The Costa del Sol is one of the most popular regions for Irish holidaymakers booking a trip to their favourite summer destination: Spain.
It offers endless golden beaches, golf courses and cloudless skies over a sun-drenched landscape – in summer, anyway. So what’s it like to travel when the sky’s turned grey, the clouds creep over the mountains, and Spain is being besieged by Storm Gloria?
It hasn’t got the same kind of guarantees as the Canary Islands, but mainland Spain does deliver some decent days – even in the depths of January.
Just our luck to pick the week – sandwiched between two of glorious sunshine – when Gloria was out in all her glory, sending snow to Granada, drowning Malaga, and trashing Torremolinos.
So how did Nerja fare for that post-Christmas break?
First up, there are huge positives to heading there in the very off-season. Flights are available and much cheaper, and a travel-agent package deal (we booked through Cassidy Travel) combines hotel, plane and transfer in little more than you’d pay for the airfare alone.
Nerja’s a favourite with the Irish, and its attractions are numerous. It’s got all the variety of bars and restaurants of other resorts, but it’s also a town that stays true to its old Andalusian traditions.
It’s not shy about boasting either, with its lovely views over the Mediterranean, and its back to the Sierras de Tejeda mountain range, humbly described as the Balcon de Europa (Balcony of Europe).
Our base for a four-night stay was the four-star MB Boutique Hotel, which is well placed for all the sights and just around the corner from the nightlife hotspot of Plaza Tutti Frutti (itself less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Balcony), which, even in January, had its fair share of young and old posing for Instagrammable selfies and holiday snaps.
The MB is good value, with all drinks (including beer) in the room mini bars costing a euro; ditto for drinks up on the roof, with its Ibiza-style white chillout sofas and hot tubs. Room beds are really comfortable – but some Irish guests might not be hip enough for the frosted-glass shower and loo areas in your room. That said, it’s modern and fresh, and eco-conscious guests will appreciate the fact the taps and lights are all controlled by touch-button screens, showing your usage.
So what to do in the rain, with three days out of four hit by a downpour?
Well, we were in luck, as Nerja is one of those places where the traditional tapa, often free with a drink, is still all the rage. Just around the corner from the hotel, on Calle el Chaparil, is my favourite: La Rienda.
It’s modern, smart and the food -particularly the Spanish manchego sheep’s cheese – is amazing. Our tapas lunch there, including bread, patata bravas, prawns pil pil, a beer and three glasses of wine, came to €26.10.
That’s the thing about a winter break – you feel you’re breaking even on the cost, given that eating out is half the price, or less, of back home.
Across the road leads to the historic old town, and another bargain: the shopping. Darkest winter seems to be when they’re selling off stock, and winter gear is a steal. Expect Jack and Jones T-shirts for less than a tenner; shirts and jackets not much more.
Even with limited baggage space, we did some damage in the local branch of Springfield on the beautiful Calle Pintada. Jackets from €29 upwards, jeans for a tenner, shirts €10-€15 – all at massive discounts. Keep some room in the suitcase if you’re heading there soon.
With the heavens deciding to open up, locals and tourists alike took refuge on the street’s busy little La Piqueta bar.
Construction and municipal workers, with the day’s plans washed out, were knocking back shots of Jaeger in between sips of beer or wine. And isn’t that the point of a break? Chilling out, chatting, no plans, and just watching the world go by over a beer or three?
Back towards the hotel, while the beach wasn’t so enticing, the nearby restaurants along Calle Mediterraneo (across from the giant Riu Hotel) were still doing a brisk trade with hardy tourists and expats. Ruskins is a good choice for a full Irish breakfast, while a few doors down, Sal y Pimienta is a cosy night spot, with a two-course dinner for two with wine and beer for €38.30.
It would take pages to even scratch the surface of where to eat, but no doubt, you’ll find your own favourites. I definitely recommend the old school Los Barilles on Calle San Jose, with two beers, a wine and chorizo, flame-grilled in a pig-shaped bowl, for just over a tenner; or Cafe San Miguel on the nearby Castilla Perez, where the locals go in for their toasties (three of them with two teas and a coffee for €11.90 is a steal).
For coffee, check out the boho and friendly Tiramisu cafe on Calle Jean, and if you’re tired of local delicacies, the Golden Curry on Calle Antonio Millon is authentic Indian, with the best naan bread I’ve tried.
And the craic? The Irish bars are among the friendliest you’ll find anywhere, with expats enjoying their retirement, and all of whom seem to be handy at singing or playing the guitar in the likes of the friendly Buskers, which is lively every night of the week.
Next to the MB hotel is Irish Annie’s, while the Irish Harp in the old town is good for music.
The great thing at this time of the year is that the town, a proper Spanish working town, is busy enough for fun, and quiet enough not to get overpowered with tourist hordes.
You’ll get into a conversation, and start to dream about bagging your own home in these parts in later life, trust me… For a side trip, if the weather is good enough, the local Life Adventure Jeep Tours (lifeadventure.eu) has a good reputation for 4WD trips up the mountains – but sadly, the weather wasn’t our friend.
Still, the dreamy mountaintop village Frigiliana is a must-see, and only minutes away by bus or taxi. I’d definitely recommend Puerto Blanquillo, at the foot of the town, for beautiful tapas and a very friendly welcome. From there, take a walk up to the town, with its whitewashed homes, wine bars and art galleries. Stunning – any time of the year.
Package deals are good to Nerja right now, bookable in Cassidy Travel shops across Dublin (cassidytravel.ie)
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Herald.