Planning a Trip to Southern Spain (Plus Morocco & Gibraltar)

For the past few years I’ve subscribed to The Flight Deal, which publicizes inexpensive flights from the United States to destinations all over the world.  2017 has seen an glut of cheap Transatlantic fares on a range of carriers.  Last November, my wife Rachel and I jumped on a deal that Delta was offering for travel this spring, from Philadelphia to Madrid via New York-JFK.  The fare was only $405.46/person (plus $101.96 for Baby Dana as a lap child) roundtrip departing March 1 and returning March 12, 2017.  The same fare was also available from Los Angeles to Barcelona and Madrid.  Being the dutiful son-in-law that I am, I let Rachel’s parents know about the deal.  They booked tickets as well, departing two days earlier and starting in Barcelona before meeting us in Madrid.

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Intricate Moorish architecture of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2017

Trip Layout

Rachel and I had visited Spain last March before Dana was born, seeing Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia, and Córdoba.  For this year’s trip, we decided to focus on southern Spain(primarily Granada and Seville).  I was also interested in visiting the British overseas territory of Gibraltar.  In addition, we were intrigued by the suggestion in Rick Steves’s Spain guidebook recommending a day trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco.  All told, it was a fairly ambitious itinerary to squeeze into ten days with a six month-old baby and two senior citizens in tow.

Generally, I prefer to travel open jaw to maximize the ground we can cover without backtracking.  Because of the nature of the fare deal, however, we had to start and finish in Madrid.  I decided it made the most sense to move far afield right away and gradually work our way back to Madrid.  We considered heading straight to Gibraltar or using nearby Spanish cities like Algeciras or Tarifa as a base to see Gibraltar and Tangier.  However, Gibraltar is a good six hours away from Madrid by ground and its only air links are to Morocco as well as the United Kingdom proper.  The next closest airport, Málaga–Costa del Sol, is 90 minutes away by ground, so any travel method would burn most of a day.

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Tangier

Although I’d originally thought of Tangier as only a day trip (per the Rick Steves recommendation), I noticed that it was possible to fly from Madrid to Tangier on Iberia (operated by Air Nostrum) for only $95.80/person (plus $36.80 for Baby Dana as a lap child) one-way.  Rachel’s cousin has done work in Morocco and put us in touch with her translator, who lives in Tangier.  The translator agreed to be our guide while we were there.

Spain Journey Map
Rough map of our journey from Madrid to Tangier by air (red, not intended to represent actual flight path) and back by ground (blue, also not a perfect representation since it depicts road segments rather then rail routes) with stops in Gibraltar, Algeciras, Granada, and Seville. Imagry from Google.  Thanks to the high speed AVE train, the Seville to Madrid segment took about the same time as Granada to Seville (three hours), and considerably less time than the five hour journey from Algeciras to Granada.

From there, the itinerary fell into place.  The day after we arrived in Madrid, we would fly to Tangier.  After spending the rest of the day and following morning in Tangier, we would take an afternoon ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tarifa, Spain and make our way by bus and/or taxi to La Línea de la Concepción, where we could cross into Gibraltar on foot.  We would spend two nights in Gibraltar before making our way to the nearby Spanish city of Algeciras for the night.  Algeciras has three daily trains to Granada; the earliest one would get us there before noon.  After two nights in Granada, we’d take the train to Seville for another two nights before heading back to Madrid for our return flight.

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Our hotel room at the Dar Souran, in Tangier’s Medina (old city)

Hotels

As always, I made my hotel bookings based on TripAdvisor reviews.  Our accommodations were also quite reasonable in the off season, averaging just under $110/night.  I used Hotels.com and Booking.com for the bookings.  Hotels.com has a rewards program that effectively is a 10% rebate (one free night after spending ten nights).  Both are also eligible for a small cashback reward on Ebates.  All the hotels were excellent, but the standout hotels were the Gar Anat in Granada and the Dar Souran in Tangier.  At the Gar Anat, located in what the staff refer to as an old “palace”, each room is outfitted with décor matching a theme (literary in our case).  The room featured a chest and a large scale replica of an antique pocket watch.  There’s nothing like the charm of an independent hotel!

The Dar Souran was comfortable, beautifully furnished, and had extremely helpful staff.  At times, one staffer personally guided us through the maze that is the Medina (old city)…on his day off.  Most of the Medina is inaccessible to vehicle traffic, making things somewhat complicated for my in-laws.  Although it turned out ok, I probably should have booked a hotel in the more modern section of town where taxis could drive right up.

One other thing I should have researched better was the fact that Seville has a relatively new public transit system.  I booked a hotel near Seville Santa Justa, the main train station, in order to make our arrival and departure easy.  However, a nearby smaller train station, Seville San Bernardo, has metro and tram access, making travel downtown a snap.  Our train from Granada stopped there and it would have just required one additional connection to catch the AVE at Santa Justa on our departure day.

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HDR panorama of he Alhambra in Granada.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2017

Smooth Sailing?

In general, the trip went well despite a few unavoidable deviations from the plan.  These included our outbound flight being cancelled, the planned ferry from Tangier to Tarifa being cancelled due to weather (necessitating a reroute), and a couple of nasty falls my in-laws experienced.  After some rainy weather in Morocco, the rest of the trip was sunny and warm.  I had been worried that we might have crammed too many places into a short trip, but we managed to see most of what we wanted to in each city.

Baby Dana had done well with a previous trip to California as well as a couple road trips. She proved to be a great international traveler and was very happy throughout.  Dana was a bit of a handful on the planes compared with her first flight at three months of age.  Now she loves grabbing everything within reach and even tore a safety card that I was trying to read.

The biggest issue we had was that she mostly refused to sleep in her Baby Bjorn travel crib, which was frustrating given that we had to lug it around the entire trip.  We miss the days of packing for a vacation with just a couple carryon suitcases!  It’s a shame that she won’t have any memories of her first international trip, but we hope that she’ll eventually be proud that she visited three different continents before celebrating her first birthday.

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