At least once in the determined traveler’s life, Madrid and Barcelona are Spanish cities that ought to be conquered. But if one prefers to venture on the alternative path to Andalucia, some of Spain’s most enigmatic, architectural jewels are treasures that await. With its rich cultural diversity and religious history, Andalucia has developed an extraordinary character, distinctly its own. Spanish trademarks: flamenco, bullfighting, baroque art, Mudejar architecture and tapas in fact owe a lot of its history to the region. Consequently, this also means, it’s the best place for the most authentic Spanish experiences.
Having said that, there’s so much more to Andalucia. After, a brief rendezvous in three of its biggest cities – Seville, Cordoba and Granada – you’ll wish you had months to be intoxicated with Andalucia’s spellbinding beauty.
Shaping the itinerary
Like most travels to Spain, my plane landed in the capital of Madrid, which along with Barcelona, I had full intentions of exploring with friends. However, instead of limiting myself to the two world cities, I decided to arrive a week early for a deeper immersion into Spain, by exploring the Andalucian region.
My plan was to take the hour-and-forty-five minute train from Madrid to Cordoba and see the city for a day. From there, I was going to ride a train to Sevilla by evening, which was just forty-five minutes away, to stay for two nights. After getting my fill of Seville, I would take the three-hour train ride to Granada and stay for two nights before returning to Madrid to begin exploring the capital with my friends. Thankfully, in Spain, local trains are frequent and unless you’re there during the busiest of peak seasons, you need not worry of ever getting stranded.
Cordoba: Moslem Spain in its most glorious
The largest city in the world during the 10th century, Cordoba is home to one of the most celebrated landmarks of the Islamic world, the Mezquita. This edifice alone makes Cordoba an essential part of your pilgrimage. That said, there’s a lot going for Cordoba including getting lost in the narrow, winding streets of Juderia.
Cordoba’s Mezquita. The Mezquita’s fusion of Western and Islamic architectural influences has turned it into one of the most fascinating religious buildings on earth. So outstanding was its design, it inspired many building’s that followed. An interesting fact: because the structure is actually a mosque turned church, it’s the only place in the world where Christians can worship inside a mosque. Some of its 856 columns were recycled from ruins of Roman structures – you can just imagine how grand its materials are. The Mezquita’s lyrical striped arches stand for architectural perfection and are its most iconic feature. You’ll find something eerily stunning about them.
There’s so much to see in the Mezquita but make sure you don’t miss the Cathedral, which ripped out the center of the Mezquita to accommodate its Capilla Mayor; and the serene Patio de los Naranjos, its orange tree-lined courtyard, that’s free to enter any time of the day. Enter the Mezquita’s main building from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. when it’s free (that’s right, no entry fees everyday except Sundays) and there are lesser crowds.
Juderia. The medieval Juderia, also called the Jewish Quarters, is where the Jewish (once Cordoba’s most prominent citizens) used to reside. Today, it is a maze of narrow cobbled passageways and its white buildings are perfect to get lost in. While here, visit the quaint 14th-century Sinagoga, the only remaining medieval synagogue in all of Andalucia.
Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos. Built in the 14th century by Alphonso XI, the Castle of the Christian Monarchs is where Fernando and Isabel first met Christopher Columbus. Stroll in its beautiful terraced gardens where you can enjoy the sight of Spanish lushness.
If you’re not in a rush, also check out the Palacio De Vianca, a stunning Renaissance palace set around 12 beautiful patios; as well as the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, possibly the best flamenco museum in Andalucia.
Seville: Quintessentially Andalucian
If there’s one city that best represents Andalucia, it’s got to be spectacular Seville. The city prides itself in shaping the history of flamenco, bullfighting, baroque art and Mudejar architecture. And with year-round sunshine, non-stop festivals and savory tapas on top of those arts, you’ll soon find out why it’s suddenly one of your favorite cities.
