We (finally) made our long-awaited return to Spain, after a couple of years of being thwarted by the pandemic on a combined Portugal/Spain itinerary. The trip focused solely on Andalucía, for cycling with Bike Spain Tours, and birding with Wild Andalucía (Álvaro Peral) and Doñana Wings (Vicent Esteller). Keeping the trip all in Andalucía meant no pesky border crossings and thus only one set of rules/restrictions to keep in mind. Although we didn’t actually know for certain that we would get there until less than a week before we flew, as the guidance kept changing!
To skip this narrative and go straight to the photo galleries – trip photos, birds, and of course Buddy Bison! – click here. Also, for a lot of food photos, check out Liza’s food blog. Click any photo below for a larger version.
We had a great nonstop on Iberia from LA to Madrid, vaccination cards and negative COVID tests in hand, although the day we flew the guidance was still “any American can enter, no restrictions” and theoretically we didn’t need either of those things. By the time we landed the next day, though, the Spanish government was changing the guidance for Americans to “vaccinated only” and then after that “vaccinated only and must have a negative test”, but we were already there. (Still, it was a good feeling being prepared in case we were asked.)
A very fast Ave train took us to Córdoba, where we enjoyed walking the city, visiting the beautiful Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba (Mosque-Cathedral, or simply La Mezquita), the Roman Bridge (first built 1st century BC and rebuilt in the 8th century), and the charming “blossom lane” in the Jewish quarter.
From Córdoba we traveled to Lucena (transfer arranged by Bike Spain), where we would start our bike tour. First though we strolled the city, including a visit to the Parroquia de San Mateo church. It is the largest and best preserved church of those that were built at the beginning of the 16th century in the Cordoban countryside. The Sagrario Chapel was incorporated into the building in the 18th century and is considered one of the most significant architectural works of this type of Andalucían baroque. If you know rococo and think that’s busy, this takes the prize!
Our self-guided bike tour started the next day, starting in Lucena and ending near Loja, with stops in Zuheros, Priego de Córdoba, and Iznájar. Bike Spain moved our luggage each day, so we just had to get from point A to point B. Each locale had something to offer. From Lucena to Zuheros we rode on the Via Verde de la Subbética (bike path) past endless olive groves, and encountered a goat roadblock. Zuheros was designated one of the “most beautiful towns in Spain” although that could be said for almost any of the hill towns.
Priego de Córdoba is set in the circle of mountains of the Natural Park of Las Sierras Subbéticas; the Balcón del Adarve atop an escarpment there was great for a late afternoon stroll and even a drink from one of the old stone fountains.
Iznájar is on a reservoir (embalse de Iznájar) although the water level was fairly low. The fine hotel there – Hotel Caserío de Iznájar – was only a 2-star?! (First of all 2-star there is not a 2-star in the US. The owner also explained if he made all the changes to achieve 3 stars – an elevator being the main thing – people might be disappointed overall; at 2 stars everyone is happy. 🙂
The tour ended at the gorgeous La Bobadilla resort near Loja. We stayed there two nights, getting in one extra ride on the full day, before leaving the bikes behind and transferring to Granada.
We opted for e-bikes on this trip – Liza had wanted to try one for awhile, and being on our own for the week and knowing the route was hilly, it seemed like a great opportunity. The bikes were heavy, about 50 lbs each, and then we each had a pannier (Robert had a charger and all the tools; Liza had her big camera etc.) that added another 8-10 lbs. Without the assist that the e-bike provides, it would have been challenging riding them, but have to say the assist (btw you do need to pedal) was very much appreciated on the hills. The rollers seemed often to be 7-8% and the hilltop finishes could be up to 13%!
Bike Spain arranged our transfer from La Bobadilla to Granada, where we only had one night. Our afternoon in the city was spent at the incomparable Alhambra. Begun in the mid-thirteenth century and finished a century later, it served as the palace and fortress complex of the Moorish Nasrid dynasty. The details in the design, water features, and gardens make this quite the special place to visit.
From Granada we set out for Ronda to start our birding with Álvaro Peral of Wild Andalucía. There was a train (just one daily) from Granada to Ronda, but since Liza didn’t bother looking for tickets until two days before, the train was already listed as “full”. Ok, bus! Well…not as easy as it looks. Nothing direct, so we booked a bus ride with Alsa from Granada to Marbella via Málaga, and then another bus ride with Avanza from Marbella to Ronda. Unluckily for us the Alsa bus driver decided he was only going to Málaga! … and when he made us get off the bus, he pointed to an Avanza bus in the next lane leaving within 15 minutes for Marbella. Problem is, the Avanza driver really should not have honored our Alsa ticket … but he did. Maybe it was our acting dumb that helped. 🙂 Anyway he got us to Marbella, and then we caught the next bus as booked to Ronda. Whew! (Next time, buy a train ticket!)
