Learning to Drive in the White Hill Towns of Andalusia, Spain

The White City of Arcos de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

The White City of Arcos de la Frontera.

“Is there a problem with your car?” the increasingly annoyed hotel owner said to me in English. He and I both knew that the problem had nothing to do with my automobile.

To be fair, it wasn’t my fault that he had to wait so long for me to park. I’m not the one who decided to prohibit guests from operating the garage door. I don’t know who came up with the brilliant idea to require a front desk person to walk outside and physically open the gate every time you wanted to enter or exit the car park, but it wasn’t me.

Nor was it my fault that parking spaces were so tight that, once in a spot, we couldn’t open the passenger side door at all and, even then, there was so little room on the other side that I only managed to squeeze out of the car after emptying my pockets. Seriously, I nearly destroyed my phone trying to force my way out the driver’s side door.  

I’m completely blameless in all of that. But deciding to drive a manual transmission car for the first time through the ancient hill-top towns that dot Andalusia, Spain? Yup, that one is on me.

Getting to Ronda from Granada was easy enough. Along the way I didn’t even see the point of all those gears. Two and four seemed completely optional while I cruised along at highway speed.

And I didn’t really appreciate the multifaceted nature of the clutch until I stalled the car in 1st gear while trying to coast down the 20% grade ramp leading into our hotel’s garage. Yeah, that same damn garage.

Don’t mind me. I’m modestly in control and have a rough understanding of what I’m doing.

One thing I did learn is that Spaniards are not New Yorkers. For all my fits and starts along the way, I don’t think I heard a single horn honked in my direction. Even the poor guy I stranded in a traffic circle waited patiently and apparently unperturbed as I restarted my engine and then promptly stalled it again. Three separate times.

Did I mention that it was a long day?

And that was before the real fun began.

From researching our day’s itinerary I knew enough not to try to drive into the twisted streets of Arcos de la Frontera. It’s not a place for even competent drivers to venture. Some of the canyon-like roads are so narrow that driving through risks scraping your mirrors on both sides.

Arcos de la Frontera Streets 2

The streets of Arcos de la Frontera were not built for automobiles.

And of course along those roads are pedestrians, bicyclists, and hair pin turns to contend with too. All of which conspired to place themselves just inches away from whichever bumper happened to face downhill at that particular moment. I know this because despite my best efforts and plans to the contrary, I ended up driving through those old city streets.

Before setting out for Arcos I had scouted out a parking area just outside of town where we’d deposit the car and then venture forth on foot. We were making our way to that spot when a road closure forced us to take an alternate route; one that lead us directly through the area we were hoping to avoid.

I didn’t get many photos from that day because I was a bit occupied during the drive and a little shaky afterwards. But Google Street View gives a flavor for what it’s like to drive there. The funny thing is that even Google knew better than to take their camera-car into these streets. You can see the shadow of Google’s tripod in some of their shots.

Arcos de la Frontera Streets Tripod

Something else I learned that day is that driving a standard transmission car takes far more skill than driving a 35-foot motor home. To successfully drive an RV all you really have to do is give yourself plenty of room on all sides. If you keep a good distance from the car in front of you, make wide turns, and leave yourself plenty of space along your sides, you’ve done about 90% of everything needed to drive a large vehicle.

Mastering a manual transmission, meanwhile, requires more than just an understanding of which gear is required for the given situation. It requires a certain amount of finesse as well. Just the right amount of gas and the right amount of clutch. Get the balance wrong and you either stall or lurch forward in an uncontrolled spasm.

That much I figured out after just a few hours with the car. Somehow, though, it’s a concept that seemingly escaped our hotel owner, who presumably had a lifetime of experience with these kinds of vehicles. Maybe he just had more faith in my abilities to control the car than either of us had any right to. Why else would he place himself between my front end and a concrete wall as he tried to guide me into that wretched parking space? Needless to say his presence didn’t exactly make things easier or less stressful.

The White City of Grazalema, Andalusia, Spain

The White City of Grazalema

On a positive note, I’m happy to report that he survived the encounter and, against all odds, emerged unharmed.

After three days learning to drive a stick in one of the most unforgiving environments imaginable, I admit to feeling a wave of relief after handing the rental company back their keys. But it felt even better to hear the attendant utter two simple words in the most matter of fact tone, as if what she were describing was anything short of a small miracle.

“No damage.”

