Autonomous Community Spotlight: Islas Baleares // Illes Balears

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

After Valladolid orientation, I struck up a conversation with Meg. We had many mutual friends and would be studying abroad together in Castilla y León, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to introduce myself.

“Hey, I mean, holaaaaa. Soy Meg. Want to come to Ibiza with me once the program is over?”

Sad but true: of the four islands that constitute the Mediterranean archipelago, I have been to just one. And that island is known for little more than foam parties, beaches and monstrous discos. I even turned down a position at a summer camp outside of Palma to return to rainy Galicia summer after summer.

Mallorca, the largest of the islands and home to its capital, has been on my Spain Wish List this year. Given that it’s a gateway to other parts of Europe, sounds like the perfect place to meet my cousin in a few months for our bi-annual European adventures!

(My apologies for not posting last month. As you know, life can sometimes interfere with everything from work to a writing hobby, so I’m a month late here)

Name: Islas Baleares in Castillian, Illes Balears in Catalán

Population: 1.1 million (including mi niño, Rafa Nadal, when he’s not off somewhere winning cups)

Provinces: Baleares consists of four islands: Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Fomentera

When: 4th of 17 regions, June 2005

 

About: It is believed that the islands that sit between 50 and 190 miles off of the eastern coast of Spain have been inhabited since the shipwrecked Boeotians, later taking its name from the Phoenician language.

Apparently everyone went around nude then, too, so it’s no surprise to me that the four big rocks that make up the island chain are touristic hot spots.

Anyway, given its strategic role smack dab in the middle of the Med, the Baleares constantly found themselves under different rule – Carthinigans, Greeks, Romans, and didn’t even escape Muslim rule until the 12th century.

During the Reconquist, King James I of Aragón captured the islands one by one, incorporating them into the crown once he had died and his will called for the Count of Urguell to give them back. Like marbles, the islands were wrestled back and forth between seemingly everyone in Europe – Holy Roman Empoeror Charles V, the British, Napoleon and even Turkish and barbary pirates – before 1802.

Interestingly enough, catalán is an official language, with some 75% claiming to speak it.

Must sees: The islands are no stranger to mass tourism – Palma’s airport is one of Spain’s busiest in terms of passenger volume – and it’s benevolent temperature yearround means it’s full of expat enclaves, particularly English, Nordic and German. Even the former Spanish king, Rey Juan Carlos, summers there!

Don’t let that throw you off, though. The impressive Palma cathedral and the port below it, Menorca’s calas and interior wild beauty, the club scene in Ibiza and the temperate waters seem to lure tourists to Las Islas Baleares, but the archipelago’s culture and sun sports have me itching to make it back.

You can tell from my Irish roots that I don’t lend well to sitting on a beach, but I’d love to learn to sail or scuba dive. It just looks like…a break from my computer?

Because the Islas have a distinctly Catalan flavor, the two regions share many popular traditions and festivals. Most notably, last week’s Nit de Foc, celebrating the feast of Saint John, where bonfires blaze throughout the night around the islands, and people burn things as a sort of rebirth that marks the summer solstice. There’s also a mock battle in Soller between pirates and the townspeople to commemorate the islanders’s win over Moorish seafaring folk, and parties and romerías seem to rage on throughout the summer. Oh, and did I mention a grape fight in September?

And, of course, there’s the cuisine. Mallorcan food centers around seafood, tumbet mallorquín (a version of pisto) and the sinful ensaimada pastry. Mallorca is also an up-and-coming wine region, protected under the Denominació d’Origen Binissalem.

My take: I’ve always equated the islands with partying, Rafa Nadal and pebble beaches, but I’ve seen relatively little of the comunidad autonoma. But with daily flights on several airlines, my biggest excuse is deciding which swimsuit to pack and then to actually go! 

Have you been to the Balearic Islands? What would you recommend seeing?

Check out the other regions I’ve highlighted: Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for July is the other island chain, Canarias.

A Tenerife Road Trip

There is no greater freedom than windows down, music up and open road. On a recent trip to Tenerife – a volcanic island in the Atlantic that resembles a flat-based bowling pin and boasts Spain’s highest point, hosts a bustling tourism scene and is packed with colonial history. We rented a car from Hertz to see as much as possible during my quick weekend break. Over a day and a half, we made a huge loop around the island, hitting major cities and natural sites while skipping the heavily-touristed South End.

I left the planning to Julie and Forrest. As locals, they had clued me into what we’d be doing, eating, climbing and drinking. For was even going to take care of the driving.

The Novio and I rented a car when we were on Gran Canaria about six years ago, zigzagging around this near-perfect circular island – there is really no other way to see the islands. 