Ronda is set on a beautiful deep gorge, El Tajo, and we stayed the first two nights at the Parador de Ronda right on the gorge on one side of the Puente Nuevo (new bridge – completed in 1793). We had a day to ourselves to explore Ronda, including visiting the gorge, the Almocábar gate, Mondragón Palace and Municipal Museum, and dining outdoors in the Plaza de Rueda Alameda outside the Almocábar gate. Several restaurants ringed the plaza and for COVID had simply kept all of the dining out there.
Álvaro of Wild Andalucía picked us up the next morning and we were off to Tarifa, where we spent an excellent couple of days birding at the Strait of Gibraltar (El Algorrobo observation site), wetlands at Los Lances and Barbate, the La Janda “important bird area” (IBA), Salinas de Bonanza salt flats, and Doñana National Park (southern sector). As it was migration time birding the Strait was great fun – you’d think there wasn’t much going on, then suddenly there would be a flock of bee-eaters, then storks, griffon vultures, booted eagles. Really fun to sit and see what would show up, heading south.
We also have to mention a favorite plant of the trip – the squirting cucumber!
We then returned to Ronda for a few more days of birding. Birding locales in the area included Álvaro’s hide in the Serranía de Ronda, Sierra de las Nieves National Park, and Sierra de Grazalema. As wonderful as Tarifa was, the hide was Liza’s favorite – great to be so close to some really wonderful birds.
We ended our birding with Álvaro with a generous half day of birding and drop-off in Sevilla, and we met up with Vicent Esteller of Doñana Wings the next morning. The original plan was that we’d be there in April 2020; now we were there in the late summer instead of spring, so we had to rearrange the birding locales accordingly. We had a great day with Vicent out at Brazo del Este Natural Park, to the south of Sevilla. It is an important wetland for birds, especially in summer, when this nature area becomes a vital shelter for species that “flee” from Doñana because there is not enough water.
Our last day of birding with Vicent started in the morning at the western part of Doñana National Park, on a quest for red deer as it was rutting season … you certainly could hear the males bellowing for miles! And also for Iberian Magpie, who didn’t cooperate much at the beginning but once the bread crumbs came out, descended upon us. The afternoon wrapped up in Huelva, a port city, lots of great looks at shorebirds, gulls, and flamingos among other things.
The next day we were back on a fast Ave train to Madrid, to Atocha and then T4 at the airport. Got our pre-booked COVID antigen tests, required for re-entry to the US; talk about efficient, we had the results on our phones before we even got to our hotel. Flew home the next day, after having our test results checked twice before we could board the plane!
Some final thoughts. All in all, a fabulous trip, and we are so glad that (a) we didn’t postpone it again due to COVID fears, and (b) we limited the trip to Andalucía once the original Portugal plan fell through. Unlike many at home (cough cough), people in Spain we encountered took the COVID precautions seriously, wearing their masks and social distancing. (Masks were required indoors; outdoors not unless others were nearby.) Our cycling and then the birding meant in general we were either on our own or with a single bird guide; the most people we saw in one place was at the Alhambra, but it’s such a big place that even there it felt reasonably safe. The cycling being self-guided meant we were on our own schedule, and the e-bikes gave us the chance to really enjoy the countryside without worrying about the next hill or whether we were ahead or behind. Nearly all of our dining was outdoors – with the gorgeous late summer weather, why wouldn’t you? The things we’d do better next time include getting the train to Ronda vs. the bus, and having a few days on our own in Sevilla, we basically saw none of the city as all of our time was out birding. So yes – we’ll be going back! Morocco too!
Again, to go to the photo galleries – (even more) trip photos, birds, and of course Buddy Bison! – click here.
Hotels we stayed in:
Catalonia Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Eurostars Conquistador, Córdoba
Santo Domingo, Lucena
Hotel Zuhayra, Zuheros
Hotel Patria Chica, Priego de Córdoba
Hotel Caserío de Iznájar, Iznájar
La Bobadilla Royal Hideaway, Loja
Hotel Anacapri, Granada
Parador de Ronda, Ronda
La Cordoniz, Tarifa
Hotel Soho Boutique Palacio San Gabriel, Ronda
Hotel Sevilla Center, Sevilla
Tryp Madrid Alameda Aeropuerto, Madrid
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