History, Tradition Define Andalusia’s character
By Terri Colby
Spain’s huge Andalusia region is well known for culture, its tropical Mediterranean climate and a physical legacy defined by centuries of Muslim rule combined with Christian artistic dominance of more recent times.
Flamenco in Seville
Its capital of Seville, synonymous with flamenco, and Granada with its majestic Alhambra are arguably the most notable of its cities, and for good reason. But other parts of the region, while perhaps less well known, are captivating and worth your time.
Cordoba just might be my favorite of the three cities known as Andalusia’s golden triangle.
It has more than 300,000 residents, but feels smaller. It’s very walkable and there is just so much to see and do.
Cordoba’s Stunning Mezquita
Cordoba’s city center is a UNESCO world heritage site, dominated by the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. If there were only one reason to visit Cordoba, this would be it.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba was built in the 8th Century, after the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, when the city’s importance rivaled that of Constantinople, Damascus and Baghdad.
In the 12th Century, conquering Christians used it as a place of worship dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Over the centuries, various changes were made to the site and in the 1500s, a Cathedral nave was built in the middle of the mosque by King Charles V.
Today, in Cordoba it’s known as the Mezquita (or mosque, in Spanish), but its official name is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption, the cathedral for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cordoba.
It’s a remarkable piece of architecture that tells a dramatic history through the walls and arches that even today serve as a spiritual gathering place. Said to be the only cathedral built inside a mosque, Its mix of architectural styles seems almost whimsical.
There’s Gothic and Renaissance mixed with Moorish. Its red and white horseshoe arches stood tall during the 10th Century when 40,000 Muslims worshiped. And the arches remain the building’s most defining feature today, when daily masses are said for Roman Catholic visitors.
Mix of architectural styles shows history
I visited on a late afternoon when sunlight shining through stained glass windows added in the Christian era painted the floors in brilliant colors beneath the stone arches created by the Muslims.
Even for those with few spiritual beliefs or little interest in religion, the culture and history of centuries of turmoil and triumph are a striking testament to the past, literally embedded in the structure, written in stone and arches.
The Mezquita is one of the most magnificent places of worship I’ve visited in travels around the world, but another facet of Cordoba’s culture also captured my heart.
Patio gardens are open to the public
Cordoba’s traditional patio gardens are quirky and quaint, colorful presentations of flowers, greenery and artwork in the courtyards of the city’s historic district.
Each year at the beginning of May, the communal courtyards are open to the public for the Fiesta of the Patios, a competition and a tradition in the city since 1918.
In 2012, UNESCO added the patio festival to its list of World Intangible Cultural Heritage Sites.
The festival draws crowds to this city in early May, but you don’t have to wait until the festival and the competition to see the beautiful courtyards. Many are open throughout the year.
My husband and I spent a beautiful spring morning walking through the old town, visiting quite a few decorated patios on a weekday. Stop by a nearby cafe for coffee. It’s a delightful way to spend at least a few hours.
One shop adjacent to one of the open courtyards sold traditional filigree jewelry, in both modern and antique styles.
Stop by the Asociation de Amigos de los Patios Cordobeses, at 44 San Basilio Street, for more information on which gardens are open and for details on the history of the tradition. Many of the courtyards are on the same street.
Taking the Famous high-speed AVE train
My husband and I had a week to spend in Andalusia and it was not enough time.
Cordoba was our first stop. We flew from the U.S. to Madrid, and took the high-speed AVE train from the Madrid airport to Cordoba. It’s smooth and sleek, feeling a bit more like a plane than a train. And it’s no wonder, the train reaches speeds of about 185 miles per hour.
What seemed most remarkable though was the connection through the Madrid airport. It was almost as easy as a transfer on a city bus route.
We reserved tickets from Madrid to Cordoba and then from Cordoba to Seville. At the end of our time in Seville we picked up a rental car to head to Granada.
After the first two nights in Cordoba, we got back on the AVE train for the 35-minute ride to Seville.
Vibrant, Sunny Seville
The sprawling, sunny capital of Andalusia is to the south of Spain what Madrid is to the middle and Barcelona to the north, a bottomless trove of history, culture and cuisine.
The city of 700,000 straddles the Guadalquivir River, and sights along the river or within a short walk anchor Seville’s place in world history.
For about a century in the 1500s the city had a monopoly on voyages to and from Spain’s newly acquired colonies in the Americas, bringing incredible wealth .
