Monday, September 22, 2014

My 5 Favorite Overlooked Cities in Spain

So many people coming to Spain tend to focus on checking off the country’s Big Four touristy cities: Madrid, the city that really never sleeps; Barcelona, with its medieval and turn-of-the-century charm; Sevilla, the beating heart of Andalucía; and Granada, whose Alhambra is the finest expression of Islamic art anywhere in the world.

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Roman walls of Lugo
I’m not trying to encourage people to avoid visiting Spain’s major touristy centers; obviously if there wasn’t anything worth seeing and doing they wouldn’t be the popular places they are today! I’ve had wonderful experiences in all four cities and believe they give a great cross-section of Spanish history and culture. Don’t get me wrong; I will go back to the Prado Museum every time I pass through Madrid, and the Alhambra will always be my favorite spot in the country.

What I’m trying to say here is: there is so much more to Spain than just Madrid or Granada! Even though it’s only the size of Texas, Spain is an endlessly varied country where most folks identify more strongly with their town or region than the nation. My favorite cities I’ve stayed in and experiences I’ve had have often been the places that you just never hear about in hostel common rooms or Top 10 clickbait lists. I believe that it’s just so much easier to get a deeper appreciation for the country when you spend some time away from all the paella-and-sangría menus or red double-decker tourist buses. Let me share with y’all five of the places where I think you can most easily do this!

1) Úbeda

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Parador hotel (Palace of Dean Ortega)
I would be remiss if I didn’t include my beloved Úbeda on this list. Although I initially wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of living in one of Andalucía’s “lower-tier” provinces when I first moved to Spain to teach English, I quickly came to love the province of Jaén over the course of the school year—and my adopted village, Úbeda. A medium-sized town of 35,000 people, it’s strategically located along major bus and train routes between Córdoba and Granada. But what makes Úbeda a World Heritage Site (along with its little sister, Baeza) is its amazing collection of Renaissance architecture, unique in the region. Stately palaces and grand churches dot the city’s old town and enliven the winding Moorish alleyways. You can see traces of Úbeda’s Moorish heritage in the handful of kilns still used in the potter’s quarter, where craftsmen glaze pots and plates in the traditional Islamic green.

Read more: An Homage to Úbeda, My Pueblo in SpainHow to Spend 48 Hours Eating in Úbeda, Spain, and A Guided Tour of Úbeda, Spain

2) Teruel

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Teruel Cathedral
The provincial capital of Teruel in southern Aragón languished for decades under “middle-of-nowhere” status, but church restorations, highway improvements, and recognition by Unesco for its architecture have really put Teruel on the map. This average-sized town was declared a World Heritage Site for its dazzling display of Mudéjar-style churches, designed in a style that was a fusion of European Gothic forms and traditional Islamic decorations. Intricately-carved brick, plaster, and wood cover these medieval churches and you can even climb up most of the town’s historic bell towers. Don’t miss the old town’s fanciful Modernista homes that recall the works of Antoni Gaudí, and affordable, high-quality jamón de Teruel (cured ham) should be on any dish you order here!

Read more: Teruel, Spain: An Architecture-Lover’s Dream and The Legend of the Lovers of Teruel, Spain: Fact or Fiction?

3) Lugo

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Octopus festival!
Lugo may be one of the only major population centers in the rugged interior of northwestern Spain, a status it has held since Roman times when it was known as Lucus Augusti. Today you can go for an afternoon paseo on top of the ancient Roman walls, which are built of flat, sturdy slate and encircle the entire old town. Make sure to plan your visit around one of the city’s two major festivals. Arde Lucus in June is the annual Roman reenactment festival in which half the town dresses up in togas or centurion outfits and the other half dons Celtic fur coats and tattoos. And October’s Festa de San Froilán is your typical town fair, full of activities for the kids and, most appropriately, endless pulpo á feira or boiled octopus.

Read more: Photo Post: The Roman-Walled City of Lugo, Spain

4) Ourense

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
A Ponte Vella — The Old Bridge
South of Lugo is what I would consider to be the gateway to Galicia, Ourense. Perhaps infamous for extreme weather—its location in the Miño River Valley makes the city “Spain’s frying pan” in the summer—Ourense nevertheless occupies one of the most beautiful settings in the country. The Ponte Vella or old medieval bridge spans the Miño in three larger-than-life arches, connecting the new town near the train station with the historic center to the south. The most relaxing thing to do here is to chill out in any of Ourense’s many hot springs, a few of which are free to the public. I recommend the intimate, nearby Chavasqueira pools or the huge complex downstream at Outariz.

Read more: 6 Things to Do in Ourense, Spain: Galicia’s Best-Kept Secret

5) Almería

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Alcazaba de Almería
My first year in Spain I spent only half a day in Almería on my way from Úbeda down to Morocco…which makes sense when you realize that overnight ferries link coastal Almería with Melilla and Morocco on the other side of the Mediterranean. I made the most of this too-short layover, though: exploring the castle-like cathedral and the highly-underrated alcazaba or Moorish-era fortress; drinking Moroccan mint tea at a tetería or teahouse and enjoying free, creative tapas with my drink in the evening; and simply enjoying the crisp sea air blowing through palm-lined esplanades. The nearby Cabo de Gata natural park is home to some of the Spain’s only remaining unspoiled Mediterranean beaches, and the desert outside town has been the set for countless Western films over the years.

Read more: 7 Ways to Discover Almería, Southern Spain’s Best-Kept Secret

What are you favorite little-visited corners of Spain? Tell me your beloved cities in the discussion below!

Full disclosure: I wrote this blog post as part of the Booked.net - Top Destinations to Go There promotion in which at least 100 travel bloggers will publish a listicle of their five favorite destinations and enter for their chance to win an iPhone 6. Woohoo! So I’m nominating Mike of Mapless Mike, Kaley of Y Mucho Más, Cassandra of Gee Cassandra, Jessica of Curiosity Travels, and Jenny of A Thing for Wor(l)ds. Get writin’, y’all!
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