Andalucia is, in many ways, the very essence of Spain. There are sun-dappled, biscuit-coloured plazas – drowsing in the midday heat, then lit up by night-long fiestas. There are operatic heroines and guitar-toting troubadours. Orange blossom adorns the trees while olive groves pattern the land to a hazy horizon. There are horses that dance, matadors that dodge and weave, and flamenco dancers whose guile and grace confound in an electrifying blur. However romantic and hackneyed all this may sound, it’s there in spades; if not around every corner, then at least never far from reach, in a region imbued by the spirit and the passion of its people. Colourful and exotic, and enhanced by a fusion of Mediterranean and North African flavours, this heady blend is responsible for some fabulous creations, from the tastiest Moorish recipes to some of the finest, most exuberant palaces in Europe.
Read on to discover more about the flamboyance of the Spanish south...
Spain's Secret Sierra
Sandy trails that meander through thyme-scented meadows; woodlands of cork and Holm oak beneath whose boughs herds of Iberian black pigs snuffle for acorns; sleepy whitewashed villages and Moorish castles... to visit the Aracena Sierra is to uncover a Spain whose traditions, landscapes and lives have changed little over centuries. Surrender to prized Iberian ham, peppery olive oil, pungent wild mushrooms and sunshine-coloured sherry. Savour every morsel of this secret corner of Spain.
Ah, Sevilla! How we love to stroll the elegant boulevards and riverside promenades by day, pausing in orange-tree-filled plazas and wandering amid the Alcázar’s sumptuous gardens. And then, when night falls, to wander through the lattice-like network of streets within Barrio de Santa Cruz, sashaying from tapas bar to tapas bar, washing down chunks of chorizo and gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) with slugs of cold fino sherry, refreshing enough to penetrate the city’s sultry splendour after dark...
You might sit for hours in a small bar waiting for the first strum of an impromptu flamenco guitar to strike up and the first notes of a cante jondo to begin. But when it happens, the heart-stopping, spine- tingling, insanely exciting swirling of skirts, stamping of feet, clapping of hands and soulful lament of a flamenco performance captures all the fiery passion of Andalucia in one, breathtaking experience. Olé!
Where Vultures Soar
Walking in shadows cast by vultures soaring on thermal currents might seem more like an African adventure than a Spanish one, but here in the Grazalema Sierra the setting is resolutely Andalucian. The Garganta Verde gorge is home to 200 pairs of Griffon vultures who reside in craggy limestone lairs above deep gullies scented by wild fig and thyme. By contrast, the spring meadows close by are awash with delicate geraniums, iridescent irises and elegant narcissi which attract butterflies and birds, including the delightful hoopoe.
The High Life in Ronda
Ronda, the birthplace of bullfighting in Spain and the most iconic of all the pueblos blancos, occupies a breath-stealer of a location. The 18th-century Puente Nuevo straddles the Tajo gorge, 130 metres above the Guadalevín river. Connecting the old town (La Ciudad) with the more modern El Mercadillo area, the bridge doubles as an impressive viewpoint. In La Ciudad, cobbled streets lead to Moorish palaces, Arab baths and plazas perfumed by orange blossom; and the Cuenca Gardens, built into the sides of the gorge, are not to be missed.
Once the capital of the Islamic Empire in the west, with architectural treasures to rival anything in the world, there's far more to Córdoba than meets the eye. Behind the iconic striped arches and marble-and-jasper columns of the magnificent 11th-century Mezquita lies a splendid, 16th-century Renaissance cathedral. Sequestered within the walls of the maze of the Jewish quarter lie exquisite, flower-bedecked courtyard gardens, which each May are opened to the public during the annual Fiesta de los Patios.
A Fusion of Faiths
Part of Andalucia’s fascination springs from successive periods of both conflict and harmonious inter-mingling between the great faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Blending over subsequent years like sherry in a solera system, this peculiar synthesis has left a unique cultural legacy: ancient mosques transformed into churches, a cuisine infused with dashes of North African spices, and dazzling white towns (pueblos blancos) in whose shady corners, during the drowsy heat of a sizzling afternoon, little seems to have changed since Lorca’s depiction of passion and loss in his most famous play, Blood Wedding.
Legacy of the Moors
Hotel Casa Morisca, a converted 15th-century mansion with an ornate, balustraded courtyard and mosaic tiling on its walls and floors, simply oozes character from its prime location in the heart of Granada’s medieval Albaicin district. Enjoy drinks on the terrace while gazing across at the incomparable Alhambra, the fortress palace crowning the city that has bewitched kings, warriors and poets for centuries; then climb the streets of neighbouring Sacromonte, the gypsy quarter, for sensational views amid a soundtrack of gently strumming flamenco guitars.
Las Alpujarras: Live Like a Local
In the foothills of the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, where ancient terraces are covered in olive and almond groves, and where white-walled villages huddle like sheep in the folds of the valley, life in sleepy Mairena moves with the seasons. Winter brings fat olives to be beaten from the trees; spring and summer collect ripe fruit from boughs and branches; and autumn yields savoury walnuts, sweet chestnuts and almonds. Foraging for nature’s bounty and joining in the harvest is sharing in seasonal traditions that have shaped lives for generations.
Cabo De Gata
Sun-drenched Cabo de Gata is one the Mediterranean’s last unspoiled regions – an area of stark natural beauty whose landscapes conjure up images more redolent of North Africa than of Europe. Inland, date palm oases stand out against the bare red hills, whose silent valleys hide abandoned farmsteads and ancient waterwheels. Along the coast, white-sand beaches backed by carpets of sea lavender are interspersed with secluded coves, perfect for unwinding and for swimming in the warm, translucent waters.