Another Side of Spain

In search of Iberian idiosyncrasies scattered along the road less trodden, Penelope Rance takes a tour of Andalusia in the company of a regional expert.
February 2023

Hidden between the Costas and Córdoba, there is so much more to southern Spain than a city break or fly-and-flop beach holiday. A journey around Andalusia unlocks a treasure trove of delights overlooked on a standard Spanish sojourn. I am lucky enough to be escorted by A&K expert Simon Butler-Madden, who opens the doors to Seville, Córdoba, and Granada — and beyond, to the monuments of the Muslim occupation and an unspoiled countryside of pretty villages, rolling fields, and farms where fighting bulls are bred and olive oil pressed, spread out beneath the mighty peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

Córdoba & Castles

My journey starts in Córdoba, once an important Roman city, set on the River Guadalquivir. At its heart is the Mezquita, a cathedral built within a mosque. “Miraculously, unlike most mosques in Andalusia, it was neither destroyed nor converted into a church, but rather became incorporated into the Christian monument,” says Simon. “In the 16th century, they built this late Gothic, early Baroque Christian cathedral in the middle of the mosque’s forest of arches.”

For an unparalleled view of the Mezquita, we walk over another historic monument, the Roman pedestrian bridge across the river, then enter the maze of whitewashed streets and private patios with their famous flowers that make up the Jewish Quarter.

After exploring Córdoba, we drive out of the city to the ruins of the Palace of Medina Azahara which, until its destruction in the 11th century, was alleged to be the most magnificent building in Moorish Spain. A 24-kilometre detour takes us to Almodovar del Río where, Simon promises, the beautifully preserved castle is one of the most spectacular in the country. And he's right.

The Road Through the Hills

Rather than following the herd on the charge to Granada, we take a day to drive through the Subbética Córdobesa, a landscape of rolling hills covered in olive trees. The road leads south, through the town of Montilla, famed for its sherry-style wines, which A&K can arrange for guests to sample in a traditional winery.

Of late, Simon has favoured a pit-stop at Zuheros, a typical village in the mountains, surmounted by a castle. “It’s a marvellous place to walk to. Next to Zuheros runs the railway line once used to carry olive oil, which has been turned into a walking and cycling track.” We hire bikes in Zuheros and wheel 20 kilometres to Cabra, where our driver picks us up.

Cabra’s medieval centre, churches, and palaces merit an exploratory stroll before we follow the pilgrims’ route to the Hermitage of the Virgen de la Sierra. From here the road leads to Priego de Córdoba, where A&K organises a private visit to an olive oil mill, and a walk through orchards harbouring 1,000-year-old trees.

The Glories of Granada

In Granada, Simon sidesteps the cathedral in favour of the exquisite Chapel of the Kings, created as the tomb of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in tribute to their reconquest of Moorish-occupied Spain.

But this city is famous above all else for the Alhambra, the most intact Moorish palace in the world. “It is genuine Arabic architecture and the tile-work is superb,” enthuses Simon. “Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, its highlight is the Court of the Lions, with a fountain supported on six lions, surrounded by columns, patios, and reflecting pools.” Above the Alhambra is the Generalife, originally a hunting lodge and now the site of an early 20th century reconstruction of medieval Moorish gardens.

Across the valley sits Albaicín, an Arab town preserved as a UNESCO Heritage Site. “This is a perfect Moorish town unchanged since 1492, its tiny streets and alleys running up the hill,” reveals Simon. “The streets smell like Marrakech, with shops selling leather goods from Morocco, and shisha cafés.” From the streets, we take in sweeping views over the valley to the Alhambra, backed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.

To the south is the Alpujarras, where we spend a day exploring mountains, valleys, and villages — including Lanjarón, famed for its mineral springs — which in the 16th century saw the last resistance of the Moorish inhabitants.

Mountain Villages

The road to Seville takes us through a succession of villages, among them Orgiva, where pottery workshops still produce Alhambra-style tiles. We head along the dramatic Poqueira canyon, first to Pampaneira, capital of the Sierra Nevada National Park, then up to Trevélez, the highest town in Spain at nearly 1,400 metres, lauded for hams cured in the pure mountain air. At every turn spectacular views, bubbling streams, or remote farmsteads delight. “The English writer Gerald Brenan lived here in the 1930s and he was a great lover of Spain,” says Simon, recommending the author’s book South From Granada as holiday reading. “You can still see the unspoiled countryside fabled by Brenan in his writing today.”

A second day en route to Seville is spent in some of Andalusia’s enchanting white villages. We stop in Ronda, atop a cliff, and traverse the dramatic gorge of El Tajo. One side of the town is little changed since the time of the reconquest, while on the other stands the oldest bullring in Spain, dating from the 18th century.

Continuing through the ancient landscape of the Serranía de Cádiz mountains, we come to Ubrique, nestling among forests of cork oak and indigenous Spanish fir. For centuries renowned for its fine leather goods, the town still supplies fashion’s most famous names.

Seductive Seville

“The Moors arrived in 712, and by 720, they had conquered southern Spain. It took about seven years, and it took the Christians seven centuries to get it all back”. Simon’s history lesson underlines how large Arab heritage looms in Seville. We begin at the Giralda, originally a minaret, and now the bell tower of the cathedral. Commissioned in 1171, it is the twin of the minaret of the Koutoubia in Marrakech.

Another product of Seville’s dual heritage is the Alcázar, the oldest functioning royal palace in Europe, built for the kings of Castile after the reconquest. “But its origins go back to Moorish times, in combination with more recent Arab architecture called Mudejar, created by Muslim craftsmen living in a then-Christian part of Spain,” says Simon.

We wander through the Santa Cruz district, its squares and alleyways fragrant with orange blossom and jasmine, before stopping at the Maria Luisa Park, created at the end of the 19th century and containing the Plaza de España, a massive neo-Moorish structure with fountains and soaring spires, used as a location for the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

Often overlooked is the University, originally the Royal Tobacco Factory, where, points out my guide, Bizet’s Carmen worked; and the Palacio de las Dueñas, the Seville residence of the Dukes of Alba, private entrance to which can be negotiated on request by A&K.

Later we drive to Jerez de la Frontera, where, avoiding the tourist traps, we sample sherry at the family-run Bodegas Lustau, which dates back to 1896. Jerez is also famous for the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, run by the Domecq clan, where the impressive equestrian ballet takes place two or three times a week. This combination of classical dressage, Doma Vaquera (country-style riding) and other traditional equestrian skills is a spectacle not to be missed.

We end with a visit to the Doñana National Park, one of the most impressive wetland wildlife reserves in Europe. Here A&K can line up a tour with a professional naturalist, exploring areas closed to the public. Simon suggests one last look at the green hills of Andalusia from the Sierra Norte, and I cannot resist. This is a land less travelled, and is all the better for it.

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