Southern Spain's quintessential cities and countryside--a land of olive groves, flamenco dancing, bullfights, and some of the world's most spectacular ancient Moorish architecture
Just admit it. When you think "Spain," you probably conjure up sultry flamenco dancers clackety-clacking in swirly polka-dot dresses and darkly handsome matadors in tight sequin-spangled outfits sparring with big, black, ticked-off bulls, no?
Thought so. For various reasons (including accounts like gringo Washington Irving's 1832 The Alhambra), these are high on the list of outsiders' cliches of Espana. There's muchisimo more to this diverse 40-million-person collection of nationalities, of course, but it's true that its arid south (just a tad bigger than South Carolina) has helped define Spain's identity in the outside world in part because of its remarkable history and monuments. And because it's poorer than other parts of the country, with a lower cost of living, it also yields some unforgettable travel bargains, from a tasty, less-than-$10 repast based on millennium-old Mozarabic recipes and served in a twelfth-century Moorish bathhouse, to $40/night lodgings in a comfily converted gypsy cave. And fall is a wonderful time to visit, after the heat and the tourist hordes of summer have ebbed.
Ruled by Moorish caliphs and sultans (Muslim conquerors from North Africa) between 712 and 1492, the region they called Al-Andalus nurtured a sophisticated civilization generally more tolerant of different religions and lifestyles than Christian Europe. During the Inquisition, Spain's holy warriors spared no expense to drive out the cursed heathen, yet six centuries later (a full century less than Islamic rule lasted) their descendants milk the Moorish mystique for all it's worth. Which is a lot; nowhere else in Europe can you take in such wonders, and for as few euros a week (remember, the peseta will be passé as of January 1, 2002).
Andalusia ("Andalucia" in Spanish) is made up of eight provinces-Granada, Seville, Cordoba, Malaga, Huelva, Cadiz, Jaen, and Almeria - with landscapes ranging from dry, olive-tree-dotted plains to wildlife-rich wetlands, and glorious beaches to green hills and snowy peaks. But here I'll concentrate on the first three, which hold most of the spectacular cultural highlights that visitors flock to see; in a later issue of Budget Travel, we'll be covering Malaga and the resort-heavy Costa del Sol separately.
Andalusia's major cities are served by air from Madrid and dozens of other Spanish gateways (Malaga even gets international service from Europe, as well as direct from the States via Air Europa), and by an extensive rail network (including the marvelous high-speed AVE-Madrid to Seville in about two-and-a-half hours for $81). But if you have the time, the drive down from Madrid makes for an interesting and not overlong cruise - 260 miles to Granada or Cordoba, 340 to Seville - through the fascinating likes of medieval Toledo (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the region of La Mancha (of windmill and Don Quixote fame). Once you finally arrive down south, though, be prepared for some of the most memorable experiences of your life.
Granada: Gypsy passion & the awesome Alhambra
The last holdout of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula (finally ended in 1492 by the minions of those dour royals Ferdinand and Isabella), this city of 265,000 magnificently set at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a place whose age-old traditions and culture are still very much alive and flavored by the presence of communities like the Roma (a.k.a. gypsies) and Muslims (especially since the 1990s wave of immigration from Morocco, Algeria, and other North African countries). An intriguing maze of cobblestone streets and squares anchored by the Plaza Nueva, the old Moorish Albaicin (or Albayzin) quarter is home to lots of spots for eating, drinking, and souvenir shopping, including exotic teahouses and restaurants where you'd swear you were in the Casbah of Fez, right down to the muezzin's call to prayer. Try the sweet, 250-peseta ($1.30) mint tea and 200-peseta ($1) pastries at Teteria As-Sirat on Calle Caldereria Nueva. Farther up the hill, Sacromonte is a warren of whitewashed caves that has been home to the Roma for hundreds of years; some are open to the public today as eateries, lodgings, and flamenco tablaos (budget for a 3,500-peseta/$18 splurge in one of the more authentic shows, such as Los Tarantos, 22-45-25; tickets include one drink and are sold at hotels and at a booth on Calle Reyes Catolicos, on the east side of Plaza Nueva). Speaking of flamenco, other local options include a two-week beginner's course for 24,000 ptas ($122); contact Escuela Carmen de las Cuevas at 22-10-62, fax 22-04-76, or access its Web site (carmencuevas.com).
What Granada's best known for, however, is on the hill across from all this: a pair of palace complexes called the Alhambra and Generalife (admission to both 1,000 ptas/$5; go early). Originally dating from the ninth century, the Alhambra was built for over half a millennium by powerful caliphs into a Thousand and One Nights fantasyland of courtyards, porticos, patios, and fountains, all sumptuously decorated with intricate stone-and-plasterwork vaults, tracery, tilework, and carved inlaid ceilings. Not far off, the Generalife was their summer retreat, heavy on greenery and water. Wander at will - and be utterly awed. There are plenty of other local sights worth making time for, too, including the cathedral's Royal Chapel (carved tomb of monarchs Ferdie and Liz; more) and La Cartuja Monastery, with a uniquely over-the-top baroque interior (both 350 ptas/$1.80).
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