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).
If the neo-Moorishly ornate Alhambra Palace (up near the historic palaces) is too rich for your blood at $145 a night, stop in for a sangria with a great view of town, but stay elsewhere. My pick at the bottom of the scale, located just off Plaza Nueva on the street leading up to the Alhambra, is the four-story, 22-room Pension Britz (Cuesta de Gomerez 1, tel./fax 22-36-52), which offers very attractive though fairly amenity-sparse doubles with bath for 5,724 ptas ($30), without for 4,134 ($21). Just one unit, it's not for everybody - but a hands-down winner for unique ambience - is the Cueva de los Canasteros (Vereda del Enmedio, tel./fax 22-90-90, email@example.com), a former gypsy cave in Sacromonte converted into a three-roomer sleeping up to four; no TV or phone, but there is a kitchen and CD player; for two, it's 8,560 ptas (about $40) daily. Just below the old town, on a lovely square with the Renaissance cathedral tower looming above, the five-story Los Tilos (Plaza Bib-Rambla 4, 26-67-12, fax 26-68-01) has 34 slightly dated but comfortable rooms with bath, color TV, phone, and A/C; doubles run 8,132 ptas ($42). A little fresher, and certainly impeccably central, the Hotel Macia (Pl. Nueva 4, 22-75-36, fax 22-75-33), on Plaza Nueva right across from the street leading up to the Alhambra, is a modest jewel, with 44 stylish, fully decked-out rooms; doubles go for 10,700 ptas ($55); BT readers are offered another 10 percent off. For very designer-mod and upscale, the marble-clad, 85-room Gran Via (Gran Via de Colon 25, 28-54-64, fax 28-55-91), just outside the old town, is an impressive value at 13,268 ptas ($68) per double.
Thanks not just to backpackers but also the considerable student population, Granada (including the old town) is full of budget options, including multicourse menus for as little as 749 ptas ($3.80). That's what you'll pay, for example, for pasta, salad, a wedge of potato omelette, bread, and flan at Boabdil (Calle Hospital de Peregrinos at Calle Elvira); named after Granada's last Muslim ruler and awash in Moorish-motif tiles, it's located in the lower Albaicin. For simple but ample and good-quality platters for 950 ptas ($4.80) and a front-row seat to the action on Plaza Nueva, check out La Boqueria (Pl. Nueva 2). Farther up the hill, the very homey Cuevas del Albayzin (Placeta de San Gregorio at Caldereria Nueva), is a hangout for students and locals next to a sixteenth-century church; entrees with a side dish start at 650 ptas ($3.30) and a house specialty is roscas, bagel-like (but crustier) rolls ten inches in diameter and loaded up sandwich-style, from 425 ptas ($2.15). For real-deal Moorish ambience, at Arrayanes (Cuesta Maranas 4, just above Caldereria Nueva), Mustafa Bougrine from Casablanca serves up classic Moroccan fare (entrees from 400 ptas/$2) amid richly ornamented arches and banquettes. Finally, up near where the Albaicin becomes Sacromonte, a splurge at Mirador de Morayma (Calle Pianista Garcia Carillo 2) yields not just local treats such as fish-and-lamb stew for 1,400 ptas ($7), but the run of an exquisite seventeenth-century Granadine villa with a heartstopping view of the Alhambra.
Seville: Carmen, toros, & fragrant orange trees
Seville, Andalusia's capital (pop. 714,000), is one of the great cities of Europe - and was when Madrid was still a cow town - with more than enough to keep you hopping for at least a week: Europe's third largest cathedral (adults 800 ptas/$4, students/seniors 250 ptas/$1.25), with its climbable twelfth-century Giralda bell tower (formerly a mosque minaret); the Alcazar (700 ptas/$3.50, students free), a huge Muslim-Christian complex that echoes the Alhambra; the eighteenth-century Real Fabrica de Tabacos, the world's first tobacco factory (now part of the university; free) and setting for Bizet's opera Carmen; La Cartuja island in the Guadalquivir River, site of the 1992 Universal Exposition and a famous fifteenth-century monastery; the ornate 1929 Expo grounds; and Spain's oldest and most famous bullring, the Real Maestranza (season: Easter through October, tickets from about 1,500 ptas/$7.60). Then, of course, just wander the superb Barrio de Santa Cruz, the former Jewish quarter of cobblestone lanes and orange-tree-shaded plazas. Easter week and April's Feria de Abril are the high points of the year - when rates rocket up and room availability plummets. Even in normal times Seville's considered pricey by Andalusian standards - but read on, and save.
