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Exceeding Un-Expectations

For some stupid reason, when Kim and I moved to Valencia, we didn’t expect to find many off-the-beaten-path highlights in Spain.

We somehow got it stuck in our brains that Spain was all about its tourist-trampled cities like Barcelona, Seville, San Sebastian, and Madrid. It didn’t have small, enchanting villages like France or Italy, either.

Luckily, our Spanish friends showed us we were mistaken. They introduced us to an off-the-beaten-path side of Spain that blew away our un-expectations.

Southern Spain

Un-Seville-ized

We met David and Desiree over mutually punctured tires in Namibia. When we told them we were moving to Valencia, they said we had to come visit them in Seville. So we did.

We thought we’d be hanging around the city for a few days.

Nope.

They had different plans: to show us their favorite off-the-beaten-path places in Southern Spain.

We barely even saw Seville!

Chipionas tapas bar in Southern Spain
Our server chalking up our bill at Proamar in Chipiona.

Chipiona

Seafood Feasting

Desiree’s been to coastal Chipiona to escape the Southern Spain swelter ever since she was little. But it’s still not popular with foreign tourists. That’s because rather than woo outsiders with beauty and charm, it satisfies insiders with a friendly feel and food.

Lots of food. Almost too much food.

First David and Desiree took us to Despacho de Vinos to fill up our plastic bottles with straight-from-the-barrel sherry. Continuing to the seaside promenade, we ordered Spanish ham, mini shrimp, fried almonds, and dried tuna tapas from Proamar. We then walked down the beach to portside Cantina Marinera for an informal, familiar, and fantastic seafood feast. And, finally, we filled our second stomachs with turrón gelato from Margarita la Fresca.

Maybe that’s why Chipiona remains off-the-beaten-path. Tourists literally can’t stomach it.

Sherry barrels in the Lustau's historic bodega.
Some of the sherry in these barrels is even older than the historic building it’s stored in!

Jerez de la Frontera

Sherry-ing Is Caring

Kim remembers her dad drinking a glass or two of sweet Sherry with dinner when she was little, but she’d never had any herself.

And neither she nor I had any idea that the name comes from us English-speakers mangling a foreign word, “Jerez,” the Andalusian city it comes from.

So out of curiosity, we paid a visit to Bodega Lustau. They turned our ignorance into interest, insight… and indulgence.

On a tour of the historic bodega, we tasted a surprisingly wide range of sherry variants (some aren’t even sweet!), learned the unique way it’s made by mixing vintages (which means every cup has traces of VERY old sherry), and overall learned to appreciate this overlooked part of Spanish culture.

Kim and I have since enjoyed more than a couple drinks of sherry, ahem, jerez.

(Heads up: Other than to learn about and taste sherry, Jerez didn’t seem too interesting.)

A couple more happy pigs following Eduardo around his farm.

Cortegana

The World’s Most Expensive Ham

Two hours northeast of Seville, Cortegana is in the heart of ham-land. And not just any ham: jamón Iberico, Spain’s internationally-renowned delicacy.

There, we had the honor of meeting Eduardo Donato. A reformed Catalonian real estate exec, Eduardo followed his own unconventional route. Twenty years ago he bought farmland outside of town and started raising a nearly extinct breed of pig, Manchado de Jabugo. Naysayers warned him they took too long to grow and nobody would buy it. He showed them otherwise.

As he toured us through his farm in the Spanish Dehesa, he told us the whole story and showed us his prized pigs, which are now the most prized in the world. Each leg sells for €4,100, making it the most expensive ham in the world.

Unable to afford a slice, we bought and ate some much cheaper, but still expensive ham, beside the castle above town.

Spain Off-the-Beaten-Path Tips

  • Tighten up loose connections. Connect Spanish Facebook “friends,” acquaintances, friends of friends, or distant relatives who can show you off-the-beaten-path Spain.
  • Follow the food and drink. Look to travel to where traditional Spanish food and drink are made, and learn directly from the source.

Northern Spain

Our Spanish friend Oscar, demonstrating just how easy it is to pour cider…

Glorious Basque-ing (and Rioja-ing)

During the blueberry baron era of my pretirement, I shared a Vancouver apartment for a few months with a young Spanish guy named Oscar. He proudly raved about the quality of life, food, and wine in his hometown of Cárcar and invited me to visit any time.

Five years later, Oscar was back in Northern Spain and Kim and I took him up on his offer. And he proved he wasn’t exaggerating.

In between the best farm-to-face feasting we’ve ever enjoyed on his family’s farm, Oscar led us well off the beaten path in Northern Spain and made us wish we’d come sooner.

Getting a warm welcome at the Dia del Camero Viejo Festival in San Ramon de Cameros.

San Roman de Cameros

A Reinvigorating Festival

On our way to Cárcar from Valencia, we stopped by San Ramon de Cameros. Kim had seen it was hosting the Dia del Camero Viejo Festival, an annual event that rotates around Rioja’s small towns to reinvigorate them with games, expos, food, and drink. We figured at the very least it’d be an opportunity to taste some Rioja wine for cheap.

Like our previous experience going off the beaten path in Southern Spain, it proved to be way more than that.

The ancient, tiny town with old brick buildings that looked almost Swiss easily rivaled any in Italy or France. And it was hopping with residents of the nearby city of Logroño having a great time celebrating their history and culture. They were surprised us Canadians had found about their party but more than happy to have us join.

Running of the cows in Falses in Northern Spain
The downhill running of the cows at Falses.

