Text & Photos by Helena Zukowski
Over dinner recently, I asked a few friends what they knew about Spain: “It’s cheap,” said one. “It’s poor,” said another. They all agreed Spaniards were addicted to siestas and bullfights. Eyebrows arched up when I mentioned that today’s Spain, is undergoing a “renaissance of life” and is now one of the fastest growing countries economically in the European Union.
But what about the other stereotypes? The endless sun, sea and sand? The Moorish architecture? Fiestas? Olive oil? Flamenco? Thankfully these are all still here and there’s is no better place to find them than Andalucia. Here are my top 10 Andalucia attractions:
Helena Zukowski1. The Alhambra in Moorish Granada. For seven centuries, the palace has perched on a hill overlooking Granada surrounded by the 13th-century Generalife gardens with their pools, oriental showpieces and water staircases.
Other special moments in Granada include: walking the labyrinthine crooked streets of Albaicin; the old Arab quarter where you can find a Moorish bathhouse; and the surrounding gypsy caves of Sacromonte. There is also the view from the Mirador de San Nicolas at sunset looking over to the Alhambra as it turns flaming red and then beyond to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
2. La Mezquita, the Great Mosque of Cordoba.Walk into the mosque and you are struck by its 850 columns of jasper, granite, onyx and marble supporting the roof, a
dazzling visual delight in all its red-and-white zebra-striped glory.
The entire white-washed city is actually filled with historic treasures – palaces from all ages, museums and archaeological gems. The Puente Romano for example is a massive arched bridge that sits on Roman foundations and in Juderia, you’ll find Andalucia’s only medieval synagogue, built in 1315. The narrow alleyways date back to the time of the Roman Empire. Two museums are musts: the Museo Arqueologico is one of the region’s best; and the Museo Taurino, dedicated to the bullfight.
3. Come to the Fair. The Feria del Caballo in Jerez de la Frontera in May, which is a spectacular equestrian event that’s considered one of Europe’s major festivals. Riders take part in several days of endurance trials, coach driving and dressage and then promenade through Gonzalez Hontoria Park where tents are set up so visitors can dine, drink and listen to music as they watch people stroll by. Riders in classical dress based on 18th-century designs parade through the dusty streets of town and a carnival-like atmosphere prevails.
4. Seville Cathedral. Seville Cathedral is both the largest Gothic structure and one of the largest Christian churches in the world. The church is filled with great works from artists like Goya and Murillo as well as a stained-glass window from the 15th century. Inside the cathedral, there’s a monumental tomb that (Spaniards insist) holds the bones of Christopher Columbus.
Helena ZukowskiAs the capital of Andalucia, Seville has the province’s largest concentration of beautiful monuments but that’s just a teaser. The city is also legendary for its many flamenco night spots and it has tapas bars beyond count. The bullfights held here are among the best in Spain, the Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations are mesmerizing and you can dance your feet off at fiestas like the Feria de Abril.
5. Flamenco. Seville is also the capital of flamenco. Flamenco wafted in and out of fashion for years but had a great revival in the 1980s and ‘90s. Walk through the old quarter, Barrio de Santa Cruz with its narrow cobblestone streets, and it echoes at night with the rhythmic sounds of hand-clapping, flamenco guitar, castanets, and high heels (most often red) stamping against hardwood floors.
6. Olive Oil. Olive oil here is treated with the same dignity and respect wine growers shower upon their vines. In Baena, near Granada, I toured one of the oldest and best olive oil bodegas in the region, the Nunez de Prado, where extra-virgin olive oil has been produced since 1795 in a totally traditional way.
Helena Zukowski7. The Flying Horses of Jerez. At the Royal Andalucian Equestrian school, I watched one of Europe’s most unusual and beautiful ballets – a jaw-dropping performance not by prima ballerinas but by wondrous dancing beasts. To a score of classic Spanish music, horses sidestepped, pirouetted, pranced and hopped across an arena on their hind legs alone.
But Jerez turned out to be more of a highlight than just flying horses. The city sprawls over a low rise in hilly countryside and has a number of claims to fame besides being Andalulcia’s horse capital. Jerez is home to a large Gitano (Roma or gypsy) community so the flamenco here is as good as it gets (check out La Taberna Flamenca for its flamboyant shows and La Buleria.)
8. Sherry. In addition to horses and flamenco, Jerez is world famous for sherry that is produced from grapes grown on the chalky rolling hills rising from the town. For anyone keen on plunging into the mysteries of sherry production, many of the bodegas welcome visitors to join tours with English-speaking guides. The aromas are heady and the tours, especially at such fine bodegas as Pedro Domecq, informative with generous tastings at the end.
9. The Costa del Sol. For travellers to Spain, Andalucia is sometimes overlooked because it’s mistakenly equated with the notorious Costa del Sol, a cheek-by-jowl strip of development that has been dubbed both paradise and hell. The reality is that the concrete resorts of the Costa del Sol coast – Torremolinos, Marbella, Estepona – are only a small slice of what the area has to offer. The beaches are wide, sandy, warm and beautiful, every imaginable water sport is here and there’s a riotous international nightlife.
10. Best buys. It’s said that Spain’s best guitar players come from Malaga, capitol of the Costa del Sol, where you can sip Andalucian wine to the melancholy sounds of flamenco guitar. The best place to buy a guitar however is Granada where the city and the art of guitar-making have always been intertwined. At the bodegas in Jerez, sherry is a great buy and even more so sherry vinegar. Leather fashion accessories are a good buy as is high-quality Seville porcelain.
For more information on Spain, visit the Tourist Office of Spain at www.tourspain.toronto.on.ca.