Malaga/Cordoba/Seville winter tour by rail 2015

The Espacio Metropol Parasol or Las Setas [Mushrooms], Plaza de Encarnación, Seville.

Winter in Andalucia with daytime temperatures hitting 25+ degrees celsius and cooler evenings is a great time to visit all those famous places that are less appealing in summer when it’s too hot and too crowded to enjoy. 

Travelling between city centres on the Spanish RENFE rail system is quick, easy and great value — especially for ‘pensionistas’. Hotels in Spain are very good value and cafes/restaurants celebrate the the populations’ love of eating and drinking in public. 

All three cities we visited have invested in environmental improvements: landscaping, pedestrianisation and repurposing buildings for the new ‘gastonomic market’ concept that has given old market buildings a new lease of life in both Spain and Portugal [and in the UK too!]. The landmark buildings of Andalucia are also enhanced with good complementary signage and facilities for visitors. So, with no summer crowds and still pleasant temperatures, it’s a great time to visit.

Muelle Uno, the new harbourside develpment in Malaga.

Getting there and around

As the gateway to the Costa del Sol, Malaga airport has numerous flights from Manchester, from various operators on a daily basis and prices are good out-of-season. Options for getting to city centre are bus, train or taxi — all are relatively cheap. Taxis in the other cities are fairly priced too. Interesting to note that quite a few were Toyota Prius hybrids — very environmentally friendly!

We checked the RENFE website for times and train types before we booked with the Spanish Rail Service in London — the high speed AVE trains are a lot more expensive and travel times are almost identical to the AVANT trains on the routes we took. The German bahn.com is also excellent for checking route details and transfer times — but not prices. We noted that a three part journey returning to the same location had a 40% discount. There are other deals too, some up to 70% lower than full price — or the pensioner’s Targeta Dorada [Golden Pass] offers up to 40%, depending on train type and journey dates. 

We were very impressed by our experience of RENFE — clean, modern stations and clean, modern trains — all punctual and not crowded, plus great prices too. However, check for Spanish public holidays — we noted that the trains are much busier with travellers around these dates — with queues waiting to go through the x-ray security scanners located either in the station or on the platforms.

The corner Junior Siute at the Hotel Molino Lario, Malaga.

Malaga

We ‘topped and tailed’ our visit here, staying at the Hotel Molino Lario, overlooking the Paseo Park, the new Marina development and the commercial harbour. Here is part of our Tripadvisor review:

‘Rooms are a good size, very good beds, easy to control air con/heating, a good buffet breakfast with some cooked-to-order options, a popular atrium/bar area and friendly, attentive staff. Upgrade offers are available for returning clients — the corner junior suite we had was very luxurious: four huge multi-curtained windows, huge bathroom with separate facilities, open and closed wardrobe/hanging space, a big sofa and a complimentary carafe of brandy — that we initially mistook for sherry — oops!’

We did not mention that the AC Malaga opposite still has the better [and much higher] rooftop bar and it’s now permanently staffed and very popular in the evening. 

‘Octopus’ mega-yacht berthed in the new harbour development, Malaga.

We walked the length of the new Marina development, past ‘Octopus’ the mega-yacht owned by Paul Allen, joint founder of Microsoft up to the lighthouse and onto the second beach chiringuito for a hearty lunch, much cheaper than the offers on the Marina. We also visited both markets: the Mercado Central Atarazanas, just off the Alameda that had a very lively bar/cafe street side lunchtime scene and the Mercado Merced, that now has a gastronomic offer for drinks and food — but lacked the buzz of the other location. The El Corte Englés department store also has a top floor ‘Gourmet Experience’ with luxury comestibles, a cafeteria, restaurant and extensive open-air bar and seating area too — very impressive!

Open-air bar and seating area of the top floor ‘Gourmet Experience’ at El Corte Englés, Malaga.

La Odisea Vinos de Malaga: specialises in Malaga wine with a popular terrace — overlooking a busy roundabout in Malaga!