Day One

Santa Cruz del Puerto

Julie and Forrest live in the island’s capital, right near the port. Julie grew up in La Coruña, right near the port, and despite living a year in Seville, craves the water. She gave me a primer to the city’s few historical sites as we walked through lush urban gardens and decided that having a beer and catching up would serve us better.

The following morning, we were eager to get a start on the day. The majority of the island’s tourism heads to the south, where discos nuzzle up to the black sand beaches and there are holiday package hotels on the primera línea of every inch of beach. Our road trip on the TF-5 would take us to the northern tip of the island’s sites.

Teide

From Santa Cruz, take the T-5 towards La Laguna to the T-24 to the Teide National Park

The Megane climbed steadily through the birch trees towards the geographic center of the island. One of the biggest things on my Tenerife must-dos was seeing El Teide, a volcano which doubles as Spain’s highest point and one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island. The whole national park was mind-blowing, given that the landscape was positively lunar, dry and stunk of sulfur.

We paid to take the gondola up the view-point, which faces the southeast side of Tenerife and the island of Gran Canaria, but also got special permission to access the peak via foot. It was a steep, hot climb, but well worth the views.

La Orotava

From the park entrance, take the roundabout towards T-21, snaking down the mountain until you reach La Orotava.

After a morning of hiking on only a coffee, Forest directed the car towards the western side of the island, known for its wine crop and misty weather. As the clouds rolled off of Teide’s peak, we were left with a rainy, cloudy afternoon.

For lunch, we stopped at a guachinche, or a family run restaurant and winery. For the bargain price of 25€, we feasted on local cheeses and sausages, drank the family’s fruity wine and shared stories of living in Spain.

Puerto de la Cruz

Hop back on the T-5 to exit 32 to T-31 and follow the signs to the center of town.

We probably could have served to get rolled down the volcano to Puerto de la Cruz from the guachinche, but a quick car ride found us in Puerto, the north’s holiday-maker capital. This seaside village was once known for its stately Canarian palaces, but the center of town is overrun with German tourists nowadays. Puerto is also home to Loro Parque, the island’s best-advertised attraction, so it was difficult to not feel strangled by mass tourism.

We bee-lined straight for the black sand beach of Playa Jardín and walked around its old fishing neighborhood, La Ranilla, characterized by brightly colored facades and seafood restaurants. 

The center of town was crawling with people on a market day, so we found a terrace with ecological products for a quick coffee. It almost looked like a Canarian Disney Land – built up colonial houses with wooden balconies, small shops brimming with mojo picón and local wine and botanical plants lining the skinny roads. 

El Sauzal

Rejoin the T-5 to exit 21 and join the TF-172.

As night fell, Julie promised me a drink and a view. In their weekend travels on Tenerife, she and Forest had found a gorgeous terrace bar in the town of El Sauzal, a small blip of a town that seemed to drip down the side of a mountain.

The menu at Terraza del Sauzal was full of food and drink choices, and I settled on a Campari orange margarita. We watched the sun stain the sky pink, then dip into the ocean until the next day.

Day Two

Mirador de las Teresitas

Follow the port towards the northern tip of the island.

The following morning, we followed the road leading out-of-town towards the Anaga peninsula and nature reserve, keeping the port on our right-hand side. Immediately leaving the town of San Andrés, the road climbs to the Mirador de las Teresitas, a viewing point high above a beach of the same name.

The cliff is covered in graffiti and is apparently a sort of drug den, but that morning, we could see across the port to the capital, as well as Teide in the distance, peeking out of the clouds. Playa de las Gaviotas stretch under us on the other side.

I had only a few hours before my flight back to the mainland, so we hopped back in the car and sped towards San Cristóbal de Laguna, a colonial town nestled between two mountains.

San Cristobal de la Laguna

Take the T-5 out of the capital, towards the Tenerife Norte airport.

Apparently airport architects made a huge X on a map of the island as to where NOT to put an international airport, but Tenerife North was built anyway. The wind tunnel where La Laguna, as it’s known locally, sits was windy but sunny and warm for a March day.

The well-preserved historic center is the island’s other UNESCO site and is entirely pedestrian, crowned with a university and the Catedral de La Laguna. While there was plenty of history just under the glossy surface of La Laguna, we decided on beer and a few light tapas.

A few hours later, Forest dropped me off at the airport, and Julie made me promise to come back so we could do the Southern half of Tenerife. For a girl who has lived in four different cities and four different autonomías in Spain, Tenerife must be pretty special if she’s decided to stay on just one more year.

