Tuesday, June 18, 2024

An Iberian Escapade (Spain, Gibraltar, and Morocco)

The view from the Rock of Gibraltar

In a matter of just 8 days, my partner and I managed to traipse across the globe, visit 4 separate countries and two continents, explore multiple structures over 2000 years old, set foot in UNESCO world heritage sites, get lost in tiny alleys straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, wander through massive limestone caves, witness the world's slowest motorcycle race, walk along the 'world's most dangerous walkway', visit cardinal geographic superlatives (and other geographical oddities), and spend time on countless beaches, in beautiful national parks, and within ancient cities that were all nestled into quaint hillsides. Needless to say, it was a busy week.

What started out as a whimsical idea to visit some family in southern Spain, quickly evolved into an all-out blitz of what would become one of the most remarkable and breathtaking areas of the world that I've ever seen.

The plan was to fly to the Spanish coastal city of Málaga and meet up with family. From there we would strategically plan our days in order to maximize our time and experiences. Now...rather than bore you with brick walls of text, I will instead try to keep the narrative writing to a minimum, and instead take the approach of relaying our adventure through a picture storyboard. So let's get into it...

The first two days we spent in and around Málaga. We did this in order to give ourselves a day to clear our jet lag, and to simply explore the city (a city of over 500,000 people!). On the very first morning, I found a wonderful spot by our home for my daily run. About two miles down the road was a noteworthy hill with a large stone tower on the top named: Cerro Torre del Atabal. Running to the very summit and back gave me incredible views of the city and a nice 5-mile run to boot. This became my morning ritual for the days we were staying in Málaga. We spent that first day walking all around the old-town of the city and even hiking up to the large Castillo de Gibralfaro. The city was incredibly vibrant and bustling. At times it was a bit overwhelming, especially considering my command of the Spanish language is very limited (unlike French, where I am much more comfortable and capable)

View of Málaga from Cerro Torre del Atabal

A Bustling Downtown Málaga

Castillo de Gibralfaro

Inside Castillo de Gibralfaro

View from the top of the Castle

On the second day, we opted to visit the nearby town of Nerja, known primarily for its large limestone cave network. We booked an easy bus trip out to the town in less than an hour, and by early morning we were exploring its cavernous depths.

Nerja Caves

Nerja Caves

Nerja is also known for its beautiful and blue Mediterranean waters. We spent quite a bit of time simply walking along the beaches and taking in the slower paces of the Mediterranean coast. We relaxed on beaches, drank summer wine, and simply let the hours waste away. When it came to food, we consistently ate incredible meals, and all at prices that seemed comically low coming from Flagstaff, AZ. One thing I will say, is that southern Spain is a very meat dominated region (particularly pork and ham)...which can be difficult for those like myself that typically don't eat much meat.

A beach in Nerja

More beach views

On the third day we stepped it up considerably. My partner and I split up for the day and while she spent time with her sister at various beaches, I set off for the mountain town of El Chorro in order to explore one of the world's most famous hiking trails: El Caminito del Rey. This walkway has quite a storied history, but the short of it is that up until 2015, it was considered the most dangerous walkway in the world due to to its failing integrity. The walkway is over a hundred years old and it hadn't been properly maintained. There were portions that were completely missing or only hanging on by a single support strut. This may not sound all that scary until you see where the walkway was actually built: into the side of a vertical cliff of rock, several hundred feet above the ground and river below. The old trail also had no support wires or restraints. One wrong step and it was certain death. After several years of a complete rebuild, it opened to the public in 2015 complete redesigned and much safer. Since then, it has become quite an attraction for visitors. But...don't let the redesign fool you though, this walkway is still incredibly vertigo-inducing and quite terrifying in places (especially for those afraid of heights). I made a compilation video of our hike which I'll link below as well.

The mountains in El Chorro

The start of the El Caminito del Rey

Out on the walkway

One of the many precarious sections

A group of visitors waiting to be photographed over the transparent walkway.

Approaching the final bridge section

A view back of the walkway over the train tracks

Video Footage from the hike...

