Andalusia: a road-trip down memory lane
Andalusia is a special place for me. As the birthplace of my grandparents on my mother's side, the region has always been an important part of my story growing up. As a child, we vacationed there a couple of times to get acquainted with our Spaniard heritage. I have fond memories of our road-trips through the desert, and along the beautiful whitewashed coastal towns, of the breathtaking Moorish sites and of course, of the sun-filled little squares sampling tapas dishes.
For those who are not familiar with this little slice of heaven, Andalusia is the southernmost region in Spain. It is home to incredibly varied terrain: from snow-covered mountain ranges to arid desert, fragrant olive groves to rugged coastline, and culturally-rich cities to sleepy beach towns, there is something to suit every traveller. Historically, the region was invaded by the Moors (a North African people) between the 8th and the 15th century - roughly 500 years. They left behind beautiful cultural sites which can still be admired and enjoyed today, and are the highlight of any trip down south. The best part, in my opinion, is the clement Mediterranean weather year-round, and the very affordable cost of living.
Naturally, Andalusia was on my list of places to (re)visit this year, and so we embarked on a 10 day road-trip around some of the highlights of the region.
Day 1-3: Sevilla
Seville is the capital city of Andalusia, and one of the most beautiful cities in the country, in my opinion. There is plenty to do in Seville, so spending 2-3 nights there is a must.
Walking along the Guadalquivir River was one of the highlights for me; There is a lovely path where one can admire the light twinkling over the water, and watch the rowers in the morning. Of interest, there is the Torre del Oro, which is a 13th century defensive tower which today houses the naval museum of Sevilla, and there is also a replica of the "Victoria", one of the ships Cristopher Columbus used on his voyage to the Americas, which can be boardered and explored.
Following the river from the city centre, one can easily reach the "Parque Maria Luisa", the famous urban centre which opens up into Seville's most famous sight: "Plaza de España". Strolling along the park can feel like landing into the 18th century, especially when sighting horse carriages pass by. The park was made with the distinctive Moorish style in mind and features many lovely fountains where swans and ducks swim around, and shaded areas which offer some respite from the scorching sun.
The "Plaza de España" is a beautiful square adjacent to the park. It is very grand, with a crescent moon shaped building of Spanish Renaissance style delineating its border. It is accessible via four bridges which go over a canal of similar shape. In the middle of the square, the Vicente Traver Fountain consistently erupts water and gives the place the final touch for a wow factor. The "Plaza de España" was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition, which was held in honour of the special relationship, and in symbol of peace between Spain and its former American colonies. Our guide actually told us that the shape of the building was made to imitate a "hug" from Spain to the former.
Today, the building houses government offices, and most of the building is not accessible except for a couple of towers which offer splendid views over the square. Another popular activity is to rent one of the colourful hire boats in the canal - a romantic way to experience this special place.
Not too far, one can also visit the "Plaza de toros" (bull ring). Bull fighting was recently ruled as part of the "Spanish cultural heritage", and even though I personally believe this is a cruel sport and do not condone the practice (which unfortunately is still common in some parts of Spain, including Sevilla), I think it is interesting to know about it as it is an important part of the Spanish culture. In fact, I remember when I was little and on holidays in Catalonia, bullfighting was a big event around town before it was banned. Actually, bullfighting also happened in many parts of the South of France, in Portugal and parts of South America. The "Plaza de toros" of Sevilla houses a small museum dedicated to the "art" of bullfighting where one can see many paintings depicting fighting scenes, but also many artefacts such as the "matador's" attire, weapons and trophies.
The most important monuments of Seville can be found back in the city centre. They are the Cathedral and the Real Alcázar. If you are going to Seville, these are absolutely not to be missed! The cathedral is the third biggest in the world, and houses, amongst many others, the tomb of Christopher Columbus (or one of!). It is a marvel of architecture and a bit of a maze inside - we were told seeing it properly could take as long as 3 days! I highly recommend visiting with a guide to hear the most interesting stories in the most time efficient manner.
