Andalucia is one of those places which must contend for the invention of the expression sun-kissed. In terms of package holidays, it is viewed as the ideal location for sun-and-sangria holidaymakers who want to spend the day perfecting their tan on the beach and the night partying. Its agreeably mild winters have tempted many Irish people to buy property there.
But Spain’s southernmost autonomous region is more than a pleasant climate and the 300 kilometres of Costa del Sol coastline. Bordering Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha in the east, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean in the south, and Portugal to the west, it has stunningly diverse scenery with arable plains covered in wheat crops and olive trees, the Guadalquivir river basin, navigable as far inland as Seville, and dramatic mountain ranges. Near Granada, the Sierra Nevada, which translates as snowy mountains, is Europe’s southernmost ski resort, at more than 3,000 m above sea level. Good skiers should try the Laguna and Veleta pistes, which are so high that on a clear day you can see the coast and the sea on both sides.
Its strategic position as a gateway between Europe and Africa and between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic has made it a melting pot of cultures. It was from the Andalusian port of Huelva that Christopher Columbus first voyaged to the new world; later Seville became Spain’s main port for trade with the Americas. Arabic, Roman, Greek, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Visigoth influences are evident in the local cuisine, agriculture and architecture. The Romans taught the Andalusians how to cultivate wheat and grapes, while the Arabs showed them how to irrigate crops and improved the cultivation of olive trees.
Tourists bored with the sun-and-sand scene should venture inland to Granada, the last kingdom to be reconquered from the Moors by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
The unadorned fortified exterior of the Alhambra disguises the exquisite Arabic architecture and gardens with clever water systems inside. The Alhambra was once home to the Moorish rulers of Granada and later to Emperor Carlos V. A complex of palaces, courtyards, rooms for the harem, fountains and gardens, the many water features make it surprisingly refreshing on a hot day. It is now one of Spain’s top tourist attractions, so it is probably best to book tickets in advance. Wear good walking shoes, as the ground is often not level, and the Alhambra is built around two steep hills.
At night time, there is a wonderful view of the Alhambra from the Albaicín, a Moorish quarter with narrow herringbone-cobbled streets and houses with collections of blue plates on the outside walls. Other ‘must-sees’ in the city include the Royal Chapel, where the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. The altar has an extraordinary series of biblical scenes, including a very gory one depicting the cutting off of John the Baptist’s head. Great to keep the children interested. The enormous cathedral was built under commission from the Catholic monarchs to facilitate the imposition of Catholicism on the Moorish city, and somehow lacks feeling; if you like your churches holy, then visit instead the Basilica de la Virgina de los Angustiades, a stunning baroque church with atmospheric organ music playing during visiting hours.
The city provides probably the best shopping in the region. In the old silk exchange, the Alcaicería, you will regional crafts tourist shops; flamenco dresses and matador outfits for the children, Moroccan leatherwork slippers and pouffes, brass lanterns, hand painted fans and exquisite embroidered silk shawls. No time for siesta here, too many tourists to keep happy.
While department stores and tourist shops remain open during the afternoon siesta, everything else seems to close. Now it is time to do what the locals do, and head for a tapas bar.
A good one will have a range of these small dishes displayed on the counter. The word means, literally a lid and the term was thought to have come from the necessity of placing a saucer or tapas on top of a glass of wine to keep the flies out. In the old days tapas were served free with a drink; this can occasionally still happen, particularly if the bar is interested in keeping your custom.
A small portion of tapas usually costs a euro or two. Sample two or three for lunch, or have a larger portion called a racion. It is more customary and fun to move from bar to bar sampling their various specialities. the variety ranges from simple Seville olives or cured ham (the local black pig ham is said to reduce cholestrol) to more exotic delicacies such as cooked octopus, pimentos relenos (stuffed peppers), tiny fresh anchovies (boquerones), kidneys in Sherry sauce and spicy snails.
Granada is a good place to start whetting your appetite for exploring the rest of Andalucia. Other treats worth investigating in the province include Seville, renowned, amongst other things, for its Holy Week pageantry. Almost sixty fraternities from each church carry huge gilded processional floats on their shoulders around the city. The spectular events attract huge and emotional crowds, especially the highlight, when the float of the Virgen de la Macarena leaves her home at midnight on Holy Thursday.
Don’t miss Ronda, one of Andalucia’s loveliest towns, standing on a towering plateau in the mountains of Malaga Province, and famous for the plunging river gorge which bisects the town. It also boasts Spain’s oldest bullring, a beautiful arena where tickets for the annual bullfight are in high demand.
Other highlights of Andalucia include the Renaissance towns of Baeza and Ubeda in Jaen province. Now UNESCO world heritage sites, these exquisite towns will transport you to another era skilled masonry was a highly prized art.
- Alhambra Timetables: Combined visit to the Alhambra and the Generalife. Day visits: March to October, 8.30am-2 pm and 2–8 pm. November to February, 8.30am–2 pm and 2–6pm.
- Evening visits: March to October, Tuesday to Saturday, 10–11:30pm. November to February, Friday and Saturday, 8–9:30pm. Gardens: March to October, 8.30am–2pm and 2–8pm. November to February, 8.30am–2pm and 2–6pm. Closed: 1 January and 25 December._Entry fee: Combined ticket for the Alhambra and the Generalife. General: €10 Reduced: 7 € (over 65s, pensioners and European Union Members, with ID); 5 € (gardens only). Free: disabled and children under 8.
- Panorama, Budget, First Choice and other charter operators fly to Malaga, Aer Lingus and Ryanair have Malaga services, Ryanair start flying to Valencia in May
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