Of low-end nonhostel options, an excellent choice at 6,400 ptas ($33) per double from September to April (7,500 ptas/$38 at other times) is the 16-room Hostal Paris (Calle San Pedro Martir 14, 422-98-61, fax 421-96-45), not far north of the Maestranza bullring and near the Fine Arts Museum, with very fresh, whitewashed rooms including baths, A/C, TV, and phone. Right in the Barrio Santa Cruz, for 7,000 ptas ($36) per double, the Almagro-family-run Hostal Cordoba (Calle Farnesio 12, 421-53-35, firstname.lastname@example.org) has 12 immaculate rooms (amenities limited to bath and cable TV) set up around a classily simple jewel of an eighteenth-century courtyard. (One drawback of being family-run: a 3 a.m. curfew!) Close to the river, the Maestranza, and a ten-minute stroll to Santa Cruz, La R bida (Calle Castelar 24, 422-09-60, fax 422-43-75) is a gracious and distinguished old building with loads of antique touches-marble, paintings, tapestries, fountains, rich tilework, and carved wood-and 100 rooms that are slightly dated but fully decked out, amenities-wise. Doubles run 9,300 ptas ($48) November through February, 10,379 ptas ($50) the rest of the year (except Easter and Feria de Abril). Back in Santa Cruz, on the lovely little Plaza de los Venerables, is an atmospheric but slightly expensive eatery whose attached Hosteria del Laurel (422-02-95, fax 421-04-50, eintec.es/hostlaurel) is an inn-as charming yet modestly priced-that supposedly inspired the story of Don Juan back in 1844. Its 21 white-stucco rooms are clean, cheerful, modern, and well equipped; doubles run 8,025 ptas ($41) in January-February and July-August, 10,165 ptas ($52) in November-December, and 13,375 ptas ($68) otherwise.
Those yummy little tapas are quite the thing here, and good deals in countless bars and eateries; one of the more popular is the Cervecer¡a Giralda (Calle Mateos Gago 1), in the shadow of the cathedral, where under white vaulted ceilings or at outside tables locals chow down on a huge selection of tapas from 300 ptas ($1.55) apiece or their entree-size analogues from 1,200 ptas ($6.10). Nearby, Seville's single most atmospheric budget-priced don't-miss has to be the San Marco (Calle Meson del Moro 6/10, san-marco.net) in Santa Cruz, set amid the twelfth-century stone arches of an Arab bathhouse and tasteful "updated Moorish" decor; among the pizzas, pastas, and other Italian staples you'll find resurrected recipes of Al-Andalus such as lamb in honey sauce with scalloped potatoes (1,500 ptas/$7.60). Less dramatic but awash in country-flavored charm is El Rincon de Pepe (Calle Gloria 6, between Plazas Elvira and Los Venerables), where the four-course, 975-peseta ($5) formulas (set menus) are the way to go. At 850 ptas ($4.30), the set menus are also the star at Meson Serranito, a chain whose service is gruff but whose Calle Antonia Diaz 4 location is in total tune with the Maestranza bullring around the corner: full of stuffed bulls' heads and taurine tchotchkes. Finally, for a touch of something different, Hang Zhou (Calle Mateos Gago 5, next to Cerveceria Giralda) is a nicely decorated spot with a selection of pretty creditable-tasting 825-peseta ($4.20) Chinese f¢rmulas.
Andalusia's hottest partying apart from the Costa del Sol kicks off low-key, with a 600-peseta ($3) agua de Sevilla (champagne, pineapple juice, egg liqueur) at Cafe Bar Abades, a classy eighteenth-century covered courtyard in Santa Cruz (Calle Abades 13, sol.com/abades). Continue to the high-quality, twice-nightly flamenco at Los Gallos (Pl. de Santa Cruz 11, 421-69-81, tablaolosgallos.com; 3,500 ptas/$18, including one drink). Then head across the river to the Triana district, where along the riverfront Calle Betis sevillanos party in clubs like Div n, Alambique, Rejoneo, and El Descansillo. A top choice for young 'uns: Mo d'Aqui (No. 55), with 200-peseta ($1) beers, 600-peseta ($3) cocktails, and occasional live music; for a more mixed-age crowd, try Lo Nuestro (No. 31A), with just slightly higher prices.
Cordoba: Narrow cobbled lanes & a magical mosque
Usually relegated to a two-hour tour-bus stopover or a day trip from Seville - two hours west by road, 41 minutes/round-trip 4,500 ptas ($23) via AVE train - the most important city in Al-Andalus (home to legendary figures like Maimonides and Averroas) is one of my favorite spots in Spain, an undersung
UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Guadalquivir where folks are even friendlier than in Seville and the atmosphere even more magical. Now home to a little over 300,000 souls, Cordoba has a Juderia (old Jewish quarter) with a still-existing section of twelfth-century crenellated walls and a mini-universe of the Moorish, Jewish, and Christian Middle Ages-cobblestone lanes like Calleja del Pa¤uelo ("Hankie Lane," dubbed in honor of its width); courtyards (in early May, the Concurso de Patios Cordobeses judges the fairest of them all); and sumptuous little moments even better savored in the calm of the evening, when the day-trippers are gone. There are synagogues, fascinating museums, even Roman ruins - but the old town's crowning glory is the Mezquita (1,000 ptas/$5), an eighth-century mosque partly deformed into a cathedral by the kill-a-Muslim-for-Christ crowd, yet still preserving its fairy-tale interior-six acres of splendid striped arches and gorgeously adorned prayer corners. Five miles out of town is another showstopper: the grandiose three-acre Moorish palace complex of Medina Azahara (600 ptas/$3); more ruined than, say, the Alhambra, it's still an incredible stroll back into tenth-century Al-Andalus.