Falses

The Downhill Running of the Cows

Oscar drove us to the small town of Falses early one morning (“early” in Spanish means 9 a.m.) for a one-week-a-year-special event: el Encierro del Pilon de Falses.

Like the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, everyone dresses in traditional white and red, big brass bands wake up the crowds, and people are drinking beers way too early. The difference was we were the only tourists. Oh, and instead of bulls running through city streets, horned cows hurtled down a steep hill after the locos who tried to outrun them.

Chris and Oscar enjoying the street life in Pamplona.
Jackets, check. Wine, check. Tapas, check. Pamplona, check.

Pamplona

A No-Bull Beautiful City

Since we’d already experienced Falses’ version of the running of the bulls, we didn’t mind missing Pamplona’s much more popular and touristed equivalent.

But we’re glad we didn’t skip Pamplona entirely. It has the energy of a university town, tremendous tapas (we especially liked Rio Vermuteria’s huevo frito, and Bodeguon Sarria), huge urban parks, and a distinctly Northern European feel.

Collection of market fresh pastries at a local market in Saint Jean de Luz.
Kim was in pastry heaven at this Farmer’s Market we stumbled across in Saint Jean de Luz, France.

France

Pourqoui Pas?

On a day trip to San Sebastian, we popped over the border to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a beachside resort town. Pourquoi pas?

What a difference a 25-minute drive can make!

Though still in Basque country, the cafés, artisanal shops, and excellent market had a notably more elegant (some would say snobby) French feel. And way better bread, chocolate, and pastries.

The ancient town of Ujue, sitting on the edge of a hill.
Ujue was a well-worth climbing up to for its medieval streets and traditional food.

Ujue and Olite

Spellbinding Ancient Towns

At Oscar and his family’s suggestion, we wandered these spellbinding towns’ winding medieval streets in between wining (at Olite’s Bodegas Ochoa) and dining (at Ujue’s Pastas Urrutia, my favorite hearty menu del dia lunch in all of Spain).

Spain Off-the-Beaten-Path Tips

  • Rent a car. To get off the beaten path in Spain, you have to go where the trains can’t. Skyscanner had the best rates when we were searching. Be sure to take a video of the exterior of your car before and after just in case they try and ding you for minor dings. The budget companies are notorious for this.
  • Look for festivals. Look for festivals in the dates you’re visiting—Spain’s got plenty of parties!—and plan around them. This is one of our top travel tips for wherever you go.

Central Spain

Kim overlooking the town of Albaraccin in Northern Spain.
Kim overlooking Albaraccin in the morning.

Getting Off-Center

Invigorated by the off-the-beaten-path treasures our friends showed us in Northern and Southern Spain, Kim and I ventured from Valencia to see what Central Spain might have buried deep below its touristy Top 10.

Colourful red buildings in Albaraccin, our favorite small town we visited.
Albarracin is a little piece of magic, in the middle of Spain and totally worth the stop.

Albarracín

Our Favorite Find

If we had to bet on one place going from off-the-beaten-path in Spain to becoming a trampled tourist attraction, it’d be Albarracín. With its pink-ish buildings, medieval walls, and secluded stony hill surroundings it has all the makings of becoming the next Instagram sensation.

But for now, it’s still quiet, especially in the morning. That’s why it was our favorite off-the-beaten-path place in Spain we visited.

The Spaniards agree. They recently voted Albarracín as their country’s most beautiful village. It’s only a matter of time before that nomination gets translated into English and the rest of the world shows up.

Tip: They make some pretty delicious sausage meats (Kim especially liked the chorizo) and cheese in Albarracín.

Views from Serra d'Irta national park
Pretty Peñiscola’s peninsula viewed from Serra d’Irta national park

Serra d’Irta

Nurturing Nature

Serra d’Irta National Park, one and a half hours north of Valencia, is one of the last remaining swaths of undeveloped nature along Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

Maybe it’s the Canadian in us, but after months in Spanish cities and towns, Kim and I relished the opportunity to escape from humanity and enjoy a seaside picnic on the rocks, in nature, with nobody around.

Picturesque town of Morella
Medieval Morella was a picturesque place to stop over for a night.

The Maestrazgo

A Super Chill, Off-the-Beaten-Path Region

Sparsely populated and even less touristed, especially by foreigners, the Maestrazgo is a hilly, mushroom forest filled region northwest of Valencia. Spaced out every twenty kilometers are so are dramatically-located medieval villages like Cantavieja, Mirambel, and Morella.

We enjoyed a couple of very chill days escaping the lowland heat and humidity to pueblo hop, forage for mushrooms, drink vermouth, and eat tapas.

Tip: Chefs should stock up on local dried mushrooms and truffles, which Morella is famous for.

Valencia

The Big City that Doesn’t Know it Yet

See our Valencia Off-the-Beaten-Path City Guide for all our favorite things do see, do, and eat we experienced during the time we lived there.

Spain Off-the-Beaten-Path Tips

  • Don’t default to Airbnb. Airbnb options are limited in rural Spain so you might find better value, comfort, and location at small hotels.
  • Visit Spain’s Most Beautiful Towns. Don’t limit yourself to just these towns, but plan your Spanish trip around seeing some of these 50-or-so towns around the country.

A Whole Lot More Off the Beaten Path

Turuel architecture and medieval streets in central Spain.

Even if you want to spend most of your time in Spain’s famous cities, also plan to travel somewhere (anywhere!) off the beaten path.

It’s way easier and more rewarding than it should be given the country’s popularity and convenient Western European location. We bet that’s where you’ll find your fondest memories.

The same goes for everything in life. To be inspired to live a bit more off-the-beaten-path, sign up for our unconventional newsletter:

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