Experience the fiestas in Seville to know where the passion of the Sevillanos emanates from. The Feria de Abril is big in Andalucia but the scale is even grander in Seville. Locals parade around in horses and carriages during the day, then get dressed to the nines by evening for revelry and flamenco. Likewise, they take the Semana Santa to a different level here. The procession of elaborate statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, plus intriguing hooded penitents, are celebrated with both solemnity and pageantry.
If you wish to immerse yourself in flamenco and bullfighting, do it in Seville. Nothing is more intimate and authentic than flamenco in Casa De La Memoria. In Plaza de Torros de la Real Maestranza, Spain’s oldest, most beautiful and most important bullring, you can trot the steps of a torero as you take its guided tour.
Catedral. Erected on the site of a great 12th-century Almohad mosque, the builders of Seville’s Catedral had one clear objective, “constructing such a big building that those who see it finished may believe we are mad.” Considering it’s still the world’s biggest Gothic building and third largest Christian structure, they’d probably exclaim, “Mission accomplished!” if they were alive today. Some of its most notable highlights include: the Tomb of Columbus (said to contain the bones of the great explorer); and the majestic Capilla Mayor, the 18 meter-high main altar with over a thousand biblical sculptures that’s considered to be the largest collection of such in the world.
The Giralda. Built in the 12th-century, this Moslem minaret with a Christian belfry, is Seville’s defining symbol. When the Moslems surrendered the city, they asked for permission to destroy the tower, but because it was so stunning, Prince Don Alfonso replied with his now famous line, “If even one brick were removed from the tower, they would all be stabbed to death.” Hence, from then on, it has remained untouched until the 16th century, when they built a church to symbolize Christian power.
Alcazar. A UNESCO world heritage site, this complex of palaces, also called Reales Alcazares, was a center of power and royal residence for a thousand years. Built primarily in the 1300s during Europe’s so-called “dark ages,” it is considered to be the finest example of Mudejar architecture.
Plaza De Espana and Parque De Maria Luisa. Great places to relax. Built for the Seville 1929 international fair, the builders of Plaza De Espana wanted to relive Seville’s past glory and succeeded in creating a structure of utmost grandiosity.
Torre Del Oro. This 13th-century defensive tower, called the Golden Tower because of its golden tiles that reflect the sun, is now used as the Naval Museum.
Metropol Parasol. In March 2011, German architect Jurgen Mayer’s parasol in the Plaza de la Eacarnacion opened with a shock factor of Eiffel Tower proportions. It now claims to be the largest wooden building in the world. You’ll surely want to selfie with its out-of-this-world form. Its killer views upstairs make it a worthwhile detour.
Granada: A Slice of North Africa in Europe
While Cordoba boasts of the Mezquita, Granada takes pride in the Alhambra, Spain’s most important cultural heritage. The Alhambra is bucket-list worthy and is a compelling reason alone to journey to Granada.
Once the capital of Islamic Spain, Granada is Europe’s pinnacle of Islamic architecture. With its evident North African influences, it’s like stepping into another continent altogether. While in the Albayzin, have tea in a teteria and feel magically transported to Morocco. Oh, and splurge on tapas in Granada, they serve them in bigger portions here.
The Alhambra. Nestled dramatically over the top of the Sabika Hill, this UNESCO world heritage site is Spain’s most visited monumental complex. Many reckon it’s also Spain’s most sublime site. The palace complex Al-Andalus, a product of 800 years of Moorish rule, is close to architectural perfection and thought to be the most refined example of Islamic art in the entire world. There’s so much to explore inside the Alhambra but the perfectly proportioned Generalife Gardens and the exquisite Palacio Nazaries are not to be missed.
The Albayzin. Time has remarkably preserved the original layout and to some extent, the North African charm, of these Old Moorish Quarters. While getting lost in its labyrinth of cobblestone streets, plazas, mosques and palaces, do find Calle Caldereria Nueva, a street market for souvenirs and the Mirador San Nicolas, a lookout point with the best views of the Alhambra.
Catedral de Granada. Completed in 1704, Isabel commissioned this eclectic cathedral that combines Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles. Adjoining it is the Capilla Real, an excellent Christian building where the bodies of Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando, are interred.