Like road trips? Check out my other posts: Montenegro // La Rioja // Understanding Spain’s Driving Laws

Five Reasons Why Lanzarote Should Be On Your Travel Radar

The month of March for me will be centered on the Canary Islands – not only will I be visiting Tenerife for the first time, but I’ll also be heading to Trujillo to redeem a prize from a writing contest, in which I wrote about a memorable meal on Gran Canaria.

For the future, I can’t overlook a Lanzarote Sunshine Holiday, as the easternmost island’s biodiversity, gastronomic treats and jaw-dropping beaches merit an epic road trip around the bean-shaped island.

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And it’s not all golf courses and spas on this vacation paradise – leaving the Tenerife trip planning to my local friend, I began to delve into what Lanzarote has to offer.

The Beaches and Biodiversity

Known to have been formed by underwater volcanic eruptions, Lanzarote has been crowned with a Biosphere Reserve through UNESCO for its richness of flora and fauna, as well as its unique geology. In fact, over 40% of the island has been designated as protected area, the most famous being the moon-like volcanic landscape of Timanfaya National Park.

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There’s also a number of geological sites due to multiple eruptions and underwater volcanic activity. Visit the Jameos de Agua, el Golfo volcanic lake or  the Cueva de los Verdes – they look insane!

And thanks to its miles of coastline, the beaches on Lanzarote are famous for their beauty and their wind sports. Those near Puerto del Carmen are where you’ll find a number of tourist-friendly amenities and all-inclusive resorts, but Yaiza’s white sand beaches and the lunar-like stretches near Tinajo shouldn’t be missed.

The Gastronomy

The gastronomic history of Lanzarote is astounding, rich in vegetables and fish. After tourism, agriculture is the most important industry thanks to its wine-growing regions and tough terrain. This also means that potatoes and yams are widely grown, and the most typical meat dishes are of goat and pork – a fry cry from the paella and sangria touristic ploy.

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Be sure to try a gofio, a simple, traditional gift believed to be eaten by the aboriginal people. Made of toasted grain flour, it’s typically eaten with stews or added to water to make dough. Cheese is also a big deal on the island, and several varieties are made.

The Weather

While most of North America and even Spain are caught in the worst winter weather of, um, decades, the Canaries experience an average temperature of 22° (and the average water temperature is close to 20°!) and about 12 hours of sunlight in the summer months.

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Do note that if things gets hazy, it’s because of the sand blowing off of the Sahara Desert – Lanzarote is just 125km off the African coast!

The History

Believed to be the first settled island of the archipelago, Lanzarote has long been inhabited by Phoenicians, Romans and the objective of many European conquerors. It was even believed to be Atlantis by Plato!

Teguise is the historic capital of the island and, at one time, the political center as well. The small city has seen skirmishes and pirate attacks, and is now home to the island’s best museums. There’s also a weekly flea market on Sunday, and the city fills to the brim for the event.

Though a fair amount of the Canaries’ citizens is made up of expats, Lanzarote has a smaller concentration of foreign residents. Because it’s different from mainland Spain, the island merits a visit to see its unique way of life.

Getting to and around Lanzarote

The island is served by both an international airport and ferries from nearby Gran Canaria. Once on the island, renting a car is recommended, or you can cycle, surf, hike or even hitch a ride on the guagua.

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? Any suggestions for Tenerife?

Revisiting Gran Canaria: Driving the Miniature Continent of the Canary Islands

As I prepare for my upcoming Christmas trip, I’ve realized something: for as many years as I’ve run Sunshine and Siestas, there are loads of places I have never written about visiting (like, several stops on my Christmas route). 

One of those places is Gran Canaria. Though a part of Spain, the island chain that makes up the Canary Islands is actually closer to the Western coast of Africa and are a haven for North Europeans – as well as Spaniards – on holiday.

As it turns out, this near-perfect circle of an island had far more than we bargained for. After all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity, earning it the nickname ‘The Miniature Continent.’ Though we went in May 2008 for a wedding, the Novio and I were able to see loads on our Gran Canaria holiday.

Though arriving to the Canary Islands is actually quite easy, as Las Palmas Airport is one of Spain’s busiest, renting a car made the biggest difference. I blindly followed the Novio, as I did in the early stages of the relationship, as he navigated the large airport, stuffed me into a car and drove me right to breakfast.

The GC-1 highway runs the eastern circumference of the island and took us to Maspalomas. Known for its dunes and gay nightlife, we cozied up to an airy bar near the beach. I gawked at how everything on the menu was in big, bold English with tempting bacon and hash browns. The morning was spent walking across the dunes, which stretch on for three kilometers away from Playa del Inglés.

Not surprisingly, then, there were loads of holiday makers and a few who wanted to bare all in the warmth of the early May sunshine.