For the next few days of our trip, we decided to forgo the incredible public transport of southern Spain, and instead rent a car. We did this so we could get to some more difficult-to-reach places, and also to the port town of Tarifa so that we might ferry over to Morocco. Of course being Europe, our rental car was a tiny, manual-transmission car that got us through an entire tour of Southern Spain on a single tank of gas. It was probably the least "sexy" car you can imagine, but it was certainly practical when it came to navigating the tiny city streets in some of the towns we passed through.

The first day with the car was an enormous one and we had bold plans to visit multiple places. We knew the pace might be a bit rushed, but decided to still try to get through it as designed. Our plan was to pick up our rental car at 7:00 am, then drive up to Paraje Natural Torcal de Antequera (National Park). We would spend a few hours hiking around the pancake limestone rocks there and then pop down into the town of Antequera right after in order to visit the ancient burial domes at the UNESCO site: Dolmen de Antequera. After an hour or so there, we'd push on to the cliffside town of Ronda where we'd visit the Arab Baths, before hiking to the very famous bridge vista point (with ridiculous views of a very iconic bridge). After a a few hours there and a dinner (most dinners in Spain are after 7:30 pm), we'd make the final drive through twisty mountain roads down to the port town of Tarifa where we'd check into our hotel, hopefully before midnight. Somewhat surprisingly, this plan went off nearly perfectly, and we hit every spot we had on our itinerary, while still making it to Tarifa at around 11:20 PM.

Pancake Rocks at the Torcal National Park

Enjoying some sunshine and great trails at the park

Eroded limestone water channels

A narrow rock passage on the trail

The most famous of the parks pancake rocks

Our "sexy" European car....

Inside the Dolmen de Antequera

A view out from the Dolmen

In the Arab baths

A loquat tree

Some city streets in Ronda

The iconic Ronda Bridge

Catholic Church in Ronda

Statue of a matador outside the bull fighting ring

Twisty road mountain towns in on the road from Ronda
(Google Maps)

The following morning at 6:00 am, we walked down to the port in Tarifa (about a 10-minute walk) in order to catch our early ferry ride over to Tangier, Morocco. Passport control went smoothly and within an hour we were onboard and heading across the Strait of Gibraltar. We were on the first ferry of the day, and when we arrived in Tangier, it was incredibly quiet. None of the shops were open and as such, we were the obvious easy "targets" for the locals. This meant we were constantly fending off street hustlers and pushy vendors. It was a bit uncomfortable at times, especially when we found ourselves moving down very tight alleyways with three locals following us. Eventually, more tourists arrived and we were able to blend it more with the crowds. We ultimately spent the day poking around in different local shops, trying the local cuisine, and exploring the coast. One of the things that becomes immediately apparent in Morocco, are the ridiculous amount of feral/wild cats roaming everywhere....and I mean everywhere! We probably saw over a thousand cats. We ended our day around 5 pm at the most incredible little tea house located on the 4th floor of a tiny building that was tucked down a small alley. This establishment, was known as Tangier's Moments, and served the absolute best Moroccan mint tea. Their resident cat, Mawlāy (which translates to "my lord" in Arabic) was definitely the king of the house. We eventually hopped on the 6 pm ferry back to Tarifa where we spent a 2nd night. On the ferry ride back I reflected on the fact that even though I only spent about 10 total hours in Tangier, I had technically visited the continent of Africa.....my last of the seven continents.

Our morning ferry

Just off the ferry...and welcomed by a resident cat

A local cat resting on a scooter

Some local artwork and architecture

My seventh and final continent!

Typical alleyway in old-town Tangier (From Google Maps)

The view from our lunch spot

Our absolutely amazing lunch spread

Tangier's Moments tea house (with Mawlāy joining us)

Tangier's Moments tea house (VIDEO)

Delicious Moroccan tea 
(the glasses were adorned with Mawlāy stickers)

Another local cat

A former bricked-off doorway?

The "KM 0" marker at the northern corner of town marker the "Start of Africa"

Leaving Tangier

Leaving Tangier (VIDEO)

Africa in the background...

The southernmost point in all of mainland Europe (Isla de Tarifa)

The next morning we walked down to Isla de Tarifa to see if we could get to the southernmost point of mainland Europe. Sadly, the final peninsula is gated off from the public so we couldn't quite get to the farthest point. Still, we walked as far south as we possibly could knowing that in those moments that everyone else in mainland Europe was north of us. One fun point of interest were the two signs put up on either side of the road denoting the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.

