I doze in the car during the 45-minute drive to Granada. Thomas says I snore, which I doubt. It is exhausting, though, this trip. A six-day trek across the hills of Andalucía, Spain, and what-seem countless visits to hotels and operators and with CVB staffers, dinners with property and sales managers. Thomas MacFarlane of Event Planner Spain—a 17-year English ex-pat, in his early 40s toting a dry wit—serves as guide, driving a four-door rental across this deep-breath landscape of craggy rises, shimmering and high white cities, sleepy country roads and the olives-and-sunshine air only found along the calm western waters of the Mediterranean.
Cooling October breezes prove a perfect backdrop as we make our way from town to city, searching for the region’s soul, its hard-to-reach places, its secret gems. The stuff of dreams. The intangibles that make a finite trip live on, that make a meeting or event the experience of a lifetime.
SUNDAY After my noon arrival at the Málaga airport, Thomas and I visit the city center—he eager for a quick lunch and I impatient for discovery. Málaga is a city of character and change. Town-center buildings range from disrepair to historic renovation to modern—all of which add to the city’s raw appeal. Its history as a vital port for first the Moors and later the conquering Christians seeps through the cobbled street cracks and trickles from the city’s popular squares and attractions: the famous alcazaba (citadel), the impressive Greco-Roman cathedral, the plaza de toros (bullring), the Teatro Romano.
Local guide Juan Antonio Rodriguez shows me the city’s secrets: the black-and-white flat that served as Pablo Picasso’s childhood home, Málaga’s cathedral (known as La Manquita), the Plaza de la Merced, the hidden tapas bars frequented by national and international stars. Opened in 2003, the Museo Picasso Málaga offers works by the namesake Cubist master. Underneath the 16th-century museum palace, archaeologists have discovered remnants of the city’s history—Phoenician, Roman and Moorish ruins dating to the seventh century BCE.
An eighth-century fortress, the alcazaba stands apart from the town center and hovers over the ruins of a second-century Roman theater. The place was home to the kings—sultans who reigned over the town once known as Malaqah. Paths snake through the rocky remains, through the best-preserved alcazaba in Spain. In the limestone palace, three consecutive courtyards lead to the Torre de la Armadura Mudéjar, with its elaborately engraved wood ceiling, and the Torre de Maldonado, with its original marble columns and stunning city views.
As a complement to the Arabic experience, Málaga offers decadent baños Arabes at El Hammam in the city center. The facility is designed as a replica Islamic hammamat and offers hot, temperate and cold rooms—all heated by subterranean furnaces—in an atmosphere that is at once communal and solitary. A dry room offers space for specialty massages.
Blocks away, I stay at the 120-room Molina Lario Málaga with its pristine views of downtown and the city cathedral. Six meeting rooms offer space for up to 250 on gray marble floors with dark wood panels accented by white walls. The Café de la Bolsa restaurant offers fine dining, and residents can spend free time in the hotel’s solarium and swimming pool, on the garden terrace or at the putting green. The hotel consists of three buildings—two historic, with original 19th-century facades, and the third new, constructed for the Molina Lario’s opening in August 2006.
MONDAY I wake with the best of intentions, but jet lag is such a beast. I fight heavy eyes as we head to the city’s convention center, the Palacio de Ferias y Congresos de Málaga, which sits about halfway between the airport and the city center. It is a magnificent building, all sharp angles, modern architecture, high windows and shiny glass. The colors are bright, dazzling. Built in 2003, the building is a modern reflection of the city’s lengthy maritime history. Inside, rooms of bright yellows accommodate up to 2,000 for meetings and events.
I find time to doze during the 45-minute drive to Marbella, a city of upscale resorts and five-star properties on the Mediterranean coast. We pause on the way for a quick look at the 350-room Hotel Torrequebrada, which lounges celebratorily on the beachfront in Benalmadena Costa, between Marbella and Málaga. Known for its upscale casino, the hotel also boasts a 4,300-square-foot spa (which opens onto lush and verdant gardens), 17 meeting rooms, banquet facilities for up to 500, four restaurants and two outdoor pools. All guest rooms offer opulent sea-view balconies.
