Got three or four days to spare? Then head for the pretty pueblo of Mojácar in Almeria, where you can soak up the year-round sunshine, explore desert and beaches, and eat wonderful local food
Almeria, the land of desert, sea, sunshine and beaches in the southeastern corner of Spain, is Andalucia's unknown province. With virtually year-long sunshine, it is a great place to spend a few days exploring its varied landscapes.
The place to base yourself is the pretty, whitewashed, hilltop village of Mojácar Pueblo, which is 90km from Almeria airport and fairly central in Almeria province. Stay at the excellent Mamabels, run by Isabel (known as Mamabel) and her son Carlos. I have been going to the restaurant here for many years. The hotel has nine rooms, some with a terrace; all offer wonderful views down the coast to the fishing village of Garrucha. Their restaurant also has a fantastic terrace, where you can try Mamabel's famous cooking with a Moorish twist, like couscous or wonderful tuna steaks. If you are lucky, on a balmy summer evening she will even sing a little flamenco for you! Rooms cost from €70 per night.
Walking around the centuries-old streets and bars of Mojácar pueblo in the evening, you will find Casa Minguito (Plaza del Ayuntamiento, Mojácar pueblo; +34 950 478 614), near the town church, with tables set around a large outside terrace under a humongous hundred-year-old tree. Here, you can enjoy the local chatter with a simple dinner of meat or fish for around €25-€30 per person.
DAY TRIP ONE
For your first day at the beach, drive down the hill from Mojácar Pueblo to Mojácar Playa, turn right at the roundabout and continue along the beach road, going past some pretty uninteresting-looking establishments and various chiringuitos (beach bars), until you come to El Cid (Mojácar Playa; +34 950 472 063; www.elcidmojacar.com). Stop here for tapas. El Cid has been on the playa since 1978 and is run by friendly Californian Lloyd and his wife. Try their famous chorizo, pepper and potato tapa or the boquerones (anchovies marinated in garlic, vinegar and olive oil ) at the bar. You could spend the day on the beach here or, if you are more adventurous, head further along the beach road.
Drive past the Hotel Indalo, bear right inland and take a left at the third roundabout on to the beach just before the Macenas golf course goes inland. Drive past Chiringuito Macenas (you could stop here for a drink and/or tapas). Follow the rocky dirt-track coast road, which winds inland for around 2-3km then back out to the coast, and go past the first beach until you come to Playa Sombrerico. Here, you will see a wide sandy bay and the excellent Chiringuito Manaca (Playa Sombrerico, Mojácar; +34 666 732 476) at the end of the beach. You can while away a few hours here over fresh fish, like small red gigantes (when in season, they sell out very quickly) or the many speciality paellas and fideuás (pasta paella). In summer it gets very busy for lunch (which starts at 3pm) with the mostly Spanish clientele; you will need to book paella and fideuá in advance. Cost: €45 per person with wine.
On your way back, at the roundabout that takes you up to Mojácar Pueblo you should continue, staying on the beach road until you come to the fishing port of Garrucha, where at around 5.30pm each weekday evening you can watch the day's catch (which unfortunately seems to get less and less each year), including swordfish, tuna, dorado, calamari and the famous Garrucha red prawns, being landed at the harbour and sent straight to the quayside auction house. The price starts high and descends until someone buys. A good place to eat here is Restaurante Escanéz (Paseo Marítimo 99, Garrucha; +34 950 460 278), again serving excellent fish and shellfish, although most of it now comes from Galicia in the north of Spain, as the Mediterranean is almost fished out; even the smallest of lobsters do not get thrown back into the sea. You may see a group of grizzled old businessmen here on a Monday lunchtime having their weekly wine-tasting session. Beware: it's not cheap - a plate of 20 gambas rojo de Garrucha can cost €45-€55.
DAY TRIP TWO
A great day out is to drive into the Gabo de Gato Parque Natural to Agua Amarga (you can take the coast road from Mojácar Playa past Carbonares or use the Autovia N340 E15). You will pass some stunning scenery on the way and once there you will find a lovely, almost Greek island-looking village. There is a child-friendly, sheltered bay with a magnificent beach. Just off the beach there is a delightful little main square with a restaurant/tapas bar and shaded tables, surrounded by some, rather surprisingly, classy shops. You can hire diving equipment near the main square. The best restaurant is La Chumbera (closed Monday and Tuesday; +34 950 168 321), which is 1km out of town on the left-hand side on the coast road back to Carbonares.
On the beach, try one of the restaurants looking out to sea, like Restaurante Bar Playa (+34 950 138 167) or Restaurante Costamarga (+34 950 138 035), and settle down to a large arroz negro (rice with squid cooked in its own ink). This can make a mess of young children’s faces - if you can get them to try it (it looks rather black!). There are no sun beds or umbrellas for hire on this beach, as the Spanish people always seem to take their own. Lunch with wine costs €30-€35 per person.
If you wish to stay the night, try Hotel El Tio Kiko, which sits high towards the back of the village on the right-hand side facing the beach and sea; you would not even know it was there. It has various large rooms and suites with terraces, four poster beds and Jacuzzis, which make for a wonderful romantic setting. It does an excellent breakfast to fill you up if you are going hiking for the day. Rooms cost from €110 per night.
Just before Agua Amarga on the coast road from Carbonares, you will find Playa de los Muertos. This is a large, stunning beach reached only by a steep walk down the cliff path. Beware: there are no facilities on the beach, so take plenty of water, as temperatures can reach a sweltering 45°C in summer. Don't go down if you cannot walk back up! There is a large car park above the beach with viewing platforms. There are also some fantastic walks around here - just put on your hiking shoes and head out from Agua Amarga.
DAY TRIP THREE
Your final day's outing involves no beach, some culture and, of course, lots more food! You are going 95km away, to view Almeria’s desert interior, the only official desert in Europe. Take the Autovia N340 E15 via Puerto Lumbreras, then the Autovia N342 that goes to Granada, turning off at junction 408 and going through the village of Vélez Rubio and onto Vélez Blanco. First, head to the stunning Renaissance castle, which towers over the village. Built in the early 16th century, it is worth the visit, both for the castle itself and for the fantastic views overlooking the village and beyond.
The castle closes at 2pm, which is perfect as this is when lunch begins here. Head for a very good traditional restaurant in the village, Meson El Molino (Cala Curtidores, Vélez Blanco; +34 950 415 070/507; closed Thursdays and 1st-15th July). This is down below the castle, off the main road into the village. It is famous for its trout, which is freshly caught each morning, and traditional local cuisine such as espaldilla de cordero (shoulder of lamb), jabali (wild boar) or cochinillo (suckling pig). Try a wonderful old wine like Rioja Contino Gran Reserva 1994 and finish with a DON PX Pedro Ximenez, a sherry-like pudding wine from Montilla-Morales, a wine region just north of Andalucia. The restaurant, decorated with wild boar and stag heads, is surprisingly vast inside but even so it gets very busy for Sunday lunch, when the whole village turns up! If you ask nicely, you may get a tour of the cavernous wine cellar. Cost: €50-€60 per person with good wine.
This short trip is sure to whet your appetite for the many other attractions in the area.