Planning your big vacation to Spain? Don’t make the mistake of thinking the whole country is warm and sunny year round. Here’s our quick and dirty on the country’s climate, so you can plan your trip effectively.
Spain is known for being a vacation destination for those who want to relax; it’s food, wine, and sun abound around here. But luxuriating on beaches and sampling tapas isn’t the only thing you can do in Spain. It’s also a great destination for sporty people.
Everyone knows the Pyrenees are a great place to ski and the Basque Coast a great place to surf, but there are other affordable and out of the way places with a lot to offer a sporty and independent traveler. Here are our 5 favorites.
In the 1500s during the rise of Spanish and Portuguese exploration, the area around Cadiz and Tarifa was either a blessing or a curse – going south was as easy as unfurling a sail, while going north meant fighting quite a jet stream. The area is known for its high winds, which makes wind sports like kite surfing and wind surfing extremely popular, and extremely fun.
Add to it that Tarifa has some of the best beaches in the country, the region’s gastronomy, and the fact that nearby Cadiz was once the seat of a pre-Roman age civilization, and you’ve got yourself quite a package. Plus, Tarifa’s weather is nice year round – gorgeous in the summer, and mild in the winter.
Granada is best known for its gastronomy and being the home of tapas. But it’s also right next to the zone of Las Alpujarras which is right in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the winter, the Sierra Nevadas are a great destination for skiing, which is surprising as they’re relatively close to the Mediterranean coast. But high altitudes make for good snow and the ski life there is prominent every winter.
In the summer the area is just as active. It’s easy to hike for miles along the foothills and find plenty of places to go mountain climbing as well. And, though the area is not as often frequented as more popular destinations it is well prepared to support sporty vacationers who want long and challenging hikes across beautiful landscapes. There are also natural mountain spring spas and ecofriendly hotels and restaurants dotted throughout the area, for after a long day of trekking it.
Navia is the little known Asturian cousin to Gijón and Ribadesella, located on the other side of the province from them near the Galician border. It’s a small town but with some fabulous country homes you can rent for cheap, even in high season. Aside from the fact that Navia and its surrounding area is a hiker’s paradise, boasting miles of trails by the coast and inland where the paths go winding through the waterfalls and the hillsides, it’s also a fantastic spot for water sport.
Lately surfing and paddle surfing have grown by leaps and bounds in popularity. With its many rivers and ample beaches, it makes a perfect place to learn to get on a board and ride. And when you’re done that for the day, there are always the local cider houses, music festivals, and ruins of ancient Celtic settlements to visit that are all a stone’s throw from the beach.
Soria is a surprise that shows up on almost all of our lists. It’s inland and tucked away between Madrid and Logroño, so it’s often overlooked for either the capital or the wine country. Besides the perk that it’s close to both aforementioned zones, it’s a mountain paradise for sportspeople.
Mountain biking, climbing, and paragliding have all taken the area by storm in recent years. The high peaks make it a great place for all three, though only during the summer. It’s the coldest place in Spain during the winter, with temperatures often subzero, but in the milder months it’s not too hot and a welcoming outdoor arena.
Horseback riding is also an easy option to find. Soria has some incredible heritage, between the Monastery of Saint Bartholomew hidden in the canyons, or the Celtiberian ruins of Numancia, once the site of a famous Roman siege, and all of these incredible visits can be done by walking or by horse.
5. La Pedriza/Madrid
La Pedriza is just outside of Madrid in the Sierra de Guadarrama. It has over 1,500 trails for hiking and for mountain biking, and the incredible rock formations make for an unforgettable climbing experience. Most of the locals in the central plains go there for their sporty weekends, so you’ll be in good company.
Plus, it’s only a few hours drive from Madrid, and even closer to the sierra towns like Rascafria, which are surviving testaments of Middle Ages architecture.
It’s a short drive down into Ronda’s ravine, then back up a small mountainside by foot to get to the new entrance of La Pileta Cave. There are roughhewn stairs set into the hill to help travelers find the entrance the site where, 500m into the rock face, our prehistoric ancestors once dwelled. But it wasn’t an easy hike, especially considering I’d already hiked the ravine back in Ronda the day before.
But I make it to the top, to an unceremonious iron gate that looks something between a Resistance friendly steam tunnel entrance and a bootlegger’s storehouse. It is actually there to bar people from getting in to the cave without supervision, and is the entrance to the office and the gift shop. Both are inside the cave, which I find a clever economy of space.
Our guide that day speaks good English and informs us to please watch our step – where we’re going, there’s no natural light. Before we go much further, he lays out some ground rules – everyone must carry a lantern, which he passes out to us. No touching anything, an unsurprising and standard rule inside caves (even touching just the rock face can leave oil and damage the tracks the water takes to form stalactites. These caves are heavy and the open space is vast, he tells us, and one day it won’t be able to support its own weight anymore. We would like to delay that as long as possible).