Time doesn’t allow me to try my hand at the poker table, and Thomas is keen to keep our schedule (pronounced shedyool); we speed away toward the power, money and luxury that is Marbella—the Hollywood of the Costa del Sol.
Condos, hotels and palm trees line the deep azure waters of the Mediterranean and front the sea’s most-lush beachfronts. The downtown city streets feature only the chicest of fashions, both in the hundreds of boutique windows and on the bodies of Europe’s trendy nouveau riche.
We lunch at the waterfront Club de Playa, a terrace restaurant belonging to the opulent, five-star grand luxePuente Romano, whose 27 three-story buildings create a sequestered seaside for residents in 274 guest rooms. I dine on light Andalucían fare: gazpacho soup and Spanish sparkling wine Cava, indigenous to Catalonia. Later, we stroll the hotel’s grounds, which accommodate 400 botanic species. The Puente Romano Tennis and Fitness Club boasts 10 tennis courts, a sauna, massages and Turkish baths, and the hotel shares an 18-hole course with sister property, the Marbella Club Golf Resort—one of the first hotels in the region, circa 1954.
Africa winks at us from across the sea. We are tempted to cross the Mediterranean to Morocco, but the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Estepona awaits (including a session at the property’s 7,000-square-foot spa). The hotel is overpowering for just 146 guest rooms, like a massive cruise ship, all its balconies facing the water. But it is the spa that truly impresses. I relax in a dynamic pool of cascades and therapeutic jets before opting for an invigorating, floating-bed back massage and mud wrap.
Dinner is at the Gran Hotel Elba Estepona, notable for its opulent event space, a breathtaking lobby of saffron walls and an enormous paned skylight. Guest rooms offer substantial balconies overlooking a vast, oblong pool and the beach and blue sea beyond. I leave my balcony doors open as an evening rain sets in. The moon reflects in the Mediterranean and then disappears behind clouds. I sleep to the sounds of rain on water.
TUESDAY We complete our tour of Marbella before heading to Cádiz, a bastion of outdoor tourism ideal for hiking and horseback riding. First, we must visit the famous Gran Meliá Don Pepe, which invites its guests to “see and be seen,” particularly at the renowned Michelin-star Calima restaurant, headed by celebrity chef Dani Garcia. The Meliá is designed for luxury relaxation and rightly exploits its beach and gardens. Poolside fantasy cabanas beckon with cushioned reclining chairs and private surrounds.
But the morning’s main attraction is Greenlife Golf nestled in the high-end residential hills between Málaga and Marbella. The property offers a bevy of outdoor activities along with private, luxury accommodations. Seventeen fashionable flats feature natural light, kitchenettes and modern furnishings, all looking out on Greenlife’s nine-hole golf course. A modern, two-deck driving range faces the multi-hued hills beyond. Film and video, two Explanar training machines and five multilingual pros promise to fix any swing. Greenlife’s true gem, though, is culinary. The El Lago Restaurant offers modern decor and boasts a Michelin star for its decadent evening dinners.
I sleep lightly as we cross the Andalucían countryside, west to Cádiz. We pass dozens of small towns, villages of whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets climbing into the hills. Vejer de la Frontera is a perfect example. Named a national monument in 1978, the village is reminiscent of the region’s Islamic roots, with turreted medieval walls, churches and mosques, old markets, antique courtyards and entryways. Here we visit with Cristina Garcia and Francisco Javier Sanchez of events firm Nature Explorer. The two are sporty and tan and young and eager to share the marvels of backpacking and bird watching in one of the region’s three natural parks.
Nature Explorer offers everything outdoors—from kayaking in Los Alcornocales to scuba diving in the Strait of Gibraltar. In Breña y Marismas del Barbate (natural park), groups play orientation games by foot, mountain bike or four-by-four. Beach “olympic” games are also popular, and Nature Explorer helps with transportation, accommodations, activities and food.
