 11th century Salamanca was under Moorish control.

The New Cathedral of Salamanca is an imposing building that towers over the city and can be seen from far away. Built between the 16th and 18th century, its style crosses over from late Gothic into Baroque. Unusually the builders of the cathedral did not decide to tear down the smaller and much older Romanesque/Early Gothic Old Cathedral (12th to 14th century), but simply built the new one attached right next to the old one and connected the two cathedrals with a door.

Equally stunning in daylight and at night La Plaza Mayor is the heart of city. Built in 1710 on the order of King Philip V, it is one of the finest examples of secular Baroque art in Spain and one of the most beautiful city squares in all of Europe.

After two nights in Salamanca my next stop was Segovia, which is located about an hour's drive to the north-west of Madrid. It is a small (pop. 51,000) but historically important city.

Segovia is particularly famous for its Roman aqueduct. Built around 50 AD it is one of the best preserved of its kind, and an outstanding example of the incredible sophistication of Roman architecture.

At its center the elegant double-arched construction reaches a height of 28 meters. And most remarkably, the huge granite blocks have held together for almost 2,000 years entirely without mortar. The aqueduct once provided water to the city from the mountains 17 kilometers away.

Segovia's Old Town and the Aqueduct became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. The two other main monuments in the city are the Gothic cathedral and the Alcazar. Constructed between 1525 and 1577, Segovia Cathedral is known as the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain. Located at its highest point, the massive yet elegant building, towers over the city and can be seen from far away.

The Alcazar is a medieval castle located at the edge of the city above a steep cliff drop-off. Built on top of some remaining foundations of a Roman Fort, the castle's construction probably started in the late 11th century soon after Segovia was conquered from the Moors by Christian forces. Over the following centuries the castle became a favorite residence of the monarchs of Castille, and was extended and renovated multiple times. Due to its many steep turrets and romantic setting, the Alcazar (together with Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria) became one of the models for the Disney Castle.

I did not stay in Segovia overnight, but instead turned south to drive to Toledo. On leaving the city, I found a great spot for flying the drone:

Toledo is an amazing city, whose rich architecture reflects its fascinating history. It was probably a small fortified Celtic settlement, before it was conquered by Rome and became an important city in Roman Hispania in the first century AD. Following the fall of Rome, Toledo became the capital of the Visigoths Kingdom of Hispania during the 6th and 7th century. Conquered by Arab and Berber forces in 711, the city remained under Moorish rule for over 300 years. It later was also the seat of the Spanish King's in the 15th and 16th century, before Philip II moved the capital to Madrid in 1561.

The old town is an intricate labyrinth of very narrow and steep cobbled streets. Without google maps it would be impossible to find your way around this city. A great spot to start any tour of Toledo is to climb the twin towers of the Iglesia de los Jesuitas, which is located at the highest point in the city and affords great views over the dense medieval cityscape below.

Toledo cathedral is considered by many to be the masterpiece of the High Gothic architecture in 13th century Spain. Construction started in 1226 and continued for over 250 years.

The cathedral interior is a place you could spend hours. The enormous five-nave layout is a remarkable achievement in particular in the way the builders used light to give the whole space an open and luminous character. Despite being a Gothic cathedral, it has a beautiful Baroque piece at the back of the high altar. I would definitely recommend getting one of the audio guides, which provide you with a lot of information about this fascinating building.

The chapterhouse is a stunning room covered in early 16th century murals and topped by an intricately carved wooden ceiling.

The cathedral's art collection alone would be worth a trip to Toledo. Among the most stunning pieces are the monumental Great Monstrance of Arfe, which is believed to have been made from the first shipment of gold brought over by Columbus from the new world, and one of El Greco's finest paintings, the 1579 'Disrobing of Christ'.

Other must see sites in Toledo are the beautiful 16th century Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes and the small but elegant Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, which is one of only three remaining Synagogues in the country (two are in Toledo and one in Cordoba), after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Due to its long and important history, Toledo was awarded the UNESCO world heritage label in 1986. To get this fantastic view over the city from the other side of the Tagus river, get on the little tourist train that starts in front of the Alcázar and takes you on a tour around the outside of the city.

On my drive from Toledo to Cordoba, I decided to do a detour, in order to visit another UNESCO world heritage site, the Royal Monastery of Santa María of Guadalupe. Established in the 14th century, the monastery is located in the tiny town of Guadalupe, in the autonomous region of Extremadura. It became one of the most important monasteries and pilgrimage destination in the country. Columbus made a pilgrimage here after returning from his first journey to the new world to give thanks for his discovery. 