The Real Alcázar is one of the most visited monuments in Seville, and for good reason, so a word of advice would be to purchase your tickets in advance, and join the queue early on the day of your visit.
Alcázar comes from the arabic word "al-qasr" which means palace - this is a word one hears a lot when visiting Andalusia because there are many Moorish palaces around. The palace was built in Moorish times, around the 10th century. It was taken over by the Christian Kings during the "reconquista" in the 15th century and kept being used as a palace. Today, it is still used by the Spanish Royal Family as their Seville residence when they visit the city - their appartments are on the upper-level. The main part of the Alcázar, and the one open to the public, is a splendid blend of architectural styles: Moorish, Italian & Spanish Gothic. Some of the most impressive areas are the "Casa de contratación" where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received Christopher Columbus, whose trip was also planned on site. I also really loved the "Patio de las Doncellas" which is a beautiful courtyard with carved arches and water features.
Seville is also the perfect place to see a Flamenco show. Flamenco is an art-form, traditionally associated with Andalusian Gypsies. It is usually performed with a singer, instrumental music - usually a guitarist - and a dancer, and it is a very emotional and expressive experience. We went to the "casa de la guitarra" and loved it. The setting was quite intimate with limited seating so everyone could really be close to the stage. The performance lasted about one hour and we were very impressed with the artists. The dance really stood out for me, as we could see the emotion painted on the dancer's face, and we could feel it through the intensity of her rhythm. This was a real highlight and an authentic experience not to be missed!
Finally, Seville is a great place to eat and drink! There are plenty of tapas bars around, and many restaurants serving Spanish and North African cuisines. If you are curious about the latter and haven't been to the Middle East or Africa, I highly recommend sampling some here. For a special occasion, I also highly recommend booking a table at the San Fernando (this is the restaurant in the Alphonso XIII hotel - the best hotel in the city). The setting is marvelous, with a beautiful inner-courtyard featuring lovely tiles and a fountain, the food is delicious and the service top-notch.
Of course, one cannot leave Seville without trying a rooftop bar! There are many to choose from in the city; and it seems with varying degrees of closeness to the star of the city - the cathedral. We absolutely loved the rooftop of the Hotel Inglaterra which offered panoramic 360 degrees views over the city, and a spectacular sunset! A perfect way to end a stay in Seville.
Day 3: Córdoba
About 1h40mn drive from Seville is the charming city of Córdoba. An important Roman city, and Islamic centre, its mixed cultural heritage can be easily admired wandering around by foot. I thought the town to be very pretty, with its narrow cobble-stoned streets, little squares lined with orange trees and flower-covered patios.
Because we did not have much time in the city, we visited the main sites in a day. The Roman bridge is at the entrance of the old city. Dating from the 1st century, it is a very impressive construction. I thought it looked even better at night with the spotlights illuminating its arches.
From there, it is a 2 minute walk to the "Mezquita-Catedral" - the main attraction of the city. The Great Mosque was constructed in the 8th century, and like most others, it was turned into a cathedral when the Spanish chased the Moors out. I thought the monument to be unique in its juxtaposition of the Islamic and Christian cultures. One can clearly see the features of the ancient mosque with the double-tiered red and white arches, and the gorgeous "key-hole" shaped doors with islamic inscriptions; and it coexists with the "other-side" of the monument which is very clearly a Christian Cathedral with the high-ceiling of the Renaissance-style nave and sculptures of Saints. I think this is the most astonishing religious monument I have ever visited (and I have seen my fair share!)... but it is very hard to do it justice with only words, so go see it, you won't be disappointed.
Walking around the city, and looking out for the famous patios is also well worth-it. The patios are in private homes, and some can be visited year-round, but it's important to get information from the official tourism website of the city to plan ahead so as not to miss-out. Córdoba holds competitions for the most beautiful patios yearly in May, and during that time, all the patios can be visited within specific timeframes for free by anyone.
