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- Castellar de la Frontera
- Vejer de la Frontera
- Alhama de Granada
- Cazalla de la Sierra
- Arcos de la Frontera
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.
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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.
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.
Last week of April: Feria de Abril Week-long fair at Seville: the largest fair in Spain.
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.
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.
End of month: Virgen del Mar Almería’s major annual shindig, with parades, horseriding events, concerts and lots of drinking.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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