From the 9th to the 15th Century successive waves of Islamic invaders built fabulous cities, palaces and mosques in Southern Spain while Northern Europe was struggling to get out of the Dark Ages. A week in Seville, Cordoba and Granada gives us a chance to visit many of the remaining monuments to this period and the 'reconquest' as Christianity returned albeit with a fusion of Arab and Western styles.
First impressions as we drive out of Malaga into the hills are of rolling countryside, big, dry fields, heat and white-walled hilltop villages. We break the trip to Seville in Rondo which several people had told us was a 'must see'. With just enough time to walk down to the gorge and around the old town we fight our way through crowds of tourists and gawp at the spectacular views.
Next stop Seville. After the rural landscapes we are surprised to find ourselves driving along a broad boulevarde with grand buildings on one side and the river Guadalquivir on the other. After checking into the Hotel Simon, a restored mansion very close to the cathedral, we start on what will be our approach to the three cities:
The first of the 'big sites' is Seville Cathedral - apparently the largest in Europe by volume, leading St Peters in Rome and St Pauls in London. We dodge the queue by hooking up with a local guide who has already found about 12 other English speakers to take round. The naves and chapels are spectacular and we wonder whether there are any actual remains in the tomb of Christopher Columbus (above right). 36 sloping ramps take you up the Giralda (bell tower) for fab views of the city.
Top tip: book your entry online to the big sites (Seville Cathedral and Alcazar, Mesquita in Cordoba and Alhambra) at least 6 weeks before you go. This will avoid long queues and disappointment as the Alhambra in particular is almost impossible to get tickets on the day.
While the cathedral is awesome, the Alcazar (fort and palace) is spectacularly beautiful. The interior decoration is stunning and the stone carving equally impressive. We learn how later Muslim decoration used plaster/stucco which was carved instead of the stone creating similar effect without quite so much work! The Alcazar gardens are also very fine.
Of the smaller sites, the Casa de Salinas was a real treasure. Also great were the narrow streets, particularly around Barrio Santa Cruz and the parks - including the extraordinary Plaza de Espana. We enjoyed some great tapas bars - Casa Morales and Los Teresas as well as decent Spanish home cooking.
Next on to Cordoba - capital of the Arab kingdom of Al Andalus for about 200 years and site of the famous Mezquita (mosque cathedral) and Roman bridge. In fact we do a detour to see the excavations at Medina Al-Zahra on the way. Not a great deal to see but interesting museum. Our hotel in Cordoba, the Casas de la Juderia, is also a great deal smarter than Seville.
The Mezquita is one of the most stunning buildings I have ever seen. Expanded 3 times it is a huge airy space with pillars salvaged from previous Roman and Visigoth buildings. In the middle was built a rather gaudy catholic cathedral in the 1500s (below right) when it was taken over by the catholics. Carlos V was later said to have regretted given permission when he saw how it had changed the building.
Other highlights of Cordoba included the narrow streets in the Jewish quarter, some finely restored Arab houses, an early morning visit to the Alcazar (fort/palace and not fancy like Seville) and a very fine modern Spanish meal at Regardera - a great change from heavy local food.
Last stop is Grenada where we have come to visit the Alhambra. We can't get tickets until day 3 so we spend our first evening exploring the public areas of the Alhambra and day two across the river in Albaicin (below left). The first Emirs in Granada built their palace and fort on top of the Abaicin hill where churches and mosques now stand and it was only in 1238 when Mohommed I (Ibn Al-Ahmar) founded the Nasrid dynasty that the construction of the Alhambra started on the hills opposite. His most impressive feat was diverting the Rio Darro six km away to provide the waterways for the medina's many fountains, pools and baths. In Albaicin we find some lovely houses and gardens including the Casa El Chapiz and the Palacio dar al-Horra. Lots more steep narrow streets (some v touristy) with slippery pebbled surfaces, an interesting cavaranserai (below right) and spectacular royal chapel (Capilla Real) where the first Catholic rulers, Isabel and Ferdinand are buried as well as their daughter Juana and her husband Felipe.
Next day we meet our guide, Jackie outside the Alhambra entrance and pick up our tickets - gold dust! There are three main areas to the complex, the Generalife gardens and summer palace, the Alcazaba and the Palacios Nazaries. We are too early for the strictly controlled entry to the main palaces so we start in the lovely Generalife gardens after Jackie has explained the amazing irrigation systems. The gardens are largely 20thC, having been vegetable and fruit gardens in Nasrid times. However they are very pretty and give great views over to the main complex.
The Alkazaba (a fort rather than the 'alkazar=palace') is substantial and impressive although of limited beauty. The walls overlooking Albaicin are vertiginous however. The entrance to the Nazrid palaces is tucked away rather discretely behind the massive palace that Charles V built in the 16th C. From the first reception chamber onwards we enjoy rooms and courtyards with beautiful stucco walls and cornices and lovely geometric tiles. Jackie took pains to point out to us the quiet flowing water, symetry of design and the historical context in which it was all designed and built.
Our Granada experience was completed by some great food and wine. We particularly liked the Restaurant Carmen de San Miguel with fab food on a terrace looking down over the city. Damasqueros with an interesting tasting menu and the Parador de San Francisco terrace restaurant in the Alhambra grounds were also good.
A great introduction to Southern Spain. October is peak season, along with April/May and September so expect crowds (and lots of oriental visitors with selfie sticks). The weather was great, people friendly and food and drink good value. Just remember to book the sites early! Click here or on the Alhambra below for a photo gallery.