Open to all ages, the three-story, modernized Albergue Juvenil C¢rdoba (Plaza Jud Levi, 29-01-66, fax 29-05-00, inturjoven.com), in the Juder¡a several streets west of the Mezquita, is one of the most attractive hostels of Andalusia's larger cities, with immaculate whitewashed doubles from 2,541 ptas ($13) per person - 2,862 ptas ($15) from April through October - that are simple but clean, and bath- and A/C-equipped. Full meals start at 750 ptas ($3.80). For more in the way of amenities, check out the Bueno-family-run Hotel Los Patios (Calle Cardenal Herrero 14, 47-83-40, fax 48-69-66), opened in September 2000 right near the entrance to the Mezquita. Its 24 rooms sport not only satellite TV, A/C, phones, and private baths, but neat little details such as Mozarabic-style fixtures; doubles run 9,095 ptas ($46) in high season and 7,223 ptas ($37) in low. Or, a short stroll east of the great mosque, maximize your options at the nine-year-old Hostal Maestre (Calle Romero Barros 4/6, at Calle San Fernando, 47-24-10, fax 47-53-95), whose two rambling, homey, but spick-and-span town houses offer 24 plainish hostel rooms (double 5,000 ptas/$25); 26 slightly more elaborate, marble-tiled hotel rooms (6,000 ptas/$31 in low season, 7,000 ptas/$36 in high); and seven kitchen-equipped apartments (7,500 ptas/$39 for two people, 8,500 ptas/$44 for four). Throughout, you generally get TVs, air-conditioning, and private baths, but no phones. Overall, the Maestre's a sweet find-truly close to staying in a local's home.
For a down-home round of tapas (from 225 ptas/$1.15 or entree-size portions from 650 ptas/$3.35), start at the 144-year-old Taberna Séneca (Calle San Eulogio 4, behind the fascinating archeological museum), currently run by José and Salva, a young gay couple (yep, smack in conservative ol' Cordoba). Amid its battered white walls, ancient wood sherry barrels, old black-and-white photos of the city, and intensely local crowd, try local specialties like salmorejo cordobes (a delectable mix of bread crumbs, garlic, tomato, and olive oil, topped with hard-boiled egg slices and Serrano ham). At Los Patios, attached to the eponymous hotel, with seating in a plant-bedecked courtyard or inside under centuries-old arches, breakfast starts at 345 ptas ($1.75) with multicourse lunchtime or dinner menus, including drink and dessert, costing upwards of 1,275 ptas ($6.50). Even more atmospheric: the Meson de la Luna (Calleja de la Luna), a former cockfighting ring inside the old city walls, with menus from 1,600 ptas ($8.15), and the Meson Muralla right across "Moon Street" (menus 900 ptas/$4.60). East of the Mezquita, the rather more upscale Bodegas Campos (Calle de los Lineros 32) nonetheless offers reasonably priced tapas (775 ptas/$4) and a bargain lunchtime menu for 1,000 ptas ($5.15) weekdays and 1,500 ptas ($7.75) weekends; it might feature the house specialty, patatas guisadas, a savory potato stew. Finally, the Caballo Rojo (Calle Cardenal Herrero 28), across from the Mezquita, is considered another of the best eateries in town, with lots of local specialties - including resurrections from Moorish times - and a simpatico selection of entree choices under $10.
Info: The Spanish National Tourist Office has branches in Chicago (312/642-1992), Los Angeles (323/658-7188), Miami (305/358-1992), and New York (212/265-8822), which provide helpful advice and literature; visit online at okspain.org.
Other good Web sites devoted to the region: andalucia.org/enghomepage.jsp, andalucia.com/home.htm, and altur.com/eng. Individual city sites worth checking out include sevilla.org, sevilla5.com, http://granada.spain.trip tool.com, aboutgranada.com, and http://cordoba.travelnow-spain.com.
Packages: For an alternative to doing it on your own, consider the pack of possibilities - escorted and not, in all price ranges - from tour operators such as Abreu (800/223-1580, abreu-tours.com), Central Holidays (800/935-5000, centralholidays.com), Gate1 (800/682-3333, gate1travel.com), the Internet-only go-today.com, seniors-oriented Grand Circle Travel (800/248-3737, gct.com), and Petrabax (800/634-1188, petrabax.com). Also, from May through December, California-based Adventure Center (800/228-8747, adventurecenter.com) sells hiking itineraries (including most meals and all accommodations) through Andalusia; one week from $550, two from $690, land-only.
Notes: Dollar amounts based on exchange rate of 197 pesetas/1.18 euros to US$1; prices include 7 percent IVA tax. Phone codes for the numbers in this article: Granada 958, Seville 95, Cordoba 957; to call from U.S., first dial 011-34; from elsewhere in Spain, first dial 0.