Friday, November 14, 2014

More to do's


Star gazing
The hamlet of Baños de Sierra Alhamilla is little more than a number of houses around and below the balneario which partially gives the hamlet it's name. It is set on a ridge 450 meter plus above the Desierto de Tabernas, north of the city of Almería (Andalucia). 
The hot spring from which the Baños are sourced is very much the end of the road up into the sierra Alhamilla mountain range which summits at nearly 1,400 meters. There's something that could be called a village square adjacent to the other two businesses of the hamlet, both cafes slash bars.

The source itself is just in front of the balneario, to the side of the village square. The hottest spring of Andalucia (58ºC, source) gushes significant quantities of fresh spring water which drops into two troughs.

The source.

The overflow of this hot spring here brings forth an oasis which stretches below the springs as far as the water can tumble. The vegetation of this oasis consists of cacti, eucalyptus, agave, flowering rosemary and palm trees. Set between this abundance are are a few properties which together make up the hamlet.

As could be expected, there's very little happening here. However, despite the village being at the end of the steep road, it sees quite a lot of traffic from Alemría's locals seeking to refill their drinking water bottles directly from the hot spring source. 
Adding to the water tourists, are many a local cyclist either those who stick to the tarmac or those that come up on asphalt but who tumble down backtracks towards their starting point in the valley. 
For it's size there are quite a few reasons for tourists to visit here. For instance, one of the aforementioned local bars has a reputation for tapas, drawing foodies from Almería. 
And many of the village's houses are now popular as weekend homes for the Almeríans.

We had decided to stay in the hamlet itself, at one of the properties below the hot springs. 
Gifted with a magnificent view out towards the Cabo de Gata and the city of Almería itself, the non-commercial bungalow turned out to be a great place to enjoy the expected silence during the day while proving to be an excellent place for star-gazing during the darker hours. 
An extra add-on of staying at any place in Baños de Sierra Alhamilla is that the local water supply originates from the hot spring. Though for drinking it's advised to fill up a water container at the spring itself.
And of course a stay here is very convenient for enjoying a soak.

Almería in the distance, beyond the Mediterranean.

Social
The Balneario itself is not very big. The entrance is surprisingly around the alley at the back. After passing the reception one comes to a cool inner court, amply shadowed by greenery. Upstairs are rooms, while directly opposite stairs lead downstairs to the baths themselves. 

The baths are actually bath tubs in small but tall rooms, devoid of anything else. That's all. 

The baths are only available in the morning. We had booked on forehand so when we came after our breakfast, our baths had already been drawn. We were appointed each a separate bathroom; socializing isn't part of the experience it seems. The time slot was 30 minutes which is long enough to enjoy the heat and stare at the walls.

Or trying to catch up on sleep ...

Once redressed, we enquired about the original baths. The proprietor opened an iron gate off to the north side of the inner court, down a separate staircase. Here in the center of the doomed roof are double baths with small alcoves to the side (see below). It looks like a very nice place to spend with friends, maybe a bit too big for just two persons. The more sociable experience would set you back 38€.


We paid up (8,80€ per bath) and went for a coffee.

Old style
The balneario itself has a good web presence especially through booking sites for it's 27 rooms. If requesting a quote by booking.com, a stay early November 2014 would cost you 64€ per night for the cheapest room. That excludes the use of the baths itself.
Note that webvisitors at booking.com gave a stay at the balneario 7.3 out of 10 with many of the reviewers touching upon the good management, the atmosphere and the views. One of the quotes:
'This is a very old Moorish style hotel which is 'quirky', and great provided that is what you expect. In a quaint hamlet with 2 bars nearby, and great views. Brilliant individual marble spa baths. Breakfast on a terrace with great views'.
Meanwhile reviewers at tripadvisor gave it just 3 stars with reviews differing wildly, maybe a different crowd?

