Andalucía, Gibraltar, and Tangier
Exploring Andalucía, we experience the quintessence of Spanish culture. Starting up high, in Spain's whitewashed hill towns, we roll down to the coast to enjoy the windsurfing mecca of Tarifa. Then we catch a bit of Britain on the Rock of Gibraltar, and sail to Africa for a Moroccan finale in Tangier.
If you're into horses, a performance here is a must. Even if you're not, this is art like you've never seen. The school's Horse Symphony show is an equestrian ballet with choreography, purely Spanish music, and costumes from the 19th century. Training sessions on non-performance days offer the public a sneak preview. After the training session, you can take a guided tour of the stables, horses, multimedia and carriage museums, tack room, gardens, and horse health center. Sip sherry in the arena's bar to complete this Jerez experience.
A tour at the Sandeman Winery in Jerez is the aficionado's choice for its knowledgeable guides and their quality explanations of the process. Each stage is explained in detail, with visual examples of flor (the yeast crust) in backlit barrels, graphs of how different blends are made, and a quick walk-through of the bottling plant. The finale is a chance to taste three varieties.
Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park is home to wildflowers, wild ibex (mountain goats), and Europe's largest colony of griffon vultures. The park's plant poster child is the pinsapo, a fir tree left over from the last Ice Age. Drivers will get an eyeful of scenery just passing through the park on their way to sights in Zahara, Grazalema, and the Pileta Cave, all of which fall within the park boundaries. To more fully experience the park — by hiking, caving, canoeing, kayaking, or horseback riding — consider a tour with Zahara Catur (in Zahara) or Horizon (in Grazalema). If you want to hike in the park on your own, you'll need a park map, a car to get to the trailhead, and a permit for most hikes within the reserve area (free; see my guidebook for details). From July through September, you may have to go with a guided group anyway, if you want to hike in the reserve. If you'd rather not hassle with getting a permit, or if you don't have a car to reach the trailheads, try one of several hikes that start from the town of Grazalema (described in pamphlets available at the Grazalema tourist information office).
Ronda's Gorge and New Bridge
The ravine, called El Tajo — 360 feet down and 200 feet wide — divides Ronda into the whitewashed old Moorish town (La Ciudad) and the new town (El Mercadillo) that was built after the Christian reconquest in 1485. The New Bridge mightily spans the gorge. A different bridge was built here in 1735, but fell after six years. This one was built from 1751 to 1793. Look down…carefully.
House of the Moorish King
This cliffside mansion was never the home of any king; it was given its fictitious name by the grandson of President McKinley, who once lived here. Although the house is closed and its once-fine belle époque garden is overgrown, it does offer visitors entry to the "Mine," an exhausting series of 280 slick, dark, and narrow stairs (like climbing down and then up a 20-story building) leading to the floor of the gorge. The Moors cut this zigzag staircase into the wall of the gorge in the 14th century to access water when under siege, then used Spanish slaves to haul water up to the thirsty town (usually open long hours daily).
Hotel San Gabriel has 22 pleasant rooms, a kind staff, public rooms filled with art and poetry books, a cozy wine cellar, and a fine garden terrace. It's a large 1736 labyrinth of a townhouse, once the family's home, that's been converted to a characteristic hotel, marinated in history. If you're a cinephile, kick back in the charming TV room — with seats from Ronda's old theater and a collection of DVD classics — then head to the breakfast room to check out photos of big movie stars (and, ahem, bespectacled travel writers) who have stayed here.
The accessible little brother of the acclaimed gourmet Restaurante Tragabuches, Tragatapas serves super-creative and always tasty tapas in a stainless-steel minimalist bar. There's just a handful of tall tiny tables and stools inside, with patio seating on the pedestrian street, and an enticing blackboard of the day's specials. If you want to sample Andalusian gourmet (such as asparagus on a stick sprinkled with manchego cheese grated coconut-style) without going broke, this is the place to do it (Calle Nueva 4, tel. +952-877-209).
Ronda's bullring and museum are Spain's most interesting to tour (even better than Sevilla's). You'll see the ring, stables, chapel, and museum, all described by an excellent audioguide. The bullfighters' chapel is where every matador would stop to pray for safety. The museum has exhibits on bullfighting, horse gear, and weapons, with plenty of stuffed bull heads, photos, artwork posters, and costumes. Take advantage of the opportunity to walk in the actual two-tiered arena, with plenty of time to play toro, surrounded by 5,000 empty seats. Bullfights are scheduled only for the first weekend of September during the feria (fair) and occur rarely in the spring. For September bullfights, tickets go on sale the preceding July. (As these sell out immediately, Sevilla and Madrid are more practical places for a tourist to see a bullfight.)