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17 Comments on “Learning to Drive in the White Hill Towns of Andalusia, Spain”

  1. Touring NH June 23, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    I learned to drive in a standard – three on the tree. The 1969 GMC pickup required both of my 15 year old feet to push in the clutch. When my son was getting his drivers license, my jeep was a standard and I made sure he could drive it well enough to pass the test. Granted, he didn’t have to navigated the types of streets you did. Perhaps I am showing my age, but when I was a kid, everyone could drive a standard. Automatic transmissions were still an expensive option. Glad you (and the car) made it through with “No damage”


    • Brian June 23, 2014 at 10:06 am #

      By the time i learned to drive most of the manual transmission cars were already replaced with automatics. I think they pretty much disappeared in the U.S. shortly after the 70’s energy crisis ended. I know they did in our household.


  2. In reverse, when we landed in Houston in January 1985 only having driven a manual car, we were given an autmatic that my husband kindly decided I would drive, in the dark, on the other side of the road while he navigated to the Marriott hotel on Greens – nobody told us Greens road was 26 miles long… nightmare – however two years later I came back with my left-hand drive Topaz in a container and drove it in UK for 5 years carefully locating unleaded petrol stations along any route I had to cover. You have my sympathies and even after 15 years living in Spain there are still places I would not consider venturing into. You are a brave man.


    • Brian June 23, 2014 at 10:07 am #

      Brave, stupid, or a little of both . . . still not sure. 🙂


  3. Chris Herridge June 23, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    I learned to drive a standard transmission in the UK. Fifty years ago that’s all there was. Hill starts when you’re in a line of cars are the are worst for a new driver…either suddenly lurching forward or rolling back. And winding country lanes that permit two-way traffic but are wide enough only for one vehicle.


    • Brian June 23, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      We encountered a lot of those single lane two way streets in France. I think our GPS preferred them. For some reason we always ended up on those kinds of roads even when it seemed like there should be other alternatives.


  4. nigemate June 23, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Hilarious – thanks, brought a smile to my face (and laughing WITH you). Spain sounds fabulous
    so far.


    • Brian June 23, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Spain IS fabulous. And thanks for following (and laughing) along.


  5. digger666 June 23, 2014 at 9:13 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666.


  6. mytimetotravel June 23, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    Many congratulations on the “no damage”! I learned to drive in the UK, but when I moved to the US I figured i wouldn’t be here long and switched to automatic. That was decades ago, and the last time I tried to drive stick, in France, the gear box complained and my knees complained. If I decide to move back to England I’ll take driving lessons again! (I’ll need to relearn parallel parking as well as the gear box.)

    Might I suggest that if you’re planning to drive in the UK you start with an automatic until you get used to driving on the other side of the road? And don’t think the countryside will be easier than the cities there, if it’s deep countryside you’re liable to have stone walls on each side of a one lane road.


    • Brian June 23, 2014 at 10:11 am #

      Ha-ha. Already booked a manual for six weeks to take up through the Highlands of Scotland. May fortune favor the foolish. Weeeeeeeeeeee!


  7. brissioni June 23, 2014 at 10:43 am #



  8. spc30802 June 23, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    I’ve been waiting for this post. I was wondering if you were driving yourself at all and how it turned out for you. I just recently returned from a trip to Ireland and self-driving. Since I’ve used “standard” transmission, as they’re called in the rest of the world, for 30 years that didn’t phase me too much. But the incredibly narrow road-width freaked me out. Wait till you encounter driving on the left side of the road.


  9. writecrites June 23, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

    I always drove a standard, thinking automatics weren’t “real” driving. Until I had to drive in Honolulu with its bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. Now the automatic is my auto of choice for city driving. But how about this triple threat: driving a camper van (first time ever) in New Zealand, with a standard shift, AND all the controls (including the stick) on the left-hand side, as well as driving on the left side of the road. Also, try backing into a parallel parking space with a left-hand stick camper van. Talk about terrifying.

    There’s something else you will find out about standard shifts: they all have peculiarities (and even personalities) of their own. The reverse might be in a totally different place, and the finesse that works on one might not work on another. Also, don’t let those Brits put you in a Mini where your knees come up to your chin (they tried that with me). Ahhhhh, driving in other countries—what an adventure 🙂

    p.s. good for you, navigating those teensy city streets, and good luck with the hedgerow driving.


  10. inpursuitofadventureblog June 23, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    And this is the exact reason why I backed out of a road trip through Italy and Switzerland and Germany with 5 people who didn’t know how to drive a manual. It takes more than 20 minutes to learn how to drive a manual and heading up through mountains is not the way to do it! Glad you finally made it though and looks like a beautiful town. Hope you were able to relax a bit after that drive!


  11. The Earth Beneath My Feet June 30, 2014 at 5:23 am #

    Bwahaaaaa Oh that’s brilliant. Thanks for the laugh 🙂



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