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Historic Andalucian towns to visit
Spain’s perpetually sunny southern territory is one of Europe’s most beguiling regions. A land of palm trees and dusty Saharan winds, Moorish architecture and rolling olive groves, thundering flamenco and orange blossom scent, Andalucia’s character has never quite been fully European, thanks to its Latin passion, Islamic past and searing, Sahara-blown heat.
Tours of historic Andalucia will reveal much about its history, architecture and fiery character. Seville, Granada and Cordoba form a classic ‘Golden Triangle’ of historic cities, while the Pueblos Blancos (White Towns) of Malaga and Granada provinces are a series of stunning, whitewashed villages, cascading down steep hillsides
Seville has had many incarnations during its 2,500-year history. Starting out as the Phoenician city of Spal, it became Hispalis with the Roman invasion, and then Ishbiliya as the capital of the Moorish Umayyad Caliphate. Although the Reconquista took place in the 13th century, the Islamic influences are still strong. Mudéjar refers to a local style of architecture and tilework, which was created in Catholic Spain but drew on Moorish design and craftsmanship.
Highlights include the cathedral, which started out as a mosque before being transformed throughout the 15th century into what is now the third largest church in the world. The Giralda bell tower is the minaret of the original mosque; it’s a long hike up to the top of this 105m-high tower, but the views are well worth it
Surprisingly, the Arabic-style Real Alcázar next door was in fact built by Christians, although it replaced a Moorish fortress which had previously stood on this spot. You’ll want to leave at least half a day to explore this awe-inspiring palace; every room is exquisitely decorated with wooden ceilings and Moorish mosaics, while the vast gardens are a magical place to lose yourself in, amongst the pomegranate and pomelo trees and ever present fountains.
Away from these vast UNESCO sites, simply wandering through Seville’s old town is atmospheric enough. Lose yourself – quite literally – in the maze-like Barrio Santa Cruz, the old Jewish quarter where the streets are so narrow you can touch the walls on both sides. Luckily, if you do lose your bearings, you’re never far from a historic tapas bar, to refuel on jamón, croquetas and a tiny glass of ice cold Cruzcampo beer.
Today, this city of just 300,000 is relatively unknown, but in its heyday Cordoba was the capital of Al-Andalus and one of the most important cities in the world. By 1000 AD, when its stunning Mezquita was built, its population may have been double or triple what it is today. While it was under Muslim rule, Christians and Jews were still active in the political and cultural activities of the city. ‘Cardova’ became known for its craftsmanship, such as glazed tiles, textiles, leather and metalwork, as well as being a centre of medicine, astronomy and mathematics.
Following the Reconquista, its magnificent mosque – the Mezquita (itself built on top of a Visigothic church) – was converted into a large cathedral. The Catholic rulers were so impressed by its archway-filled interior that much of the original architecture remains; what you’ll find today resembles a giant mosque with some token Christian styling in the middle of it. The candy cane-striped arches sit on over 850 columns, creating a spellbinding place of worship.
A somewhat more humble, though no less beautiful, feature of this city is its patios. You’ll get tantalising glimpses through archways and windows as you stroll through the streets; visit in May for a more close up view, during the annual Fiesta de los Patios.
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GranadaGranada lures thousands of travellers for its Alhambra – an incredible 14th century palace complex that stands guard over the city. The Islamic stone and tilework are astounding, and the Moorish gardens are a tranquil haven amid the jumble and noise of the tumbledown city. Granada’s huge history belies its small size, and tourists, students, shoppers, artists and workers throng its narrow streets, winding between bazaar-style shops and lively bars, where you’re still served a tapa, gratis, with each drink.
The Romans, Greeks, Visigoths and Byzantines all settled here at various points in the city’s history, before the Moors conquered in 711, and Granada rapidly expanded. Although the Christian Reconquista took place some five centuries later, Granada remained the centre of a self contained Moorish Kingdom, as the Emirate of Granada, until 1492. This makes it the longest standing Moorish city in Spain – the evidence of which remains clear to this day.
Granada’s elevated location, tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, mean that it is far more pleasant in midsummer than its Andalucian counterparts. It’s also barely an hour from the Med, making this a great prospect if visiting during a heatwave.
The celebrated White Towns – Pueblos Blancos – are dozens of whitewashed, hilltop towns scattered throughout the Andalucia, but particularly concentrated in the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga, including the picturesque Sierra de Grazalema. The origins of many of the Pueblos Blancos date back to Moorish times, between the 8th and 12th centuries AD. The towns’ layouts are little changed, with central fortresses, and labyrinthine streets carving through the most ancient barrios. Even today you can still see buildings dating back to medieval times.
Our trips include daytrips to several White Towns, including tiny Benaocaz, with just 700 inhabitants; Setenil which was hewn largely from the rock, and whose buildings are shaded by enormous rocky overhangs; and the three neighbouring Sierra Nevada villages of Capileira, Bubion, Pampaneira. These have steep, winding streets, offer magnificent views and are all great departure points for mountain hikes.
How to visit historic Andalucia
When to goAndalucia is scorching in summer, with the lowland, inland cities of Seville and Cordoba, in particular, seeing temperatures in the 40°Cs in July and August. This is definitely not ideal for sightseeing, and many shops, bars and restaurants will close down, too, as the inhabitants swap the furnace-like heat for the mountains or beach.
Granada is more pleasant at this time, thanks to its elevation, but even coastal cities can be uncomfortably hot, thanks to the dry, dusty levante wind that blows up from the Sahara. Spring and autumn are much more pleasant, with hot, sunny days and cooler nights; bring a brolly, when it does rain, it can be torrential. One of the best things about Andalucia is the winter, which can still see days topping 20°C, while the sun doesn’t disappear until after 6pm, even in December – a welcome treat for vitamin D-starved northerners. The mountains see heavy snow at this time, of course – but if you’re in Granada, you can still pop down to the empty stretches of coast to warm up. Now that’s a winter holiday.
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