Off-Topic: Nerja, Costa del Sol, Spain

I and my wife recently took a short vacation in Nerja in Spain, a tourist town on the Costa del Sol. Late February was definitely low season, which made for a rather relaxing experience without the huge crowds that would be expected to fill up the place later in the year.

Nerja

Nerja lies on the Costa del Sol, about 70 kilometers east of Malaga. It used to be a small fishing village, but today the economy is clearly based on tourism. There are restaurants everywhere, and a large number of shops selling things typical for holiday towns all over Europe. Most of the coastline is covered with hotels, and the rest by various holiday apartments. The coast is rather rocky, with mostly rather small beaches separated by rocky outcrops.

The center of town, called the Balcony of Europe, has a good view up and down the coast. It used to be a small fort, which was destroyed by the Royal Navy in the peninsular war in 1811. Today, there is a lookout and a restaurant (closed for the season). Above the Balcony there is the main square, including what seems to be the town hall and main tourist office.

The Balcony of Europe, as seen from the some distance away:

Overall, Nerja is fairly well kept (at least for a town in southern Europe). Streets are kept clean and in decent repair. The buildings downtown are mostly white-washed and well maintained. I suppose it is both thanks to the money brought in by tourism, as well as being important to keep the tourists around. Not everything was perfect – the seaside promenade appears to have fallen into the sea in at least one place, leading to a strange dead end when walking from the Europe square towards the town center. Orange trees dot the town, with beautiful oranges even at this time of the year.

The weather was very windy and unseasonably cold during our time in Nerja.  Swimming in the Mediterranean was entirely out of the question due the waves (and cold), but we saw some brave kite surfers out in the ocean one day. Apparently this was very unusual weather for the area, but it sure made for some impressive waves with huge splashes against the coast.

Service

February was definitely slow season, and many restaurants would not open until March. Here is a typical sign, from Gusto, supposedly one of the best restaurants in town. But not available for us to try, obviously:

Using online services like Google to figure out when and if things are open did not work all that well. It seems that the businesses are small enough to often not need an online presence, and without that, it is really hard to figure things out electronically. Instead,  you just had to walk around and check things out the old-fashioned way, which was rather relaxing.

Prices in Nerja were hard to pin down. Alcohol is definitely very cheap in Spain, and there was a lot of it on sale. Food varied wildly from place to place – sometimes the prices were like what you find in Sweden, other times much lower. There were definitely some tourist traps around the town center – but also some rather reasonable places. With some work, it seems possible to find both pretty good food and good prices.

At first, paying by credit card seemed easy enough. But then we hit a string of places that only took cash. It was also notable that NFC-based contactless payments using our NFC-equipped cards often worked better than using chip and PIN.

Cueva de Nerja

The only real tourist attraction in town is the Cueva de Nerja, the Nerja cave. This is a complex of stalactite caves discovered in the 1950s. The caverns contain fantastic stalagmites and stalactites, as well as plenty of Neolithic carvings and paintings.

The cave is located a few kilometers away from the main town of Nerja in the village of Maro, easily within walking distance. There is a tourist train running from Nerja to the cave, but it is not clear to me how you go about buying a ticket to it. Online, you are told to buy tickets online – but it turns out it is perfectly possible to buy tickets to the cave at the cave. However, you cannot buy tickets for the train once you are at the cave. In some way, these have to be bought in Nerja before heading out to the cave.

One huge cavern is open to the public, with a nicely paved walkway and stairs. This cavern is a huge room that is at least 30 meters high in some places. It is big enough to hold an annual concert and ballet festival, with what should be some very cool acoustics.

They have some rules for photography. It is OK to take photos, as long as you do not use a flash – and the guides/guards do enforce this. You are also not allowed to use a tripod, which makes taking really good pictures rather difficult.

The place is carefully lit to provide a feel for the room in a way that makes the whole place rather beautiful. Unfortunately, the lighting is also damaging the caves – green algea and cyanobacteria have formed colonies powered by the artificial light, causing a “green disease” that discolors the rock and might hurt the cave long term.

The inner caverns where all the rock paintings are found are closed from the public in order to protect the drawings from light and the green disease. It is a bit disappointing that you cannot look at them yourself, but rather understandable. Still, they could at least have posted some reproductions of the paintings in the main cave.

Most of the information is really only available in Spanish, which seems a bit strange as I would expect a very large proportion of the visitors to be foreigners. The website is mostly in Spanish, including pretty much every piece of interesting information.

