A Mini-Guide to Andalucia

Travel Guide
Places and Main Sites
By Sara Irving
Freelance Writer - UK

The Alhambra complex, Granada
Andalucia, the region of South-West Spain bordered by Murcia to the East and Portugal to the West, is home to the glorious heritage of the Islamic kingdoms of medieval Spain, al-Andalus. Palaces, mosques and gardens are easily accessible via a convenient public transport system and a wide range of quality hotels. And around a sixth of Spain's 600,000 Muslims live in Andalucia, especially in Granada, so finding halal food and places to pray, while not always easy, is almost always possible. This mini-guide covers Granada, Cordoba and Seville, the cities known as the 'three pearls of Andalucia.'

Places and Main Sites

Granada was the last of the Islamic city-states of Andalucia, finally falling to Christian forces in 1492. Its biggest draw is the Alhambra, the hilltop palace-fortress which has lent its name to theatres and cinemas around the world. It deserves a full day to wander through its cool courtyards, echoing fountains and lush gardens, gazing at the spectacular architecture and delicate carved Arabic calligraphy. Tickets need to be bought in advance, either from the box office on-site or from the Caixa bank chain, and they have a strict entry time printed on them.

But Granada has many other attractions. The Albayzin, the ancient Arab quarter of the city where the craftsmen who built the Alhambra settled, is a beautiful network of tiny whitewashed streets scented with jasmine, where traditional courtyard gardens full of orange trees and startling purple bougainvillea flowers can be glimpsed through heavy gates. Several plazas higher up the hill give breathtaking views of the walls of the Alhambra and the mountains beyond. For a range of music and performances, the Taller de Arte Sala Vimaambi  on the Cuesta de San Gregorio plays host to authentic Andalucian flamenco as well as classical Arabic music and other styles from around the world. And the Alpujarras Mountains, a short drive from Granada, are both a destination for a refreshing short trip, and a fascinating insight into the rural lives of the last communities of Andalucian Muslims after the Christian conquest.  

In Cordoba, the big draw for most visitors is the Great Mosque or Mezquita. Beginning life as the Church of St Vincent, it was transformed into a mosque by the Caliph Abd ur-Rahman in 784 and enlarged by further rulers of the Cordoba Caliphate. A cathedral was then built in the centre of the forest of leaping red-and-white arches – said to represent date palms – but even the Christian king who commissioned the new building is said to have lamented his vandalism to the mosque's harmonious architecture.

If you have a good historical guidebook, it's worth visiting the Mezquita between 8-11am, when entry is free and large tour groups with guides are not admitted. The building is still the subject of controversy over a rule forbidding Muslims to pray there because it is designated as a Roman Catholic Church.

As with Granada, the Old City of Cordoba is a delightful place to walk amongst historical buildings and elegant courtyards. The Casa Andalusi (Calle Judios, in the Old City) is a charming and informative little museum celebrating the culture of ancient Andalucia and the city's Muslim and Jewish past – it also offers guided walks in a number of different languages, and often hosts music and storytelling events. This area of the old city is also home to an ancient synagogue from the height of the multicultural, tolerant Andalucian kingdoms, as well as to some of the remaining shops making the fine filigree silverware for which Cordoba is famous.

On a warm evening, a walk across the great Puente Romano bridge over the mighty Guadalquivir River can be a breathtaking experience, especially in the spring or autumn when thousands of birds migrating between Europe and Africa use the river as a route, coming in to roost at dusk in the trees on the river's islands.  

The Guadalquivir flows on to bisect the city of Seville as well, providing tranquil walks on its city side and a picturesque street on the Triana side, Calle del Betis, where itis possible to enjoy a meal or coffee overlooking the river and city.

Seville's most prominent tourist attraction is the Giralda, the great minaret-turned-bell tower which overlooks a busy square in the middle of the old city. As the minaret of an Almohad mosque, it was once one of the tallest buildings in the world, along with its twins in Marrakech and Rabat. The cathedral which it now forms part of is a huge, citadel-like building with an ornate interior, home to the tomb of Christopher Columbus and to a large collection of Christian art and stained glass.

A short walk away is the Alcazar, the sprawling palace whose name derives from the Arabic al-qasr. Built in stages by Seville's Muslim and Christian monarchs, much of the most splendid work was done by artisans who had honed their craft at the Alhambra in Granada, and even sections built under Christian monarchs are adorned with Islamic calligraphy. With its cool gardens, filled with peacocks, as well as the many rooms of ornate carvings and multicolored tiles, the Alcazar deserves the best part of a day's sightseeing.

Less well-known attractions include the Casa de la Memoria de al-Andalus on Calle Ximénez de Enciso, a beautifully restored medieval Jewish house which now puts on concerts most nights of authentic flamenco music, in contrast to some of the larger (and much more expensive) 'spectacular' shows which turn this art form to a kind of burlesque. The bullfighting ring offers instructive tours on the history of the 'sport,' and regular shows for the more bloodthirsty viewer.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer based in UK and specializing in environmental and political issues and the Middle East.

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