Cordoba

World famous for the 'Mezquita' Mosque/Cathedral situated on the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, the city has a long history, being the capital of Roman Baetica and later the Moorish Caliphate of Cordoba, the city declined post-Renaissance — however this it to the advantage of the modern visitor as it now possesses the largest urban area declared a World Heritage Centre. The area around the Roman Bridge, the Roman Gateway and contemporary Visitor Centre was designed by Cordoba based architect Juan Cuenca Montilla. The northern bank has been re-landscaped with many traditional buildings being repurposed as bars/cafes/restaurants. The southern bank is a contemporary urban park. The main Madrid-Seville rail line has been covered over with another urban park to the north of the city centre.

Side appraoch to the Mezquita. The contemporary Visitor Centre and surrounding landscaping was designed by Juan Cuenca Montilla.

The Viento 10 hotel is a 10 minutes walk from the city centre and has many accolades on Tripadvisor. This is some of our review:

‘Boutique size hotel with eight rooms/suites, beautifully converted from a traditional property on a very narrow, pedestrianised street, a short walk along the Ribera/riverside from the Mezquita [Mosque/Cathedral] Alcazar and central area of Cordoba . . . . . Gerardo, the owner is very hands-on and keen to talk to visitors. He offers a very good, reasonably priced breakfast and will book you the Jacuzzi and sauna for free.’

The Mezquita Mosque/Cathedral tower, Cordoba.

Two views of the interior of the Mezquita, the Mosuqe/Cathedral in Cordoba.

We visited all the major monuments: the amazing Mezquita, the Alcazar de los Reyes Catolicos and it’s incredible garden and the Palacio de Viana — a sequence of thirteen exquisite patios interlaced through a renaissance palace, and happened upon the enormous Plaza de la Corredera. There are bars, cafes and restaurants on every street, but with a laid-back vibe — great for strolling around in the sunshine. We only visited a small part of the city during our two night stop-over, but would gladly return to see more.

View of just one of the numerous water features of the Real Alcazar gardens, Cordoba.

The Palacio de Viana — a sequence of thirteen exquisite patios interlaced through a renaissance palace, Cordoba.

The Roman Bridge and Arch, Mezquita and Visitor Centre, Cordoba.

Seville

The highlight of of our tour, so we devoted four nights to the city and could happily return for four more. It’s a big city — the principal city of Andalucia — with facilities and infrastructure commensurate with it’s status. Most tourist maps of the city re-orientate north to east to encapsulate the city centre, but the Canal Alphonso VIII arm of the Rio Gaudalquivir actually runs north/south at this point and is a good feature to base explorations around. The river here is used for tourist round-trips and canoeing, kayaking and sculling animates the waterway with cycling/pedestrian pathways and attractive parkland replacing older industrial areas on both banks.

'domed rotunda with plush contemporary furniture': Hotel Gran Melia Colon, Seville.

We stayed at the Hotel Gran Melia Colon and discovered it was in easy walking distance of the riverside, the Triana district on the west bank and the main monuments of the city. Our Tripadvisor review is very positive:

’… reception — a domed rotunda with plush contemporary furniture. The hotel has been themed around Spanish art: the door to each guest room is covered in a reproduction of part of a painting. Our room was generously sized with . . .  a huge bed and a large marble bathroom with separate shower and WC . . . Breakfasts were very good with a huge choice from the buffet and some cooked-to-order options too. Good selection of newspapers to peruse. The top floor terrace was a bit disappointing — much smaller than the impression on the website — and a serpentine route from the lifts, but great views when you get there . . . .’

Mercado Gourmet Lonja del Barranco, Seville.

