In A.D. 711 Muslim armies swept into Iberia from strongholds in what is now Morocco. Since then, Spain's southernmost district has been enmeshed in the mores, art, and architecture of the Muslim world.
During the 900s, Andalusia blossomed into a sophisticated society -- advanced in philosophy, mathematics, and trading -- that far outstripped a feudal Europe still trapped in the Dark Ages. Moorish domination ended completely in 1492, when Granada was captured by the armies of Isabella and Ferdinand, but even today the region offers echoes of this Muslim occupation. Andalusia is a dry district that isn't highly prosperous and depends heavily on tourism.
The major cities of Andalusia deserve at least a week, with overnights in Seville (hometown of Carmen, Don Giovanni, and the barber); Córdoba, site of the Mezquita, one of history's most versatile religious edifices; and Cádiz, the seaport where thousands of ships embarked on their colonization of the New World. Perhaps most interesting of all is Granada, a town of such impressive artistry that it inspired many of the works by the 20th-century romantic poet Federico García Lorca.
Cadiz & the Costa de la Luz
Dotted with churches and monuments, the old port city of Cádiz lies on a limestone rock emerging from the sea at the end of a 9km-long (6-mile) promontory projecting into the Atlantic. This historic core of old Cádiz is linked to Andalusia by a bridge. Walls rising to a height of 15m (50 ft.) protect the center from the turbulent waves of the ocean.
Some claim that Cádiz is Europe's oldest city, citing Hercules as its founder. Actually the Phoenicians founded the city back in 1100 B.C. Wealth from the Spanish conquistadores arrived here, eventually attracting unwanted attention from Sir Francis Drake, who raided the port in 1587. This was the first of many such attacks from the British fleets. In 1812 Spain's first constitution was declared here.
Two days are sufficient to explore the sights in Cádiz, a workaday port whose attractions do not equal those of Granada or Seville.
If you have extra time, you can retreat to the city's beaches or those along the Costa de la Luz, which sprawls both east and west of Cádiz. On a clear day you can see across the water to Tangier, Morocco. The coast is riddled with beaches and fishing villages, many of which would be idyllic for a laid-back vacation. In particular, Tarifa, the windsurfing capital of Europe, comes to mind.
This ancient city, founded by the Carthaginians and later the Roman Baetica, reached its zenith in the 10th century as the capital of the great Caliphate. It was also the greatest spiritual and scientific center of the Western world, with some 300 mosques and one of the world's greatest universities. Those glory days are long gone, but Córdoba's architecture still makes it one of the most appealing cities in Europe.
Today, with a population of some 310,000, Córdoba is visited mainly because of its celebrated mosque, La Mezquita, the world's third largest. Incidentally, it hasn't been used as a mosque since King Ferdinand and his armies attacked in 1236. After Córdoba fell, the mosque was reconsecrated as a Christian church. As amazing as it sounds, a cathedral was launched in 1523 within the walls of the original mosque -- and it still stands today.
You can spend 2 to 3 days in Córdoba, wandering in its Old Quarter and exploring an alcázar (fortress) constructed by Christian kings in 1327.
Costa del Sol
What the Riviera is to France, the Costa del Sol is to Spain. The "Sun Coast" sprawls across the southernmost edge of Spain between Algeciras to the west -- across from the rocky heights of British-controlled Gibraltar -- and the rather dull Almería to the east. Think traffic jams, suntan oil, sun-bleached high-rises, and nearly naked flesh. The beaches here are some of the best and most popular in Europe, but this can also be an overly crowded, crime-filled region.
Once known for its scented orange groves and rolling fields of silvery olive trees, the Costa del Sol of today is an overdeveloped urban sprawl of housing developments, hotels, resorts, tourist complexes, and amusement centers, along with such better attractions as beaches and golf courses.
The tawdry, carnival-like atmosphere of the coast is a turnoff to many North American visitors who prefer to spend their time exploring the more artistic cities of Andalusia, especially Seville and Granada.
Unless you travel by car or rail from Madrid, chances are you'll arrive by plane via Málaga, the district's most historic city and the capital of the Costa del Sol. Hans Christian Andersen praised it, and Pablo Picasso was born here. Much more staid than Torremolinos, it is more of a workaday city than a sprawling resort. With its fortress, cathedral, and bullring, along with a Picasso museum, it has more cultural attractions than any other place along the coast. Málaga also enjoys the best transportation links along the entire coast, both from the air and by rail from other leading Andalusian cities as well as Madrid and Barcelona.
If you're seeking pockets of posh and beach resorts that are still some of the greatest in Spain, anchor at Marbella, which in the 1960s, before it was overrun, was one of the chicest resorts in all of Europe. Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were once regulars. Today's star seekers may spot Antonio Banderas.
One modern development that has managed to remain distinctive and upmarket is Puerto Banús, a neo-Moorish village that curves around a sheltered marina where the wintering rich dock their yachts.
If Torremolinos was ever chic, it was early in the 1960s when two lovers, James Kirkwood (A Chorus Line) and James Leo Herlihy (Midnight Cowboy), lived here in a romantic little villa. Today the beautiful people are long gone, and Torremolinos gets the low-budget tours from the Midlands of England and other parts of northern Europe. Although some visitors like this urban sprawl of mediocre beaches, "lager life," after-dark diversions, and package tours galore, you should anchor here only if you want to be caught up in the human circus that descends during the summer months. If you're set on visiting, do so in June before the hordes arrive to dance the night away.