Fast Boat from Tarifa to Tangier, Morocco
While the trip to Tangier can be made from various ports, only the ferry from Tarifa takes you to Tangier's city-center port, called the Tangier Medina Port (Spaniards call it the Puerto Viejo, “Old Port”). Two ferry companies make the 35-minute crossing from Tarifa to Tangier about every hour from 8:00 to 22:00: FRS and InterShipping.
This big, bustling square is a transportation hub, market, popular meeting point, and the fulcrum between the new town and the old town (medina). A few years ago, it was a pedestrian nightmare and a perpetual traffic jam. But now, like much of Tangier, it's on the rise.
Loosely translated as “fortress,” a kasbah is an enclosed, protected residential area near a castle that you'll find in hundreds of Moroccan towns. Originally this was a place where a king or other leader could protect his tribe. Tangier's Kasbah comprises the upper quarter of the old town. A residential area with twisty lanes and some nice guesthouses, this area is a bit more sedate and less claustrophobic than parts of the medina near the market below.
Aziz enjoys teaching about Moroccan society and culture, has been a big help to me with my guidebook-writing and TV production in Tangier (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Le Saveur du Poisson
This restaurant is an excellent bet for the more adventurous, featuring one room cluttered with paintings adjoining a busy kitchen. There are no choices here. Just sit down and let owner Hassan take care of the rest. You get a rough hand-carved spoon and fork. Surrounded by lots of locals and unforgettable food, you'll be treated to a multicourse menu. Savor the delicious fish dishes. The fruit punch — a mix of seasonal fruits brewed overnight in a vat — simmers in the back room. Ask for an explanation, or even a look.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hola. I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re parading through some of the highlights of southern Spain. Thanks for joining us.
Perched here on the Rock of Gibraltar, I can just about see everything we’ll visit in this episode. This is the only place in the world where you can see two seas and two continents at the same time. And when all this natural and cultural excitement churns together, you know you’re in for some great sightseeing.
We’ll enjoy icons of Andalucía — prancing horses, whitewashed hilltowns, kite surfing on sunny beaches. We’ll summit the Rock of Gibraltar with its thieving apes and sample Morocco, from tribal musicians and busy artisans to the magic of its markets.
In the far southwest of Europe is Spain. And in the far south of Spain lies the region of Andalucía. From Jerez we travel the route of the whitewashed hilltowns to Ronda. Then, after visiting Gibraltar and Tarifa we cross the straits to Africa for a Moroccan finale in Tangier.
Andalucía’s heritage is alive in today’s culture, and it expresses itself in iconic themes. The town of Jerez is famous for three of them: dazzling horses, velvety sherry, and a spring fair that brings out the entire community for a week-long party.
Originally a horse fair, when the sherry producers joined in, it got really big. Today, the Jerez Fair is a vast collection of over 200 casetas (or tents) — each owned by a family or local business who host parties until late into the night. For locals, the fair, which takes please early each May, kicks off the summer season.
During the day, the fair grounds are jangling with fancy carriages. It’s all about fine Andalusian horses…and the proud traditions they represent. Women, dressed in their peacock finery, seem ready to break into dance at the click of a castanet.
Just down the street, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art provides a foundation for this culture of horses. Performances pack its arena several times a week.
This is exquisite horsemanship. The stern riders and their obedient steeds perform to the delight of both tourists and horse aficionados.
The riders cue the horses with the slightest of commands, whether verbal or with body movements. The horses are bred and trained to be balanced and focused — both physically and mentally. The equestrian school functions like a university, open to students from around the world.
And all over Jerez, sherry bodegas welcome visitors. Just around the corner from the horse school, the venerable Sandeman Winery has been producing sherry since 1790.
Tours explain how the stacked barrels are part of the production process. In a time-honored tradition, new wine is blended with aged wine, which is then fortified with alcohol.
The vintner shares his product with a passion and finesse that mirrors the richness of the sherry tradition. And the crowd-pleasing finale of every tour is a chance to enjoy the finished sherry.
Nearby, in the mountainous interior, the Route of the Pueblos Blancos laces together a characteristic string of whitewashed hill towns. Whether crouching in a ravine or perched atop a hill, each town — painted white to stay cool in scorching summers — has a personality and a story of its own.
Zahara, set under its imposing castle, was a Moorish stronghold in the 13th century. Like so many sights in Andalucía, to understand Zahara, a little historical background helps.
