The deal was: No presents.
Our sole gift, to ourselves and to our kids, would be a trip to Spain. Not having to feel bound to the masochistic ordeal of parking-shopping-paying-wrapping-stressing-and-overindulging that is sadly at the heart of the 21st century Christmas experience was just a bonus. A big bonus, as far as I was concerned.
It had been well more than a decade since Emily, 22, and Sam, about to turn 21, had believed in Santa, yet my wife and I had been slavishly repeating the same ritual every Dec. 25 year after year. We needed a vacation from Christmas. We needed distance. A lot of it. Like, about 4,000 miles.
We also needed a destination with enough appeal to entice 20-somethings into giving up their usual round of seasonal parties and socializing with people who still have hair and abs. We knew that they had fond memories of our family vacations in Europe — Paris and the French countryside. Unfortunately, in December, France is a little too close to the North Pole. By contrast, Spain sticks so far out into the Mediterranean that it all but puts a dent in Morocco. The coastal city of Malaga is a full degree of latitude south of Athens and five degrees closer to the equator than Rome.
Plus, Spain was novel. I was the only one of us who had ever been there, and that was in another century. As the memories flooded back, it struck me that my Spanish sojourn had been in exactly the same time period — from just before Christmas until just after New Year’s — that we were now contemplating. They were good memories: brisk nights mellowed by wood fires in cozy bars, which, deep in the off-season, were filled with locals rather than with tourists. I remembered sun-warmed days wandering along grand boulevards lined with date palms. Not a reindeer in sight.
Spain it was.
Since we all knew some Spanish and Sam could gabble like a native, we were emboldened to think off the tourist track. Finding a villa to rent, away from the main attractions, would save a fortune over multiple hotel rooms in a big city. Airfare alone for the four of us was $4,000 — and those were the cheap seats. The euro, though not peaking, was still beefing up the cost of everything from taxis to tapas.
A decade ago, on our first family trip to the Continent, we’d discovered an online broker, Rentvillas.com, which listed hundreds of properties all over Europe and acted as an intermediary between the property owners, usually locals, and the renters. We’d used them for our two other trips since and had always had excellent results — charming, livable places in memorable locations. But it was still a little scary to commit a significant non-refundable deposit (about a third) up-front, based on a handful of photos and a written description.
But we took the plunge, plunking down $500 of a $1,739 low-season fee for one week in a three-bedroom villa about 10 minutes outside Ronda, an Andalusian city of 35,000 built beside a 330-foot-deep gorge in the mountains of Malaga province, about an hour from the coastal city of Marbella.
I didn’t know about the gorge when we booked — I knew only that Ronda was in the middle of a circle with a two-hour driving radius that covered Granada, Seville, Cordoba and Malaga, all cities that friends had praised. We thought of it merely as a base for day trips. Then I image-Googled Ronda and … wow. The ancient town (the Phoenicians were the second group to settle there) was split down the middle by the nearly vertical, craggy-sided gorge plummeting to a cascading river that meandered into a lovely valley spotted with olive groves and rimmed by mountains.