Moored on the river bank is a replica of a 16th century sailing ship, the Victoria, that was the only vessel to complete one of the most daring voyages of exploration of any era.
In 1519 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan obtained royal approval to seek a route through or around the newly discovered Americas to what we now know as Asia.
He found it in the stormy waters at the tip of South America, now known as the Straits of Magellan, but Magellan himself was killed and four of his five ships lost before the Victoria returned to Seville, three years after it left.
Days of exploration
The story of the expedition is vividly told in a museum, the Espacio Exploraterra, located on the river bank just a few steps from the Victoria. Both the ship and the museum remind visitors of the courage and determination required to set out on a voyage into uncharted waters in a vessel less than 100 feet long and 22 feet wide.
On the south side of the river, no more than 10 minutes’ walk from the Victoria, is the Mercado de Triana, a bright, bustling food market, a visual feast of color and also a fine source for small packets of spice and bottles of olive oil to take home as gifts. And underneath is a surprise.
The market is built on the site of the Castillo de San Jorge, a medieval fortress that served for three centuries as headquarters and prison for the Spanish Inquisition, founded in Seville in 1478.
The foundations have been excavated and serve as the backbone of a newly reopened museum that tells the story of this time of terror.
The market serves as the gateway to the lively Triana neighborhood, brimming with outdoor restaurants and cafes, ice cream shops and stores with displays open to the street.
Cathedral one of the largest churches in the world
Looming over central Seville is the massive Seville Cathedral, one of the largest Christian churches in the world. Like so many Spanish churches and palaces, the cathedral is built on foundations laid during the centuries when Spain was part of the Islamic empire, in this case a 12th century mosque.
The cathedral’s 343 foot bell tower, the Giralda, was originally the minaret of the mosque but was embellished during the Christian era. Within the cathedral is an ornate shrine labeled as the tomb of Christopher Columbus, though it’s widely believed he is not buried there
Seville is a fine place to enjoy flamenco, the passionate music-and-dance performance art that is one of the cultural touchstones of Spain and has its roots among the Romani (Gypsy) people of southern Spain.
Don’t miss Seville’s Plaza de Espana. It was built in 1929 to host a world’s fair, and is a gorgeous expanse of parkways, shaded boulevards, ponds, colorful gardens and fountains and bridges decorated with intricate tiles. We were lucky enough to happen upon an outdoor flamenco performance the day we visited the Plaza
And if your wanderings in Seville leave you thirsty, try a cocktail made with flor de Sevilla gin, which replaces the bitter tang of juniper berries with a faintly sweet citrus flavor. No lime needed for your gin and tonic! Maybe a wedge of one of Seville’s famous oranges
Next stop, Granada
From Seville we picked up our rental car and headed for Granada and its crown jewel, the Alhambra, the medieval palace fortress that is one of the most well-known and well preserved examples of Islamic architecture.
You could easily spend a full day just touring the hilltop complex. About 2 million people visit each year, making it among the most visited sites in Spain.
But make sure to reserve your tickets well before you arrive. And bring your passport to the site, where you need to show it several times during tours.
The Hammam Al Andalus is another must-visit stop in Grenada to enjoy the Arab baths and get a relaxing or rejuvenating massage in a soothing space.
Like the Mezquita, the Alhambra and its surrounding neighborhood, the Albaicin, are UNESCO world heritage sites.
Spend more than a week in Andalusia
If you can arrange for more days on a visit to the south of Spain, spend some time in Malaga, about 100 miles south of Seville.
It’s on the gorgeous Costa del Sol with luxury resorts right on the Mediterranean Sea. But it’s also got a lively museum and restaurant culture. We were sorry to miss it.
Another bit of advice for travel to southern Spain. We were there in mid April, generally a good time to visit. But a week or two after we left, temperatures soared dangerously. So plan accordingly.
Though many people travel to this region around the Easter holidays to participate in Semana Santa (Holy Week) events, I would avoid these times as crowds and prices rise significantly. Late March might be a better choice than April.
Terri Colby spent decades as a journalist following hard news stories before she wised up and started roaming the world as a travel writer. Her favorite travel stories always seem to involve amazing natural wonders. But cruises, fine dining, and boutique hotels are always on her radar. She’s vice president of SATW’s Freelance Council. Follow her at imsleepingaround.com or on Instagram.