On The Road: Malaga to Antequera
Malaga has certainly changed in recent years. There seems to have been an influx of fashionable boutiques and cafés along streets like Calle Marqués de Larios and on the main square, Plaza de la Constitución. But the city is probably still best known as the birthplace of artist Pablo Picasso, and the home of the glorious Museo Picasso Malaga.
Thanks to his fierce opposition to Franco, Picasso spent much of his life in France, home to the car manufacturer responsible for our drive here in southern Spain. We plan to drive out of Malaga up into the hilly region to the north of the city, taking to the countryside in a Dacia Sandero, the latest offering from Renault's budget brand. The Dacia marque originates from Romania, and was purchased by Renault in 1999, originally intended for emerging markets and Eastern Europe.
However, the rest of Europe also saw the appeal, so Renault decided to offer it further afield - and the Sandero is the result. The Sandero Stepway is available too: essentially the same car, but with an elevated ride and roof bars to give it more of an off-roader look. With a starting price of around €7,000, the Sandero is one of the most affordable cars in Europe. We're testing the bells-and-whistles Lauréate version, which costs extra but gives a level of choice, kitting the car out to suit your budget. Even if you opt for everything, the price remains competitive with, say, the price of a Fiesta or Clio.
Our car also features the same touchscreen sat-nav available in other Renault models, which comes in handy for negotiating the route out of Malaga. It isn't long before the industrial buildings and forests of high-rises fall away, revealing longer, quieter roads, flanked by old farmhouses, vineyards and wooded hillsides.
Just 40km into the drive, the town of Álora is an impressive sight, a typical Spanish pueblo with shady cobbled streets and white-washed buildings scattered around a large hill, with a castle resting imperiously on top. Accelerating strongly, the Sandero has no problem getting up to the historic town, and is just as comfortable as it has been on the flat. But then this is the turbo-charged petrol engine version.
In the centre of town is Los Correos, a three-room tapas bar built into what was once the old post office. This is a great spot to sample the fresh produce of these valleys - beginning with a bowl of fresh olives, followed by a slab of tortilla and a plate of local ham and cheese. We finish with some crunchy, wickedly good churros (long strips of sugary, deep-fried doughnut batter). Dipped in chocolate, of course.
We bid goodbye to Álora, driving north towards the vast lake of Conde de Guadalhorce which stretches out in every direction and is surrounded by lush green hills. We flit over a huge dam holding back the water - covering an expanse of 271km2 - the reflection of the Dacia's Sargasso Blue metallic paint glinting in the waters below.
At Campillos we head west towards our final stop, Antequera. Located between the Guadalhorce River in the north and the Sierra de Torcal mountain range to the south - home to two huge nature reserves - the landscape becomes more varied, but the Sandero handles it with ease.
Yet another castle dominates the landscape at Antequera, rising above a huddle of handsome historic buildings. For a touch of tradition, we make our way to the Plaza del Toros, the city's bullring, built in 1848. Inside is a small museum and a restaurant, located beneath the public seating. Here you can sit under wooden beams, surrounded by old photos, and sample pig's cheek with mushroom and raisins, rich duck confit or the local speciality porra - a thicker version of gazpacho, made from tomatoes, peppers and dried bread.
As we end our journey we reflect on the beautiful old towns and traditional cuisine encountered on the trip. The terrain is ruggedly spectacular and it's a pleasant surprise to find that getting to the heart of the Spanish countryside, away from the tourism hotspots, doesn't have to cost much either. The Sandero is perfect for such a journey.
Dacia Sandero Lauréate
Better than you might expect, accelerating cleanly with a comfortable ride
Turbo-charged 900cc three-cylinder, with 1.2-litre and turbo diesel also available
0-100 km/h in 11.1 secs