We’ve been enjoying life in Andalusia for the last six weeks.
My spouse and I have been financially independent for nearly 15 years and now we’re in our early 50s. When I retired from the military in 2002, our daughter was nine years old and we spent much of the next decade on parenting. We enjoyed the usual family activities and vacations around the public school calendar, but our longest trip in those years was the summer college tour. During her college time we still planned our travel around her campus events and holiday breaks.
College graduation was May 2014, and now we’re truly empty nesters. We’re living our lives on our own schedule again!
Today our daughter’s paying back her Navy ROTC scholarship with five years of active duty, and she’s seeing the world. She’s assigned to a destroyer that’s one of four ships based in Rota, Spain. Last December (after schools and a Mediterranean deployment) she returned to Rota to pick up her car, rent an apartment, and unpack her household goods. As soon as she finished the heavy lifting, we parents planned our vacation.
The best part about visiting Spain is sentimental. In 1983 my spouse (then girlfriend) was stationed at Rota’s Navy weather center, and I used to visit her when I was between submarine patrols. We roamed the entire Iberian peninsula on the cheap. We established many of our frugal spending habits during those months, and our house is filled with Spanish furniture and other souvenirs of that tour. We’ve really anticipated seeing the changes of the last 30 years.
My spouse and I spent more of our military careers outside the continental U.S. than in it, and we’re big believers in overseas duty. However, this post is not about “orders to Rota”. (If you have more questions about Rota duty then contact me through the blog or e-mail me. You can also join the Facebook group “Rota Naval Community Q&A” and ask your questions there.) I’ll just say that Rota is an outstanding career opportunity, and a great place for military families to have an incredible experience in a friendly culture.
Instead, let’s talk about long-term vacations: Spain allows visitors to stay up to 90 days without a visa. There are also plenty of military Space A flights from the U.S. to Europe, especially the charter plane from Norfolk. Our daughter had a very short leave, so we decided to fly to Rota via American Airlines and return to Hawaii on Space-A. The easiest and quickest commercial route goes through Madrid to Jerez de la Frontera. It’s also possible to fly through Sevilla or to take trains from those cities through Jerez to El Puerto de Santa Maria.
The American military has been a guest on the Spanish naval base for over 50 years. Relations are good but access is tightly controlled by the status of forces agreement. The easiest way to get on base is to land on the runway in a Space A flight, of course, but the second-easiest way is to show your passport and a military ID at the security gate for a one-day pass. Then you can head to the air terminal to sign up for 60 days on the Space A waiting list. The flights back to the U.S. seem to have plenty of Space A seats– and there’s even an occasional aircraft manifested to Oahu! However, we really only need to leave Spain before our 90 days expire, and we don’t have any other deadlines. We can get back to Oahu (eventually) from anywhere by either Space A or commercial airline.
We came to Spain to live like locals, so we’re spending our time off the base. Rota is surrounded by resort communities that entertain large beach crowds in the summer, but the winter weather has lows in the 30s and highs in the low 60s. Many of the local shops are on off-season hours, and at least one large grocery store seems to be closed for February.
Our daughter rents a home in a local neighborhood that’s very walkable, with shops and parks every few blocks among the houses and apartments. My spouse and I take long strolls almost every day, perhaps lounging at a local coffee shop or tapas bar. We’ll usually stop by a grocery store on the walk home to stock up on staples or fresh fruit & vegetables. My Spanglish is very limited but I can understand a conversation in context and I can handle some Q&A. If the discussion turns to technical terms or off-topic questions then I’m quickly lost. However, most of the locals speak at least as much English as my Spanish and they’re happy that you’re trying to learn their culture.
The cost of eating around Rota (especially in winter) is very attractive compared to Hawaii. American cereal brands in the SuperSol and Dia grocery stores cost less than the same cereal in the Schofield Barracks commissary on Oahu. Fresh whole fish and squid are on ice in both stores, and those critters were swimming in the ocean last night. The towns are also surrounded by thousands of acres of agriculture– Spain is one of the world’s largest producers of olive oil, and local fresh fruit & veggies are also very cheap. (We paid one euro for a two-kilo bag of oranges. In January.) I’m happily snorkeling my way through a Mediterranean diet and walking it off in picturesque surroundings.
Housing is also very affordable, due to an overbuilt real estate market and the dollar’s rising strength. Our daughter’s rental home is classic Andalusian architecture with concrete block, stucco, terra-cotta tile floors, and clay half-pipe roof tiles. It’s about 15 years old with a gated parking spot and eight-foot walls around the small yard.
