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The Best Small Towns and Villages


Cuenca: Set amid a landscape of rugged limestone outcroppings at the junction of two rivers, Cuenca is a fascinating combination of medieval masonry and cantilevered balconies that seem to float above the steep gorges below. The angularity of the architecture here is said to have inspired early versions of cubism, a fact commemorated in Cuenca’s Museo de Arte Abstracto Español. This museum is considered one of the finest modern art museums in Spain.

Zafra: Zafra’s 15th-century castle is the largest and best preserved in the region. It is set within the angular, stark white architecture of Zafra, which is also said to have inspired the cubists.

Baeza: After it was wrenched away from the Moors in 1227, Baeza became a frontier town between the Christian and Moorish worlds, and a die-hard symbol of the Catholic ambition to occupy all of Iberia. Today, a wealth of architecture survives as evidence of the splendor of Iberian history.

Carmona: Pint-size, sleepy Carmona packs a historical wallop, evoking the Roman occupation of Iberia. The town claims an architectural legacy from every occupying force since 206 B.C., when the Romans defeated the resident Carthaginian army.

Ronda: The site appears inhospitable — a gorge slices through the town center and its twin halves are connected with bridges that are antiques in their own right. But the winding streets of this old Moorish town are perfect for wandering, and the views of the surrounding Andalusian countryside are stupendous. Ronda is also revered by bullfighting fans, both for its bullring (the oldest and most beautiful in Spain) and the region’s skill in breeding the fiercest bulls in the country.

Mijas: Wander through streets and alleys once trod by the Phoenicians, the Celts, and the Moors. Today, the town offers a welcome dose of medieval flair on the Costa del Sol, a region otherwise filled with modern, anonymous, and often ugly resort hotels.

Nerja: On the Costa del Sol at the Balcón de Europa (Balcony of Europe) lies this Mediterranean gem and its palm-shaded promenade jutting into the sea. Lined with antique iron lampposts, the village overlooks a pretty beach and fishing fleet. The resort town is on a sloping site at the foot of a wall of jagged coastal mountains. You can snuggle up in the parador or lodge at one of the little inns on the narrow streets.

Elche: Although famed as a charming medieval village, Elche is best known as the excavation site of one of the premier sculptures of the Roman Empire in Iberia, La Dama de Elche, now exhibited inMadrid‘s archaeological museum. These days, you can still see date palms planted originally by the Phoenicians. A “mystery play” celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin has been performed in the village church every year since the 1300s.

Sitges: South of Barcelona is Spain’s most romantic Mediterranean beach town, with a 2.5km-long (1 1/2-mile) sandy beach and a promenade studded with flowers and palm trees. Sitges is a town with a rich connection to art; Picasso and Dalí both spent time here. Wander its small lanes and inspect the old villas of its Casco Antiguo, the Old Quarter. When not at the beach, you can view three good art museums. Nowadays, thousands of gays and lesbians flock to Sitges, which attracts a wide spectrum of visitors of all persuasions.

Cadaqués: The 16th-century church that dominates this town from a nearby hilltop isn’t particularly noteworthy, but Cadaqués — on the Costa Brava near the French border — still charms visitors with its whitewashed, fishing-village simplicity. The azure waters of the Mediterranean appealed to surrealist master Salvador Dalí, who built a suitably bizarre villa in the adjoining hamlet of Lligat.

Santillana del Mar: Jean-Paul Sartre called it “the prettiest village in Spain.” Only 6 blocks long and just 5km (3 miles) from the sea, Santillana del Mar perfectly captures the spirit of Cantabria. It’s also near the Cuevas de Altamira (Altamira Caves), often called “the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art.” Romanesque houses and mansions line the ironstone streets. People still sell fresh milk from their stable doors, as if the Middle Ages had never ended, but you can live in comfort at one of Spain’s grandestparadores, Parador de Santillana, a converted 17th-century mansion.

Deià: On the island of Majorca, you’ll find this lovely old village (also spelled Deyá), where the poet Robert Graves lived until his death in 1985. Following in his footsteps, artists and writers flock to this haven of natural beauty, 27km (17 miles) northwest of Palma. The views of the sea and mountains are panoramic. Gnarled and ancient olive trees dot the landscape. You can book into cozy nests of luxury like La Residencia or Es Molí.