The shift is sharp as we drive from bucolic Vejer to the port of Cádiz, a 3,000-year-old city on the Spanish Atlantic coast. Park the car before entering this close and musty web of pedestrian streets, markets and restaurants. Cádiz is a dream, a port to the Atlantic and to the past. I look out over the harbor and see Magellan depart for the Spice Islands. It’s hard to connect this past with modern Cádiz: its conference centers, its 40,000 guest rooms, its four- and five-star hotels.
We dine at local favorite El Faro before retiring to the Hotel Spa Senator Cádiz, hidden in the city’s historic quarter, just another building until we step inside. The lobby is a large courtyard of white-marble floors, fountains, plants and arches. Two meeting rooms offer space for 120 and a downstairs spa boasts more than 75 treatments. Before its 2006 renovation, the building served as a family home. Now, guest rooms look out on busy city streets, an abandoned tenement and its squatters. The city sweats and doesn’t care; this place is unabashedly real.
WEDNESDAY Facing the calm Atlantic, the Cádiz Conference Center is a museum of local fine arts with light wood paneling, arches and columns and high vaulted ceilings. Broadband is offered, but the walls are too thick for Wi-fi (pronounced wiffy). The original building, circa 1740, was a tobacco factory and warehouse; now it is a refined meetings center with exhibition areas, auditoriums, restaurants and theaters—all of which retain a whisper of history, rumors and untold stories.
Dori Núñez is our guide du jour, and her knowledge of Cádiz is vast. She impatiently shares the city’s 3,000-year-old mysteries, its Roman tenor and its Moorish roots. On the Plaza San Antonio, we stumble upon a casino (or men’s club), circa 1844. Inside we find an elaborate replica Moorish masterpiece of tiled walls and marble floors, inner courtyards and lofty skylights. The Casino Gaditano’s dark upstairs library can accommodate groups up to 220. Second-floor rooms beg for diners and boast 19th-century mirrors, ornate plaster walls, original glass chandeliers and wood floors.
Running parallel to the ocean, we stroll in the Parque Genovés, following a wide dirt path through Bougainvillea and Eucalyptus and Cypress trees to an open-air theater and running fountains. A lake and waterfall attract ducks and geese. I don’t want to leave, but the shedyool takes precedence and the horses await.
A half-hour drive outside Cádiz near Jerez de la Frontera sits a charming villa, sprawling across acres of dusty and sun-stroked soil. La Peñuela and sister property Fuente Rey belong to the Bohórquez family, one of the oldest Andalucían dynasties, known for breeding horses and fighting bulls. I am no corrida de toros enthusiast, but I see the intrinsic value of this estate, with its stone courtyard, vine-covered entry, orange trees and bullring (ideal for events). The owners offer carriage rides, hiking trails and horseback riding across a beautiful expanse of Andalucían countryside.
We are driving east, toward Granada—a city that exudes history and houses Spain’s greatest marvel, Moorish tour de force La Alhambra. We stop for the night at the expansive La Bobadilla Gran Lujo, set in the heart of Andalucía and surrounded by a forest of olive trees. A series of pastoral gardens, patios, fountains and paths invoke repose and retrospection. Contained by 350 hectares of wilderness, groups enjoy almost any outdoor activity—from mountain biking and four wheeling to archery and paintball. Inside the property’s luxurious country palacio, offerings include cuisine classes and olive oil tastings. El Cortijo restaurant serves regional dishes in an atmosphere both sophisticated and bucolic. The suites are all unique, featuring extensive balconies and oversized bathtubs.
