Spain in winter: where to go
Home base for the Moorish kings that ruled Spain for 300 years, and the biggest Roman city in Spain, Cordoba might no longer command attention on the world stage, but it was once a major political and financial powerhouse. This is seen most clearly at the stunning Mezquita (mosque), a landmark building in world architecture.
Standing proud in the city center, with the Jewish and Moorish quarters built around it, the Mezquita is that rare phenomenon – a building that truly takes your breath away. The striped interior arches seemed to come straight from an MC Escher drawing, while the intricately detailed tiered ceiling domes (intended to represent the vault of heaven) can hold your attention for hours.
Aside from the mosque, Cordoba is a town of winding streets and charming shaded patios, often filled with flowers. The locals are very proud of their patios – there’s even an annual competition that has been going to 100 years, held in May.
The intricate interior of Cordoba's Mezquita © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock
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Spain’s only river port – and once the landing point for all the riches that the Spanish carried back from South America – Seville is a small city with a very grand personality. It holds a special place in Spanish cultural identity as the home of flamenco – and this reputation for fiery passion has inspired many artists over the years. Bizet’s Carmen, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro were all set here, and fictional lothario Don Juan also hailed from Seville.
The city has embraced its place in the artistic canon with self-guided opera walks that take in Carmen’s cigar factory (now part of the University of Seville) and there are several “Barber of Seville” barber shops around town.
What really makes the town special is the incredibly well preserved centre, where the grand Alcázar palace, hulking huge gothic cathedral (the third largest church in the world) and impressive Archive of the Indies are just a few of the historic buildings that connect over 1,000 years of history to the present day.
The walls of the cathedral incorporate blocks of Roman stone as well as a Moorish minaret-cum-belltower (whose twin can be found in Marrakesh), while the opulent tomb of Christopher Columbus inside the church reminds visitors of Spain’s Golden Age, when it seemed that the wealth pouring in from the New World would never end.
Seville's monumental cathedral © Kavalenkau/Shutterstock
Well known as the gateway to the Alhambra Palace, Granada town offers plenty for visitors to enjoy beyond the Moorish masterpiece (although of course you have to make time for the Alhambra in your itinerary).
Let’s start with the palace. It dominates every view of the town from its hilltop position, and it has been wowing visitors for centuries – writers from Byron to Washington Irving have been inspired by its joyous interiors. On a sunny day (and that’s almost every day in Granada) the interior marble courtyards seem to glow with tales of the past. First-time visitors will be in heaven, and for those returning for another visit there’s always some new corner of the palace and its gardens to explore.
Back down to earth in town and Granada is less preserved in aspic than its sister Seville, although reminders of the past are everywhere. Take a walk in the winding streets of Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter, and visit the royal chapel in the cathedral, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (who finally drove the Moors from Spain in 1492) are buried.
The Alhambra will delight first timers and seasoned visitors alike © liquid studios/Shutterstock
Sometimes derided as a “Brits abroad” outpost in the Med, you might not think that Málaga boasts a Roman theatre, Moorish Alcazaba and serious artistic pedigree, but, in fact, it does. Hike the steep hill to the Alcazaba and marvel at the sheer scale of the doorways and the great views out over the sea.
Explore the streets around Plaza de la Merced where a young Picasso once played, and visit the artist’s childhood home at Number 15. For more artistic inspiration head to the Museo Picasso, which houses a number of important works by the artist including his Three Graces.
Picasso is not the only talented artist in town. Málaga’s connection to the arts has led to the development of numerous museums. Among the best are the Museo Carmen Thyssen (focused on life in Andalucia, with many paintings by local artists) and an outpost of Paris’ Pompidou Centre, with works by Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon and more.
Plaza de la Merced in Málaga, where Picasso was born © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Top image: The Alhambra palace against the Sierra Nevada mountains © Madrugada Verde/Shutterstock