The history of the caves and their inhabitants was supposed to be explained in the Museo de Nerja, the Nerja Museum, in downtown Nerja. However, the museum was a huge disappointment. Located in a spacious modern building right behind a fancy new development, the museum was short on substance and information. This picture shows the rather strange way the museum is hidden behind the corner of the new development:

I have never seen a historical museum without dates before… exhibits contained objects from history without any explanation of when they were from or what they were used for. There was no attempt to explain who lived in the caves and when, and when the caves were abandoned. Most of the interactive exhibits were broken, and the top floor with the modern history of the town was closed.

On the way to the caves there also the Eagle Aqueduct – this looked very promising in the marketing materials, but in practice it was just a small construction squeezed in between two road bridges. I had looked forward to something rather more impressive. It appears that the town is doing a bit of overselling of their few points of interest.

Colonies

Nerja is clearly home to a lot of expats from northern Europe, and businesses have sprung up to serve them. There was a notable business in holiday and retirement homes, and we found at least three Swedish real estate chains with local offices. There was also at least one Norwegian chain, and plenty of other real-estate agents.

Brits seem to be the biggest expat group in Nerja, and there were quite a few British establishments (and Irish pubs). In particular, we found the Mad Hatter Tearoom very charming – really good tea and scones. The tea was by far the best we found in Nerja, and the prices entirely reasonable.

There was a German bakery and at least one German Restaurant (which was closed for the season). The Moin Moin Panaderia/Bäckerei sold bread and cakes that looked and tasted just like it would somewhere in Germany, along with German-style food like soups containing “Lensen, Kartoffeln und Karotten”. Excellent stuff.

MQ Boutique Hotel

Since we did not bring the kids along, we stayed at a no-kids hotel called MQ Boutique Hotel. This was a really nice small hotel close to the center of Nerja, but still in a residential and quiet area. It calls itself a “luxury hotel” which might be overselling things a bit, but it is modern, stylish, clean, and with very nice service. The clearly targeted people who wanted to sleep in and rest, with breakfast being served until 11.30. They made no attempts at being a full-service hotel, having no restaurant, swimming pool, or gym. Rather focusing on being a cozy place to stay, just like a boutique hotel is supposed to.

This was February, but it was warm enough that you could enjoy the sun on the rooftop terrace. They had two Jacuzzis, which was plenty for the few couples who ventured up on the root. We met several other Nordic couples there – I guess we are the ones who find 18 degrees C and sun being summer-equivalent and pool time. I have a feeling that it could get rather crowded if the hotel is full.

The minibar was well-stocked and all items just cost 1 Euro. Brilliant. That makes it a useful service rather than the usual way to extort money from desperate travelers. In the same vein, they had a vending machine on the roof that sold drinks from 1 Euro and up, making it really easy to enjoy a beer or two in the rooftop Jacuzzis. The whole hotel felt like that – smart and relaxed.

One thing that did take the smarts a bit too far was the plumbing. The shower and the wash basin faucet were both controlled via touch screens embedded in the wall!

Very cool and designed, but maybe not the optimal user experience. A traditional mechanical handle would likely have worked better and been easier to fine-tune. Here, you were given a few choices for the water temperature, with a tendency for it to be either too hot or too cold.

The smart system told you exactly how much water you used, which is a nice nudge to use less. It is rather surprising just how many liters of water you need in order to do something as simple as washing your hands!

One smart system that mostly did work was the lighting controls – you had panels by the bed that could control most of the lights in the room, one of the most convenient setups I have seen. It did have some user interface issues, though: the room had a mood lighting LED strip with selectable colors. Changing the color was easy and obvious. Turning it off was not. You had to press twice on the same color to turn it off.  One couple we talked to did not figure it out and had to try to sleep through the night with the lights on!

The hotel was also the most branded hotel I have ever seen. Their logo was embroidered on every towel, and every facility had it somewhere. It is rather impressive to get it into that many places and shows that someone has really worked through the design of the hotel in detail.

The one downside that everyone we talked to complained about was the nature of the toilet in the guest rooms. For some reason, it was not fully enclosed, but only had a frosted glass door that did not go all the way up the roof or down to the floor. This does make it feel just a tiny bit too public and clearly put it outside most peoples’ comfort zone. The staff did know about the issue, but just shrugged it off as “that is what the concept is”. Which probably is exactly what is going on. The hotel is definitely very designed.

Getting there

Getting to Nerja was easy – fly to Malaga airport, and rent a car. It was way cheaper to just rent a car than taking a taxi back and forth to Nerja, and taking the bus would have taken rather a long time. As usual, renting a car in southern Europe is not a nice as renting in the US or northern Europe, but Hertz did have good service. Still, the car had the mandatory bumps and dents that you would expect. Having a car would have been even more useful if we had wanted to do some more excursions around – there are plenty of villages and other towns within a short drive from Nerja.

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