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The Layers of Andalusia

Architecture and Ambiance of Spain's Most Diverse Region

Photography by Owen Cheung and Naomi Grimes

When American author and diplomat Washington Irving visited southern Spain as both Romantic era traveler and cultural enthusiast, the region of Andalusia and arguably its most famous monument, the Alhambra, had yet to capture the imaginations of a public back at home.

Upon the release of Tales of the Alhambra, his glorious collection of history and legend, both this Moorish stronghold and surrounding provinces reached international status, drawing curious visitors from around the globe. Irving’s journey took him from the thriving capital of Seville to the mythical walls of Granada, a diverse route that revealed towns blanched in white, uneven terrain, the sparking Mediterranean, and the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

Detail at Ronda's Bullring

Andalusia is thick with cultural layers. Inhabited by the Romans and Visigoths until 711 A.D., the region enjoyed an architecturally rich era under the rule of the Moors, ending with the surrender of Granada in 1492 to the Catholic Monarchs. Yet through the varied ages to follow, much of the Moorish influence remained intact, creating a dazzling historical mosaic and tangible evidence of Spain’s tumultuous past.

Valted Ceiling of Royal Bath in the Real Alcazar, Seville

Spanish Tapas

Salon de Embajadores in the Real Alcazar

View of the Cathedral and La Giralda in Seville

Photographs at a bar in Seville

Bulls and Bailaoras

Driving from Málaga en route to Seville, I noticed a silhouette of a black bull looming over a hill surrounded by olive trees. No, not a real bull, but a giant cutout of one, a symbol that turned up again and again as we traveled from one town to another. If there is one place in Spain that perpetuates every known native stereotype, minus Don Quixote, it would be Andalusia. And as most of those stereotypes include delicious tapas, sweet sherry wines and the passionate rhythms of flamenco, I consider this a good thing.

I had my first sip of sherry in Spain at a small gourmet shop somewhere in the pedestrian streets of Málaga, a coastal city with a convenient airport. Soon enough, these chilled-fortified wines became a daily habit, best accompanied by tapas dishes that included cured hams, fried fishes, native olives and the best gazpacho ever.

As Spaniards are notorious night owls, the real action doesn’t happen until near midnight, when local restaurants and bars ignite with passionate flamenco. This uniquely Andalusian art form combines storytelling, guitar, the improvised movements of a bailaora, and the beats of hand-clapping or castanets — a thrilling experience not to be missed.

Then there are the bulls. Controversial and culturally significant, bullfights thrive in modern Spain — the matador a surviving status symbol and the wide arenas overflowing with wild enthusiasts. Not as adventurous as Hemingway, I declined the bloody spectacle of the ring, but marveled in the experience through glorious advertisements and graphic depictions from artists like native Picasso. One of the oldest rings lies in one of the “pueblos blancos,” the small city of Ronda. Perched high atop a limestone cleft, Ronda’s unique proximity made it one of the last Moorish outposts to fall to the Christians, its 1785 bullring considered a spiritual home of bullfighting.

A Moorish Reign in Spain

One of the most compelling reasons to venture to Andalusia is to witness first-hand the architectural splendor that remains from the Moorish period. Not to discredit the gilded spires and religious monuments of Spain’s Christian eras (a dramatic facet of the varied urban landscape), but it’s the tiled and carved interiors of the Moorish kings’ palaces that are uniquely transportive. While you are likely to find Arab influence in nearly every nook and cranny of Andalusia, the most significant can be found in Córdoba, Seville and Granada.

Córdoba’s Great Mosque, the Mezquita, dates back to the eighth century and served as a center of influence in Islamic Spain. Today, a 16th-century cathedral occupies a section of the grounds, but much remains, including the ornamented Mihrab prayer niche and the recognizable striped arches and pillars, remnants of the city’s Roman and Visigoth rule.

Beautiful Seville, adorned by the La Giralda bell tower (a striking example of melding Islamic and Christian influences), also hosts one of the most exquisite Moorish palaces to tour, the Real Alcázar. The Salón de Embajadores and vaulted bath are highlights of the visit, but the exquisite gardens, replete with fountains, orange trees and a scattering of shy peacocks, should also be on the top of the itinerary.

The Alhambra, Granada

Aspiring Flamenco Dancer in Granada

Column detail at the Alhambra

The granddaddy of them all, the majestic Alhambra, sits above the picturesque city of Granada against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After a brisk, tree-lined hike (though the less able-bodied may prefer a comfortable taxi ride), visitors can wind their way through gardens and palaces built under the Nasrid dynasty, their re-creation of paradise on earth. Though they used only the simplest of materials (plaster, timber and tiles), the end result is nonetheless awe-inspiring. The geometrical ceiling of the Sala de los Abencerrajes mystifies with its painstaking detail, while tranquil pools reflect the elaborate arcades lining the interior patios. Neither the Christian conquerors nor Napoleon’s army could destroy this elegant fortress. But your dreams of visiting could be dashed if you don’t make an early reservation. For not unlike the plight of its early invaders, entering the Alhambra can be a quite a challenge itself.

“Towards sunset, I came to where the road wound into the mountains, and here I paused to take a last look at Granada … I now could realize some of the feelings of poor Boabdil when he bade adieu to the paradise he was leaving behind, and beheld before him a rugged and sterile road conducting him to exile.”
— Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra, 1832


Going Andalusia

HOW
There are no direct flights from LAX to southern Spain. Book your first leg to a larger European city, like London, or Frankfort. Flights to Seville and Malaga can be easily booked from these metros. The towns of Andalusia are best reached via car, but many are also accessible by train.

WHEN
The weather, not unlike Los Angeles, is pretty amazing year-round. However, it’s best to avoid the months of July and August when European vacationers abound and temperatures soar to high digits. Ideally, book your stay in the spring or fall, when the crowds are fewer and the climate mild.

WHERE
Nice, affordable hotels abound in the city centers of Seville, Córdoba, Granada and Málaga. However, the more adventurous might consider a villa or farmhouse rental. Spain is a preferred destination of many Brits, and some own homes year-round. Check out sites like ownersdirect.co.uk for great deals on weekly rentals.

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