The sweet scent of marijuana mingled with lavender pleasured my nostrils each time I entered or left the resort. The entrance to Playa Ballena spa resort near Cadiz was grand – and once through the revolving door, the foyer sported the traditional sweeping staircase as well as two ultra-modern glass lifts, with a vast dining area to the left and equally spacious bar and entertainment stage to the right. We never made it to the spa area: too expensive for our budget, but no doubt it was equally impressive.The grounds were imposing: beautifully manicured and designed to please the eye. Our base for the next four nights was delightful. The staff were helpful and friendly, and they even made dogs welcome, unusual in such an up-market setting.
Two days earlier we had set off from La Mata around mid-day and were aiming to spend two nights camping en route down south. We made it as far as Lorca, where we were very pleasantly surprised by the standard of our last-minute booking at the Hotel Felix. Last minute, because we had planned to sleep in the campervan, expecting the weather to get warmer as we ventured further south. Not so; rather, it was quite the opposite: far too cold to consider that option.
So, smartphones at the ready, we did a quick search online, and as if by magic found a dog-friendly hotel right where we wanted to be. We couldn’t believe our luck when we found a parking spot right outside the hotel entrance. After a dinner of paella and chipirones (baby squids), we slept like babies and awoke ready for the next stage of our journey – from Lorca to Granada, via Guadix. Except it didn’t turn out as we planned.
To our horror we discovered on arrival for coffee in Guadix that we’d left a bag containing a laptop computer in the Hotel Felix bar, where my companion had stepped back for a moment to leave a tip for the efficient waiter from the night before. So, we turned around, and drove the 150 kilometres back to Lorca where we about-turned after collecting the bag from the hotel owner, who had very kindly interrupted his luncheon to help us.
We didn’t quite make it back again to Guadix, so cut our losses and overnighted in Baza instead, some 45 kilometres short. It had been a long and stressful day! Our trusty smartphones app came up with a dog-friendly hostal which was unlit and felt very dour and gloomy, but thankfully not cold, and we collapsed into bed, fatigued not from exertion but just from the travelling.
The rest of the journey south was uneventful by comparison. I will remember breakfast in the cafetería in La Roda, where the owner proudly showed off the plaque his mother had been awarded for fifty years of service in the hostelry business in Malaga, and the walk along the riverbank where cockerels crowed in the day as the sunshine warmed the dry maple leaves underfoot, a carpet of red and gold. And the unforgettable sight of distant Olvera, after glimpsing the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
We had a mini-adventure in Los Arcos de le Frontera. We wanted to stop for coffee, but hadn’t reckoned on El Clásico, the highly competitive football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The town was heaving: nowhere to park, no room in any of the bars or cafés. The streets got narrower and narrower, until we feared we’d never get out. A kindly gentleman saw us through the maze, using semaphore-like signals as we negotiated the tiniest of gaps, with barely a centimetre either side of our vehicle’s bodywork. The river here winds around the base of a vertical cliff complete with castle, church and houses perched at alarming angles. My lunch of filo pastry paquetitos filled with goat cheese and spinach was memorable, and made up for the hair-raising slalom course of the narrow streets.
December 24th is the big final day – or rather, evening – of the Spanish Advent. Celebrations in Playa Ballena resort featured a gala dinner buffet where we feasted on unlimited seafood and a variety of roasts and side dishes, topped off with the usual sickly sweet Spanish desserts (I preferred cheese). We were served with white, red, and pink wine, plus a bottle of cava, one of each between two at every table. So, enough to get us all in the mood for merry-making.
This was very much a family occasion, and families had gathered in plenty, children ranging from sleepy babies, excited toddlers, boisterous little folk, bemused adolescents and dutiful teenagers – all well-behaved and respectful of their elders. We never quite understood what was happening on stage: the ‘cabaret’ seemed to consist of a lot of shouting and laughter, but it really didn’t matter as everyone was in excellent humour and full of good will towards men. The dancing was of the ‘line’ variety, something we both quietly resolved to master in time for next year. All too soon we senior sleepy heads had to give in and hit the sack, but it was clear that the party would go on for many an hour.
