Ronda sat 420km from Madrid, yet the days were long in Andalucía so it was decided to return north by first going south. Leaving Ronda, the road first took to the heights and skirted the Sierra de las Nieves park; at turns Scottish and at other turns Afghan. No towns, just peaks and scrub and goats with mournful bells. From the road the grand valleys that dissect the area gave the sensation of wilderness though, as if some grand painter of nature had got sloppy in his technique, here and there were careless blobs of white town dropped haphazardly on some slope.
After not too long that great showstopper arrived: the sea. All the peaks, all the land, all the green stopped abruptly at that eternally pleasing barrier of blue. To arrive at the coast road one had to first descend down past absurd gated communities and overblown millionaire mansions that most likely only played host to people during the hotter months. In a country where money was not a luxury, here it was no object. The rich of the world lived in the Arcadian wonderland of the Malaga province: Spain’s best climate.
At Puerto Banús one experienced both amusement and disgust. Here was where those wealthy elites kept their boats. A small enclosed private harbour where clean and quiet pleasure-vessels gently bobbed. Around the promenade were all the depressing designer shops a rich idiot could ever wish for. A Gucci playground where real money was only used for coffees. British people came with their linguistic ignorance to gawp at the attraction. Elegant Spaniards and rich Arabs all paid in plastic. We played at blending in at a waterfront cafe but soon tired of the mundaneness of pointless luxury and instead headed east along the infamous Costa del Sol to Marbella.
For a trip so full and complete with beautiful towns and great food it was left to Marbella, right at the end, to provide the first real surprise. A place whose name was so closely tied with that type of Spanish coastal tourism that I have become ashamed of, Marbella still had some secrets. One half-expects a scummy yet popular scar of high-rises and resort buildings. And perhaps the length of coast had that, but Marbella seemed pleasant on entry. And then, unbeknownst to me, we stumbled into its old town. Under a cloak of bad reputations the casco histórico peeped out and showed off. An impressively well-maintained cluster of little white streets bursting with colourful flowers slinking around here and there. Then suddenly a plaza full of fountains, gardens and terraces hiding under a canopy of multicoloured umbrellas. Churches and palm trees followed us through more alleyways busied with chapels, artisans and old slices of Moorish wall. Were it not for the relaxed groups of white tourists blotched the colour of prawns, one could think one was still in a pueblo blanco up in the sierra. Clearly touristic but still very endearing.
Then home. First the Costa del Sol coastline, veering wildly from outlandish luxury to depressing Britain-led surges of identikit holiday homes. Then came a failed attempt to enter the Pedregalejo fishing neighbourhood of Malaga for lunch. Instead we ate garlic chicken, meatballs and grilled meat at a family-run roadside restaurant at Colines del Limonar. The Río Guadalmedina river valley was scrubby, steep and dry and carried the road away from the sea towards the pretty hills near Villanueva del Rosario - yellow barley, olive trees and peaks that looked like they had been swept up into points by the wind. After the geographic exuberance of Andalucía came the occasionally impressive yet generally dull and soporific flats of La Mancha. And finally the warm embrace of Madrid and the end of the journey.
I had learned much, and eaten more. I had revisited old haunts and happily discovered new ones. The South, though being Spain’s great stereotype, is still very much the area where Iberiaphiles need to go. Like the Cotswolds in England or Tuscany in Italy, it is that part of the world that perfectly embodies all the things that made the country stand out in the first place.