Spain may be facing austere times but it is still open for tourism. And there’s more to the country than beaches, bull fights and a passion for football, as we found in Andalusia, the southernmost region of the Iberian Peninsula, on a tour tracing the region’s history of medieval Christians and Muslim Moors.
Despite austerity, most Spanish seem intent on living life well. Daytime temperatures in the 30s help, and in the long balmy evenings people of all ages inhabit the plazas, dining late then promenading around the fountains by moonlight.
Our first stop, Seville, is Andalusia’s capital, a bustling city on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, with a blend of old and new architecture. The university, with its light and airy courtyards, is a former cigarette factory and the setting for Bizet’s opera, Carmen.
The new Grand Parasol Metropol, a sculptural plywood canopy the locals call The Mushrooms, was designed by German architect Jurgen Mayer as the largest wooden structure in the world. It shades street market stalls, protects Roman excavations in its basement, and has an undulating walkway on top overlooking the roofs and balconies of the city.
Near the river lies the old town of narrow streets, buildings with courtyards, ornate wrought iron gates and balconies spilling geraniums, inviting exploration on foot. Police patrol on scooters. Small shops and tapas bars somehow survive on minimal business.
Wider avenues are lined with trees bearing Seville oranges – hybrids of pomelo and mandarin noted for their perfume and bitter marmalade. But these city fruit are dimpled and over-ripe, periodically falling on to the pavement with a dull thud, or with rather more noise on to the tables and customers at sidewalk cafes.
The centrepiece of the old city, the Cathedral de Santa Maria, is the world’s largest gothic church. It houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who prepared for his first trans-Atlantic voyage in the city.
Converted from a mosque after Christians expelled the Moors in 1248, its distinctive Giralda Bell Tower is a former minaret. Inside, overwhelming space is countered by the intricate detail of carvings and inlaid gold decorations.
The conquering Spanish also took over the nearby Moorish palace and gardens. Laid out with numerous ponds, fountains and shade trees, including palms, pencil-like cypresses and hedges, they make water seem plentiful in this dry country.
Next we go to Cordoba, the undisputed capital of Muslim El Andalus for three centuries after the Moors invaded Spain in 711. Its old quarter of narrow lanes and small squares lies beside remnants of castellated city walls near the Guadalquivir River, which runs swift and rather silt-laden through ruins of old water mills.
On capturing Cordoba in 1236, the Spanish implanted into the existing mosque a Christian nave and chancel, retaining the surrounding forest of red and white columns and Moorish arches holding up the rectangular building’s roof. Today the Mezquita-Catedral is a Unesco World Heritage Site and can be approached from across the river over a Roman-age stone bridge, an enduring memorial to the impermanence of empires.
Nearby the Moorish Alcazar Fortress has shady gardens exhibiting design features that influenced later formal gardens throughout Europe. Evergreen trees line broad, straight canals of clear water, and topiary sculptures set off monumental statues.
Our third stop is Granada, the last Moorish capital to fall to the Spanish Reconquista, in 1492, the same year Columbus landed in America. The old city walls’ gate-houses have Moorish arches for entry and exit set at right angles to slow down charging horses. The walls enclose the Albaicin District, an area of narrow streets and alleyways. With their cobbled gutters in the middle of the street, they could still appear medieval but for the tangle of overhead power and telephone lines.
Granada’s principal Moorish remains are the citadel, palace and gardens of the Alhambra and the associated summer palace known as the Generalife, another Unesco World Heritage Site which today is among the most visited places in Europe.
The multi-courtyard palace is sumptuously decorated with carvings and tiles, the culmination of Moorish art and architecture. The extensive gardens display the familiar geometric layouts, shade and water features.
Water comes from springs on the Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest mountains that rise behind the city, and is ingeniously distributed, for instance channelled down the balustrade of a flight of garden steps.
After 1492 many Moors fled persecution beyond those mountains to an area called Las Alpujarras, where they built small villages with flat roofed houses, capped chimneys and narrow alleys, resembling those still found in North Africa. But they were expelled after rebellion in 1568 and replaced with settlers from northern Spain, who retained the villages’ form.
We spent three days hiking among these villages, in June to beat the highest summer heat, with accommodation, luggage transfer and a mapped route to follow arranged by a tour company (ibextrex.com).
We trod lightly, seeking cool drinks in the villages along the way, with the welcome prospect of a shower, dip in the pool and fine dining at each evening’s destination.
Wandering along the edge of the Sierra Nevada National Park, we walked on medieval paths, then down through groves of olive, citrus and almond trees, where lizards scampered and butterflies fluttered among the wayside flowers and fragrant herbs. On a scrub-covered hill, among the chaos of rocks we startled a curly-horned ibex that burst from hiding and bounded away.
We followed small irrigation channels that harness precious water from the mountain streams for time-sharing among landowners. We sipped on a spring that issued bubbling mineral water, and splashed in each village’s public fuente or water-trough, one of which sent water gushing through stone laundry tubs in a communal lavado – wash-house.
Blue sky, green vistas dotted by whitewashed villages, patches of snow clinging to the highest peaks and relatively few tourists. The biggest garden of all was here in the mountains, the creation of nature and its inhabitants.
- The Dominion Post