Andalucia — say the name as the Spanish do and you can hear the rhythm, the passion, and the longing that characterizes this mountainous area of extraordinary beauty and tumultuous history. Within its name lies a clue to its unique culture. It was once called “Al-Andalus” by its Muslim masters who ruled the Iberian peninsula between 711 and 1492. As the gateway between Africa and Europe, Andalucia was a prize coveted by many warlords. Hannibal, the Vandals, and the Visigoths all shed blood in this region before the arrival of Islamic Caliphs. The Caliphs later fought bitterly and unsuccessfully against northern Christian rulers who regained control of the area by the fifteenth century.
This complex history gave birth to a rich and unique culture, which expresses itself in the music and dance rhythms of the flamenco, the bloody drama of the bullfight, and the stunning (but bizarre) architectural heritage of its religious buildings and royal palaces. Set amidst the snowy peaks and vast plains of the Sierra Nevada; the cities of Ronda, Cordoba, Granada, and Seville offer a truly authentic Hispanic experience.
We drove from Malaga to Ronda in about three hours, arriving in time to admire the sun setting over the vast canyon that drops precipitously from its city walls. Unfortunately, my photo does no justice to the spectacular view towards the mountains and the long promenade along the cliff edge, but believe me, it’s worth the trip.
So is the Ronda Bullring, a complex of corralling pens, horse riding school, and museums dedicated to the art of bullfighting and shooting set around a huge bullring (which still hosts fights every September). Standing on the soft sand covering the ground and gazing up into the Romanesque arches housing the audience, one can hear the thump of hooves on the ground and feel the tension of a contest to the death between Matador and bull. Children love the gladiatorial setting, the brightly colored costumes, and the chance to watch the resident horses being trained in the arena.
Leaving Ronda, we drove to Seville, which is the capital of the area. The jewel in its crown is the Real Alcazar, a Moorish/Gothic fantasy of gardens, courtyards, palaces, and baths. You’ll need half a day to wander through this complex of architectural delights before collapsing into a tapas bar for a much needed glass of sangria.
However, the Real Alcazar is just a warm-up for the challenge of visiting the Alhambra in Granada which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Set high above the city on a table mountain, the Alhambra is one of the most visited sites in Europe. It’s not hard to see why. Within this huge citadel you can see a military fort, the Islamic Nasrid palaces, and a Spanish Renaissance castle framed amongst huge gardens with sweeping views of the snow-clad Sierra Nevada mountains.
Both the Alcazar and the Alhambra are easy places to visit with children as there are loads of open spaces to run around, staircases to climb, and nooks and crannies to explore. You will need to book a specific time to visit the Nasrid Palaces and be prepared for long lines.
By the time we had absorbed the Alhambra, I was beginning to get architectural indigestion, which got worse when we visited the Cathedral in Cordoba. This extraordinary edifice actually has a Catholic cathedral sitting inside a Muslim mosque. The effect is bizarre but the message was clear — the site had been alternating between different faiths depending on which ruler happened to be in power.
Traveling between the cities of Andalucia was a joy. There was little traffic, and the roads were good. In May, the crops were already high in the field. The orange trees and olive groves provided color against the white villages and occasional castle on the hills. After visiting the tourist attractions of each city, we enjoyed wandering around streets and alleyways, taking in the hidden gems of small churches and watching the local life. In Seville, we saw an exuberant youth band in procession around the cathedral, watched a wedding party, and stumbled into a free guitar concert in the town hall. It’s these moments which make the biggest impact because you cease to be a tourist and become part of the local scene.
Car hire: Make sure you understand the insurance arrangements before you hire. We had a few problems!
GPS: Ours struggled in the labyrinthine streets of Granada and Seville and failed to pick up some one way indications.
Food: Pick a place away from the nearest touristy square. You’ll get a better and cheaper meal.
Alhambra: Take bottles of water and some sustenance. It’s a long day.
Hotels to Consider in Southern Spain
Ronda: Hotel Maestranza
Seville: Rey Alfonso
Granada: NH Victoria
All three are well located, offer parking (although the underground parking lots are very narrow), and are comfortable. The breakfast buffet at the Victoria in Granada is excellent!