Almost two hundred years ago Washington Irving described Andalucía as a ‘stern, melancholy country with rugged mountains and long sweeping plains destitute of trees and indescribably silent and lonesome, partaking of the savage and solitary character of Africa.’
While this southern tip of Europe is still frequently reminiscent of the African savanna, it could just as easily bring to mind Peruvian deserts, Alpine hills or even icy Andean slopes. The South American Pantanal, complete with flamingos, can be found here alongside the Australian Outback, Moroccan Kasbahs and Venezuelan haciendas. With its high central plateau Spain is the second highest country in Europe…yet it also has an area (the deserts around Tabernas) that typically receives less rainfall than Alice Springs.
Boasting 600 miles of coast and several impressive mountain chains – including most notably Sierra Nevadas, Sierra Morena, Sierra Betica and Sierra de Aracena – Andalucia is bigger than either The Netherlands or Belgium.
In the depths of a gloomy northern European winter there can few things more attractive that the thought of a quick escape to Al-Andalus – known to the Moors as ‘the land of light’. The area has always been a favourite with sun-starved northerners but increasingly visitors are travelling inland to sample the real riches of what is certainly one of Europe’s most diverse regions.
Half a century after the hobo-writer Laurie Lee tramped his way through the region, his descriptions of the Andalusian cities still hold true: Cadiz is still ‘a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass’; Seville remains ‘a creamy crustation of flower-banked houses’ and Granada will always be ‘an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow.’
GRANADA – On a typically fine Granada dawn, with the walls of the Alhambra changing from peach to gold to as the sun climbs, it can be difficult to think of a more exotic and romantic destination that offers such an easy refuge from chilly northern climes. Granada is best known as the home of the awesome Alhambra Palace, but the last resting-place of the Moorish Sultans receives as much of its power from its relationship to the city as the city is affected by the Palace. Granada’s quarters are full of magic. The old Albayzin medina, with its narrow alleyways, plazas and cármenes (walled gardens, shaded with palms, myrtles and cypresses) is one of the most attractive in Spain and the Gypsy quarter of Sacromonte (the Sacred Hill) with its mysterious caves, adds to Granada’s charms as one of Europe’s most romantic cities.
RONDA – Nature, history and art have conspired to make Ronda one of the most beautiful towns in Spain. With its aura of adventure and romanticism, in Sierra de Ronda – land of poets and bandits – few places have managed to attract a more impressive roll-call of admirers: Ernest Hemingway, James A. Michener, Richard Ford and Orson Welles to name but a few. Ronda offers an unforgettable sight, with its gleaming white-washed buildings clustered along the spectacular gorge of the Guadalevin River. The monumental riches – the majestic 300 year-old ‘New Bridge’, the Arab baths, the bullring, and the many churches, mansions, palaces, convents and plazas – are emphasised by spectacular cliff-top views over the Andalusian landscape. Yet another literary devotee, the poet Rilke, described Ronda as ‘a town of dreams.’
FIESTAS – On any given day throughout the summer there are an average of 4 major official fiestas taking part in Andalusian towns or villages. If there is something that the normally light-hearted Andalusian takes very seriously it is his fiestas.
It might involve a religious procession, a party, a bullfight, a dance, a carnival or a mountain pilgrimage. There are night-long processions, with Madonnas clad in golden veils and draped in jewels, and there are sure to be handsome dark-eyed women with carnations in their hair. There are gypsy singers, guitar serenades, vibrant dances and the staccato clapping of palms. And there is always fino wine and sherry. Although the provincial capitals – Seville, Granada, Córdoba and Malaga – attract massive crowds for Holy Week and during their specific fiestas, every village in Andalucia cherishes its own intense, joyful and very often almost unknown events.
ALPUJARRAS – The Alpujarras valleys separate Granada from the Costa Tropical. As you climb towards the snowy slopes of Sierra Nevada and Mount Mulhacén (mainland Spain’s highest peak) you travel along twisting lanes flanked by cactus and fig trees. The deep ravines and hills have been carved into terraces planted with almond and olive trees. This is a remote, silent world of highland wildernesses and white-washed villages with steep alleyways. The houses have a distinct style – with huge conical chimneys and diminutive doors – and there is the ever-present whisper of water running through ancient Moorish irrigation channels. All of these things make Alpujarras one of the best regions in Europe for trekking and mountaineering.
SEVILLE – The Andalusian capital, Seville, is perpetually vibrant, luminous and exciting. Seville is at the same time ardent and romantic: the mythical characters of Carmen or Don Juan could not have been born in any other city.
The is a unique blend of the cultures that flourished at the banks of the Guadalquivir (‘the Great River’ of the Moors) but it is much more than the sum of its Moorish, Andalusian and Baroque treasures. Its whitewashed quarters, raucous taverns and shady gardens make it a wonderfully varied city to wander through.
Two unforgettable events define Seville: Holy Week and the April Fair. The nocturnal processions, devotion and religious fervour of the former lead the way to April’s bright days of fiery flamenco and sensational fiestas.
CORDOBA – Think of Cordoba, and La Mezquita (The Great Mosque), that unique complex of Islamic art carved in marble, immediately springs to mind. Those who have visited the city before might also reminisce about the pleasant alleyways of La Juderia (The Jewish Quarter) or the riverbank of the Guadalquivir.
Cordoba might not be as grand as her bigger sister, Granada, or as seductive as Seville, but she has a secretive and romantic soul that is rarely forgotten by those who have taken the time to understand her charms.
The inner secrets of Cordoba are best appreciated during May when the patios, famed throughout Spain, are open to visitors. The love for secluded gardens and fountains – inherited directly from the Moors – is more alive than ever and much of the city’s social life still goes on in these jasmine-scented oases.
PUEBLOS BLANCOS – Spread across the mountain ranges between Cadiz and Ronda, you find the white hilltop villages of Andalucia. Like patches of impossible snow they glint under a sun that is often more African than European. Many of their names – Castelar de la Frontera, Jimena de la Frontera, Arcos de la Frontera, Vejer de la Frontera – are testimony to their origins as frontier-towns. It’s hard to believe that these sleepy villages were once the frontlines in raging battles between Moors and Christians. High up over the undulating ‘corduroy’ of olive plantations and fragrant pinewoods, they appear silhouetted against cloudless skies and invariably crowned by ancient castles. In the narrow whitewashed alleyways you can still catch glimpses of an old-time lifestyle: women chatting over geranium filled window-boxes, old men chewing their cigars over a card-table in a shady corner, and the pulse-quickening strains of a flamenco guitar drifting from behind a shuttered window…