Andalusia: Spain’s Diamond Mine of Rich History and Dazzling Visuals
Posted Sunday, May 27, 2012 6:04 PM
Basking in a wealth of sunshine and cultural treasures, Spain’s southern Andalusia region is a diamond mine of visuals and experiences for travelers and residents alike. From the area’s colorful regional capital, Seville (Sevilla), to the more diminutive, yet no-less historic cities of Córdoba and Granada, visitors can absorb a rich history that braids together both Arabic and Roman influences with the vestiges of one of the greatest kingdoms that world has ever seen – the Spanish Empire.
Late April is a fortunate time to travel to this part of Spain as temperatures have not yet climbed into the uncomfortable zone, and flocks of tourists haven’t massed here for the summer vacation months. However, it is still a vibrant time because Seville hosts “La Feria de Abril” (the April Fair) – a kaleidoscope of flamenco and festivities that draws many locals – towards the end of the month. It is, however, important to note that since “La Feria” happens two weeks after the city’s annual Easter celebration, the timing of the festival can fluctuate depending on where the Easter holiday falls on the calendar.
When attending “La Feria”, you can expect droves of women in flamboyant flamenco dresses from every color in the spectrum, and men dressed as caballeros (Spanish for ‘gentleman’) with their bolero hats and horse-drawn carriages. The fairgrounds of the event feature consecutive rows of candy-striped casetas (‘little houses’), which are constructed specifically for this event. Most are privately owned and operated, so casual visitors to the fair may not get a chance to dine or drink in many of the casetas. However, several are also open to the public. A peek inside these establishments reveals a heavily decorated space for celebration that offers a warm welcome to visitors.
If the hot Spanish sun or the crowds at the fair leave you overheated and longing for a different brand of Sevillan escape, the city hosts a number of spectacular historical sights -- one of the most impressive of which is the Plaza de España, a crescent-moon-shaped public square originally built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition World's Fair. Tucked behind the Parque de María Luisa, Seville’s enormous, centralized park, the plaza features fountains, lily-clad ponds, and highly detailed alcoves, each showcasing a different province in Spain and often doing so with amazing textures and color schemes. The plaza is a popular spot for people-watching, photography, and local fortune-tellers who convince tourists to splurge on a quick palm reading.
Among the most popular historical sites in Seville is the Alcázar, a Moorish citadel initially built by the Almohad dynasty of Morocco. The structure later fell back into Spanish hands when the Christians from the north reclaimed the city and modified the building with their own styles. A heavy scent of “Arabian Nights” is still present in the internal architecture mixed with a distinct Baroque feel – a visual blending of North Africa and Europe. The Courtyard of Maidens, with its sun-bleached columns and reflective pool, provides a peaceful sanctuary for visitors inside the walls of the palace. The Ambassador’s Hall is a vision of beauty with its overhead dome of intricate, gilded woodwork that could easily compete with modern film CGI for its dazzling brilliance.
In close proximity to the Alcázar is the Cathedral of Seville (also known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Sea), which is well known as the largest Gothic-style church in the world. Rising like a carved mammoth of impenetrable rock, the colossal cathedral was built on the site of an ancient mosque. However, you can still see traces of the former occupant in the bell tower of the church: La Giralda Tower, which stands as a companion next to the Cathedral, is the old minaret where Muslims in the days of Old Seville would climb to perform the call to prayer. Today, the tower houses the church bell, as well as some of the best aerial views of the entire city. Inside the church itself, vaulted ceilings and stained glass hang at huge distances above the ground floor, giving you the impression that the entire place could hold the ocean. Ironically, this church is also the burial site of the famous explorer, Christopher Columbus.
Seville is also home to a number of wonderful tapas bars such as El Rinconcillo (the oldest bar in Seville) or the more location-friendly Vineria San Telmo. Jamón serrano is one item which is quite popular in all parts of Spain, not just Andalusia. It consists of dry, cured ham shaved to near paper-thin proportions and often cut directly from a smoked pig leg. Paella is another favorite dish.
Within the orbit of Seville, you can also find other pockets of history and character. The smaller city of Córdoba is a mere 45-minute ride by bullet train from the Andalusian capital. A smaller, more walkable city, Córdoba is best known for the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or the Mezquita-Catedral), another Muslim holy place which was converted to a Christian church during the Spanish Reconquista movement. This structure leaves a large portion of the mosque intact, including its famous jasper-orange striped archways, which stand like silent monks in the Prayer Hall. Gold-and-blue-painted domes honoring past Muslim caliphs and a gigantic Gothic altar in the Christian section showcase – side by side – the beauty of both styles of religious artwork.
Córdoba also has a popular Jewish Quarter (just outside the Great Mosque), where you can shop for any number of goods and curiosities in its winding alleyway-like streets.
For additional adventures, visitors can also depart from Seville or Córdoba and head south toward the azure waters of the Mediterranean. The popular resort town of Malaga stands on the southern shore of Andalusia facing the African continent. Nearby is the famous Rock of Gibraltar which is actually British territory. (You must first pass through British customs to set foot on this legendary outcropping of stone.)
Another rewarding jaunt from Seville is in the east toward the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. Nestled in the foothills of these majestic peaks – and just outside the city of Granada - is the Alhambra, a massive fortress built by the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim family to rule in Spain. As with much of the old architecture of Spain, the Alhambra features a fusion of Islamic-based art recalling North Africa and Old World Spanish styles, which are predominantly Christian in nature. With a proper tour guide, visitors can walk through splendid hallways and domed sanctuaries where sultans once entertained guests – or in the case of the famed Lion’s Court – had their unfaithful subjects beheaded.
In other parts of the palace, one might see intricate Arabic script carved like creeping vines along the wall, aqua-colored tiles depicting stars and ocean waves, or ceilings cut like jagged, ivory teeth. Learning the history of the Alhambra paints more personality into the surroundings one encounters there.
The Generalife Gardens and summer palace, which feature at the far end of the Alhambra complex, give you an idea of how the sultans spent their leisure time. Overgrown wisteria on the roofs of the garden hang like ghostly drapes, and long reflective pools are guarded on all sides by fragrant flower beds. All the while, the summer palace looks off on to the old town of Granada resting on the slopes below.
Any one of Andalusia’s communities can offer travelers a wide array of opportunities - from culinary delights to breath-taking monuments – that will transport you back through time itself. These Spanish cities are the jewels of a geographic crown that lent their fiery inspiration to tales of Don Quixote and the poetry of Federico García Lorca. One pass through its rugged landscape dotted with groves of olive and orange trees, and you can see how the energy of this region could so easily fire the imagination.
Snapper S. Ploen is a contributing writer and photographer at Highbrow Magazine. He recently visited Andalusia. All photos in the slideshow below and the above photos were taken by Ploen during his visit to Spain.
Photo on the main page by Larry Myhre (Creative Commons/Flicker).