In the eighth century Muslim Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and ruled here until the 15th century. The long struggle by Christian forces to push the Moors back south and eventually reconquer this part of Europe was called “The Reconquista.” And in the Reconquista, Zahara was a strategic prize.
Today Zahara is a delight to explore. The tour’s quick — a church, a plaza, a few sleepy restaurants, and a grand view.
The dramatic road linking the towns cuts through the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. This park is famed throughout Spain for its lush and rugged mountain scenery.
The queen of the white towns is Arcos de la Frontera. Arcos smothers its hilltop, tumbling down its back like the train of a wedding dress. The old center is a delight to explore. Viewpoint-hop all the way through town. The people of Arcos boast that only they see the backs of the birds as they fly. Feel the wind funnel through the narrow streets as cars inch around tight corners.
Driving is tricky. It’s a one-way system — if you miss your hotel, you’ll circle all the way around again. Under the castle, and facing the church, is the town’s main square, which once doubled as a bullring.
Towns like Arcos, with “de la Frontera” in their names, were established on the “frontier” that was on the front lines during the centuries-long fight to take Spain back from the Muslims. As the Moors were slowly pushed back into north Africa, the towns, while no longer of any strategic importance, kept “on the frontier” in their names.
The main church is a reminder of that reconquest. After Christian forces retook Arcos it was the same old story — the mosque was demolished, and a church was built on its ruins.
Another short drive takes us to the biggest whitewashed town on the route…Ronda, with nearly 40,000 people. While crowded with day-tripping tourists from the nearby Costa del Sol, early and late in the day locals retake their streets and squares.
Ronda is famous for its gorge-straddling setting. Its breathtaking perch, while visually dramatic today, was practical and vital when it was built. For the Moors, it provided a tough bastion, one of the last to be conquered by the Spaniards in 1485.
The ravine divides Ronda into its old Moorish town and the relatively modern new town, which was built after the Christian reconquest. The two towns were connected by this bridge in the late 1700s.
Part of the joy of Ronda lies in exploring the twisted lanes of its Moorish quarter. As you wander among its beautiful balconies and exuberant flowerpots, each corner reveals a yet another surprise.
This cliffside mansion [House of the Moorish King] comes with a belle époque garden. And from the garden an evocative staircase leads to the floor of the gorge. It was dug seven centuries ago by the Moors to access water. Imagine Christian slaves hauling water in leather bags up these stairs…all day long. The landing where the staircase finally hits the river marks a legendary turning point in Ronda’s history.
In 1485 Reconquista forces took control of this — the city’s water source — and within 10 days, thirsty Ronda above surrendered.
At the base of town is the old bridge, some surviving bits of the old Moorish city walls, and the remains of what was for centuries the main gate to the walled city.
Back when Ronda was a fortified town under Muslim rule, you entered from here. And according to Moorish custom, before entering you’d wash and pray. That’s why there was a public bath and mosque just outside the gate.
I stay right in the old-town action. Hotel San Gabriel has great character: It’s well run, with inviting public rooms, and bedrooms that make you feel quite noble.
And, just over the bridge, the newer town, while more stately, has equally inviting streets and plazas. Strolling the streets, you feel a strong sense of community, where everyone seems to know everyone.
While I generally go for the rustic old bars, tonight a local friend’s taking me to a modern one. Tragatapas puts a contemporary spin on traditional tapas. We’re just eating our way through the entire list of daily specials. Sure, you’ll find your olives and ham but you’ll also enjoy asparagus snowed in with manchego cheese, delicate cod-cheek sandwiches, and spicy pulled pork. One basic rule is the same everywhere: If you want a chance to mingle with locals, grab a stool at the bar.
Ronda is near and dear to Spaniards as the birthplace of modern bullfighting. It has the first great Spanish bullring — built in 1785. Visitors can imagine confronting the bull as it thunders into the ring. The arena’s columns corral the action, creating a kind of Neoclassical theater.
Bullfighting originated as a kind of military training — refined knights fighting the noble beast on horseback. It evolved to the spectacle that survives to this day. While controversial to many for its brutality, aficionados insist bullfighting is not a sport…it’s an art form.
And the museum of bullfighting celebrates this tradition. Matadors, in their suits of light, were heartthrobs. Etchings by the great Spanish painter Goya show that he was clearly an enthusiast.
The museum feels like a shrine Pedro Romero. In the 18th century, Romero established the rules of modern bullfighting.
After Ronda, we wind out of the Andalusian Mountains, and leave Spain for a visit to England’s famed Rock of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar stands like a fortress, the gateway to the Mediterranean. A stubborn little piece of old England, it’s one of the last bits of a British empire that at one time controlled a quarter of the planet. The rock itself seems to represent stability and power.