Thrust up from the sea some 200 million years ago, Gibraltar is a tiny peninsula lying between the Spanish town of La Linea de la Concepción on the Costa del Sol and industrial Algeciras. It is just 6.4km (4 miles) long and 2km (1 1/4 miles) wide.
At 449m (1,476 ft.), the Rock of Gibraltar -- known to the ancients -- guards the entrance to the Mediterranean. Through its narrow strait, waters from the more turbulent Atlantic pass into the calmer Mediterranean.
We'll be really blunt: There is no compelling reason to visit this self-governing British colony -- "Gib," as locals affectionately call it. Border crossings can be tedious. Except for a few attractions, such as the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the famous Barbary Apes, there just isn't a lot to do. Sure, you can enjoy fish and chips and pints of bitter, but you'll find better versions of both in London. Many visiting journalists consider Gibraltar a tourist trap.
Often visitors go simply because Gibraltar is there. Visit if you must, but don't expect a grand old time. When you cross the border, you leave Spanish culture behind, but what you find is not quite British either. It's . . . well, it's Gibraltar.
One of the hardest questions a travel writer to Andalusia can be asked is: "If I don't have time for both, should it be Granada or Seville?" Only if forced at gunpoint would we say Granada -- and that's because of its Alhambra, resident palace of the Moorish rulers of the Nasrid dynasty. It is one of the world's greatest architectural treasures.
Granada, of course, has much more to offer. Much of its charm derives from a mellow blending of its Eastern and Western architectural influences and customs. Other major attractions include the Gothic cathedral; Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), burial place of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella; and the Albaicín quarter, a cone-shaped network of tightly packed white houses that was the heart of Muslim Granada. On a hot summer day, there is no cooler place to be than the Generalife, the summer palace of the former sultans and their harems, standing on 30 hectares (75 acres) of grounds. Granada's prestigious festival of music and dance takes place here.
The capital of eastern Andalusia, Granada lies in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, with a population of some 300,000. Allow at least 2 to 3 days for a proper visit.
The capital of its own province, the ancient city of Jaén, and the even more interesting historic towns of Ubeda and Baeza, can be visited before you reach Córdoba -- that is, if you're heading south from Madrid.
Jaén was called Giyen when it lay on the ancient caravan route used by the Arabs. At the time of the Christian Reconquest of southern Spain, the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella used it as their gateway to Andalusia. That's not a bad idea for today's visitor, who can spend a day exploring Jaén and another visiting the "twin" towns of Ubeda and Baeza.
Jaén is the center of one of the world's largest olive-growing districts, making it a virtual island in a sea of olive trees. Jaén's massive cathedral from the 16th century is one of the grandest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture, and you can wander for hours in its Old Town, originally a Moorish settlement.
The town of Ubeda is known as the "Andalusian Salamanca" because of its numerous Renaissance buildings. It's a harmonious town filled with churches, monuments, and palaces. Baeza, too, is filled with elegant town houses and noble mansions, many constructed during its heyday in the 16th century. Olive groves and vineyards envelop Baeza.
East of Málaga, the town of Nerja -- our favorite along the entire Costa del Sol -- opens onto the "Balcony of Europe," a marble-paved projection towering over a headland and jutting out toward the sea. This seaside resort lies at the mouth of the Río Chillar on a site below the Sierra de Mihara.
Although the tourist boom has led to a mass of new buildings on its periphery, its historic core is still one of the coast's most charming, with whitewashed houses and narrow streets for rambling at leisure.
Nerja can be easily seen in a day. Its main attraction is the Cuevas de Nerja, caves with magnificent stalactites and bizarre rock formations.
Ronda & the Pueblos Blancos/Sherry Triangle
One of the leading attractions of southern Spain, Ronda, at an altitude of 698m (2,300 ft.), is a town built on a triangular plateau, with its apex pointing south. It is divided into two towns by the 150m (150-ft.) gorge of the Río Guadalevín. At the southern tip of Ronda is La Ciudad or the Old Town, which grew up on the Roman settlement of Arunda. A trio of bridges spanning the gorge links the old and new towns.
Ronda deserves at least 2 days, which will allow you to explore its antique architecture, visit one of the oldest bullrings in Spain, and take in its Moorish and Roman ruins. Those with a car and an extra 2 days can explore the so-called Pueblos Blancos (White Towns) of Andalusia in the hilly hinterland above the Costa del Sol. The houses in these agricultural villages are characterized by whitewashed walls. The higher you climb into the sierras, the prettier these villages grow. Favorite destinations are Arcos de la Frontera, Olvera, and Sanlúcar. Those with yet another day can do some wine tasting at the sherry-producing wine bodegas of Jerez de la Frontera, northeast of Cádiz. Jerez is also the equestrian center of Andalusia. Watching a "horse ballet" at a dressage school is one of the highlights of a visit to southern Spain.
Andalusia's grandest city links the heart of the province with its coastal plains and maritime routes. Standing on the Río Guadalquivir, it lies 80km (50 miles) north of the Atlantic Ocean with a Mediterranean climate but irregular rainfall, which means the sun shines 2,796 hours per year.
No longer Spain's most populous city, it is still an urban sprawl once you branch out from its historic core. The population numbers more than 800,000 Sevillanos.
Seville reached the zenith of its power in the 15th and 16th centuries when it was the gateway to the New World explored by Columbus. At that time Seville was the fourth-largest city on the globe, the place where treasure ships landed with their cargoes from the Americas.
Allow at least 3 or 4 nights to explore the capital of Andalusia, including such attractions as its world-famous cathedral, La Giralda, Reales Alcázares, and its Museo de Bellas Artes, along with its historic core, Santa Cruz.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.