The home is poorly insulated, but heat is only needed for a few months each year. (It’s heated by high-efficiency radiators from a natural gas tankless water heater, and we’re dressing warmly.) The appliances and the plumbing fixtures are modern and, in some cases, better designed than American ones. The kitchen is totally Ikea cabinets. The property was vacant for over a year before our daughter arrived, so the landlord agreed to the military housing allowance and has been generous with the extras. Our daughter is living a frugal lifestyle (when she’s even home) so she’s banking most of the utilities allowance and almost all of the COLA. She’s well on her way to her own financial independence, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.
However, we’re not spending much time lounging around the
lanai patio sipping Kona espressos. During our first weekend we drove all over the base to check out the changes over the last 30 years. There’s a lot of new construction (both Spanish and American militarie), and four Navy destroyers will raise the American population to over 2500. Then we left the base and drove all over town: Rota has at least tripled in size, although we were able to find my spouse’s old rental apartment (looking almost exactly as it did in 1983). Some of the 1980s restaurants are still in business and a few have relocated or shut down. Many of the local stores have been replaced by big-box retailers and even a few shopping malls. The Jerez branch of Bricor feels just like Home Depot… with everything on sale.
As soon as we recovered from our jet lag (consecutive redeye flights) we headed to Granada. Spain’s local train system runs efficiently at 160 kph and it seems to be a very affordable way to see the country. We bought our Alhambra tickets online and reserved a 2BR apartment through Booking.com.
At the summer peak season these logistics would take weeks of advance planning, but in January there are no crowds– although (for this Hawaii guy) it’s awfully darn cold. We spent two separate days in the Alhambra complex and a third day roaming the rest of Granada. Everything is uphill (both ways!), but the town is small and we probably only walked five miles each day.
There are several international universities and a sizeable “hippie” community so the people-watching is also excellent. For an in-depth review of everything that Granada has to offer, I’d recommend Rick Steves’ tour guide plus Jed’s posts at Bucking-The-Trend.com. He and his spouse have lived there for nearly a year on a visa (with their twin 9-year-old boys in a Spanish public school) and I doubt they’re ready to return to America yet.
Jerez de la Frontera
After returning from Granada we spent a day in Jerez. The sherry and brandy industries started here in the 1820s, and the Gonzalez family’s fifth generation is still running the business known as Tio Pepe. (Yes, there is a tasting room with tapas, but you have to buy tickets for the tour.) I learned more about sherry and brandy in our two hours with the tour guide than I ever discovered during more than two decades of my military-sponsored “research”. The town is also full of historic buildings and a lovely central plaza– including tapas bars.
The following week we spent a day in Cadiz. We took a small catamaran ferry from the pier at Puerto de Santa Maria and disembarked at the Cadiz harbor. The town has marked out four separate walking routes with painted lines on the sidewalks, so we spent our first day seeing the cathedrals and monuments. Cadiz was founded over two thousand years ago and there’s lots of both. We’ll be back during the coming weeks to finish the other three routes and see how their new harbor bridge is doing.
In early February we took a day trip to Cordoba. It’s the site of the Mezquita mosque, which is just one of at least three separate religious buildings erected on that site during the last 1400 years. (At this point I’m wondering where the heck these topics were covered during my 1970s high-school “Western Civilization” history classes, but my daughter says they weren’t part of her 2008 AP World History classes either. Spanish mosques and cathedrals have reminded me that today’s strife among religious extremists is just the latest chapter in a very old book.) After a couple of hours in the Mezquita we moved on to the town’s Jewish quarter and then finished at the Roman fort by the bridge. There’s too much to see in Cordoba in just one day, so we’ll return next month.
What else will we do all day? We spent Valentine’s Day in Ronda, one of the famous “pueblo blancos” of Andalusia. By the time you read this we’ll also have visited an olive bottler for a tour, and on another day we’re taking a quick look at Gibraltar. (Does that reset our 90-day calendar in Spain? Hmmm.) Later in March, we’ll go back to Vejer de la Frontera, where in 1984 I observed the running of the bulls. (The bulls won.)
We still need to explore Sevilla along with return visits to Granada, Cordoba, and Cadiz. (The Alhambra and the Mezquita are just too big to see in one trip.) Madrid, Barcelona, and Morocco are possibilities. However, there’s plenty to browse in Puerto de Santa Maria and Rota by walking or after a short taxi ride. We’re here for slow travel, not to race around the country on a photo scavenger hunt. We’ll probably head home in April, but there are no deadlines.
Speaking of home, we’ve spent many hours in our daughter’s place hanging shelves & pictures on the walls and making other minor improvements. When she has time then I’m sure we’ll help her organize a few closets, finish unpacking the household goods, and catch up on her car maintenance. If it gets warm enough then I’ll rent surfing gear (including a 3mm wetsuit!) and explore the local standup paddleboard options. We’ll enjoy lots of long walks and café con leche at the local watering holes. There’ll also be time for reflection, spouse talks, reading, and writing.
We’ll leave Spain before the summer crowds appear, but I think we’ll have to see what Andalusia looks like in October-December, too.