And, as if to remind visitors that they left Spain and entered the United Kingdom, international flights land on this airstrip, which runs along the border. Car traffic has to stop for each plane. Still, entering Gibraltar is far easier today than back when Franco blockaded this border. From the late 1960s until the ’80s the only way in was by sea or air. Now you just have to wait for the plane to taxi by and Bob’s your uncle.
The sea once reached these ramparts. Modern development grows into the harbor and today half the city is built upon reclaimed land. Gibraltar’s old town is long and skinny, with one main street. Gibraltarians are a proud bunch. Remaining steadfastly loyal to Britain, its 30,000 residents vote overwhelmingly to continue as a self-governing British dependency. Within a generation the economy has gone from one dominated by the military to one based on tourism.
But it’s much more than sunburnt Brits on holiday. Gibraltar is a crossroads community — with a jumble of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Italians joining the English and all crowded together at the base of this mighty rock.
With its strategic setting, Gibraltar has an illustrious military history and remnants of its martial past are everywhere. The rock is honeycombed with tunnels. Many were blasted out by the Brits in Napoleonic times. During World War II, Britain drilled 30 more miles of tunnels.
The Hundred Ton Gun is one of many cannon that both protected Gibraltar and controlled shipping in the strait.
A cable car whisks visitors from downtown to the rock’s 1400-foot summit. From the “Top of the Rock” Spain’s Costa del Sol arcs eastward. And 15 miles across the hazy Strait of Gibraltar, the shores of Morocco beckon.
These cliffs and those over in Africa created what ancient societies in the Mediterranean world called the Pillars of Hercules. For centuries, they were the foreboding gateway to the unknown.
Descending the Rock, whether you like or not, you’ll meet the famous Apes of Gibraltar. Two hundred of these mischief makers entertain tourists. And with all the visitors…they’re bold and they get their way.
Rick: Yeah you can have it, you can have it, you can…
Rick: Here on the Rock of Gibraltar the locals are very friendly, but give them your apples.
Legend has it that as long as these apes are here, the British will stay in Gibraltar.
Driving west from Gibraltar, a stiff Atlantic breeze powers a forest of windmills. Nestled snuggly on the southern-most tip of Europe is the town of Tarifa. Passing through its medieval wall we find the humble charms of a whitewashed town with hints of its Arabic past. Cafés and tapas bars complement the laid-back scene.
The same wind that powers its windmills makes Tarifa a wind-sport mecca. Just outside of town a five-mile long stretch of sand hosts young thrill-seekers from across Europe. Kite surfing is all the rage. Ideal conditions? The more wind the better. Around here, instead of you flying a kite…these kites fly you.
And the scene includes spectators. Here, far from the city squares and the ubiquitous cafés, these Europeans have found yet another way to embrace life.
For me, Tarifa’s top attraction: the fast boat to Morocco. Several boats a day make the inter-continental trip in about an hour. Tickets are easy; all you need is a few euros and your passport.
The Strait is Gibraltar is where seas, continents, and cultures collide. Fishing, shipping, and movement of peoples, this narrow stretch of water has seen it all. And it’s here that Islam and Christendom come together like cultural tectonic plates.
Over the centuries, this narrow passage has witnessed lots of turmoil: eighth-century Muslim Moors sweeping north, then in 1492 those same Moors retreating south making this very same voyage. Today, wealthy Europe has invited back the people of North Africa to harvest its crops and do its low-end work. And today, as anywhere, with all this back and forth there are both challenges and opportunities.
Independent travelers walk right off the boat and into Tangier. The busy port seems to pump life into the city. It’s an intense scene.
Tangier had long been considered a charmless and dangerous place. But today that’s changed, and this city is becoming a proud showcase of the new Morocco.
Like so many Moroccan cities, Tangier is split in two: its old tangled Arab quarter, and a new French colonial quarter. While new-town buildings feel distinctly European, it’s immediately evident that this is North Africa.
Tangier’s new town faces its fine beach. The broad stretch of sand is treated as a park by locals — ideal for a quiet stroll or some exuberant gymnastics. And what better place for some barefoot soccer?
A grand boulevard parallels the beach. It’s named for Morocco’s popular king, Mohammad VI, the man whose policies have given Tangier its new vitality.
Throughout the mid-20th century, Tangier was considered too strategic to be controlled by any one country. It was therefore jointly governed by the European powers. It attracted playboy millionaires, spies, romantics, and scoundrels. Because of its western orientation, the previous Moroccan king essentially disowned the city, leaving it dispirited and neglected.