We followed the GC-1 though the mountains to Puerto Mogan. The seaside village sidles up to a small port and beach, perfect for our lunch stop. We strolled through the streets, avoiding the shade and popping into boutiques.  That afternoon, we had a long lunch with several beers and loads of footsy.  Back on the GC-1 later that day, the afternoon meant relaxing near our hotel’s beach and strolling through the center.

We hopped on the GC-2, the highway that runs counterclockwise from Las Palmas, turning off at the GC-20, a secondary highway that leads to the island’s second-largest city.

Arucas and the cavernous church de San Juan Bautista was the venue for Jose and Particia’s wedding the next day. Like Maspalomas, Arucas is famous throughout Spain, though not for its natural beauty. This village, perched on a mountainside, produces a sweet honey rum called Arehucas. We’d later drink it until the early hours, only stopping once we saw the sun. My first Spanish wedding has always been my favorite.

On Sunday, the Novio had the idea to drive inland, towards Roque Nublo. As the highest point on Gran Canaria, we had to take several small highways that snaked higher and higher into the mountainous central part of the island.

I hated him for it.

From the top, one can see not only the panorama of the whole island (though the northern part of the city tends to be covered in fog), as well as Teide, the volcano on Tenerife and Spain’s highest point. Hiking off the hedonism from the previous night served me well for the return trip to the Iberian Peninsula. 

Afterwards, we stopped in the quaint fishing village of Agaete for lunch and a bit of sun. Located on the west side of the island and a jumping off point to other islands, the bars were a bit rough around the edges and cheaper than the bars we’d been at in other parts of the island.

Though our holiday on the Canary Islands lasted just one long weekend, we felt miles away from everything. It truly is a miniature continent, and has something from every type of traveler.

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? I’ll be traveling to Tenerife right after Carnavales next year and would love tips!

Cruising: Spotlight on Royal Carribean

My memories of cruises are far from what their marketers want you to think of – days trapped on the kiddy deck while my family cavorted, piña colada in hand, because I was too old for the kid stuff, but too young for the disco. When my father suggested a cruise this winter down the Danube – hitting Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary – I was initilly skeptical.

Then I remembered that I’m now of age.

All of the sudden, I find myself considering cruising as a relaxing, less stressful way to travel. Though we’ll be taking a different cruise line, I thought about the first two experienced I had, one of which was on Royal Caribbean.

Royal Caribbean International is one of the biggest and best-known names in the cruise holiday industry. With their blend of innovative onboard facilities, exciting entertainment and scintillating destinations, there’s plenty to love about cruise holidays with Royal Caribbean.

For starters, they sail to over 260 destinations around the world, ranging from the frozen wonderland of Alaska and the paradise beaches of the Caribbean, to familiar Mediterranean shores and far-flung exotic cities. Some of their itineraries are short 2-night taster cruises, which offer the perfect short break or a great way for first-timers to have a go at cruising. Other itineraries last for a week or even longer.

Depending on your choice of itinerary, you can often find cruise holidays with Royal Caribbean that set sail from the UK, usually Southampton, which offers a flight-free holiday – perfect for anyone who doesn’t like flying! It also means you get to spend more time onboard while you’re sailing to your first port of call, and in that time you can enjoy the ship’s fabulous facilities – be it the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, the shopping malls or evening entertainment.

Royal Caribbean has helped to revolutionise cruise holidays and is attracting a much wider audience than ever before. With family-friendly cruises, romantic escapes and exciting adventures for thrill-seekers, never before has cruising been so widely accepted – and enjoyed. What’s more, given this wide-ranging appeal, you can now find plenty of Royal Caribbean cruise deals, too. Head straight to the Royal Caribbean website or, for a fantastic range of choice and the chance to compare itineraries across all the major operators, use a travel agent like Cruise Thomas Cook. Take a look at their website here – http://www.thomascook.com/cruise/lines/royal-caribbean/ –  and search for the latest Royal Caribbean cruise deals on itineraries departing this year and next.

In short, whether you’re after a fun-filled weekend away or the adventure of a lifetime, Royal Caribbean can take you there, and beyond.

This guest post was contributed by N. Rudenko.

Any ideas one what to see in Passau, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava or Budapest? I’ll be on a seven-day booze cruise with my family!

Huelva: Andalucía’s overlooked province and why I love it

Jessie called me to give me the bad news: “They placed me somewhere called Huelva,” using the hard h sound we’d learned to adopt in Valladolid. Without looking at a map, I assumed Huelva was on the other side of Andalusia and sighed heavily, sad that we couldn’t continue our Vdoid antics with an acento andalú for eight more months.

