November, 2015. The pueblos blancos (white towns) that dot southern Spain’s Andalucia region are consistently postcard perfect. Many are sprawled on the side of a hill, or perched on top of a steep-sided cliff. They are usually dominated by a giant church or fortress or both. Their whitewashed buildings are brilliant against the deep blue Spanish sky and vivid pinks of flowering bougainvilleas. Their Moorish past lends an exotic charm.
Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara is a small town (pop.1500), but its location around a rugged crag topped with a 12th century castle gives it a huge presence. If you think the view up to the town and castle is great, well…the view down to the shimmering turquoise lake is equally spectacular. It’s this stunning setting that is Zahara’s best feature and makes it particularly memorable.
If you’re seeking peace and quiet, and dramatic scenery, this may be the pueblo blanco for you. The pretty Plaza Mayor has a few restaurants and bars that are busy during the main mid-afternoon meal, but generally, it’s a delightfully sleepy place. Beyond exploring the charming streets and climbing up to the castle for the rocking views, Zahara is a good base for hiking in Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, and biking on the Via Verde de la Sierra, one of Spain’s finest biking greenways.
Bottom Line: Zahara de la Sierra
Wow setting, peaceful village, close to hiking and biking.
For a very comfortable, affordable place to stay (about 60 Euros), check out Hostal los Tadeos. Don’t let the word “hostal” fool you. This place even has an infinity pool overlooking the valley. The owners are lovely but speak very little English and their website is poor (but don’t be put off).
It’s an awesome, curvy, 16 km hair-pin drive from Zahara de la Sierra to Grazalema. The town is located in the heart of the Sierra de Grazalema, a rugged limestone mountain range. In Zahara, you feel like you’re on top of the world whereas in Grazalema (pop.2200) you feel protectively enveloped by the peaks surrounding it.
This is a place where you can enjoy a leisurely tapas meal in the sun-drenched main square, Plaza de España, and then walk to trailheads leading to wonderful hikes. You may want to do this the other way around. We were regretting eating that second plate of meatballs as we trudged up the trail adjacent to the Peñon Grande, the monolith that towers over Grazalema.
It’s the easy access to hiking (no car needed) that makes Grazalema especially appealing for active, nature-lovers like me (check out my hiking post). Like Zahara, it’s a small place with a relaxed vibe and pretty streets lined with immaculate whitewashed houses and flowering trees.
Bottom Line: Grazalema
Great base for hiking from doorstep, very pretty village.
For an amazing place to stay with owners who are super helpful and can tell you everything about local hiking, try La Mejorana. Great value at 58 Euros with breakfast. This was my favourite lodging during our four weeks in Spain.
Arcos de la Frontera
You “wanna” be King of the Castle? Head to Arcos de la Frontera where you can be perched on top of a sheer precipice gazing out at your empire. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll be content sipping a glass of wine well back from the edge.
With a population of 31,500, Arcos is a much larger pueblo blanco than Zahara and Grazalema, but the main tourist area—in the old town at the very top of the hill—only covers a small area. Its larger size means more restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourist amenities. Apparently it can get quite crowded in peak season, but that wasn’t a problem in November.
Once you’ve stopped gaping at the view, there are several impressive churches to visit and plenty of picturesque cobblestone streets to explore.
Bottom Line: Arcos de la Frontera
Dramatic setting, lots of choice for eating and sleeping.
We stayed at La Casa Grande—a quirky, older place with a killer rooftop patio (photo two up). Another awesome value spot (about 60 Euros).
The biggest challenge in Arcos is negotiating the narrow streets leading up to the old town
Vejer de la Frontera
Vejer de la Frontera sits dramatically atop a rocky hill (sadly I don’t have a photo). Perhaps I was too mesmerized by the most exquisite town square with its polished stone surface and tile fountain. It is a beautiful gathering spot surrounded by great eateries, a fun wine and sherry tasting bodega, and a lovely hotel.
Just above the plaza is the arched entrance to the old, walled town. It’s an enchanting place of quiet, twisting streets and stunning views. In case you’re wondering, the “de la Frontera” part in both Arcos and Vejer is a reference to the frontier towns that formed a boundary between Christian-held territories and Muslim towns during the Middle Ages.
The town of approximately 12,800 inhabitants is special in its own right, but its bonus appeal comes from being only 10 km from the long sandy beaches of the southern Costa de la Luz. We used it as a base to explore the coast down to Tarifa at Spain’s southern tip (check out my post on the Costa de la Luz).
Bottom Line: Vejer de la Frontera
Pristine old town, lots of Moorish influence, close to Costa de la Luz.
We did a mini-splurge at the gorgeous Hotel La Casa del Califa. The 90 Euro price (one of the lower priced rooms) was still extremely reasonable for this characterful hotel with exotic Islamic decor. The restaurant downstairs has amazing ambiance and great Middle Eastern food.
Tips, Other Stuff, and a Verdict on Favourite Pueblo Blanco…
- Stated hotel prices and my observations about lack of crowds are for November. It was a great time to travel.
- The driving distance between Zahara de la Sierra and Vejer de la Frontera is only about 160 km. We traveled slowly and stayed in each of the four towns for one or two nights, which allowed time for hiking, biking, and exploring. If you’re pressed for time, it is not difficult to move at a faster pace, stopping for lunch or a stroll before carrying on. Try to stay overnight at least once or twice!
- Speaking of driving, it is easiest to have a car. Public transit is possible, but it can be slow going especially in the smaller towns.
- Brace yourself for nerve-racking driving and direction-finding in the narrow streets of the old towns. Especially in Arcos and Grazalema, we found it easier to park in the lower parts of town and walk to our lodging where we got info on best driving approach and where to overnight park.
- I’ve short-changed the wonderful town of Olvera, which I used as the featured header photo. It is gorgeous, but we only passed through when we biked the Via Verde. It is 30 km from Zahara and worth a visit.
- Enroute from Arcos to Vejer, we stopped at Medina Sidonia, another fabulous white town with loads of history and not a lot of tourists.
- Conspicuous by its absence in our itinerary is Ronda, the largest and probably most visited white town. After several attempts at securing accommodations, we gave up.
- Favourite town…sigh! Hubby’s vote goes to Arcos de la Frontera. I loved them all, but if forced to answer, would have to say Vejer de la Frontera.
I’m just learning how to customize and embed google maps, so bear with me. You’ll have to zoom in a bit to see the detail of our route.