An idyllic journey through southern Spain’s pueblos blancos
Coming from the US, Spain’s generous amount of national public holidays and paid vacation allowance came as a shock, albeit a pleasant one. The workaholic culture of my home country has nothing on southern Europe, where people work to live, and not the other way around. Even on any given weekday evening, you’ll likely see people out and about enjoying good drinks and good vibes al fresco at terrace bars throughout the country.
Other than summer and the Christmas holidays, one of the most popular times to travel in Spain is Holy Week. Here, the Easter Bunny takes a backseat to the lavish, extravagant Semana Santa processions that make their way through the streets multiple times a day for a week straight. When they’re not gathering to watch the pasos, Spaniards are catching planes, trains and automobiles across the country and beyond, taking advantage of the extended holiday to travel.
Previous Semana Santa jaunts have taken me to central and eastern Europe; Newcastle, England and Edinburgh; and Heidelberg and Strasbourg. This year, after looking up flights to our ideal destinations (Rome and Berlin) and ending up disappointed but unsurprised to find anything below €200, we decided somewhat on a whim to keep it local and discover some of the towns right here in our home region of Andalusia that we had yet to explore.
What are the pueblos blancos?
If you know Spanish, the name is pretty self-explanatory: they’re white villages. More specifically, in the context of Spain and Andalusia, the term pueblos blancos is used to mean the whitewashed towns nestled in the hills of (mostly) Cádiz and Málaga provinces.
They’re one of the most idyllic images you can have of southern Spain, and after nearly four years here, there were still several that I’d been wanting to check off my list for a while. So, come Holy Thursday morning, we loaded up the Opel and headed west.
Setenil de las Bodegas
Travel time from Córdoba: 2 hours
The forecast we’d been expecting for our mini road trip—a gray cover of clouds, unseasonable chills, a light sprinkling of rain—welcomed us to our first stop. Tucked away in the northeasternmost corner of Cádiz province, the humble village of Setenil de las Bodegas has earned its claim to fame for one reason: it was partially built under a rock.
Our trusty Google Maps navigator took us up to the highest point of the town, which meant getting there involved driving perilously up the side of the mountain on a two-lane, winding road with no barriers separating the pavement from the steep dropoff beside it. Even though my Spanish driver’s license had arrived in the mail the day before we left, I was infinitely thankful that my boyfriend had insisted on taking the wheel, not at all ready for the Long, Long Trailer-esque situation that getting to Setenil involved.
We found a parking space along the side of the road at the top of the mountain in a line of several other cars, and stopped to marvel at the views of the town down below (and take a few pictures) before we started our descent into the first of the three white villages of Andalusia we’d set out to explore.
The majority of Setenil is not, in fact, under a rock. Actually, most of it isn’t. Only a handful of streets in the city center have been built beneath the overhanging mountain, and in some other areas, buildings have been constructed into the rock formation but not underneath it.
That being said, to get to the famous streets where the mountain forms a natural roof over the road, you’ll need to go way, way down into the heart of Setenil. As beautiful as the town looked, I was already dreading the hike back up to the car as we started to make our way downhill.
Setenil itself is small enough that a morning is plenty of time to explore. As we made our way downhill, we popped into a local store or two, took way too many pictures, and thanked the parking gods that we’d left our car where we did—the town’s narrow streets are no joke. Once we found the famous overhang that covers the center of the town, we stopped for coffee and a local pastry at a sidewalk cafe right underneath the mountain itself.
As we made the trek back up the hill, we made a point to seek out some of Setenil’s many miradores (viewpoints) that offered breathtaking views of the town. In addition to the photo op, it also gave us an opportunity to rest a little bit, rather than making the entire climb all at once.
Travel time from Setenil: 30 minutes
Hotel: Casa Ronda, a quirkily decorated but fairly priced apartment just around the corner from some of Ronda’s main sights.
By the time we left Setenil, the less-than-ideal weather we’d been expecting had made a complete 180. Instead of the uncharacteristic rain and clouds that had been showing up on Andalusia’s forecast all week, we were now blessed with sunny skies and relatively warm temperatures.
Compared to Setenil, Ronda was much easier to access by car, but we ran into trouble once we actually arrived in town. Remember those Holy Week processions I was talking about earlier—the ones that disrupt traffic patterns and parking availability throughout Spain for days at a time?
Yeah, that’s why we ended up circling Ronda for half an hour, desperately looking for an open spot and ended up parking a 15 minute walk away from our hotel (not too bad after all, given the circumstances).
Out of all the white villages in Andalusia we’d been planning to visit, Ronda is perhaps the best-known, as well as the most frequented by tourists. I was expecting something along the lines of “sleepy little pueblo with a famous bridge” and ended up getting “bustling, thriving small city with a famous bridge that’s smaller than you’d expect” (we seriously drove across it once or twice without even realizing in our desperate search for parking).
The bridge, Puente Nuevo, is easily Ronda’s most famous attraction. Though it has quite the grim past—prisoners during the Spanish Civil War were sometimes executed from it, being pushed to their deaths into the gorge hundreds of feet below—it’s become an Andalusian icon.
Ronda was also a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway—particularly its bullring, which is Spain’s oldest and most iconic. We didn’t go inside, although if you want to check it out but can’t stomach a bullfight, there are also horse shows that take place there pretty regularly.
All in all, Ronda is the kind of place that will take your breath away and make you never want to leave. In addition to the stunning natural and historic beauty in and around the town, I was struck by how much fun people seemed to be having. Even for Spain—a fun, lively place in general—there were tons of people out and about enjoying life, especially in the evening. That’s probably why we ended up waiting an hour to be seated for dinner at one of the many packed restaurants just off the main drag in the city center (a first for me in nearly four years in Spain).
Arcos de la Frontera
Travel time from Ronda: 1 hour 15 minutes
Hotel: Casa Rural Las Cadenas del Cananeo, a rural-chic, cozy inn set in a quaint historic building.
We pulled into Arcos de la Frontera on the one of the sunny, bright days that southern Spain is so famous for, effectively proving that the entire rainy forecast that had been predicted was luckily not going to happen. By the time we arrived in town, the streets were already being blocked off for the Semana Santa processions later that day, so we sucked it up and parked even further away from our hotel than in Ronda (and downhill from it as well to boot).
Speaking of Semana Santa in Arcos, it’s a pretty big deal. So much so, in fact, that there are posters all over the town reminding you of that fact.
Arcos boasts a dramatic location right on top of a hill, with the spectacular historic castle as its crown jewel. Its whitewashed walls contrast beautifully with the surrounding countryside, and no matter where in the town you find yourself, you’re sure to have a pretty spectacular view.
Have you ever visited one of the white villages of Andalusia? I’m always looking for more travel inspiration!
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