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.Read More
1: San Cecilio Fiesta in Granada’s traditionally gypsy quarter of Sacromonte.
Week before Lent: Carnaval An extravagant week-long event in all the Andalucian cities. Cádiz, above all, celebrates, with uproarious street parades, fancy dress and satirical music competitions.
Easter: Semana Santa (Holy Week) You’ll find memorable processions of floats and penitents at Seville, Málaga, Granada and Córdoba, and to a lesser extent in smaller towns such as Jerez, Arcos, Baeza and Úbeda. All culminate with dramatic candlelight processions at dawn on Good Friday, with Easter Day itself more of a family occasion.
Last week of April: Feria de Abril Week-long fair at Seville: the largest fair in Spain.
First week: Cruces de Mayo Celebrated in Córdoba and includes a “prettiest patio” competition in a town full of prize examples.
Early May (week after Feria de Abril): Feria del Caballo A somewhat aristocratic horse fair is held at Jerez de la Frontera.
Pentecost: Romería del Rocío Horse-drawn carriages and processions converge from all over the south on El Rocío (Huelva).
Last week: Feria de la Manzanilla Prolonged binge in Sanlúcar de Barrameda to celebrate the town’s major product, with flamenco and sporting events on the river beach.
13: San Antonio Fiesta at Trevélez (Las Alpujarras) with mock battles between Moors and Christians.
Third week The Algeciras Feria Real is another major event of the south.
End June/early July: International Festival of Music and Dance Major dance/flamenco groups and chamber orchestras perform in Granada’s Alhambra palace, Generalife and Carlos V palace.
Early July: International Guitar Festival Brings together top international acts from classical, flamenco and Latin American music in Córdoba.
End of month: Virgen del Mar Almería’s major annual shindig, with parades, horseriding events, concerts and lots of drinking.
First week The first cycle of horse races along Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s beach, with heavy official and unofficial betting; the second tournament takes place two weeks later.
5: Trevélez observes a midnight romería to Mulhacén.
13–21: Feria de Málaga One of Andalucía’s most enjoyable fiestas for visitors, who are heartily welcomed by the ebullient malagueños.
15: Ascension of the Virgin Fair With casetas (dance tents) at Vejer and elsewhere.
Noche del Vino Riotous wine festival at Competa (Málaga).
23–25: Guadalquivir festival Bullfights and an important flamenco competition, at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
September & October
First two weeks Sept: Feria de Ronda Ronda’s annual feria, with flamenco contests and Corrida Goyesca – bullfights in eighteenth-century dress.
First/second week Sept: Vendimia Celebrating the vintage at Jerez.
27–Oct 1: Feria de San Miguel In Órgiva (Las Alpujarras) featuring traditional dancing and a huge paella cook-up.
The most striking feature of Andalucía’s cuisine is its debt to the Moors. In their long period of hegemony over the region the North Africans introduced oranges and lemons as well as spices such as cumin and saffron and refined techniques for growing olives and almonds. Their chilled soups such as ajo blanco (made with ground almonds) and gazpacho are still a welcome refresher in high summer temperatures. Of course, gazpacho is today made with tomatoes and green peppers, both brought back from the Americas by Columbus, who sailed from Andalucía.
The region is also the birthplace of tapas, the classic tidbits that Spaniards love to tuck into as they drink. Between 6 and 9pm most evenings city bars are humming with conversations of tapeadores (as aficionados are termed). One of Andalucía’s favourite tapas is jamón serrano, mountain-cured ham from prime producing zones in the Sierra de Aracena and the Alpujarras. The most prized ham of all is jamón ibérico from black Iberian pigs, and in the curing village of Jabugo this is graded into five levels of quality with the very best accorded five jotas or “j’s” (for Jabugo). If you can afford it, the taste is mouthwateringly delicious and far superior to the standard white-pig jamón sold in supermarkets.
Andalucía is also known in Spain as the zona de los fritos (fried food zone) and fried fish is a regional speciality. Chanquetes (whitebait), sardines, calamares and boquerones (anchovies) are all andaluz favourites and the seafood chiringuitos (beach restaurants) of Málaga are famous for their fritura malagueña (assorted fried fish).
Inland, Andalucía is a mountainous region and the specialities here are carnes de caza (game). Jabalí (wild boar), venado (venison), cabrito (kid) and perdiz (partridge) all make memorable meals in the hands of a competent chef.
The wine par excellence of Andalucía – particularly to accompany tapas – is fino (dry sherry) from Jerez de la Frontera, although nearby Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s manzanilla and montilla (produced in Córdoba) are similar and display their own prized characteristics.