There will be no photography, either. Not only is it bad for the art, the same reason museums have this policy, but the sensors are bad for the many hundreds of bats who are in residence. So we pocket our phones. After all, we’re in their home, it wouldn’t do to be rude.
Though it’s mid-September, and in Andalucía that means just this side of roasting hot, as soon as we start into the cave I start feeling clammy. I see why Jose – that is, our guide – told us to watch our step; everything, every surface of the limestone is slick with a slight and slippery alkaline water sheen. We move slowly up the carved stairs, which had been cut into the rock during previous periods of exploration and excavation.
One of the first caves we come to is called the Gallery of Bats. The ceiling is far too high to see any of them, but we are assured that they are there. As they are asleep at 3pm, as good little nocturnal creatures should be, we don’t even hear them chittering. For some guests that is probably a good thing.
The next room on the open circuit (we pass a few small tunnels that Jose tells us are restricted access due to slipping or rock slide hazards), is the Castle Room. It is named for the incredible rock formations that do honestly look like castle turrets. I wonder who could have lived here before? It’s already growing cold and so dark I feel miles beneath the earth. In reality, we’ve only gone in about a hundred meters.
They call this cave Pileta, meaning pool, and in the third ‘room’ I see why. To my right, over a flimsy rope strung along precariously posted rebar, is a deep cave pool. The water is dark, until I shine my lantern over it, and I see that the water is perfectly clear. But the lantern only penetrates so far, and beyond the weak reach of the light I imagine eyeless fish sliding around unseen. Jose tells us there are no fish in these waters, but with the echoes of water dripping and the occasional groaning of the rock, the darkness and the awareness of vast, empty, cold space around me, I find it easy to perceive some eldritch monstrosity waiting in the caverns. I shiver – but it’s mostly with delight.
It’s about this time that we start to see cave paintings. Running animals, symbols no one can discern the true meaning of. Like all prehistoric caves, animals, especially in motion, is a continued motif. In the central nave there are several depictions of what appear to be horses. As to what the symbols mean, well, the automatic go to is fertility. It’s always the easiest to assume that, the guide explained, but realistically there is no hard evidence.
The paintings are red and black and caper across the walls haphazardly. The guide informs us that most of these paintings probably date to the Solutrean period, that is, the Upper Paleolithic about 25,000-20,000 years ago. These paintings are the origins of art. One has to wonder, were they for didactic purposes? Showing the youngers how to hunt and forage? Warnings? Or just for the pure fun of drawing them?
From the central nave to the Hall of the Fish, as they call it, we see many more drawings, and other evidences of human occupation. It seems to me, and the guide confirms, that the occupation was aggregate, meaning it was not only one people at one time that used this cave for shelter. There is evidence of bone disposal and rock deposits – the kind you find when early peoples make stone tools and discard the flakes they don’t need. There is also evidence of fires having burned in alcoves, and some smoke residue still on the walls. Somehow the atmosphere of the cave has preserved all of this, and it’s aweing.
We’re almost 400m back now and it has taken us a while, carefully stepping, sometimes slipping, to navigate our way back here. We would have been in total darkness had it not been for the lanterns. I try to imagine any diurnal creature living in here, indeed, ones that make art and share meals. The space is certainly big enough to house a whole community, but how could anyone bear living in this kind of dank cold? It’s Tolkienian. I expect something slinky to coalesce beside me and ask me riddles in the dark.
Finally we arrive at the last chamber of the cave, well, the last one we’re able to visit. The final chamber, Jose says, is too dangerous to go into, the same as the subterranean caves that run beneath us (at several points during our 45 minute long trek I have had creeping moments of realization that there is only one layer of rock between us and the yawning caverns beneath the ones I’m already in. The weight of the mountain bears down on me in those moments). In this final chamber we see the famous Fish. It’s a pretty good rendering. Even though some of these drawings seem crude, the sense of motion and proportion is not bad, especially considering they’re drawn on uneven limestone. Probably better than I could do!
The Fish solidifies the idea that these caves are from the Solutrean period, which was around the time fishing as a human practice was beginning to develop. There are other depictions of fish across southern Spain in caves near to this one from the same period. But none as big and as well preserved as this one.
Around the Fish (as you can see) are a lot of hash marks. The other animals have them too, some that seem to correspond with the animal drawing, some that are simply hash marks by themselves. Common postulation is a numerical notation, or a calendar. Seems logical enough.