Jessie (on the far right) and I in San Sebastián. June 2005.

As a matter of fact, Huelva is the little slice of overlooked Andalucía is wedged between Seville, Cádiz, Badajoz and Portugal, a far-flung yet varied region.

Confession: I think Huelva has more to offer by way of destinations and gastronomy than Seville does. Gasp!

Bet you didn’t know that Christopher Columbus prayed at the La Rábida monastery before setting off for the New World (and that you can visit recreations of the Nina, Pinta and Santa María in its port), or that the Recreativo de Huelva is Spain’s oldest football club, as the English settlers to Río Tinto brought the game over when they came to exploit the mines?

I mean, yes, it smells like a swamp and it’s not exactly a beautiful city, but there are some redeeming factors that make the province of Huelva worth a day or two, particularly along its coastline or a trip to Doñana National Park.

THE HAM and other eats

I would clearly start with my taste buds and my beloved jamón ibérico. The black-footed pigs in the northern hills of the province, part of the Cordillería Bética, feast year-round on acorns, giving the cured meats a buttery smooth taste and texture. They’re taken to the slaughterhouse in Aracena in early Autumn to be turned into meats and other products from the Denominación de Origen Huelva (note: this weekend kicks off the Feria de Jamón in Aracena, where free samples abound!). 

Huelva is also famous for fresh seafood and strawberries. The gamba blanca de Huelva is a local favorite that is simply boiled and served with rock salt, and it’s characteristic of the region. The fresas and fresones are cultivated in the greenhouses along the coast from Palos de la Frontera to as far as Lepe, with their growing season lasting just a few months in the springtime. Migas, a bread dish with garlic, is also common in the mountains.

And then there’s wine! The bodegas around Bollullos Par del Condado produce a young white wine similar to mosto that’s a bit sweet, as well as vinegars. You can visit the bodegas and wine museums from Seville, as it’s only a 45-minute drive from the capital.

The beaches and mountains

Huelva shares a coastline with the Atlantic, with the Ríos Tinto and Odiel forming the Sebo peninsula where upon the capital sits, and the Guadiana separates Spain from Portugal. Many sevillanos flock to the coast during the warm summer months because of its proximity to the capital hispalense – less than 100 kilometers. The beaches are of fine sand, moderately windy and relatively clean. Seven of Huelva’s beaches have been bestowed with the Bandera Azul – three in Punta Umbría, two in Isla Cristina and one each in Moguer and Almonte.

In the Northern part of the province, the last little push of the Bética becomes the Sierra Morena. This region is full of great hiking trails, ideas for excursions like mushroom hunting, and gorgeous little villages where you can eat well and on the cheap. Aracena is the ‘capital’ of the region and boasts a series of underground caves and a crumbling castle that crowns the hamlet.

Huelva is also home to Spain’s largest national park, Doñana. These protected wetlands and pine groves cover about 135 square miles and is the breeding ground of the Iberian Lynx. The park boasts quite a few beaches, too, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can visit the park with a guide, though my mom and I snuck in a horseback ride from nearby Mazagón.

The fiestas

For years, I equated Huelva with a hangover due to its enormous Erasmus population and cheap bars (and because I was 22 and 23 when I went every other weekend), but Huelva knows its fiestas poplars.

Each Pentecost Sunday, those faithful to the Virgen del Rocío (known as Our Lady of the Swamps) take a pilgrimage to the Aldea outside of Almonte to witness the festivities to exalt one of Spain’s most popular symbols. It’s like the Feria de Sevilla set in the Wild West – hitching posts, covered wagons that people live and travel in for a few days, the palios that carry the image of the virgen towards the sacred ground where her image was found in a tree trunk or some business like that. And get this  – people flock from as far away as Brussels on foot, and then return the same way they came! If you’re on the way to Doñana, definitely stop in El Rocío and visit the gorgeous whitewashed shrine – it’s lovely.

Huelva also celebrates its connection with Columbus during Spain’s national fiesta, October 12th, has several smaller romerías for various saints in the province and has its own version of Carnival and Holy Week.

Living well and living cheap

For everything that Seville lacks, Huelva makes up for it. Onubenses enjoy a better microclimate than Seville, are closer to the beach and can live comfortably for cheap – Jessie and company lived right in the center of town in a Duplex for 180€ a month! I would grab a bus every other weekend to go see her and the other girls, enjoying a few days near the beach for cheap.

Getting to Huelva capital from Sevilla is easy: Damas runs an hourly bus on weekdays from Plaza de Armas for 16€ roundtrip. Have you ever been to Huelva? Any recommendations on other things to see?

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