Setting out for the hill towns of Andalusia, it’s probably a good thing we didn’t know what we were getting into because we might not have gotten in the car! Sometimes ignorance can be bliss and in this case, it also let us experience some very special places tucked away in the Sierra Nevada (“snowy range” in Spanish) mountains. Before making the climb, we stopped in Nerja which boasts the “Balcony of Europe” overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
While a bit overrated, the view was nice and the cappuccino strong enough to fortify us for the ascent into the hills and our first stop, Ronda.
If you’ve ever experienced the Amalfi coast, you will get some sense of what this drive was like. The road switch backed slowly up the mountain and was so narrow in some places that two cars could not pass. I got the sense these were old goat trails that just got paved over. Arriving in Ronda you stand at the edge of a massively deep gorge and overlook the valley below. Be warned- don’t go here if you suffer from vertigo!
I can understand why they built up here (for defensive purposes) but I marvel at how they built up here.
With another cappuccino under our belt, we headed to the next hill town, Grazelema. While Professor Henry Higgins may think the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain, he was wrong! This national park is the highest and wettest region of Spain and the landscape reflects the lushness in groves of cork trees.
As we approached Grazelema you could see the town tucked into the base of the hill. Stopping here for lunch, you had to wonder if they had a home owners association that enforced the code of all white houses. What would happen if you wanted to paint your house purple or orange?
Fortified once again, we headed off for Zahara. Now I have to stop here and expand on the driving aspect of this day. There were very few signs that let us know where to go and wi-fi was not an option, so we were Siri-less. A frightening proposition but we had an old fashioned map and some printed out Google directions. In any case, I’m pleased to say we were never truly lost (yet) and were enjoying the exploration.
Now back to Zahara…
Yes, folks, the lake around Zahara is truly turquoise and absolutely gorgeous. It’s a very small town with exceedingly steep and narrow streets with limited parking, so we stopped for pictures and carried on to our final destination, Arcos de la Frontera.
Arcos was the largest of the hill towns we would visit and had a very distincitve division between the new side of the city (on the lower flatlands) and the old (up on top of the mountain). Our hotel was located in the center of the old city so up the hill we went relying on our printed directions. Now the problem that we didn’t foresee was that you had to actually be able to find the street signs and read them quickly enough to know where to turn. Thus, by the second turn, we were lost (okay, not really exploring any more 🙂 ) We also didn’t realize how narrow and crazy the streets would be. . .
After going up through the city (with 90 degree turns and a few narrow misses) and back down the other side, and Siri still out of range . . . we opted to park the car at the bottom of the hill and ask a kind and sympathetic cabbie to take us to our hotel. After settling our bags, we decided a day of driving through the hills deserved a much needed adult beverage overlooking the valley.
Now let me wax poetic here for a moment. Taking the time to just sit and watch the landscape change as the sun set and the clouds shifted, I felt as if they were guiding our focus and encouraging us to look, just look and really see each section of the valley. It was truly a spectacular experience and truly an artist’s paradise.
As I sat there, the view was almost overwhelming in it’s expanse and I realized that sometimes I’m also overwhelmed at all the stories that surround me when I travel. While all the towns we visited were literally carved out of mountains, so too were the lives of all the people that live there. I was fascinated with the woman who ran our small hotel; slightly disheveled, disorganized but well meaning, unable to find the credit card machine but willing to show us the view from the roof top. Her front room area was closed to anyone outside the hotel but housed an odd assortment of hand made clothes, costumes, dolls, trinkets, pottery; none of which were new. Did she inherit them? Did she make them? It seemed liked they were displayed to be sold but you couldn’t get into the shop. What was her backstory? But she really didn’t speak a word of English and my broken Spanish was woefully inadequate to uncover the answers during our brief stay.
And the waiter at our restaurant that night (which was at the corner we had traversed earlier in the day). What was his story? He handled all the tables by himself and knew all of the locals while making the tourists feel like locals too. All this while artfully dodging the oncoming cars that roared around the corner. He was happy and kind and the consummate host.
And what about the poor unhappy woman at the tourist office, who appeared to want to be anywhere but there? And the artist in the hidden alcove gallery. How did he make a living when the only reason we found it was because we were lost? So many stories that I’ll never fully know.
And that’s okay. Because I think the gift of traveling isn’t to know all the answers but to be open to asking the questions. Through those questions comes a bit more understanding, a bit more compassion and a bit more awareness that the world you live in is full of hidden stories waiting to be found.