Andalusia Travel Guide

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The popular image of Spain as a land of bullfights, flamenco, sherry and ruined castles derives from Andalucía (Andalusia), 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.

Andalucia’s fiestas

February

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.

March/April

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.

May

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.

June

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.

July

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.

August

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.

Andalucía’s cuisine

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.

Garganta del Chorro

Fifty kilometres northwest of Málaga lies the deep, rugged canyon of the Río Guadalhorce, known as the Garganta del Chorro. It’s an amazing place – an immense five-kilometre-long cleft in a vast limestone massif, which has become Andalucía’s major centre for rock-climbers. The gorge’s most stunning feature, however, is a concrete catwalk, El Camino del Rey, which threads the length of the gorge, hanging precipitously halfway up its side. Built in the 1920s as part of a hydroelectric scheme, it was one of the wonders of Spain, but it has fallen into disrepair, and access to the catwalk has finally been cut at each end of the gorge, making it impossible to reach without a guide and climbing gear. It’s still possible to explore the rest of the gorge, however, and get a view of the camino by doing the walk described in The walk from El Chorro. A glimpse of both gorge and camino can also be had from any of the trains going north from Málaga – the line, slipping in and out of tunnels, follows the river for a considerable distance along the gorge, before plunging into a last long tunnel just before its head.

Antequera and around

Antequera, some 55km north of Málaga on the main rail line to Granada, is an undistinguished, modern town, but it does have peripheral attractions in a number of fine churches, a group of prehistoric dolmen caves among the most important on the Spanish peninsula, and a fine old Plaza de Toros.

Parque Natural de El Torcal

Approaching Antequera along the old road from Málaga (MA424) via Almogía and Villenueva de la Concepción, you pass the entrance to the popular natural park famed for its haunting rock sculptures. Parque Natural de El Torcal, 13km south of Antequera, is one of the most geologically arresting of Spain’s natural parks. A massive high plateau of glaciated limestone tempered by a lush growth of hawthorn, ivy and wild rose, it can be painlessly explored using the three walking routes that radiate from the centre of the park, outlined in a leaflet available from the Centro de Visitantes.

Nerja

The eastern section of the Costa del Sol ribbons east of the city of Málaga as far as Almería, and is generally uninspiring. Inland there are plenty of attractive sierras to explore but, though far less developed than its twin coastal strip to the west of Málaga, there’s little to tempt you to stop before you reach the twin resorts of Nerja and Almuñécar – which are its saving feature. First, some 40km out of Málaga, comes NERJA, nestling in the foothills of the Almijara range. This was a village before it was a resort, so it has some intrinsic character, and villa development has been shaped around it.

The focus of the whitewashed old quarter is the Bálcon de Europa, a striking palm-fringed belvedere overlooking the sea. The beaches flanking this are also reasonably attractive, with a series of quieter coves within walking distance. There are plenty of other great walks around Nerja, too, well documented in the turismo’s own leaflets; or, at Smiffs Bookshop, c/Almirante Ferrandiz 10, you can buy individual leaflets detailing walks in the area by local resident and hiker Elma Thompson.

Almuñécar

The lively resort of Almuñécar is marred by a number of towering holiday apartments, and the rocky grey-sand beaches are rather cramped, but the esplanade behind them, with palm-roofed bars (many serving free tapas with each drink) and restaurants, is fun, and the old quarter – clustered around a sixteenth-century castle – attractive. The two main beaches, the Playa San Cristóbal and the Playa Puerta del Mar are separated by the towering headland of the Peñon del Santo.

The Costa del Sol resorts

West of Málaga – or more correctly, west of Málaga airport – the real Costa del Sol gets going, and if you’ve never seen this level of tourist development, it’s quite a shock. These are certainly not the kind of resorts you could envisage anywhere else in Europe. The 1960s and 1970s hotel and apartment tower-blocks were followed by a second wave of property development in the 1980s and 1990s, this time villa homes and leisure complexes, funded by massive international investment. It’s estimated that 300,000 foreigners now live on and around the Costa del Sol, the majority of them British and other Northern Europeans, though marina developments such as Puerto Banús have also attracted Arab and Russian money.