THURSDAY I wake to the sound of birds chirping outside. We climb the hills of Granada to the Fundación Rodríguez-Acosta, housed in the Carmen (traditional residence and garden) of great Andalucían artist José María Rodríguez-Acosta. The building dates to 1914, and the gardens run down several stories of hillside. The foundation opened its artists’ residences in 1960 for art students studying in Granada. Now the residences and Rodríguez-Acosta’s library and art collections welcome international artists, writers and researchers. The foyer of marble floors and columns and modern art proves ideal for cocktail receptions, as does the library upstairs with its black-and-white checked tile, Asian art and varied sculptures.
Outside, we meet María Angustias, who escorts us to Albayzín, Granada’s Moorish quarter. We tour the Plaza Larga and meander narrow, snaking streets. We note the simplicity of the area’s churches—built quickly and cheaply to replace mosques following the capture of the city from Boabdil by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. María steers us down Granada’s sloping lanes, past the cathedral and Capilla Real and into the city’s crowded, pedestrian markets.
We gaze across low and stony city walls and the River Darro to the silhouette of La Alhambra, hazy in the afternoon sunlight. This is an area of natural caves, outfitted with modern comforts and used as homes by some of the city’s most affluent residents. La Chumbera houses meeting and dining rooms in a series of caves and boasts an outdoor terrace with stunning night views of La Alhambra.
Near Puerta Real de España, the city’s modern commercial center, we find the mirrored Palacio de Exposiciones y Congresos de Granada. The center’s auditoriums feature plush seats, orientation desks and translation equipment. But the facility’s most-prized asset is the 1,400-seat Charles I Amphitheater, a rooftop marvel offering panoramic views of the city and a generous veranda (accommodating cocktails for up to 3,000).
After a cozy dinner at popular bistro La Pataleta, I retire to the unusual AC Palacio de Santa Paula, composed of three distinct buildings: a 1540s convent, the 14th-century Moorish House and the late-1800s Gran Via. The convent boasts a library, a restaurant and a chapel with 15 guest rooms above, all cloistered abound a patio and fountain. Similarly, the Moorish House centers on an interior courtyard, but its 16 rooms include original ceilings and Arabic stylings. Forty-four rooms occupy the Gran Via, with its contemporary decor and mosaic tiles.
FRIDAY I haven’t been here in over a decade, and La Alhambra is even more emotive than I remember. This palace of sultans dates to the 13th century and ibn al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty. Over several centuries, the Nasrids ruled Granada and transformed the hillside into a marvel of Moorish architecture featuring an alcazaba and palaces, ornamented walls, engraved columns and arches, decadent gardens and bathhouses and a complex irrigation system for the lush gardens of Generalife.
The two-hour drive back to Málaga is hushed by our poignant encounter with Spain’s Moorish past. In Málaga, we lunch at El Palo Cortado with Francisco Quereda Rodríguez of the Málaga CVB and Alberto Rojas of España Incoming & Incentives. The restaurant is elegant and filled with natural light, and we dine on light Mediterranean fare and local cerveza. The conversation is frank, highlighting the city’s recent tourism advancements, the addition of high-speed train access to Madrid (December 2007) and four weekly nonstop flights to New York (starting this month).
We spend our last evening in Marbella at the Gran Hotel Guadalpin Marbella & Spa, a gorgeous, five-star property with ivied white walls and a poolside lagoon within walking distance of the sea. The suites feel familiar, all wood furniture and healthy balconies with whirlpool spas. Meeting rooms are bright and face the pool. We dine at the hotel’s Mesana with its sleek modern decor and elegant table settings; I savor the tastes of southern Spain (and fine French champagne) before retiring. I dream blissfully that the week is just beginning.
SATURDAY I wake at 4 a.m. My head is still in dream; but a flight leaves for Madrid at 7:45 a.m., and I must be on it. I embrace Thomas at the airport, and then he is gone. Oh, Andalucía! Such rich architecture and history, such raw urban centers and pristine white villages, such tourist-friendly sites and deep cultural undercurrents. My visit here has been brilliant, filled with personal and tangible discovery, varied cultural mores and overwhelming histories. I depart, but these moments will never leave.
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