Andalucía is a country in itself. It has a unique personality, product of a history of diverse influences, and a climate and geography that also sets it apart. Linguistically too, its inhabitants are famously difficult to understand, so truncated is their pronunciation. Yet it is also home to so many of the characteristics that have loudly been heralded as the face of Spain. The rituals of the bull fight are said to originate from a village in the mountains that rise from the South Coast, and Andalucía is the spiritual home of Flamenco. The modern phenomenon that had such an effect on the country, package tourism, is also well catered for in the resorts along the miles and miles of coastline.
There are countless monuments that witness the region’s glorious and varied past. The Romans were very comfortable here, as can be seen at a number of archeological sites, most notably Italica just outside Sevilla. Sevilla and Cadiz also bear the trappings of the trade with the New World after the discovery of the Americas and the establishment of the Empire. But as the name implies, Andalucía is the offspring of Moorish Al-Andalus, and it is the remaining Moorish architecture in Sevilla, Cordoba, and particularly Granada that really catches the eye.
Much like the story of the divinely assisted Christian reconquest, The story of the Moors in Spain is one that seems difficult to tell without recourse to embellished legend . A popular story about the motivation for their initial invasion tells how the Visigoth King Roderic lusted after a young maiden he saw bathing in the river, and was driven by desire to ravish her. Her father, a powerful count in charge of an outpost in North Africa, resolved upon revenge and convinced the local Moorish chief to invade the peninsula.
An alternative tale tells of an ancient king depositing a secret in a tower, and instructing that each of his successors should add a lock to the door securing the entrance. Twenty-six kings came and went, and twenty-six locks were secured, until Roderic wrenched the door asunder to get at the secret inside. He found the walls painted with Arab horsemen, and a parchment declaring: “Whenever this chamber is violated…the people painted on these walls will invade Spain, overthrow its kings, and subdue the land.”
Whatever the motivation, in the year 711, an army of no more than a few thousand men landed, and swiftly defeated an army led by the aforementioned Roderic. They promptly swept north to Cordoba, and the capital Toledo, taking almost the whole of the peninsula within ten years. Al-Andalus originally became a part of the Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus, until an independent Al-Andalus was declared in 756.
Their rule was not always a stable one. There were plenty of internal power struggles and conflicts, as they lost territory to the new northern Christian Kingdoms. But in the tenth century the Caliphate of Cordoba was declared, and this period is seen as the golden period of Islamic rule. It saw a booming economy fueled by agriculture and manufacturing, an expansion and decoration of cities, and a cultural flowering with the development of art, music, academia, fashion, and literature. There are stories of Cordoba at this time speaking of a city of lit streets, fed by a comprehensive water network, with up to 900 bath houses,700 mosques, one of the earliest universities, and a library containing hundreds of thousands of books. A few kilometers outside of town lie the ruins of the tenth century Madinat al-Zahra palace city, supposedly staffed by 400 eunuchs, and containing a harem of 6000 women. It was said to feature a room in which a bowl of mercury was placed to reflect the light around the interior, bedazzling guests.
From such a position of power the Caliphate suffered a rapid fall from grace. Amid power struggles Al-Andalus splintered into a number of mini-states, known as taifas, and despite the intervention of hardline sects from North Africa the Christian Kingdoms had taken over most of the peninsula by 1248. Only Granada held out, remaining under Muslim rule until 1492.
The Muslim heritage is to be found throughout the region, but the Great Mosque (now Cathedral) in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada are the most awe-inspiring remains. The iconic white-washed mountain villages to where so many of the Muslim population fled to escape persecution after the reconquista (reconquest) are also touched by their time.
The rest of Andalucia has attractions far too numerous to describe here, but top of our list would be Sevilla, where the vibrancy of the city is worth the visit alone. Fortunately there is much more, including the magnificent Alcazar, whose Arabic style decorations were surprisingly modeled after the fall of the Moors. The Cathedral was built on the site of the old mosque, and conceived with the memorable words: “Let’s build a cathedral so vast and grandiose that those who see it will take us for mad.”
Cordoba, too, stands out on the strength of the Great Mosque converted to Cathedral with its unforgettable striped double arches. Granada is another Spanish city with a unique character. Highlights away from the city include the “route of the white villages,” which passes through the mountains to the northwest of Malaga and allows you to see these picturesque hamlets both up close and from afar. An alternative is a tour through the the similarly white villages of the Alpujarras on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. This area of orchards, full of the scent of almonds blossom in the spring, has been made famous in books such as “Driving over Lemons,” by rock band Genesis founder member Chris Stewart. The rural idyll is also popular as a refuge for foreigners looking to escape from the grind of modern society.
Another site, though not of huge international renown, is a unique protected park on the southeast tip of the peninsula. A Natural Park and a UNESCO biosphere reserve known as Cabo de Gata, it is an undulating parched land of jagged crests of volcanic rock with a spectacular undeveloped coast of coral reefs and marine life, and some of the last virgin beaches left in the country. The scenery is the Wild-West, almost literally so, as the park and surroundings has served as the setting for many films, including some classic spaghetti westerns such as as A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and For a Few Dollars More. These sets have been preserved as attraction parks, and can be visited to view daily Wild West shoot ‘em ups.