Approached in the right kind of spirit, it is possible to have fun in resorts like Torremolinos, Fuengirola and, at a price, in Marbella. But if you’ve come to Spain to be in Spain, put on the shades and keep going at least until you reach Estepona.

Algeciras

Algeciras occupies the far side of the bay from Gibraltar, spewing out smoke and pollution in the direction of the Rock. The last town of the Spanish Mediterranean, it must once have been an elegant resort; today, it’s unabashedly a port and industrial centre, its suburbs extending on all sides. When Franco closed the border with Gibraltar at La Línea it was Algeciras that he decided to develop to absorb the Spanish workers formerly employed in the British naval dockyards, thus breaking the area’s dependence on the Rock.

Most travellers are scathing about the city’s ugliness, and unless you’re waiting for a bus or train, or heading for Morocco, there’s admittedly little reason to stop. Yet some touch of colour is added by the groups of Moroccans in transit, dressed in flowing jallabahs and slippers, and lugging unbelievable amounts of possessions. Algeciras has a real port atmosphere, and even passing through it’s hard to resist the urge to get on a boat south, if only for a couple of days in Tangier. Once you start to explore, you’ll also discover that the old town has some very attractive corners that seem barely to have changed in fifty years, especially around Plaza Alta.

Towards Cádiz and Seville

Ronda has good transport connections in most directions. Almost any route to the north or west is rewarding, taking you past a whole series of White Towns, many of them fortified since the days of the Reconquest from the Moors – hence the mass of “de la Frontera” suffixes.

Perhaps the best of all the routes, though a roundabout one, and tricky without your own transport, is to Cádiz via Grazalema, Ubrique and Medina Sidonia. This passes through the spectacular Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema before skirting the nature reserve of Cortes de la Frontera (which you can drive through by following the road beyond Benaoján) and, towards Alcalá de los Gazules, running through the northern fringe of Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, which derives its name from the forests of cork oaks, one of its main attractions and the largest of its kind in Europe.

The Sierra Morena

The longest of Spain’s mountain ranges, the Sierra Morena extends almost the whole way across Andalucía – from Rosal on the Portuguese frontier to the dramatic pass of Despeñaperros, north of Linares. Its hill towns marked the northern boundary of the old Moorish Caliphate of Córdoba, and in many ways the region still signals a break, with a shift from the climate and mentality of the south to the bleak plains and villages of Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha. The range is not widely known – with its highest point a mere 1110m, it’s not a dramatic sierra – and even Andalucians can have trouble placing it.

Aracena and around

Some 90km northwest of Seville, Aracena is the highest town in the Sierra Morena with sharp, clear air, all the more noticeable after the heat of the city. A substantial but pretty place, it rambles partly up the side of a hill topped by the Iglesia del Castillo, a Gothic-Mudéjar church built by the Knights Templar around the remains of a Moorish castle. The town is flanked to the south and west by a small offshoot of the Sierra Morena – the Sierra de Aracena – a wonderfully verdant corner of Andalucía with wooded hills and villages with cobbled streets.

Gruta de las Maravillas

Although the church is certainly worth the climb, Aracena’s principal attraction is the Gruta de las Maravillas, the largest and arguably the most impressive cave in Spain. Supposedly discovered by a local boy in search of a lost pig, the cave is now illuminated and there are guided tours as soon as a couple of dozen or so people have assembled; to protect the cave there’s now a strict limit of 35 persons per visit. At weekends and holiday periods, try to visit before noon – coach parties with advance bookings tend to fill up the afternoon allocation. On Sunday, there’s a constant procession, but usually plenty of time to gaze and wonder. The cave is astonishingly beautiful, and funny, too – the last chamber of the tour is known as the Sala de los Culos (Room of the Buttocks), its walls and ceiling an outrageous, naturally sculpted exhibition, tinged in a pinkish-orange light.

