Lonely Planet has just published an ebook called Secret Europe letting us in on their top 50 personal favourite travel locations from the Norwegian Sea to the Med. They asked their staff of writers to choose their own top undiscovered or “off the beaten path” spots. The resulting list features some real gems – none of the obvious stuff that you’ve heard about a million times before but instead quirky suggestions that feel like insider knowledge. For example: an inn in the Scottish Highlands with unspoilt views of Loch Ness; an atmospheric pub in north Dublin; a hot birch sauna and wildflower massage in Latvia (yeah really!) and a secret sailor’s cafe in Amsterdam.
Not surprisingly there are three listings for Andalucia. One is somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit for ages; the second I’d never heard of; and the third is the last place in Andalucia I thought would have made this list.
1. Cabo de Gata
First off is wild and isolated Cabo de Gata, at the eastern limits of Andalucia in Almeria province. It’s more than a day trip from here so we haven’t quite managed it yet. It’s one of the last unspoilt stretches along the Mediterranean – being a protected area – with perfect half-moon bays, hidden coves, ruined castles, coral reefs and volcanic rock formations.
Here’s what Lonely Planet have to say about Cabo de Gata: (It’s free to download so I don’t think they’ll mind me quoting it here.)
If you can find anyone old enough to remember the Costa del Sol before the bulldozers arrived they’d probably say it looked a bit like Cabo de Gata. Some of Spain’s most beautiful and least crowded beaches are strung between the grand cliffs and capes east of Almería, where dark volcanic hills tumble into a sparkling turquoise sea.
Though Cabo de Gata is not undiscovered, it still has a wild, elemental feel and its scattered fishing villages remain low-key. You can walk along, or not far from, the coast right round from Retamar in the northwest to Agua Amarga in the northeast.
2. Rural Andalucía, Spain
That’s us!! Lonely Planet champions the via verdes or green ways – disused railway lines which have been transformed into biking and hiking trails – which criss-cross the whole of rural Andalucia, and in particular the Vía Verde de la Subbética south of Cordoba.
Perhaps the most unsung of the stash (of via verdes) is the Vía Verde de la Subbética, a thin ribbon of pre-car age serenity that skirts the Parque Natural Sierras Subbéticas, a cluster of craggy uplands south of Córdoba speckled with lakes, wild olive trees, and quintessential white villages.
Well off standard Andalusian tourist itineraries that ogle Seville, Granada and the Costa del Sol, the Sub-béticas greenway stretches for 58km and follows the route of the erst-while Tren del Aceite which once transported lucrative cargos of olive oil. Although the steel tracks have long gone, the vía verde still utilises various railway-era landmarks including tunnels and viaducts, and has transformed former stations into cafés or bicycle-hire outlets.
The white village of Zuheros is an excellent place to hop on the greenway. Without a doubt, it’s the best way to see rural Andalucía.
3. Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Steps
The last entry was the biggest surprise. Gibraltar seems to only ever get negative attention – you hear about the long queues to enter, its traffic and parking headaches, and lately the rising political tensions between Spain and the U.K.
I’ve been to Gibraltar only once – to watch the All-Ireland football match in a sports bar the year Mayo made it to the final – so my impressions of a dull, kind of sleazy place are unfair considering how little of it I saw. Since, I’ve generally steered visitors clear of the place; anyone who does go tends to come back disappointed having spent their time in the old town which is fairly unremarkable compared to the vibrant plazas in the rest of Andalucia.
But the thing to do in Gibraltar is the rock itself! It seems so obvious now after reading the Lonely Planet book. It is really impressive. I’ve seen it it must be a hundred times now but it still merits a “wow” every time you turn a corner somewhere outside Marbella and spot it looming in the distance.
It was one of the Pillars of Hercules and was known to the Romans as Mons Calpe, (the name Gibraltar is the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq meaning “Mountain of Tariq”) the other pillar being Mons Abyla on the African side of the Strait. In ancient times these two points marked the limit to the known world.
The Steps isn’t something you can do with children but I’ll get round to it someday hopefully. The views must be incredible.
It’s not easy to keep a secret in somewhere as small as Gibraltar, but the so-called ‘Mediterranean Steps’, a rugged path that winds precipitously to the top of the iconic Rock, escapes the notice of all but the most intrepid travelers. While the bulk of Gibraltar’s tourists ascend Europe’s mythical ‘Pillar of Hercules’ in a taxi or cable car, the ‘steps’ ply a tougher, more challenging route.
The climb starts at the entrance to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and traverses the southern and eastern faces of the limestone escarpment along a former British military path restored in 2007. Views are dramatic and expansive with Spain, Africa, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean splayed like a Google map beneath you. Equally epic are the sights and cries of huge flocks of migratory birds that circle the crags above and below.
Although only 1.5km long, the path is steep and mildly exposed as it zigzags torturously up the famous cliffs. It brings you out at O’Hara’s Battery, a gun emplacement at Gibraltar’s highest point, meaning you can descend via a network of narrow military roads and take in the Rock’s swashbuckling historical sights on the way down (buy an entry ticket beforehand).