The Spanish rail network is exceptionally good and cheap compared to the UK. They have hi-speed, express and slow regional trains so you can get just about anywhere.
Instead of going directly south I decided on a rambling route across Spain taking in some of its highlights – Madrid, Segovia, Grenada and Cordoba before arriving at the port of Tarifa for the ferry to Tangier.
Barcelona is so laid back compared to uptight Paris. The sun obviously helps, food and drink at nearly half the price helps but mainly it’s the people – so much smiling, laughter and sheer joie de vivre.
Everyone loves Barcelona, but you really don’t want to spend more than the briefest time on Barcelona’s most famous street – the tourist packed La Rambla. You have to do it but it’s just for tourists and don’t all the city’s conmen and pickpockets know it. Watch your pockets, don’t believe any bogus sob stories and above all don’t eat or drink there.
Locals prefer Rambla de Catalunya – a continuation of the street north from Placa de Catalunya. Here you’ll find food that the locals are prepared to eat, drinks at sensible prices and no one looking to pick your pockets.
The bustling capital of Madrid is just three hours by train from Barcelona.
Traditional free tapas are hard to find in Madrid but they do exist. El Tigre in Calle de los Infantas, just behind Gran Via, has incredibly generous tapas – 3-4 items with each drink. I was so full after three beers that I had to go somewhere that didn’t give free food, and that was Cerveceria Montaditos, on calle Mayor. This is where tinto de verno became my Madrid drink of choice – a pint glass filled with ice, topped up with a draft red wine and lemonade mix – fabulously refreshing for one euro.
Madrid to Grenada took around four hours and the further south we got the denser the olives groves became until finally they stretched to the far horizon.
Locals really have life sussed in Grenada. Everyone is out and about – groups of boys, groups of girls, couples, parents with babies and toddlers, grandparents – well into the wee hours and not a drunk in sight. There are no youth booze bars just hundreds of small, crowded intergenerational tapas bars with plenty of outside seating. Buy a beer anywhere and you’ll get ham, olives, beef, chicken, miniburgers, even a bowl of stew or egg and chips. The fact that there’s no intergenerational divide seems to be the clue to a healthy and happy city party atmosphere.
Of course the Alhambra is stunningly majestic, the cathedral is spectacular and walking the narrow streets and alleyways of the Albaicin is a joy but frankly it’s the people of Grenada that are most memorable.
Cordoba is the last stop-off in Spain before crossing to Africa, but it’s no after thought. It’s been both Roman and Islamic capitals and 1100 years ago it was the largest city in Western Europe. Its unique highlight is a cathedral inside a mosque and I’ve wanted to see that strange sight for years.
It’s a 25-minute, 9-mile ferry ride, across the Straights of Gibraltar, from Tarifa in Spain to Tangier in Morocco.