Seville has many fascinating eating options including their take on the gastronomic market: the Mercado Gourmet Lonja del Barranco, a lovely building that was previously the city fish market on the banks of the canal/river. There are numerous food options: seafood, jamon serrano and charcuterie, empanadas and baked goods, pasta and spaghetti, grilled meats, cheeses, sushi, an arroceria: rice bar, tinned goods, eggs and potato dishes and various tapas, a cocktail bar, wine bar and cerveceria for beer. On the steps down towards the river is an open-air nightclub. 

Casa Morales a lively old traditional bar, Seville.

The Mercado . . . Barranco is just by the Puente de Isabel II bridge — over the river at the other end is the Mercado de Triana, a small traditional produce market with a few twists: it’s been rebranded by ‘Look and Do It’ a Sevillian agency and it has it’s own typeface, designed by Alberto Carnero. It also has a cooking school: Taller Andaluz de cocina, that bases it’s lessons around the produce available in the market.  What a good idea! When we visited a large group of older residents were having a great long lunch, provided by one of the market cafes. We had a brief look around the Triana district and had some great tapas at Blanca Paloma. It’s an area that is being ‘gentrified’ especially near the canal/river. In the city centre we had drinks and tapas at a number of other bar/cafes including Casa Morales a lively old traditional bar with huge storage jars along the walls and waiters who really enjoy their job and Restaurant Oriza, near the Real Alcazar that has a dining room in a huge conservatory.

Our bill at 'abantal': The 'tierra' was a very good bottle of Rioja from Agricola Labastida; 'tallarines': sherry wine noodle over cream of seaweed, cured prawn and smoked flathead mullet starter; 'tartar lubina': sea bass tartar with roasted gazpacho and sherry vinegar and strawberry ice cream starter; 'lomo ciervo': venison loin with chestnut, hazelnut and sweet potato main course; 'cordero lomo': lamb tenderloin with cauliflower couscous main course; 'canelon': mango cannelloni stuffed with a cheese and white chocolate mousse and lemon grass soup dessert — all fantastic.

The gastronomic highlight of our trip was a lunch at ‘abantal’, the Michelin starred restaurant of chef Julio Fernández Quintero. The cool, contemporary interior, located just beyond the old city centre, had a quiet buzz for a Saturday lunch service, about half full with fellow diners. We chose different starters and main course that were halved and served so we could each sample all our choices. Food was amazing with numerous additional tasters: a coffee cup of black bean soup, a trio of tastes in mini pots, mint sorbet between courses [see the bill for our choices]. The service was solicitous and friendly and the chef thanked us on our departure. A wonderful experience — maybe next time we’ll have the tasting menu — with wine pairing, a bargain at 87 euros for this class of cooking!

Views of the Real Alcazar, Seville.

Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla.

In retrospect, we surprised ourselves by visiting nearly all the famous monuments of the city: the Real Alcazar de Sevilla and it’s extensive gardens; the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla: the bullring — still a private institution owned by Sevillian aristocratic families; the Casa de Pilatos — the palace of the Dukes of Medinaceli with large patios and a collection of Graeco/Roman statuary and the Espacio Metropol Parasol or Las Setas [Mushrooms] a huge organic honeycomb structure [engineered by Arup in London] that has a serpentine walkway on top offering great views of the city and a market and aquarium below. We’ll get round to visiting the Cathedral next time — it was closed to visitors each time we were close by.

Patio in the Casa de Pilatos — the palace of the Dukes of Medinaceli, Seville.

View towards a patio in the Casa de Pilatos, Seville.

We had a great four nights in Seville and what initially appeared as a warren of streets around the hotel and beyond started to become identifiable routes. The city offers one and three day tourist bus passes, but although our pre-trip research included checking bus routes, just walking — especially given the great weather — was ideal for us. There’s much more to see and do than we could encompass, so we’ll definitely return soon — a great winter city break.

Entrance to the iconic Hotel Alphonso VIII. The Seville Lawyers Association Christmas Party was in full swing!

Maybe it was the time of year — the run-up to Christmas, but all three cities had a celebratory atmosphere with families and groups out to have a good time — that was great to be a part of — even for a few brief days.