The king of hams

Surrounding Aracena is a scattering of attractive but economically depressed villages, most of them dependent on the jamón industry and its curing factory at Jabugo. Jamón serrano (mountain ham) is a tapa or bocadillo standard throughout Spain, and some of the best, jamón de bellota (acorn-fed ham), comes from the Sierra de Aracena, where herds of sleek black pigs grazing beneath oak trees are a constant feature. In October, the acorns drop and the pigs, waiting patiently below, gorge themselves, become fat and are promptly whisked off to be slaughtered then cured in the dry mountain air. The meat of these black pigs is exceptionally fatty when eaten as pork but the same fat that marbles the meat adds to the tenderness during the curing process. This entails first of all covering the hams in coarse rock or sea salt to “sweat”, after which they are removed to cool cellars to mature for up to two years. Jamón serrano from mass-produced white pigs is matured for only a few weeks, hence the incomparable difference in taste. At Jabugo the best of the best is then further graded from one to five jotas (the letter “J” for Jabugo) depending on its quality. A whole leg of cinco jotas jamón will set you back anything from €250 to €350. The turismo can provide details of where to sample and buy.

The Costa de la Luz

Stumbling on the villages along the Costa de la Luz, between Algeciras and Cádiz, is like entering a new land after the dreadfulness of the Costa del Sol. The journey west from Algeciras seems in itself a relief, the road climbing almost immediately into rolling green hills, offering fantastic views down to Gibraltar and across the Strait to the just-discernible white houses and tapering minarets of Moroccan villages.

Beyond, the Rif mountains hover mysteriously in the background, and on a clear day, as you approach Tarifa, you can distinguish Tangier on the edge of its crescent-shaped bay. Beyond Tarifa lies a string of excellent golden-sand beaches washed by Atlantic breakers and backed by a clutch of low-key resorts such as Conil. Inland, the haunting Moorish hill town of Vejer de la Frontera beckons, while set back from the sea at Bolonia is the ancient Roman settlement of Baelo Claudia.

Things to do in Costa de la Luz

As opposed to many other Costas in Spain, Costa de la Luz sees high-rise hotel buildings replaced with sand dunes and pine trees. The beaches are almost unspoiled with golden sands, hidden coves and clear waters. There is plenty to do in the area, whatever your desire.

National Parks

For nature lovers, head to Sierra de Grazalema, famed as the best national park in the Andalucia area for its limestone landscape and exceptional wildlife, including a variety of birds. Estrecho National Park and Bahia de Cadiz are just as impressive, with features such as natural monuments i.e. Tombolo de Trafalgar.

Beaches

Costa de la Luz translates quite literally to "Coast of Light", so what better way to enjoy the sunshine than on the beach! The coast is divided into two sections from the mouth of the Guadalquivar River to Tarifa and the Southernmost point in Europe. On the South side, kite and windsurfing is major - something to bare in mind if you love watersports.

El Puerto de Santa Maria and Cadiz offer historic old towns to explore in between relaxing on the sands and Conil de la Frontera offers toned down tourism a beach stretching for several kilometres. Tarifa is in the east, along with Baelo Claudia and Atlanterra.

Golf

Spain in general is a haven for the retired wishing to live out their days in the sunshine, this, added with the area being a popular holiday destination, has seen the construction of more than 20 golf courses in the area. Alcaidesa Heathland, La Estancia and Villaneuva, to name a few, are any golfers dream.

Whale- and dolphin-watching trips

Tarifa is home to whale-and dolphin-watching excursions in the Strait of Gibraltar, which leave daily from the harbour. The trip is a fairly steep €30 (reductions for under-14s), but this includes another trip free of charge if there are no sightings. Places must be booked in advance from either of two non-profit-making organizations: Whale Watch, Avda. de la Constitución 6, close to the turismo (t956 682 247, reservations t639 476 544, wwhalewatchtarifa.net), and FIRMM (Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals), c/Pedro Cortés 3, slightly west of the church of San Mateo (t956 627 008, wfirmm.org). A more commercial operation, Turmares, with an office on the beach road near the foot of the Paseo de la Alameda (t956 680 741, wturmares.com), also runs whale-spotting trips (€30, kids €20) with a glass-bottomed boat.

El Puerto de Santa María

Just 10 km across the bay, EL PUERTO DE SANTA MARÍA is the obvious choice for a day-trip from Cádiz, a traditional family resort for both gaditanos and sevillanos – many of whom have built villas and chalets along the fine Playa Puntillo. This strand is a little way out from town (10–15 minute walk or local bus ride), a pleasant place to while away an afternoon; there are friendly beach bars where for ridiculously little you can nurse a litre of sangría while munching mariscos.