Castillo de Santa Catalina (Tarifa)

The divide between the Sea and the Ocean

Panorama of the divide

The farthest point south we could get (Tarifa in background)

A street sale as viewed form our hotel balcony

The view across the Strait over to Africa

As we left Tarifa, we had one additional big place on our list to visit: Gibraltar. As is quite obvious, I'm a huge geographile and when it comes to tiny exclaves or geographical oddities, I'm drawn like a moth to a flame. I have always wanted to explore Gibraltar for this reason...and of course also due to its incredible geology! I did some digging before the trip on what it would take to hike to the summit, and found out that there is a relatively short trail that climbs the east (and steeper) side of the massive and iconic "Rock": known as the Mediterranean Steps. On top of this plan, I had also read that Gibraltar is the only place in Europe that is home to resident Macaque monkeys that just sort of "hang out" up in the Nature Preserve high up on the Rock. I was eager to meet some of these guys as well.

Given that Gibraltar is still a British territory, we had to clear through passport control and for the day. It was a bit odd that we'd technically be in the UK (and weirdly speaking english again). We parked our rental car just outside the border in Spain, and the explored the entire day in Gibraltar by foot. Weirdly, to enter the territory, you must walk across the active international runway...which, speaking as a private pilot, just felt very wrong. 

We explored around the town center, popped into some shops and had a lunch...but in very little time we were antsy to get up the mountain. We started by climbing some steps in town until we eventually made it high enough to cross one of the narrow roads that leads to the start of the Mediterranean Steps. As we walked along this road we saw our first macaques. They were simply fascinating...and really just looked like small people in a way. I suppose I've never seen primates outside of a zoo before...so it was a little unsettling. The climb up the steps was steep and demanding, but we did make it to the top in just a bit over an hour. We explored the military bunkers at the top and the eventually made our way back down via the even steeper Charles Wall steps on the west face of the Rock. Along the way we also strolled out on to the rather terrifying and transparent skywalk. The views from the top of the rock were some of the most dramatic and stunning I've ever seen despite the summit only being 1400 feet above sea level.

Entering Gibraltar Passport control

The view of the "Rock" from the border.

Crossing the active runway on foot

Downtown Giraltar

Starting up the neighborhood steps

View of town from a few hundred feet up

Our first macaque

Starting the ascent trail

A small cave along the trail

The Mediterranean Steps begin...

Nearing the top of the steps, looking back down

A view from the Steps (VIDEO)

The top of the "Rock"

The view from the Summit

View from near the Summit (VIDEO)

Another Macaque friend

The view back of the summit

Two Macaques playing

Walking down the Charles Wall steps

A macaque stole someone's jacket

A UK flag...but with Spain in the background...

By the time we made it back to Málaga that night, we were quite exhausted from the three days of galavanting. We decided that for our last day in Spain, we'd head over to the nearby mountain village of Mijas for a relaxing day of good food and quaint shops. Mijas is also known for its famous donkey (burro) taxi rides...which of course we had to experience! We were also there during an antique motorcycle show that featured a rather bizarre live "race". This event was known as the "slowest motorcycle race in the world" and required riders to stay upright as long as possible within two white lines...without putting a foot down, and without crossing the second white line. It really was an exercise is slow riding and balance and was ridiculously funny to watch. Before leaving town, I took final picture overlooking the larger town below, with the Mediterranean in the background. It was truly a perfect photo to end a wonderful trip.

The next morning, we made our flights back home via Paris and LA...and somehow arrived at our house the same day we left thanks to multiple time zones. I already miss the laid back feel of Southern Spain, but am so very grateful that we were able to take this trip. We now have another enormous well of ridiculously amazing memories that we will carry with us forever. Thank you Spain!

Welcome to Mijas!

My morning coffee spot...

The Burro Taxi

At the Motorcycle Show

At the Motorcycle Show

At the Motorcycle Show

At the Motorcycle Show

World's slowest motorcycle race (VIDEO)

Hailing a taxi ride...

Mijas streets

My final picture from Spain...

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