Lastly, we visited the "Alcázar de los reyes Cristianos", which is the city's Moorish palace. We visited it at sunset, and really enjoyed the gardens, which were very pretty with colourful flowers at every corner, fruiting trees, and topiary.
Day 4-6: Granada
We drove for 2h30mn along olive groves, farm fields and the distant Sierra Nevada to get to Granada. The city is known in History as the last Moorish kingdom to fall to the Spanish Kings. Whilst many other cities were conquered by the Spanish in the 12th and 13th century, the kingdom of Granada fell in 1492 (the same year Christopher Colombus set sail to the Americas).
Granada is an interesting place. Set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, it is a fairly big city which houses a very diverse population. Its most famous neighbourhoods are the Albaicín, locally known as the Arab quarter, and Sacromonte, where gypsy communities live. Wandering around these neighbourhoods is very interesting as the mix of cultures hits all the senses! The narrow streets are home to colourful shops displaying mosaic lamps, leather goods and spices, as well as small restaurants offering fragrant dishes with specialties from Spain and other far away lands. In the Albaicín, there is a famous viewpoint called "Mirador de San Nicolás" - it is worth the climb to enjoy views of the Alhambras with the Sierra Nevada in the background.
Another unique experience is seeing a Flamenco show in Sacromonte where artists perform in the caves that dot the mountain. There are also many tapas bars which enjoy great views over the Alhambras; it is a great spot to enjoy a drink and watch the sunset from.
We dedicated the major part of our stay in visiting the Alhambras.
It took many centuries for the Alhambras to become the site we can admire now; with each new ruler, new additions were created. In the 11th century, parts were built as a fortress for the ruler of the Kingdom. These foundations later served as the basis for the current day Alhambras, which were built to their full glory during the Nasrid period in the 13th century. The site became a walled city, with a Mosque, houses, hammams, shops, roads and a very modern water supply system.
The Alhambras were brought to international fame by an English writer named Washington Irving who wrote “Tales of the Alhambras”, and today, the site welcomes a little over 8,000 visitors per day. To protect this stunning UNESCO heritage site, entries are capped, so it is mandatory to purchase tickets in advance (I would recommend at least 4 weeks prior).
There are four main parts to the visit: the Alcazaba, which are the remains of the original Arab fortress, the Nasrid Palaces made up of El Mexuar, El Palacio de Comares and El Palacio de los Leones (the latter is probably the most photographed in the complex), the Generalife which displays spectacular gardens with water features and an amphitheatre, and finally, the 16th century Palacio de Carlos V which houses two museums, an Art Museum and the Alhambra museum.
Needless to say, our favourite part was definitely the Nasrid Palaces which are jaw droppingly beautiful. Our guide told us that the rulers who built the palaces created their own piece of heaven on Earth there, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Finally, something that is sure to make any foodie very happy indeed when visiting Granada, is that a small tapas dish is always served for free when ordering a drink at a local bar. There are a myriad tapas bars in the city, so I recommend exploring to find your own hidden gem. Typically, the best bars are the ones that don’t look like much from the outside, but once you enter, service is always friendly and the beer flows.
Day 6-7: Frigiliana & Nerja
On the 6th day of our road-trip, we left the heat of Granada for the balmy weather of the Costa del Sol. On our way to the seaside town of Nerja, we stopped in the whitewashed hilltop town of Frigiliana. We arrived with little expectations and left feeling like we had found an absolute gem. I’ll be honest, we did not do anything there except for having a drink with a view and wandering around the town, but it was exactly what we needed after a few days of intense visits. We loved the very slow pace of the town, and its picturesque quality.
Nerja was also a refreshing stop on our road-trip. It is a beautiful town, nestled between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Very popular with retirees, young local families and tourists alike, the town offers many adventure activities such as hiking in the surrounding hills, water-sports on the lovely blue sea or cave exploring.