Things to do in El Puerto de Santa Maria

Exploring the cobblestone streets of the old town, surronded by orange trees is a charming way to get to know El Puerto de Maria. The coastal town boasts glorious seafood, with the cuisine offered at almost all restaurants in the area. For a dose of Andaluz history, head to Castillo San Marcos, the famed castle built on the remains of a Moorish moque in 1264. Wine in this region of Spain is particularly tasty, thanks to the ideal climate. The wine route, or Ruta de los Sentidos as the Spainish call it, is exactly what you would expect - a walking route to several wineries that offer tastings and opportunities to learn about the wines as well as Flamenco music and dancing.

If you are seeking-fun as a means to entertain the family, head to Aqualand Bania de Cadiz nearby, the waterpark has rapids, whirlpools and a range of water rides along with a food court - making a great day out.

Beaches in El Puerto de Santa Maria

Playa de Valdelagrana sits between the Guadalete River and Levante Beach, so you can only imagine how beautiful of a destination it is. There is a promenade with restaurants, bars and hotels as well as watersport activities such as kitesurfing and windsurfing. Nearby is Los Torunos Natural Park, ideal for a little mid-afternoon stroll on the boardwalks taking in the wildlife. Nearby beaches include Fuentebravia and Santa Catalina.

Sanlúcar de Barrameda

Like its neighbour El Puerto, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 15km to the northwest, also has its sherry connections. Nine kilometres east of Chipiona and set at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, it’s the main depot for manzanilla wine, a pale, dry variety much in evidence in the bars, which you can also sample during visits to the town’s bodegas. Sanlúcar is also the setting for some exciting horse races along the beach in the first and third weeks of August, a great time to be here.

Sanlúcar de Barrameda

Like its neighbour El Puerto, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 15km to the northwest, also has its sherry connections. Nine kilometres east of Chipiona and set at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, it’s the main depot for manzanilla wine, a pale, dry variety much in evidence in the bars, which you can also sample during visits to the town’s bodegas. Sanlúcar is also the setting for some exciting horse races along the beach in the first and third weeks of August, a great time to be here.

Parque Nacional Coto de Doñana

One of the best things about Sanlúcar is its shell-encrusted river beach and warm waters, just a short walk from the town centre. This is flanked, on the opposite shore, by the beginnings of the Parque Nacional Coto de Doñana, whose vast marshy expanses (strictly regulated access) signal the end of the coast road to the west. The park boasts exceptional flora and fuana, known for its great ecological wealth and population of migrating birds.

Visiting Parque Nacional Coto de Doñana

Access to the park is limited to ensure the wildlife is protected, however, there are boardwalks nearby visitor centres that allow sufficient exploring. Centres with designated walking areas include El Acebuche, La Rocina, Palacio de Acebron and Jose Antonio Valverde.

Cruises at Parque Nacional Coto de Doñana

Visits to the park from Sanlúcar are possible with a boat cruise, which, while it doesn’t allow for serious exploration, is nevertheless a wonderful introduction to this remarkable area. The trip lasts approximately four hours and allows two short, guided walks inside the park to spot wildlife. The Real Fernando – which has a cafetería on board – leaves daily from the Bajo de Guía quay (Mon–Sat June–Sept 10am & 5pm; March, April, May & Oct daily 10am & 4pm; Nov–Feb daily 10am; €16.35, under-12s half-price; booking essential on t956 363 813, wwww.visitasdonana.com).Tickets should be collected (at least 30min before sailing) from the Fábrica de Hielo, Bajo de Guía s/n, the national park’s exhibition centre (daily 9am–8pm) opposite the Real Fernando’s jetty. Also note that binoculars are pretty essential, and, while they can be hired on board, having your own is a distinct advantage.

Seville to Córdoba

The direct route from Seville to Córdoba, 135km along the valley of Guadalquivir, followed by the train and some of the buses, is a flat and rather unexciting journey. There’s far more to see following the route just to the south of this, via Carmona and Écija, both interesting towns, and more still if you detour further south to take in Osuna as well. There are plenty of buses along these roads, making travel between the villages easy. Overnighting, too, is possible, with plenty of places to stay – although Carmona is an easy day-trip from Seville.