The website the balneario maintains has lots of info about a potential stay. It also mentions that the existence of the spring can be traced back to the
'... Phoenicians and later the Romans'.
The Manantiales y Fuentes de Andalucía website notes that an Arab bath was added in the ninth century, while the current building(s) stem from 1777. Spainholiday.com adds some more info:
'Another popular Almeria based spa was renovated as recently as 1984.
The 18th century building that is home to the Sierra Alhamilla Balneario was originally built on Roman and Arabic ruins.After more than 8 years of renovation it is now as impressive as it was in medieval days and its location in the Alhamilla mountainside is splendid'.
More web background. Take this experience from dining in Andalucia:
'The Hotel proved to be shabby but wonderful, quiet but atmospheric, the Spanish would say “emblematic” it is the favourite word of the tourist industry!
...
We had a very good lunch and were well looked after to round off a very special day. I took dozens of photographs of the Baños because surely they must have appeared in a film or two, they are too photogenic not to have. I must do more research. In fact it is such a lovely place I will return, if not to stay and be pampered, then for another lunch'.
Activities besides soaking / use of spring water mentioned above were dining and cycling. Rambling, rock climbing and paragliding are just more of the activities undertaken. Below the village square is a barren patch which hosts some campervans who even use the springs as a shower place, it least I saw it mentioned on the web, no witnessing it myself ...

Here is a youtube compilation of photo's of the balneario.

The inner court

1-2-3
The Baños de Sierra Alhamilla are not the only hot spring of Almería province. More inland is Alhama de Almería. Here the Balneario San Nicolas hosts potential soakers.
'First of all, the hotel is tailored for older people and has fewer children than Hamelin after the Pied Piper had passed through.
...
Secondly, it is true that there is little or nothing to do in the town.
...
Thirdly, I had read criticisms of the food and toiletries. The food (included in the price), which is served in a buffet, is good standard Spanish fare'.
Spain.holiday has more info on a potential visit.

Having the baños as a base for further exploration of the surrounding area is an additional plus point. Just the city of Almería and it's inner city is worth a couple of visits. What about it's beautifully restored 19th century Mercado Central and afterwards a coffee with churro's? Or the alley's around the cathedral? Or the Alcazaba (Moorish castle)?
Don't forget to enjoy the seaside boulevard to view all the evening paseo, the youngsters playing volleyball on the beach or dining while the evening ferry from Morocco arrives.

Even closer are the cinema sets for western style movies, just where the down bound road evens out. Almería is even host to a western-style movie festival!

Further afield, the village of Níjar is a very picturesque. Beyond the village  can walk along the valley with it's many mills, the ruta de los Molinos / ruta los Molinos de Agua
The village itself specializes in Andalucian ceramics and jarapa's. 

After a visit here we stocked up on some bocadillo's and headed out to one of the Cabo de Gata beaches, the Playazo beach of Rodalquilar
The weather for late October was great so the beach still had a good weekend turnout of mostly locals. A mix of scarcely clothed and non-clothed, the vibe was certainly great for a beach picnic followed by a long swim in the still warm waters.
The Cabo de Gata National Park is an area yearning to be explored. Vibrant villages attract the hip and young, while the mountains are easy to scale and the many beaches are devoid of construction but open to near year round skinny dipping. 
The cape itself is a nice though not too special outing. Make it worthwhile by visiting the slat marshes of Las Salinas which are home to a variety of birds, flamingo's providing the lead role .... .

Inland past Alhama de Almería are more mountain villages from where one can experience solitude on foot. Particularly the Sierra Nevada mountains behind Laujar de Andarax host many a trail. We took a scary trail along a disused hydrocanal, which passed along some high precipices and included a 20m winding tunnel. 

The nearby village of Padules is home to another wonder of nature. Perched high up above the Andarax river, a steep trail runs down from the village to the river. Called Las Canales, the river here squeezes and pushes itself through 50m high rocks. On the weekday we were here, it was totally deserted making it even more rewarding ... . Here's another great account of a visit.





Fresh
All in all, a great couple of days was had at our stay in Baños de Sierra Alhamilla, certainly worthwhile of a repeat. We were also very impressed with the vibe. 

But somehow I couldn't help but think that with a fresh approach to soaking and how to enjoy soaking could breathe even more life to what essentially is old school business model. Currently depending on elder guests with free time to bore themselves to death who are willing to spend a bit extra on food.

Witness a possible alternative. Rent out larger soaking tubs, each with a view of the valley. Ideal for those seeking sociable experiences as a way to cap off a day activity with the possibility to take a tapas or two with a drink. Even the two could co-exist ...

Making history?

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