14 June 2017 by Josephine Cox
Andalucia in southernmost Spain is sun-baked and sultry, offering hedonistic and cultural pleasures in equal measure. Where else could you ski and swim on the same day? Then there's fairytale immersion at Alhambra's fortress, a mix of Moorish and Catholic splendour, and Seville with its squares filled with orange blossom and streets lined with history and legendary fiestas it all adds up to make for one of Europe's most absorbing regions.
Andalucia carries the legacy of layers of occupation over the centuries, and is indelibly stamped with a mixed Moorish and Catholic influence, as encapsulated in the Mezquita, Cordoba's old mosque with a cathedral built right at the heart of it.
Cordoba's Mosque, Cathedral and Roman Bridge
The Moors made Cordoba the capital of al-Andalus. And in the tenth century, Cordoba was considered to be one of the great cities of the world for its culture and its amazing architecture. Although Cordoba has seen many twists and turns of fortune since then, the architecture casts its spell still and there's culture enough to satisfy even the most avid academic.
The main draw is the Mezquita, an extraordinary combination of mosque and cathedral. First a mosque, founded in 785, all arches and intricacy, the building then had a rather remarkable cathedral placed right in the middle of it in the 16th century.
Cordoba is also the only city in Andalusia that has a surviving medieval synagogue, located in the picturesque Juderia, the old Jewish quarter to the north of the Mezquita. This maze of medieval lanes is full of distinctive whitewashed buildings with flower-filled window boxes. Alongside the myriad historical treasures, Cordoba offers much modern fun in the way of its numerous notable restaurants, busy bars and vibrant nightlife.
Arabic fortress of Alhambra
The Moorish extravaganza that is the Alhambra dominates the skyline of Granada. Sprawling along a hilltop overlooking the city, this fortress and palace is a constant presence, visible from many of Granada's streets and squares, enticing travellers to wind their way up the slopes and enter its walls.
A stay in Granada would be incomplete without at least a few hours at this World Heritage Site. Or even a couple of days, there's so much to marvel at. The Palacios Nazaries - the palaces built by the Nasrid dynasty - are stunning, airy and elegant, all arches and arabesques. The glorious gardens with their playing fountains add to the romance, and the grand Renaissance palace of Charles V provides a dramatic contrast.
And if all that wasn't enough, the views from the Alhambra are pretty impressive too, all of Granada laid out below, and in the distance, the snowy ridges of the Sierra Nevada. The Alhambra is reason enough to visit Granada, but there's much more to this Andalucian city. The Albayzin, the old Muslim quarter is an atmospheric place to wander about in, with cobblestone streets, wonderful carmines - mansions with traditional walled gardens - and teashops to pause in.
Then there's the vast and imposing Gothic Cathedral, a riot of renaissance detail to crick necks in. Soothe away the aches afterwards at the Hammams de Al-Andalus, traditional Moorish baths set in splendid surroundings.
There are just as many options to finish the day. Find authentic flamenco in the Albayzin, or join the locals having fun at one of the many restaurants or bars - Granada is one city where some bars still stick to the old tradition of free tapas with your drinks.
Seville's skyline at dusk
The scent of orange blossom pervades every plaza in Seville and contributes to the generally heady feeling of life in the Andalusian capital. Seville is all about enjoyment - seen at its most intense during the Feria Festival in April and during Semana Santa leading up to Easter.
But this devotion to enjoyment is a year-round affair, most evident in the evenings, as stylish locals come out for strolls or to sit at cafes or stand in bars chatting over beer and tapas.
The days are delightful too, with so much romantic architecture to admire, so many winding medieval lanes to explore. Seville's myriad cultural influences can be seen in its stones - there are Roman, Islamic, Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance traces to be found all over the city. It's not unusual to see combinations of these styles in a single building, for instance in the Cathedral of St Mary, which, like the Alcazar facing it, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The cultural combination can also be seen in flamenco, part-art, part-tradition, all flounces and fun, a blend of gypsy music and Moorish rhythm and Spanish guitars, a living dancing embodiment of the myriad influences that have shaped this part of Spain over the centuries.
Aerial view of Malaga and its gladiatorial theatre
Malaga is said to have more museums than any other city in Andalucia. And ever since the opening of a major museum dedicated to Malaga-born Picasso, this lively port city has been enjoying something of a cultural renaissance, but it has long had much to offer.
The town beach is attractive, sandy and long, dotted with beach bars serving ‘traditional espeto' sardines cooked outdoors - delicious. Back in town, there are Moorish tearooms to linger in and numerous tapas bars to compare and contrast - some are the finest to be found in Andalucia.
Marbella's old town
Andalucia's answer to St Tropez, Marbella is by far the most glitzy seaside town in Spain. This part of the Costa del Sol has long been a golfing and yachting playground for celebrities and the super-rich. There are luxury hotels lining the coast, and at buzzy Puerto Banus, any number of designer shops and boutiques to browse in.
Puerto Banus is the place to take a seat at an al fresco bar to watch the jostling of mega-yachts in the harbour, with views of the open ocean beyond, against a mountain backdrop.
Once the sun goes down this part of town reverberates with energy and enthusiasm - with its numerous bars, restaurants and nightclubs. There are plenty of more gentle pleasures to be had in Marbella. Its old centre can be as beguiling as any in Andalucia, particularly around La Plaza de los Naranjos, or Orange Square, full of lush and tropical greenery, and surrounded by old streets and an atmosphere more small village than big city.
Then there are all the pleasures of beach life, including a promenade along the Avenida del Mar while planning which of the many beaches to settle down on for a spot of sunbathing.
A corner of coastline at the eastern end of town - the Dunas de Artola - has been preserved as a Natural Monument, wild and lovely with sea daffodils and sea thistles. And the mountains behind Marbella can be enchanting too, with golden eagles and falcons hovering above pine, chestnut and cherry trees sheltering deer, genet cats, badgers and rabbits.