We began our Andalusia trip in Seville, then travelled by train to Cordoba and then to Granada. We rented car for the rest of the trip, visiting Capileira in the Sierra Nevada, Ronda, and the White Towns, and back to Seville for the flight home – two and a half weeks in total.
The green area on this map is Andalusia (Andalucia in Spanish) – the autonomous community of Southern Spain.
Seville is the capital of Andalusia and it is prosperous.
It’s a lovely city. The architecture is varied and rich, with some lovely buildings. Here is a view looking through an archway onto the Plaza de San Francisco.
Originally, everything in this part of Southern Spain was centred on Cadiz. It was the port and the centre for goods coming from the New World. But the coastline retreated and Cadiz was then too exposed to foreign raiders. So geography helped Seville take over, and the city became one of the richest in Europe.
The influence of Christopher Columbus on the city is huge.
This is the sarcophagus that holds the body of Christopher Columbus in the cathedral in Seville. According to DNA analysis, only twenty percent of the remains in the sarcophagus are his, probably because his body was moved several times before reaching its final resting place.
The Real Alcázar
Just across the Square from the cathedral is the Real Alcázar, the Royal Palace. The word ‘alcazar’ is Arabic, and means variously, palace or fort, or castle.
The entrance to the Alcázar is quite modest. If you didn’t know it was there, you could miss it.
Once you are through the entrance, you are in a courtyard that leads on and on through arches and courtyards, plazas, reflecting pools, and buildings – like a city within a city.
It is built on the site of the palace of the Almohad Caliphate that dates back to the 1360s, and when Catholic Spain took back control of Iberia, new designs were incorporated. It that way, the Alcázar has been remodelled several times over the centuries. Reflecting pools are a feature of Moorish architecture.
There are usually guides touting for tours of the Alcázar. Find one you like, who speaks good English, and take a tour because you will learn a lot quickly that you would otherwise miss. I don’t always recommend tours, but for this I do.
Plaza de España
The Plaza de España is in the Parque de María Luisa at the end of town. It was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. The Exposition coincided with the worldwide stock market crash, and the city lost a lot of money.
The Parque de María Luisa is lovely, with tall trees and tracks to meander in. But the buildings of the Plaza de España are an overblown mess in red brick, like a Disneyland version of ‘somewhere’. In the middle of the plaza there’s a canal going nowhere, with little boats where you can paddle around in the Venice of an alternative world.
Cordoba is a town in two halves. Down by the River Guadalquivir is the old town of narrow, whitewashed alleys. This is the lower town that spills down to the Roman bridge across the river.
The centrepiece of the old town is the Mesquita palace – the grand mosque of Córdoba – with low, stone arches inside in contrasting red and cream supported on eight hundred columns.
Take a longish walk up the hill from the old town, and the narrow alleys give way to modern Cordoba.
It is centuries apart from the bottom of the hill and it is very strange; almost like the old town is for tourists looking for something which doesn’t exist except as a preserved illusion.
Our plan was to travel to Granada by train. The train took us part of the way and then we had to take a bus for the final stretch.
Coming into Granada on the bus, we could see that the city is built on a hill. The Alhambra is at the top, with steep and narrow Moorish streets winding up the hill above the ‘European’ part below. The contrast was striking. There was a lot of graffiti and there was a tension here that was absent in Seville.
The Moorish area is known as the Albaicín, and dates back to the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. It and the Alhambra were declared a World Heritage Site in 1984.
The Nasrids were the last to hold out against the resurgence of Catholic Spain that recaptured Granada from the succession of Moorish kingdoms that held the south of Spain for centuries.
This painting in the museum in Granada shows the Nasrid queen leaving the palace after the defeat by Catholic Spain.
We stayed at a hotel that bordered the Moorish and the European areas. Going up the nearest side street out of the hotel took us into the bubbling Kasbah. And in the background to the south, the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The first night we ate in a restaurant that was reminiscent of Morocco – dark, with low seats in booths, the smell of hookahs.
We wanted to visit the world-famous Moorish citadel and palace that is the Alhambra. We learned that there are a limited number of tickets available and that we had no chance of getting a ticket because they are sold out months in advance.
