In 1985, my father took my brother and I to live in the South of Spain. As a bilingual educator, he was able to take a sabbatical to perfect his language craft. He visited all the cities in the south and landed us in Nerja, a small beach town on the Costa del Sol, just over 35 miles east of the Malaga airport. He chose it thinking it would feel familiar to our home town of Capitola, California. We lived there for nearly an entire year and my brother and I attended the local schools. I was nine and my brother turned 13 while we lived there. The year was an adventure to say the least!
Why we returned to Spain 33 years later
Last year, my dad and I traveled to India, and it turned out we travel quite well together. Early this year, he was just on a mission to take my brother and I back to Spain. With all of our combined worldly travels since 1985, none of us had been back with the exception of a few days my brother tacked onto his Around the World Trip in 1993.
I think curiosity was itching at him. How much had changed and how much would be the same? Could we find our old friends and would they remember us? Would it look familiar? Was it all real, did it all really happen or was it just a whacky dream? So on pop’s dime, we left our significant others and pets behind and hopped on airplanes to revisit distant memories.
What I was expecting in the South of Spain
When you’re nine years old, your attention and interests are just so different. What you care about, want to do, notice and remember are so skewed. My dad and brother definitely have different and more detailed memories than I do, but based on my nine year old memories, here are a few things I was expecting to find on our return trip.
I do remember spending some time at the beach. I remember playing with the rocks in the sand and exploring coves and splashing around in the water.
Plenty of Seafood
I remember the local cuisine being fish heavy. I remember giant pots of Sopa de Mariscos, shrimp scampis and fresh bread.
Local Cats and Dogs
I remember all the local stray dogs at the beach. While stray, still very sweet and fun, clean and safe to play with. The stray kitties were all over the place. Rummaging through trash and were completely wild. I think my brother and I may have captured one once thinking it would be a fun pet. It tore through our apartment like a maniac until we realized it was a wild cat and needed to be set free.
By the time we left, I think I spoke conversational Spanish at the age of nine. For some reason, I took four years of French in high school. In college, I became obsessed with nutrition, not language. Today, I am the proud speaker of one-single-English language.
What I wasn’t expecting in the South of Spain
Here’s the crazy thing. Everything I was expecting turned out to be what I wasn’t expecting. The town of Nerja, the community, the food, the vibe, the people — all of it totally blew my mind. It was one of the most peaceful vacations of my entire life…
My nine-year old brain remembered the rocks, they are beautiful. Worth collecting and bringing a few home. But the beaches aren’t rocky, there is gritty sand, warm weather, soft waves, cliffs, rocks, crystal clear, warm water. I’ve seen some beaches in my time, but the little Carabeo Beach we spent last week at is on my top 10.
Lot’s of Seafood
OMG the food! That soup, the paella, the fresh bread, the local wine. I. Can’t. Even begin to tell you what an adventure every meal turned out to be. Whether is was a simple loaf of fresh bread and a package of ham and cheese on the beach, a grab and go panini, a quick meal on a terrace or a long meal for dinner … everything was amazing.
We were able to find my dad’s old friend Molly (Miguel) who is the owner of the beach restaurant Chiringuito Moreno at Burrina Beach we went to all the time in 1985. He walked us through a meal that blew all of our minds. Everything is local, fresh, made from scratch and I’m not sure anybody there even knows what a preservative is.
And here’s the real clincher … it’s not expensive! I was expecting it to match US tourist beach pricing and it was all about half of what I would have anticipated. I don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.
Local Cats and Dogs
The stray dogs are gone and all the domesticated pups are on leashes and just about the coolest tempered animals I’ve ever seen. No barking, no leash tugging, no begging. Just chilled the-f-out dogs. I mean they live in Spain, why not?
The cats are still stray, but they are like town celebrities. Super friendly and roaming the beaches and the Balcone looking for pets and treats. I’m not kidding, people carry cat food in their purses to feed these kitties. The grey kitty, who was the Mayor of the Carabeo Beach, would come sit on your towel with you if you had an umbrella.