Osuna

Osuna (like Carmona and Écija) is one of those small Andalucian towns that are great to explore in the early evening: slow in pace and quietly enjoyable, with elegant streets of tiled, whitewashed houses interspersed with fine Renaissance mansions. The best of these are off the main street, c/Carrera, which runs down from the central Plaza Mayor, and in particular on c/San Pedro, which intersects it; at no.16, the Cilla del Cabildo has a superb geometric relief round a carving of the Giralda, and, farther along, the eighteenth-century Palacio de El Marqués de la Gomera – now a hotel and restaurant – is a stunning Baroque extravaganza. There’s also a marvellous casino on Plaza Mayor, with 1920s Mudéjar-style decor and a grandly bizarre ceiling, which is open to all visitors and makes an ideal place for a cool drink.

Carmona

Set on a low hill overlooking a fertile plain, CARMONA is a small, picturesque town made recognizable by the fifteenth-century tower of the Iglesia de San Pedro, built in imitation of the Giralda. The tower is the first thing you catch sight of and it sets the tone for the place – an appropriate one, since the town shares a similar history to Seville, less than 30km distant. It was an important Roman city (from which era it preserves a fascinating subterranean necropolis), and under the Moors was often governed by a brother of the Sevillan ruler. Later, Pedro the Cruel built a palace within its castle, which he used as a “provincial” royal residence.

Las Alpujarras

Beyond the mountains, farther south from Granada, lie the great valleys of the Alpujarras, first settled in the twelfth century by Berber refugees from Seville, and later the Moors’ last stronghold in Spain.

The valleys are bounded to the north by the Sierra Nevada, and to the south by the lesser sierras of Lujar, La Contraviesa and Gador. The eternal snows of the high sierras keep the valleys and their seventy or so villages well watered all summer long. Rivers have cut deep gorges in the soft mica and shale of the upper mountains, and over the centuries have deposited silt and fertile soil on the lower hills and in the valleys; here the villages have grown, for the soil is rich and easily worked. The intricate terracing that today preserves these deposits was begun as long as two thousand years ago by Visigoths or Ibero-Celts, whose remains have been found at Capileira.

The Moors and after

When they came to occupy the Alpujarras, the Moors set about improving agricultural techniques and modified the terracing and irrigation in their inimitable way. They transformed the Alpujarras into an earthly paradise, and here they retired to bewail the loss of their beloved lands in al-Andalus, resisting a series of royal edicts demanding their forced conversion to Christianity. In 1568, they rose up in a final, short-lived revolt, which led to the expulsion of all Spanish Moors. Even then, however, two Moorish families were required to stay in each village to show the new Christian peasants, who had been marched down from Galicia and Asturias to repopulate the valleys, how to operate the intricate irrigation systems.

Through the following centuries, the land fell into the hands of a few wealthy families, and the general population became impoverished labourers. The Civil War passed lightly over the Alpujarras: the occasional truckload of Nationalist youth trundled in from Granada, rounded up a few bewildered locals and shot them for “crimes” of which they were wholly ignorant; Republican youths came up in their trucks from Almería and did the same thing. Under Franco, the stranglehold of the landlords increased and there was real hardship and suffering. Today, the population has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Andalucía, with – as a recent report put it – “a level of literacy bordering on that of the Third World, alarming problems of desertification, poor communications and a high degree of underemployment”.

Ironically, the land itself is still very fertile – oranges, chestnuts, bananas, apples and avocados grow here – while the recent influx of tourism is bringing limited wealth to the region. The so-called “High” Alpujarras have become popular with Spanish tourists and also with migrants from northern Europe who have purchased property here; Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira, all within half an hour’s drive from Lanjarón, have been scrubbed and whitewashed. Though a little over-prettified, they’re far from spoilt, and have acquired shops, lively bars, good, unpretentious restaurants and small, family-run pensiones. Other villages, less picturesque or less accessible, have little employment, and are sustained only by farming.

Top image © Takashi Images/Shutterstock

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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