With the Spanish economy struggling and the Australian dollar still quite buoyant, living the good life in Spain as a traveller is easy.
Heading back home to the UK for a family wedding became even more appealing when my generous and favourite (only) uncle offered me his apartment in Spain for a few days. Never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I jumped at the chance and invited my dear friend Donna to join me.
The small village of Hondón de los Frailes has been the summer home of Uncle Bryan for the last three years. Around half of its 1217 population is Spanish, with Europeans of other nationalities making up the remainder. Situated 40 kilometres from Alicante, the sleepy little municipality couldn’t be more different from it’s glitzy neighbour, Benidorm, just 85 kilometres towards the coast.
Visiting a small village where Spanish is the predominant language could have been daunting, but, thankfully, my uncle is a larger than life personality, so there was no shortage of people willing to help us out. Having been collected at the airport by Edie and Mike, who, since retiring five years ago, have chosen to make Hondón their permanent home, Donna and I were happily stranded in this village with only eight bars and restaurants.
So, what do you do when you’re in a place you’ve never been before? Simple. Go local. Eating and drinking as the locals do is not only a great way to meet people, it also helps keep down the costs. Thankfully, Hondón doesn’t have any tourist traps where unassuming travellers are fleeced by paying over the odds for drinks and food. Tapas and Tinto de Verano, a drink similar to Sangria, but with less alcohol, were the staple diet most nights and meant that dinner and drinks cost just 15 Euros each.
Fresh fish, locally grown and produced olives and olive oil, delicious misshapen tomatoes and freshly-baked bread featured prominently on most menus. Donna and I enjoyed starting our day with an exotic-sounding dish, Pa amb Tomàquet, basically toast and fresh tomato jam, simple but unbelievably tasty. After just a couple of days, our Spanish waiter smiled and asked ‘usual?’ This exemplifies the beauty of being in village of only 1200.
Having no car, Shanks’ pony was our main mode of transport, with the benefit of not only being a great source of exercise, but also free. The Spanish sun is hot in the summer, (35 to 40 degrees Celsius), so walking too far each day wasn’t on the cards. Rural, Hondón is surrounded by grapes vines and olive groves, making ambling around with no real purpose more than pleasant.
Having nowhere to go and no time estimate of arrival, we wholeheartedly embraced this relaxed pace of life. Sometimes enforced relaxation is the only way you actually slow down, but reading, lying by the pool and drinking Tinto de Verano does lose it’s appeal for city-dwellers after a couple of days. On our second afternoon we got chatting to a neighbour, who told us about a beautiful local bodega just a short bike ride away. He offered us the use of his bikes, so Donna and I decided that this would be the best way to spend our final day.
Up early, we ate our usual breakfast before setting off on what we had been told was an easy cycle along a dedicated bike path to the next village, Hondón de las Nieves. As we passed and admired grapes vines, olive groves and small farms along the way, we hardly noticed the sun beating down. By the time we reached our chosen destination, the combination of not being on a bicycle for several years and the lunchtime sun, was starting to take its toll. Time for a light libation!
The family-owned Bodegas Cerda has been producing wine in the region for almost 130 years and while modern technology and an onsite mixing laboratory has made the process simpler, you can take a step back in time to discover how wine production in the area has evolved. The cool interior of the imposing bodega offered a welcome respite from the ride and the sun. You can take an organised tour of the museum if you call ahead, but you’re also free to wander on your own, with the historic photos and old machinery on display offering a sense of how things used to be.
Having worked up a healthy appetite and been told how good the Tempranillo was, we took our seat in the Spanish-style country restaurant, where local cheese, breads and slow-cooked meats are served with accompanying wines. You can sample and choose your wine before you head into the restaurant, or simply ask your waiter, probably one of the family, for a recommendation. With the cycle back in mind, Donna and I kept it light and simple, with cheeses, bread and salad, and of course, a glass of the Tempranillo, which was even more delicious than promised. Armed with two bottles to help us toast our last night in Hondón, we jumped on our bikes and headed back.
All too soon our short break came to an end and it was time to head back to Alicante for our flight. Staying in small local villages may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a great way to get a real taste of Spain.
Spain offers diverse tourist adventures. Depending on how much you want to spend, consider the following:
Go local. The Spanish economy is struggling and rather than fight off the spruikers operating in the larger towns and cities, small villages will welcome you with open arms as well as a taste of the real Spain.
Fiestas are hugely popular and symbolic in Spain, with many of them centring around a celebration of the village’s patron virgin. There will be entertainment, local food and wine and a village full of people all too happy to tell you about their magnificent home.
As not everyone has a generous uncle offering the use of his apartment, look at the village’s community board online. This will often list short-term rentals. Or contact the local real estate agent who will often know of locals willing to rent out their home.
Hire a car and explore. Basing yourself in a small village can be fun for a few days, but eventually you’ll probably want to get out and see more. If you’re confident of driving on the other side of the road, select a few villages, towns and points of interest you wish to see, then go when and where the notion takes you.
Be free-spirited and simply ask in one location where you should head next. You may pay a little more for your accommodation as you may have less choice, but you’ll have the most amazing holiday – travelling wherever you please.
If money’s no object, then there’s simply no stopping you. Food is an important part of any European culture and the Spanish are very passionate about cuisine. Spain is home to the top restaurant in the world, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona as voted by Restaurant Magazine. With its roots in Catalan cooking, you won’t get ridiculously fancy food, but you will pay handsomely for a delicious meal; and you will have to book well in advance.
One of the coolest hotels in Barcelona, the Hotel Majestic is well worth the investment. Located near two of Gaudi’s most famous buildings, the hotel itself is also rich in its own history. Watch the hoi polloi walk along the Passeig de Gràcia from your balcony, or sip a cool drink on one of the swankiest rooftops, with superb views of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.