I still don’t speak Spanish, but I was surprised at how much I could follow. My dad and my brother both speak Spanish so any local conversation we had was in Spanish and the only English we spoke was to each other. Following a conversation was weird, it was like I could understand, I just didn’t know the words. LOL. Two interesting things strung from this:
- Apparently I didn’t have ant conversations for 10 days. I didn’t even realize it until we got to the airport and I was chatting with a Canadian while we were in the customs line in France. It felt weird stringing words together to form sentences. I didn’t write while I was away either — so talk about va-CAY-tion, and I needed it.
- I think I want to learn how to speak Spanish. I feel like if I went back and enrolled myself in a 4-6 week intensive course, I’d pick it up pretty quick. There is a language school in that town and it’s actually very affordable. I think I’ll add that to my 2019/2020 list of things to do.
Southern Spain Skinny Travel Tips
Everything in Spain was just so easy, I don’t have a particularly exhaustive list of tips. But I feel strongly that you would enjoy it if you went, so here is what I’d recommend:
Book the Trip
Just go. It’s like exercise, you’ll never “find the time” to do it. You really need to create it. My dad was the driving force of this trip and looking back, I’m grateful he was so adamant we go. Don’t wait for the perfect time. Just book it far enough in the future and plan around it. We booked ours about eight months in advance and then everything else just feel into place around it.
The Cultural & Logistical Time Change
This isn’t so much a tip, just something to be aware of (and I guess something I could add to my list of what I wasn’t expecting). Not only is the nine hour time change pretty whacky to adjust to, the cultural time change is tricky too. The sun does not rise until after 8am and the town does not wake until 10am. And it all runs later too. You’re not surprised to see people sitting down for dinner at 10pm.
At home, I’m up before 7am and winding down for bed around 9pm. Asleep between 10-11pm, and I eat dinner no later than 7pm. I spent many morning hours just waiting for the sun to come up so I could go for a little run and was falling asleep just as the town party was getting started.
Track your Steps
If you’re into daily exercise (and if you read my blog, you probably are) don’t expect to find a treadmill or stack of weights in your hotel, a spin or pilates studio on every corner and I did not see any early morning beach bootcamps. We did see one sign for a yoga class, so I’m sure you can find it if you’re really looking.
But that does not mean you surrender activity while on vacation. I recently started picking up running again so I’d go for a short 2-6 mile run each morning. Combine that with just general exploring for the day, I ended up moving over 60 miles during our trip and came home feeling very skinny.
Eat the Fish
Eat all the fish! Even if you think you don’t like it, eat it. It’s the least “fishy” fish you’ll ever have and it will change your world! Order the fish soup, paella, shrimps, whole fish, fried fish, calamari, shellfish. Eat. It. All! You will be glad you did.
Book Alhambra tickets ahead of time
If you want to go see the Alhambra (a palace fortress in Granada) you’ll need to book your tour ahead of time. You can’t just roll up and buy a ticket and solo explore like we did 30 years ago. The palace is one of the distinct memories I have and the first attraction we went to revisit (well, the 2nd if you count the beach). We were stumped at the door and were not able to visit the inside. We we toured the grounds and went across town to view it from the outside. But if you go to the South of Spain, its worth planing to see the inside.
Gibraltal is a nice day trip
We had some funky, rainy weather a few days while we were there so we took another day trip to Gibraltar. It was about a 2.5 hour drive to get there in our rental car. Once we got settled, we took a bus tour up to the top of the rock to see the caves, monkey’s, vistas and such. Before we left we had some killer fish and chips, it is Britain after all. If you don’t have a rental car, it was one of the least expensive day tours you could purchase for about $42 Euro.
Check out the Nerja Caves
The cuevas are cool! I thought I dreamed them when I was a kid, but not so! They are real and they are like nothing you’ve ever seen! Giant caverns, so much that they’ve hosted ballets in the largest rooms.
Stop, relax and enjoy
This is true for any vacation you take and not something I’m ever particularly good at. Even when I’m away, I’m thinking, writing, working, planning. But in this case, I just couldn’t. I just stared at the water, at the food, laid in the sun, sat in the back seat of the car, played video games on my phone and spaced out. It was like I was nine years old again. Trust that the time you spend doing nothing on vacation comes back two-fold in energy when you get back home.
Have you been to the South of Spain? What did you love the most? If not, when do you plan to go?
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