There is also an alcove that is wall to wall, floor to ceiling covered in rough depictions of what appear to be female genitalia. ‘Fertility’ the guide says again. Fertility is always the going theory. Someone asks whether or not this could be seen as a form of religion. The guide, nor I, am completely convinced. Begging for luck or associating symbols with a human event (such as drawings of female genitails with healthy childbirth), does not a religion make (despite a ‘venus’ having been found in the Gallery of Bats. It is an hourglass shaped creation that looks more like a bowtie than a venus, so it’s intention is much more debatable than the obvious alcove of genitalia). There isn’t any hard evidence of religious practice, so it might be a stretch to call this, ah, coital corner a belief in a Goddess. Could it have been? Could it have been the precursor to a more complex and fleshed out belief system? Anything’s possible, but no one really knows.
As the guide is explaining this someone next to me nudges me. Jose’s got a flashlight, not a lantern, and it’s resting on his shoulder, the beam pointed up. It spotlights on the end of a stalactite, where a tiny bat yawns and stretches out one wing. It’s about three feet up from Jose’s head. Turn off the lights, it seems to say, don’t you know what time it is?
It’s time to be heading out, the tour is ending. We carefully make our way back through the caves, two people slipping but thankfully not falling. Sturdy shoes are a must for this adventure. Once we’re back to the gift shop area, there are books about the cave paintings, in Spanish and in English, and postcards with some decent photographs of what we couldn’t take pictures of. None of it is expensive, and the cave needs the money for upkeep. One of these days, Jose says, they want to do more exploration of the lower chambers. But that takes grant money and a lot of equipment.
It is a shame they haven’t excavated the rest, because there seem to be more skeletal deposits and perhaps other paintings in the caves below. Still, there’s time. The cave might eventually collapse in on itself as Jose told us, but something tells me it’s going to be around, at least for a little while longer.
Many thanks to the Bullón family for the tour and the photos.
Soria is not the best known province in Spain, but it is the best hidden jewel. This summer, Colorfully has exciting tours for sporty clients that also want a taste of luxury.
The three biggest sites to see in Soria are the Hillfort of Numancia, site of a famous Roman siege, Wolf River Canyon with its hidden hermitages, and the Black Lagoon – sounds spooky, but is one of the most pristine and beautiful places in the country. Colorfully Spain offers horseback and hiking tours to all three places, as well as exclusive access to the ongoing archaeological excavation of Numancia.
Numancia, located in Soria,was one of the last but most famous Celtiberian settlements in Spain. It was besieged by the Romans in 133bce, who had been in conflict with the settlement for nigh on 20 years by that point. Rather than giving in to the Roman army, the Numantinos decided to die free than live as slaves, and burnt their city to the ground.
As many Celtiberian settlements were, Numancia was built on a high hill. This meant no shelter from the rather harsh winters in Soria, but it also meant a highly defensible high ground that managed to repel the Roman army for several decades.
Wolf River Canyon (Cañon de Rios Lobos)
The Black Lagoon (La Laguna Negra)
And, after a great active day, at night our clients have access to wine spas, tastings, gourmet meals, and the luxury of the Parador – a unique and first class hotel you can only find in certain cities in Spain. So come with us this summer and find out why you should be talking about Soria!
If you would like more information about our active summer tours to this area, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
4 Things in La Rioja You Can’t Miss this Summer
Colorfully Spain’s summer programming has everything you need for a perfect vacation. La Rioja is famous for its wine making, but that isn’t all it has to offer. Here are 4 things that you can’t miss in Spain’s wine country this summer.
Colorfully Spain announces brand new, exciting surf based tours in northern Spain for the summer of 2016!
The north of Spain is not only a great place to eat and taste wine, it’s also a natural paradise and a heaven for hikers and surfers alike. Now, Colorfully is offering innovative new tours that combine the two!
From paddle surfing down the green mountain rivers, stopping at cider houses along the way, to surfing by day and tapas crawls by night, Colorfully has a range of options for outdoor adventurers. And of course, a sampling of the region’s history and archaeology, from the castros of the north, to the church of Santiago de Compostela.
If you are interested in our outdoor adventure focused summer packages, contact us for more information!
Andalucia, though most known for sea and sun, has a wealth of cultural and natural resources to offer visitors. Colorfully Spain’s latest programs for autumn and winter highlight the most interesting and unknown gems of Spain’s southernmost region.
From the traditional food of Antequera, to the Paleolithic caves of Ronda, our new tours explore a wide range of exciting archaeological sites, traditional, non touristic restaurants and markets, cultural heritage sites, and more.
We offer our clients a chance to interact and learn about Spain through participation, with cooking lessons, dance classes and spectaculars, and outdoor adventure, led by guides who are experts in their fields, and with 24 hour a day, gate to gate bilingual service.
While we will always go to the main sites – who would miss out on the Alhambra? – we also offer clients the road less traveled, heading to small villages with deep histories, so they will take away experiences other trips will never duplicate.
If you are interested in more information about our Southern Routes for this autumn, winter, and spring, don’t hesitate to contact us!