SETENIL DE LAS BODEGAS, Spain (AP) — As dusk light slanted across this southern Spanish hamlet, the whitewashed houses and the cliffs they're carved into turned golden.
A gaggle of boys perched on a low wall, smartphone cameras at the ready, while clusters of animated old men converged where a minuscule one-way alley merged with a sharp, uphill right corner into a marginally larger street.
Stuck in that corner, brushing the ancient stone houses on both sides, was an incongruous cherry-red rental minivan. At the wheel, enjoying neither the beauty nor the Old-World camaraderie, sat I.
A driving tour to Andalusia's pueblos blancos, or white villages, is a highlight of any trip to Spain — as long as you don't try to drive through them. (Note to self: Learn to drive a stick shift so you are not saddled with giant vehicles with automatic transmission.)
During two trips in late January and early June, I took a few days off from the big stars of the region — the stunning cities of Seville, Cordoba, and Granada — to roam the countryside.
I explored seven pueblos blancos: Some are hidden in fog-shrouded mountain valleys, others look out to the Mediterranean, others still rule the farmland from atop rocky hilltops.
From the road, all look like the perfect incarnation of the whitewashed southern European village fantasy, sprinkled with pale pink fruit tree blossoms in winter and bright purple bougainvillea creepers in summer. Within their cool, hushed alleys lie centuries-old monuments, many reflecting the region's history as the last stronghold of Islamic domination in Europe before Christian armies reconquered it.
And within them also lies Andalusia's bounty: that most prized of hams, jamon iberico de bellota, all manner of fried seafood and marinated olives, and the dirt-cheap hoppy beer I badly needed after untangling the unscathed rental from its 1.5-meter-wide (5-foot) street grip.
The cliff-top pueblos I visited, Arcos de la Frontera and Zahara de la Sierra, represent opposite ends of the spectrum as tourist destinations.
Arcos, a short hop off the main freeway connecting regional capital Seville with the spruced-up port city of Cadiz, has a long list of impressive churches and palaces huddled inside its walls. I spent a morning climbing up its steep stone-paved alleys, lined with flower pots and wrought-iron grilles, and more than a smattering of tapa signs in English.
The dark castle of Zahara, deep in the olive-studded countryside, looms over a handful of tightly packed houses hanging to the rocky outcrop jutting into a man-made lake. The village is so tiny, and the roads so remote, that I found plenty of villagers taking their afternoon paseo, or stroll, along the main highway.
Ronda and Setenil are the equivalent extremes for the canyon-hugging pueblos. The latter slithers deep underneath the ledges of river-eroded rock, its cave-like homes and grocery stores evoking a contemporary version of the native dwellings in the American Southwest.
The ancient part of Ronda is separated from the new by a vertigo-inducing 100-meter (328-foot) river gash called El Canon del Tajo, which tongue-in-cheek locals call the canyon of a common Spanish profanity that escapes many first-time visitors when they peer into the abyss from the 18th century bridge.
I crossed it, on foot, one January evening, before a deep mist rose from the roaring river below. A short walking tour took me past many ornate churches, balconied buildings and palm-and-plane fringed parks to two major examples of the mixed Islamic and Christian style that characterizes Andalusia.
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