Unfortunately I somewhat miss-timed my trip, as I only found out there that the inside of the monastery is closed for 3 hours during lunch. I was able to see the church, but couldn't take any pictures, since there was a large wedding going on at the time. 

I didn't have enough time to wait for the monastery to reopen, so I missed out on seeing it from the inside, but it was still worthwhile seeing it from the outside and particularly for this great view from mountain pass above.

Cordoba, together with Sevilla and Malaga, is one of the three main cities in Andalusia. Like so many cities here it started out as a Roman settlement, was captured by the Visigoths in the 6th century and taken over by Muslim forces in the 8th century. It was under Moorish rule that Cordoba reached its pinnacle in the 10th century. The city became a leading center of scholarship and education, and was probably the second largest city in Europe at that time.

Due to its location in the fairly low lying and wide valley of the Guadalquivir river, Cordoba is also known as the hottest city in Spain, with summer temperatures frequently reaching 40 degrees. The Guadalquivir river, which also flows through Sevilla and drains into the Gulf of Cadiz, is crossed here by the Roman bridge, which was originally constructed in the first century AD, but has been re-constructed several times since then.

The city is also home to one of the greatest monuments in all of Europe - the incredible Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Started in AD 785 under Abd ar-Rahman and expanded several times under his successors, it became the largest mosque in the Western Arab Empire with a capacity for up to 40,000 worshippers.

After the Christian reconquest of Cordoba in 1236 the mosque was converted into a catholic church and later elevated to a cathedral. In the 16th century the Renaissance nave and high altar were built right in the center of the mosque, but leaving the surrounding space and arches intact.

The melting of the two styles and religions in this huge space is unique. It really felt like an incredible privilege to visit one of the most astonishing buildings I have ever seen. The Mosque-Cathedral together with the historic city center was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1984.

The Cathedral is surrounded by the white buildings and narrow streets of the old town. The typically Andalusian style of bright white buildings, makes this city look very different from Toledo or Salamanca.

Typical for Muslim architecture, the houses look quite plain from the outside, but often have beautiful inner court yards.

I left Cordoba the following morning for another two hour drive south to the spectacular city of Ronda, where I met up with my friends and my godson from the US.

Lara had rented a wonderful house surrounded by large gardens and horse stables in the country side just north of Ronda.

Ronda is a small town in Andalusia about 100 km west of Malaga. It is famous for its dramatic setting on top of a vertical cliff and the huge ravine that dissects the town through the middle. The ravine is spanned by the spectacular 120 meter high Puente Nueve which was completed in 1793.

A previous bridge here collapsed in 1741 and tragically killed 50 people, who were on the bridge at the time.

There are many beautiful small Andalusian villages worth visiting around this region. One of the most interesting ones is Setenil de las Bodegas, parts of which are literally built into the steep rock cliffs.

I also had a chance to do a short drone video of Ronda:

After a wonderful week in Ronda, I dropped Lara, Max, Gary and Pearl off at the Malaga airport for their flight back to New York, and I continued my trip in Malaga. I was joined here by my lovely friend Gitta, who came over from Zurich for a couple of days.

Malaga, located on the beautiful Costa del Sol, is Spain's sixth largest city. Having been continuously inhabited for at least 2800 years, it is also one of the oldest cities in Western Europe. We started our day with a walk up the hill to explore the impressive Alcazaba, which is the fortress and palace overlooking the harbor and the city. First built in the 11th century, it significantly extended in the 13th and 14th century, when the city was under Moorish rule.

Walking to the top of the hill is very worthwhile for the views of the city, the harbour and bull fighting arena.

Malaga Cathedral is another one of the huge cathedrals I have been visiting here in Spain, but unlike most of the others it is not a Gothic building. It was constructed between 1528 and 1782 with a Rennaissance interior and a Baroque facade.

On our second day we decided to do a day trip outside of the city and go hiking. The mountain range north of Malaga is a hiker's paradise, which includes one of Spain's most famous trails, the Caminito del Rey, which is a narrow walkway attached to vertical cliffs through a narrow gorge. We saw parts of the trail clinging perilously to the wall, but decided to do a more relaxing hike nearby. 

We went on a somewhat less adventurous but still spectacular hike up the so called Escalera Arabe, which follows an ancient set of steps, that were likely built before 15000. 

The hike started in the town of El Chorro and took about 4 hours, with gorgeous views along the way.  

