White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) group in a tree at sunset, Donana National Park, Spain

Spain //

Andalucía

The popular image of Spain as a land of bullfights, flamenco, sherry and ruined castles derives from Andalucía, the southernmost territory and the most quintessentially Spanish part of the Iberian Peninsula. Above all, it’s the great Moorish monuments that compete for your attention here. The Moors, a mixed race of Berbers and Arabs who crossed into Spain from Morocco and North Africa, occupied al-Andalus for over seven centuries. Their first forces landed at Tarifa in 710 AD, and within four years they had conquered virtually the entire country; their last kingdom, Granada, fell to the Christian Reconquest in 1492. Between these dates, they developed the most sophisticated civilization of the Middle Ages, centred in turn on the three major cities of Córdoba, Seville and Granada.

Each one preserves extraordinarily brilliant and beautiful monuments, of which the most perfect is Granada’s Alhambra palace, arguably the most sensual building in all of Europe. Seville, not to be outdone, has a fabulously ornamented Alcázar and the grandest of all Gothic cathedrals. Today, Andalucía’s capital and seat of the region’s autonomous parliament is a vibrant contemporary metropolis that’s impossible to resist. Córdoba’s exquisite Mezquita, the grandest and most beautiful mosque constructed by the Moors, is a landmark building in world architecture and not to be missed.

These three cities have, of course, become major tourist destinations, but it’s also worth leaving the tourist trail and visiting some of the smaller inland towns of Andalucía. Renaissance towns such as Úbeda, Baeza and Osuna, Moorish Carmona and the stark white hill-towns around Ronda are all easily accessible by local buses. Travelling for some time here, you’ll get a feel for the landscape of Andalucía: occasionally spectacularly beautiful but more often impressive on a huge, unyielding scale.

The region also takes in mountains – including the Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest range. You can often ski here in March, and then drive down to the coast to swim the same day. Perhaps more compelling, though, are the opportunities for walking in the lower slopes, Las Alpujarras. Alternatively, there’s good trekking among the gentler (and much less known) hills of the Sierra Morena, north of Seville.

On the coast, it’s easy to despair. Extending to either side of Málaga is the Costa del Sol, Europe’s most heavily developed resort area, with its poor beaches hidden behind a remorseless density of concrete hotels and apartment complexes. However, the region offers two alternatives, much less developed and with some of the best beaches in all Spain. These are the villages between Tarifa and Cádiz on the Atlantic, and those around Almería on the southeast corner of the Mediterranean. The latter allow warm swimming in all but the winter months; those near Cádiz, more easily accessible, are fine from about June to September. Near Cádiz, too, is Parque Nacional Coto de Doñana, Spain’s largest and most important nature reserve, which is home to a spectacular range of flora and fauna.

The realities of life in contemporary Andalucía can be stark. Unemployment in the region is the highest in Spain – over twenty percent in some areas – and a large proportion of the population still scrapes a living from seasonal agricultural work. The andaluz villages, bastions of anarchist and socialist groups before and during the Civil War, saw little economic aid or change during the Franco years, and although much government spending has been channelled into improving infrastructure such as hospitals and road and rail links, the lack of employment opportunities away from the coastal tourist zones persists. For all its poverty, however, Andalucía is also Spain at its most exuberant – those wild and extravagant clichés of the Spanish south really do exist and can be absorbed at one of the hundreds of annual fiestas, ferias and romerías.