While on a work assignment in Madrid, Spain, I plucked the courage to go on a seven-day solo road trip.
My first stop was at La Mancha where the windmills are perched on a hill across the open plains. It was incredibly windy, and I thought I was going to get blown away! The windmills were used to grind grain back in the day but they have not been in operation since the 1980s.
I continued my five-hour journey south to Ronda where I spent the night. The autovia (motorway) of Andalusia, its scenic views, sierra (mountain) passes, excellent road conditions and courteous drivers provided an enjoyable driving experience.
The next morning started with a visit to the impressive 18th century Puente Nuevo or New Bridge at the El Tajo gorge, which connects the modern and old quarters of the city. The Moorish town exuded old-world charm and modern-day functionality.
Leaving Ronda, I stopped briefly at Juzcar, a hamlet that used to be white but was later painted blue by Sony Pictures for the premiere of The Smurfs 3D movie. Looking slightly eccentric, all houses, church, town hall and cemetery have undergone a “smurfening”!
Spain is peppered with quaint pueblos blancos (white villages), nestled in valleys and surrounded by towering mountains. Among them is Casares, my next destination.
Casares is a stone’s throw from Estepona, a renowned beach destination. The houses in this village look like sugar cubes piled high among the cliffs. I strolled the narrow cobblestone streets and enjoyed the slow pace of village life. A steep walk up the hill was rewarded with a spectacular view of the mountain range.
Standing tall on a rocky massif, the Casares Castle was once used as a defence stronghold. Vultures glided across the clear blue sky while the Rock of Gibraltar can be seen in the distance.
Curiosity took me to the tiny British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. It was seamless driving through the border control, crossing what looked like a really wide road, which is apparently the airport runway.
Due to the lack of flat lands, the runway doubles as the city’s four-lane road. It is closed several times a day to make way for planes to take off.
The Rock of Gibraltar stands at 426m and is inhabited by Barbary macaques. You can see Northern Morocco from there.
After that, I travelled to Cadiz via the coastal road of Tarifa, located at the southernmost coast of Spain. It is a naturally windy area, so it was not strange to see colourful kites adorning the sky. Wind turbines dot the province of Cadiz to harness electricity.
Staying over in Cadiz, I indulged in tinto de verano (a popular drink) and local tapas heartily. I love the pescaito frito (fried little fish), a traditional Andalusian cuisine.
Next on the list were Donana National Park and El Rocio. Incidentally, it was a day after Pentecost Monday where the annual pilgrimage took place. Pilgrims from all over Spain crossed the Donana park to reach the shrine in El Rocio.
With the party over, traffic exiting El Rocio was bad but I spotted a handful of wonderfully dressed locals. Some men donned wide brimmed hats with boots, while women wore flamenco dresses. There were horse carriages on the motorway, too.
The wild west style of El Rocio village was a surreal sight to behold. Clouds of sand dust hovered in the air thanks to the unpaved roads, there were wooden hitching rails outside buildings for people to tie up their horses and the white Hermitage of El Rocio stood in the town centre.
With the bulk of visitors gone, it was a quiet visit to Donana National Park, a paradise for birds and home to a diverse variety of habitats, such as lagoons, marshes, shrubs and dunes. I spent the day birdwatching and hiking the network of trails.
Later, I drove north towards Merida. En route, a stunning sea of sunflowers stretched to the horizon near Seville. The Archaeological Ensemble of Merida, a Unesco world heritage, is one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Spain. The ruins consist of a bridge, aqueduct, amphitheatre, theatre, a circus and a forum.
As I began my long drive back to Madrid, I realised that my solo road trip had covered approximately 2,000km! It was an enriching travel experience filled with history, culture, people, gastronomy, nature and architecture.