Andalucia is the largest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and it’s the one which evokes the most powerful images of a country famed for its flamenco, fiestas, bullfighting and raw passion.
It’s a land which has both spawned and inspired great writers, poets, actors and painters. Andalucia gave birth to Pablo Picasso and the 17th century royal painter Velasquez and it held an enduring fascination for novelists Ernest Hemingway and Laurie Lee. It’s the setting for the most performed and famous opera of all time, Bizet’s Carmen. And it’s a unique place where east meets west in an exotic melting pot of Jewish, gypsy, Moorish and Christian cultures.
After the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century the region became the mighty kingdom of El Andalus and the capital of Cordoba was transformed into a centre of unimaginable wealth, sophistication, culture and learning unrivalled anywhere in either the western or Islamic eastern worlds.
According to Islamic legend, the people of El Andalus asked Allah for five favours – clear blue skies, seas full of fish, trees laden with every kind of fruit, beautiful women and a fair system of government. Allah granted them everything except the last favour on the basis that if all five gifts were bestowed, the kingdom would become an unearthly paradise.
And Andalucia is just about as close to paradise as it’s possible to get. It’s a region blessed with achingly beautiful countryside, majestic mountains and a 900 kilometre coastline which has made it one of the world’s favourite holiday destinations.
Whether you’re into inflatable banana boats and all night laser discos or magnificent Moorish architecture and medieval villages seemingly frozen in time, Andalucia has an irresistible allure.
The vast majority of holidaymakers head for the famous costas – the Costa de la Luz, Costa del Sol, Costa Tropical and Costa Almeria – which offer everything from glitz, over the top glamour and thriving gay scenes to action-packed family entertainment centres.
While the costas attract hordes of package holidaymakers and a sizeable sprinkling of pop stars, Hollywood movie idols and billionaire yachties, a different breed of tourist is drawn to inland Andalucia. Away from the beachfront there’s another world of picture-postcard “white villages” with meandering, cobbled streets and a slow pace of life which seems hardly to have changed for centuries. It’s a world of gorgeous green, rolling hillsides peppered with traditional farmsteads and watched over by the beady eyes of magnificent Spanish imperial eagles.
And it’s a world where some of Spain’s most fascinating cities – Seville, Cordoba, Cadiz and Granada – transport visitors back in time to seven centuries of Moorish domination and the glorious era of the Spanish empire.
Andalucia’s historic highlights include the fabulous Arab “mezquita” of Cordoba – the world’s third largest mosque built at a time when this was the most opulent city on the planet – and Granada’s famous Alhambra Palace which stands today as one of the most impressive architectural feats of all time.
To the north east of Granada lies Europe’s only desert, the location for many of Hollywood’s Spaghetti westerns, and several troglodyte villages where 21st century cave dwellers live in hobbit-like homes burrowed out of soft rock. The Sierra Nevada mountain range, south east of Granada, is home to Europe’s most southerly ski resort.
On the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada you’ll find one of the most dramatically beautiful areas of mainland Spain – the Alpujarras, which were the last stronghold of the Moorish invaders before they were expulsed by the Catholic monarchs at the end of the 15 th century.