Highlights of our stay included walking along the water at sunset - the views from the “Balcony of Europe” are gorgeous, and visiting the “Cueva de Nerja” (Nerd’s cave) which is massive and worth the trip! It’s only a 3mn drive from the town centre, and although we thought the entry fee a little steep, the cave is very well set-up and a unique sight.
Day 7-8: Málaga & Ronda
I’d never been to Malaga, and when I saw we basically had to drive past the city to get to Ronda, I decided we should stop there for breakfast and a quick walk around. In hindsight, I wish we had spent 1-2 nights there, as we ended up really loving this city and realised there is a lot to do there as well.
We arrived there late morning and had brunch at a cafe called BYOKO which serves local ingredients and offers very trendy, very tasty options on their menu such as avo toast or açai bowls. Even better, they served one of the best coffees we had on our trip (which is something because coming from Australia, we have high standards for our coffee!), so we were in heaven.
Afterwards, having only time for one visit, we decided to head over to the Alcazaba (yes, another one!). The old fortress was not only very cheap to visit (we paid less than 5 euros for 2), but it was also beautiful. Whilst most of the site has certainly felt the passage of time, it has nonetheless kept its character and one can imagine what it must have looked like in its past splendour. Wandering around the maze of its ancient walls and through its flowering gardens was a pleasure. It is set on a hilltop, so the views over the city are panoramic, and not to be missed!
The drive to Ronda was very picturesque, with lush rolling hills and vineyards. Set on a point of high land, Ronda offers sweeping views over the surrounding valley below. The main attraction of this Andalusian city is its bridge: the “Puente Nuevo” which was built in the 18th century to connect the old and new parts of the city (which used to be separated by the Guadalquivir river). The “Puente Nuevo” is quite a sight, and there are many viewpoints to admire it. We followed the main path to goes down the valley and were very excited when we saw the waterfall below the bridge. It is well worth braving the heat to see it.
Ronda is also part of the official Andalusian Wine Route. The region’s climate is auspicious to wine-making with many hours of sunshine and mild climate year round. Sherry actually comes from here! Ronda itself has a few establishments where this local fortified wine can be sampled, but it is worth taking to the road and visiting the surrounding wineries for a different experience.
Day 8-10: Cádiz
Our final stop was the ancient city of Cádiz. Founded some 3,000 years ago, it is believed to be one of the oldest cities in Europe. Due to its strategic position, as the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe and located only 14km from the African continent, the port of Cádiz has great historical significance. Indeed, this is where the Moors are believed to have entered and conquered the land, and it is also where Christopher Columbus departed on his voyages to the Americas.
The city itself is a maze of streets, shadowed by the bordering buildings. There are many nice squares with restaurants and bars filled with locals and tourists. The most impressive sight is the Cádiz Cathedral with its two-toned earthy facade. The Cathedral took over 100 years to build and is quite impressive to look at. From the bell tower, one can enjoy views over the city.
We enjoyed walking around the esplanade, looking out at the ocean, and spent some time at the “Caleta” beach which is located in the city centre and is framed by two castles. This is where we had our first sea bath of the year!
We really enjoyed this 10 day itinerary, as it allowed us to experience a blend of ancient cities, cultural sights, lush countryside and seaside towns. Andalusia is a beautiful region, showcasing some of the best Spain has to offer. Stand outs for us were discovering the Moorish palaces, visiting the whitewashed hilltop town of Frigiliana, and hiking in the Ronda valley.
There is so much more to see and do in this region. Going back, I would consider visiting the Tabernas Desert in the Almería region, the only desert in Europe and where Western movies have been filmed. I would also include the Doñana National Park, which is a protected natural reserve near Cádiz where one can see migratory birds and if lucky, the Iberian lynx! There are also many more beautiful beaches along the Coast that are well-worth a stop, including the famous town of Marbella where one can enjoy a fancy meal overlooking the Sea. The options are truly endless and one could spend weeks visiting the region!
However, with our limited time, I think our itinerary was quite comprehensive and truly included some of the highlights of Andalusia. I hope this convinces you to also explore this beautiful part of the world!