But when the king was crowned in 1999, this was the first city he visited. His vision: to make Tangier a leading city once again. And it’s well on its way. In the early evening, Moroccans hit the streets and stroll as people do across the Mediterranean world. Amid all the new, old ways do persist. Café-sitting and people-watching remains a mostly old boys’ pastime.
Once Tangier’s main square, the Grand Socco, stands like a referee between the new and old towns. A few years ago this was a pedestrian nightmare and a perpetual traffic jam. Today this smart square is emblematic of the new Tangier.
Visiting this revitalized city lifts my spirits. I see a society that’s neither pro-West nor anti-West. It’s just people…making the best of life. It’s becoming more modern and affluent on its own terms.
From the Grand Socco, a medieval wall encircles the old town. Passing through the gate, you enter a labyrinthine wonderland.
The old town is delightfully disorienting. When exploring on my own, I just wander knowing that uphill will eventually get me to the castle (or “kasbah”) and downhill will eventually lead me back to the port. I expect to get a little lost…going around in circles is part of the fun.
You can visit Tangier on your own or you can take a tour. Most visitors take a tour, day-tripping in from Spain for a predictable series of experiences: They get their shopping opportunities and a few set-up photo ops. Snake charmers turn on the charm…hustlers hustle for tips…and folkloric musicians strike up the band.
For lunch, tour groups sit together in Ali Baba elegance to enjoy a meal with more local music.
And then they follow their guide, single file, back down to their waiting ferry past one last gauntlet of merchants hungry for a sale.
Once the day-trippers are back on their boats and heading home to Europe, it seems there’s hardly a tourist left in Tangier. That’s why I like to spend the night.
Wandering is fun. But to enjoy it with maximum understanding, you can hire a local guide. I’m joining up with my friend and fellow tour guide Aziz Begdouri.
Aziz: These guys are day workers ready to work: a painter ready to paint, a plumber ready to plumb, electrician ready to wire. So the community works together. If you don’t have a phone in the house you use the phone centers. And we use the community baths which are called “hamams” and here’s the community oven. It’s a bakery.
Rick: It’s like a bakery, OK.
Aziz: This is the oven for the community. So families make bread every day in their home and bring the dough here to be baked. They pay him for a small fee, depends on loaves of bread they bring, so they pay him for a day or for a week or a month. This way they have fresh bread every day.
Rick: And it’s more than just bread. I see there’s some fish…
Aziz: Yeah apart from the bread they bring fish to be roasted, also they bring tajis, who are the stew of lamb or chicken, and bring homemade cookies. And also to roast the peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, all that. How’s it taste [laugh]?
Rick: It’s very good.
The old town is spinning with traditional artisans. And Aziz knows just which passage to duck into to witness cottage industries trapped in time.
Aziz: Here are the weavers. They’re still working the same way as their parents and grandparents. So this is real craft and art that these people had learned from generation to generation. They’re very happy to continue doing it. They have the patience, they have the skill and they do it from their heart.
And mosaics are created the same way: by hand and without the precision of modern machinery.
Rick: So how does he know where to chip?
Aziz: He has a design in his head and he’s working on it. And that way he knows what he’s going to create. And all the designs are geometric designs because the Muslims we don’t do faces and images. And that’s very Islamic art. For the Muslims only Allah is perfect. For us the fact that it is not perfect is part of the beauty.
In the market wander past piles of fruit, veggies, olives, and stacks of fresh bread. You’ll find everything but pork. Today, the Berber women have come in from nearby mountains with wheels of fresh goat cheese wrapped in palm leaves.
The fish market is clean, slippery, and full of life. Because Tangier is a city on two seas — the Mediterranean and the Atlantic — fish is a big part of the local diet.
And it’s no surprise Aziz is taking me to a restaurant [Le Saveur du Poisson] that serves only fish. There’s no menu. Just sit down and let them bring on the food.
The sink in the room is for locals who prefer to eat with their fingers.
It’s fish soup, tangine spinach with shrimp, baby calamari and swordfish, and the catch of the day: John Dory.
We’ve sampled an amazing variety of cultural treats from horses and fairs, to whitewashed hill towns, to kite surfers, to a bit of jolly old England, and a taste of Morocco.
So much variety all within a couple hours’ drive — and a short ferry ride. That’s one thing I love about traveling in this part of the world. I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at the place where Europe and Africa meet. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.
And it expresses itself in iconic themes. [Laugh] Really iconic themes [laugh]…
These cliffs and those cliffs in Africa have created what ancients living in the Mediterranean world considered the gates of Percules, the pillars of Hercules, Percules.