One thing that travel teaches, is not to give up. We didn’t give up. We telephoned and we learned that the trick is to go onto the Alhambra website immediately after midnight, when agents release some of the tickets they reserved in block bookings. We did it and we were successful. We were happy and pleased with ourselves that we did not just sit back and lament when we first heard that there were no tickets available.
Twenty minutes after we got our tickets, we checked again. It was true – they were all sold. It was worth hovering over the website at midnight.
When we went the next day we realised that it is possible to see a lot of the Alhambra without a ticket. It is only to see the innermost parts that a ticket is needed.
We were glad when we saw the Almohad influence on the architecture and saw the reflecting pools. We would have been disappointed not to see this part of the Alhambra.
And yet. We compare our impressions of the Alhambra with the Alcazar in Seville. We think the Alcazar is more impressive in its detail. Oh, that we could stop comparing.
The Gardens Of The Alhambra
We liked the gardens of the Alhambra. There were flowers and bushes and trees, and a steady stream of people from all over the world walking along the paths.
The pleasure of sitting on a bench and watching people pass is a subtle joy. Down the hill to the south, to the city below, we could see beyond to the Sierra Nevada mountains. From Cordoba to Granada had been interesting. In a couple of days we would be hiring a car and driving into those mountains.
The Sierra Nevada
We booked the hire car before we left the UK. The plan was to drive up into the Sierra Nevada and stay there a few days, and then drive to Ronda and the White Towns, and back to Seville.
The highway gave way to a smaller road and we stopped off at a village and had lunch sitting outside. We got talking to the proprietor and he offered us tiger nuts. I ate them when I was a child, but these were soft, like tiny grapes.
The proprietor explained that they are underground tubers of a grass – and that they are found entwined with the roots of other plants. We laughed at how it had taken me decades to learn what I used to eat as a child.
Cyperus esculentus (also called chufa sedge, nut grass, yellow nutsedge, tiger nut sedge, edible galingale, water grass or earth almond) is a crop of the sedge family widespread across much of the world. It is found in most of the Eastern Hemisphere, including Southern Europe, Africa and Madagascar, as well as the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
Cyperus esculentus can be found wild, as a weed, or as a crop. Evidence exists for its cultivation in Egypt since the sixth millennium BC, and for several centuries in Southern Europe. In Spain, C. esculentus is cultivated for its edible tubers, called earth almonds or tiger nuts, for the preparation of horchata de chufa, a sweet, milk-like beverage.
From the road by the cafe we could see the mountains, and took the turn off to reach Capileira. The road was steep and very narrow and twisty. I invented a phrase for the hairpin turns: ‘scarepin turns’.
We drove higher, into the clouds, and had to slow down because we couldn’t see very far in front of the car. Slowly we reached Capileira, our destination and the highest and most northerly of the three villages in the gorge of the Poqueira river in the La Alpujarra district.
Low Cloud In The Sierra Nevada
Here are the mountains shrouded in the low cloud that comes and goes throughout the day. It was noticeably colder there in the mountains and wonderfully peaceful.
This is Capileira seen from a track above the village that continues over the mountains. And here is a photograph of a chance encounter with a man coming down the track with his horse.
From Our Hotel Window
And this is the view from our hotel window. These tall chimneys are everywhere and added to the mystery of the houses that are linked together with overhead buttresses and interlinked paths against a blinding white backdrop of thick walls.
The streets are very steep and the village is cut off for part of the winter when ice takes hold. If we had imagined what our Andalusia trip would be like, we wouldn’t have imagined the low cloud, the chimneys, the remote village feel.
Ronda is split in two by a deep gorge cut by the River Guadalevín, with the two sides connected by three bridges. It’s pleasant and we spent a couple of days enjoying the views across the valley, as the sun late in the year swept across and picked out the folds in the hills.
On the other side of the town, we spent pleasant days and evenings walking along the paths that skirt the gorge.
The White Towns
Ronda was our base to visit the string of villages on the road south to Malaga. They are known as the White Towns for the simple reason that the buildings are painted white.
We detoured to drive through some of them, and stopped at a vantage point to count the villages we could see. We counted seven villages nestled in the folds of the mountains.
The Bullring In Ronda
It was out of season when we visited, not that we wanted to see a bullfight. Standing in the ring was easy to imagine what went on.
Our Andalusia Trip
The drive to Seville and the airport drop-off for the car went smoothly. And that was it – our Andalusia trip.