We returned to Malaga in the afternoon and finished the day with a wonderful 7 course dinner at a very fancy restaurant in the center of the city. We had a wonderful time in Malaga. It is a really lively city with lots of outdoor bars and restaurant, which were all packed until late into the night. After dropping off Gitta at the airport, I continued my drive further south along the Costa del Sol to a visit a small rocky peninsula that doesn't belong to Spain.

Entering Gibraltar from Spain, feels like you are transported instantaneously into a small English country town. The shops, pubs, restaurants, houses everything looks and feels like England. (Even the weather turned grey and rainy when I got there.) There was a bit of traffic at the border, but immigration controls were quick and easy. I was waved through with my German passport, without having to get out of my car. Gibraltar is so small that planes and cars have to share the road. The only road into Gibraltar crosses the runway of the Gibraltar airport.

The Rock of Gibraltar is an impressive and very steep cliff overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. I decided to climb up the rock from steep side up the so-called Mediterranean Steps. It took about an hour to reach the top, and this is definitely an experience not to be missed, although not recommended if you have a fear of heights. (There is also a cable car you can take to the top from the town.)

The top of the rock is amazing. The narrow ridge drops off almost vertically towards the turquoise Mediterranean on the eastern side.

The views are great in all directions. And on clear days you can see the African coast which is only 13 kilometers away. It was a bit too cloudy and hazy on the day to see it.

The top of the rock of Gibraltar is also home to the only group of wild monkeys in all of Europe. They are happy to pose for pictures and selfies, unless you have food in your hand or your backpack. Then they can get quite aggressive.

I walked back down the other side towards the town stopping the Moorish castle, whose origins go back to the 8th century, and the impressive World War II tunnels under the Rock. Due to its location at the entrance to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar played a hugely important strategic role during World War II. Part of the British effort to keep control of Gibraltar made them dig an enormous 52 km long network of tunnels within the Rock. The tunnels severed as munition and supply storage as well as a field hospital and protected the British troops from German air raids.

I enjoyed a very British dinner of Fish and Chips in a pub that night, and continued back into Spain the next morning to made my way further west to the Atlantic coast.

Cadiz, which started out as a Phoenician trading port more than 3,000 years ago, is regarded as the oldest city in Western Europe. Situated on a narrow peninsula in the Bay of Cadiz, the typically Andalusian city with its bright white houses is surrounded by beautiful beaches and protected by formidable forts.

The best place to get a view over the city is to climb one of the bell towers of the 18th Cadiz Cathedral. You get a fantastic view in all directions of the perfectly white city and the ocean surrounding the peninsula.

During the age of exploration in the 15th and 16th century, Cadiz Harbor was the site of many important launches of expeditions around the world, including Columbus's second and forth voyage. 

Cadiz was heavily fought over during many wars, in particular during the Anglo-Spanish war in the 17th century and the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century. The city is protected by several heavily armed forts, like the Castillo de Santa Catalina, which is located on a small island and connected to the mainland via a causeway. 

Cadiz seems to be a very popular destination for cruise ships. There were huge guided tour groups in the cathedral and the main square, but they did not seem to go anywhere else. The rest of the city was very quiet. What I found surprising for such an ancient city was the fact that, most of the streets are laid out in a almost perfect grid, which provides great views along the narrow streets.

Sevilla is the capital of Andalusia and Spain's fourth largest city. Located about 80 kilometers from the ocean on the Guadalquivir river, it is Spain's only inland port. Due to its role as the Spanish Empire's gateway to the Americas, Sevilla reached its zenith in the 16th century, when it was one largest and wealthiest cities in Europe.  

Built in the 15th century to show off the city's wealth, Sevilla Cathedral is the largest Gothic church in the world and third largest overall. The interior space is gigantic and almost overwhelming in its splendor.

The beautiful 105m tall Giralda tower was originally built as a minaret for the Great Mosque of Sevilla, and re-purposed as the cathedral's bell tower after the Reconquista.

It is possible to climb to the top of the bell tower for great views over the city and the Alcazar next to it

Located next to the cathedral, the Alcázar of Sevilla is the royal palace, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage award. Started in the mid 14th century and built over the next 500 years in the Mudéjar style, which combines Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance elements, the palace is an extensive complex of buildings covered in intricate plaster work with serene inner courtyards and surrounded by elegant gardens.

Some of the very intricate plasterwork remined me of the interior of the Alhambra in Grenada. 

The Alcázar is surrounded by beautiful and immaculately manicured gardens.

Another must see site in Sevilla is the the Plaza de España, which was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.

I returned my rental car at the Sevilla airport the next morning and took a direct flight back to Munich after a really amazing trip that gave me a new appreciation for the incredible sites and history of Spain.

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