Andalusia: Try unpackaged tour

It is a rainy day in Granada, unusual for spring here, and I am taking shelter in the doorway of a cambio/gift shop down the road from my hotel.  

Huddled with me is a Toronto tour group. They await their tour bus, which will whisk them through three countries in 17 days, after a mid-morning one-hour tour of the Alhambra. 

Meanwhile, my friend and I will spend a leisurely day strolling the area. We’ll have all afternoon for our visit to this 11th century architectural wonder.   

We decide that, because of the rain, we will eat in the intimate dining room of Hotel America inside the Alhambra.  It is a good choice as the soup is rich with local ingredients. And the quaint hotel, once a wealthy family’s home, is a cozy spot to wait out the bad weather.  

Self-guided tours
The next morning breaks sunny and we walk the Questo de los Chinos, a meandering path at the base of the Alhambra walls. Along the way the only people we meet are two readers on a stone ben near a stream.  

We casually birdwatch until we exit into the Albaycin, the old Moorish quarter.
These are choices that we are free to make, often at the last moment, because we are touring Andalusia for 17 days, with only ourselves as guides. 

My companion and I had planned this trip to celebrate our 60th year and long-time friendship. We were warned by friends of many troubles—from unemployed youths who would snatch our bags to trains that would not run according to schedule.

Neither warning proved true.
Researched three cities
Deciding on Andalusia, we concentrated on the three main cities of Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada, because of their rich Moorish past.

I always plan with a good map at hand. I started researching on the net while my friend read guidebooks.

The most helpful website was which has the widest range of listings.  

Others I used were and

Train schedules are on the site. 

The guidebooks we used were Lonely Planet Spain and Frommer’s Barcelona, Madrid & Seville.  

We also dipped into books on the history and architecture of southern Spain, and Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

The planning was done leisurely over the course of a couple of months.

Next page: Helpful advice everywhere

Helpful advice everywhere 
Part of the adventure of the trip was that, although armed with information, we were free to take advantage of on the spot discoveries. 

There are excellent tourist bureaus in each city. And everyone we met, from desk clerks to waiters, was helpful with advice and suggestions.

We were often disoriented when arriving in a city. But by strolling the first few hours, we found we got the lay of the land. 

Some hotels we booked in advance. Others we found on the spot. But it is easy to book through the net or by phone, if you want to have all your hotels in place. 

We did not rent cars, but travelled by bus, train (with Eurailpass) and taxi. However, it is
easy to rent cars at the train station or airport. (Stick to Spanish companies, it’s cheaper).

Flew into Madrid
We flew into Madrid and hopped the AVE train to Seville.   It turned rainy the next day. So we spent the afternoon wandering the huge baroque cathedral, which contains the tomb of Columbus. 

The evening before, we had seen a notice indicating the Giralda Tower was to be closed for repairs as of Monday. So we made the ramp trek to the top of this city landmark and last vestige of the mosque it once crowned.  

The next day, sunny and warm, found us in the Real Alcazar palace and extensive gardens. There, we were provided with an excellent recorded tour phone as part of the entry fee. 

Earlier, we had found the perfect bodega in which to have breakfast every day and chat with the waiter about what was going on in the neighborhood.

Bird watching sites 
On our way to pick up a rental car for our trip to La Doñana National Park, a migrant bird sanctuary, our taxi driver, Manolo, offered to drive us there and pick us up two days later. (Taxis everywhere have listed rates for distance travel.) 

During the drive, we were plied with information about our destination, El Rocio, a center of pilgrimage in southern Spain.  

We located the small hotel at the end of the sandy road. Despite no reservation, we were offered a room overlooking a lake full of storks, flamingos and spoonbills.

The hotel booked our park tour. Manolo returned on Friday. His father-in-law, along for the ride, regaled us with stories of Santa Semana in Sevilla.

Next page: Easy to change

Easy to change
And so we made our impromptu way around Andalusia. March not being high season, it was easy to change our minds and our reservations.  In Granada, we could be in and out of the Alhambra as often as we liked. 

If we found we couldn’t resist going back to the small North African restaurant with mint lemonade and almond chicken, we returned to the Albycin.

Most days, we were up and out around 9 a.m. and usually hit two main sights a day. In
Cordoba, it was morning in the Grand Mosque, afternoon in the Alcazar, with
delicious interludes at local cafes.  

At the end of our stay in Granada, we decided to double back and have an extra day in Cordoba wandering the Juderia. 

Locals good sources
Everywhere we found locals to be better than tour guides at filling us in on the history and stories of their city and neighborhood. 

As the days passed, we moved through the architectural and garden wonders at our own speed, lingering in dimly lit rooms, listening to the fountains of the Nazarie Palace while tour groups were swiftly marched through. 

I imagined the ghost of Washington Irving, nodding his approval.