Around ten thirty next morning – it didn’t feel like Christmas Day without our own loved ones around us – we breakfasted in a manner quite unbecoming for people who’d eaten half a ton of food the night before, and set out to sightsee.
Starting with La Roda, the largest Spanish naval base which includes an American base inside its perimeter, we drove past the hulk of the Pinta (the unforgettable childhood history lesson chant of ‘Nina, Pinta and Santa María’ ringing in our ears) and explored the harbour area, as we couldn’t get within half a mile of the base. We could see destroyers looming on the horizon, an ominous backdrop to a beautiful but very shabby sailing ship moored in the harbour. It was time to move on to El Puerto de Santa María, voted by just about everyone to be the ‘must see’ of the Cadiz area. And indeed, it was pretty, and lively, and we almost reluctantly moved on to Cadiz itself, but not before gorging on the seafood in Romeriscos, a famous local institution consisting of two buildings: one to boil the mariscos, the other across the street, to fry them. I opted for a heart-warming bisque followed by seafood tortilletas.
The skyline as we approached was unforgettable: the sight of the cathedral spires rising above the dome and a minaret-like tower was spectacular. We drove around, eagerly seeking a parking space. However, this was not to be: the world and his missus was out in force and we had to wait until we were almost out of the city to find one available spot on the seafront heading out of the other side of town. Refusing to accept defeat, we braved the biting wind and driving rain to explore the streets in search of a cafetería for a warming cup of hot chocolate. The ‘gaditanos’ are famous for their hospitality and we were not disappointed: everyone we met who was daft enough to brave the awful weather was smiling and chatted with us happily – even those whose home was a park bench. Of course, it was Christmas Day, and the locals were definitely full of good cheer towards man. We were glad to get back to Playa Ballena after a long but interesting day.
On Boxing Day, we ventured as far as Jerez de la Frontera. I’m not a sherry fan but was determined to have a glass in its birthplace. There were familiar brand names on large warehouses everywhere: Tio Pepe, Sandeman and Osborne among them. We lunched on fabulous Indian food back in Puerto de Santa María at the Jaipur restaurant; the tingly spices in my Aloo kebab and Lamb Palak were warming as well as tasty.
Suddenly it was time to plan our journey home. Our original itinerary had to be altered due to the added day on the way down, and anyway we didn’t feel like trying to explore beautiful Granada in the continued downpour, preferring to return another day when we could do it justice. So we pootled northeast, onwards and upwards, for coffee in Prado del Rey – a very pretty, typically Andalucian village of scented, colourful courtyards and whitewashed houses – crossing the spectacular Sierra de Grazalema to Grazalema itself, equally white, and nothing short of breath-taking, sprawled as it is up a mountainside.
We stopped for lunch in Ronda. After a cursory glimpse of the bullring, the houses clinging on to the cliff face, and the dramatic bridge, we staggered inside a warm-looking eatery to find shelter from the elements, as well as sustenance. I tried the local speciality of pork wrapped in cheese and breadcrumbs, and deep fried. Well, I tried it.
From the sublime accommodation in Playa Ballena to the ridiculous, we spent the night in a Loja service station hotel, which turned out to be comfortable and very convenient: our room was right next to the fire escape, so I could take my dogs out for a night-time pee without having to walk through the foyer in my pyjamas. Dinner was a sandwich in the service station café, perfectly acceptable after my heavy, fat-filled fried lunch.
After impressive settings, lunch in the Ikea restaurant near Murica was a shock to the system: it was obviously the start of the ‘sales’ season, and it was heaving with bargain hunters. Or maybe just less voracious shoppers like ourselves who simply wanted a decent meal whilst picking up a trendy kitchen utensil. We motored into La Mata in the mid-afternoon, grateful for the opportunity to explore this land of contrasts we have chosen as our home, and to get acquainted with its warm, fun-loving people.