Andalucía, with its 54,000 square miles of territory, has often been described as the bridging point between Africa and Europe, as well as the place where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. Certainly, there can be few places in the world where, in just one region, you can encounter so much diversity. Here, you can find Spain’s highest mainland mountain, 500 miles of coastline, semi-deserts, fertile marshlands, huge forests and some of the most spectacular cities in the world.
Over half of the Andalucian landscape is mountainous – there are 46 peaks above 1,000m – basically running in two east-west chains. In the northern chain, the Sierra Morena, the land features gentle, rolling hills, mostly covered with forest or pastureland. Driving here will bring you close to some fine cork, chestnut, carob, oak and ash trees. The southern chain of mountains, the Cordillera Bética, extends all the way from the Sierra de Grazalema – with limestone cliffs, white villages, plentiful wildlife and Andalucía’s first National Park – through to the mighty Sierra Nevada – where Spain’s highest mainland mountain, Mulhacén, stands at 3481m.
In between the two mountain ranges is the huge fertile valley of the River Guadalquivir, rich in agriculture and reaching the sea near the sherry producing vineyards around Jerez de la Frontera and the marshlands of the Coto de Doñana in the westernmost part of the region. The easternmost province of Almería has enormous expanses of semi-desert. So, in one autonomous community, you have Spain’s wettest area – Grazalema – and its driest – Almería.
The coastline can be regarded as equally varied. From the breezy, dune-flanked expanses of the beaches from Huelva to Tarifa, to the sandy but often crowded ones of the Costa del Sol and the more rugged volcanic coast of the area around Almería, the coastal medley is quite staggering.
A Brief History of Andalucia
Because of its geographical situation, Andalucía has always been an important part of Europe. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans – who called the area Baetica – shaped much of the historical background. It was during Roman rule that the area became Christian but, after this finished, the Vandals and Visigoths held control until, in 711, the Moors and Berbers invaded and made Andalucía their own. It was at this time that Granada and Córdoba became Spain’s most important cities.
The year 1492 was, in so many ways, pivotal to the history of not only Andalucía but also to the whole of Spain. It was in that year that the city of Granada finally became Christian again. But it was also the year in which Christopher Columbus left Huelva on his journeys to the New World. Because of the successes he instigated, Seville became the dominant city – the Guadalquivir was easily navigable and the riches were taken straight there.
As the Spanish monopoly on the Americas began to decline, so did the fortunes of Seville and the rest of the region. The war of the Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Invasion, the Armada and the Battle of Trafalgar all hit the area hard and by the end of the nineteenth century, the economic and social conditions were bleak, leading to the area being well-known for anarchist groups and revolts by the poor. The Spanish Civil War was perhaps at its most bitter in Andalucía, with the area being divided along class lines – some divisions which are still to be found in contemporary Andalucía – and after the war there was mass migration from the area, especially by the young. It was the drive towards tourism in the 1960s that began Andalucía’s economic recovery and in 1982 it became an autonomous community, with eight separate provinces – Huelva, Seville, Cádiz, Córdoba, Málaga, Jaén, Granada and Almería.
Getting to Andalucia
Malaga international airport is the gateway to Andalucia with over 12 million passengers passing through its terminals in 2012. Whilst there are also airports in Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Granada, Gibraltar and Almería they account for less than 15% of international arrivals to the region. Malaga airport is the 4th busiest in Spain and is the first one to look at when booking flights.
There are amazingly more than 15,000 miles of motorway in the region which are generally in excellent condition and connect all the major cities and link with Madrid and the rest of the Mediterranean coast. The Spanish road system connects seamlessly with the French system for international drivers. Motorists should be aware that some of the motorways in Spain are toll roads.
You can travel to Spain from other European countries on high-speed trains from Paris, Milan and Zurich to Barcelona. Once in Spain the high speed AVE train links Barcelona with Madrid and Madrid with Córdoba, Malaga and Seville – with an extension from Seville to Cádiz under construction (completion not expected before 2015). Travelling on the AVE is a fabulous experience and is very popular with both locals and visitors. You get the best AVE rates by making advance bookings up to 62 days before your date of travel.
In addition to these high speed services all the major towns in Andalucia are well connected by rail and there are some delightful regional railway lines that can take you through some spectacular parts of the region – for example, the line from Algeciras to Bobadilla which passes through Ronda. Booking a private tour of Andalucia with an English speaking driver and official tour guides is perhaps the best way to see this mystical land.
When to Visit Andalucia
Although Andalucía can generally be said to have a typical Mediterranean coastal climate it is hardly surprising that, in a region of such geographical diversity, there are some significant differences in climate between various locations. Summers are invariably hot and dry, with temperatures often in the 30s or even higher inland. Winters tend to be mild with some rainfall though the unpredictability of recent years makes it difficult to describe what to expect at any particular time.
However, bear in mind that around Grazalema the rainfall is significantly higher than elsewhere and that in Granada you can see snow on the mountains even in August. An incredible novelty in the province of Granada is that during the winter you can ski in the Sierra Nevada in the morning and then drive down to the Costa Tropical for an afternoon swim!
The famous Levante wind, especially during Spring and Autumn, brings delight to wind surfers in the Tarifa area but can be quite distracting for people wanting a quiet day on the beach.
In terms of visiting the great cities of the interior it’s often a good idea to avoid the peak summer months as temperatures can become unbearable for sightseeing. The spring and autumn months of May and September are usually idyllic for such visits.
As far as “fiesta tourism” is concerned Andalucía can ‘out party’ just about anywhere else in Spain. There is not a week goes by in which there is not a festival somewhere as there are over 3,000 each year throughout the region. Seville is most famous for its Semana Santa celebrations at Easter and the Feria de Abril but, throughout Andalucía, just about every town and village has something special at this time of the year, including bull runs on Easter Sunday at places like Arcos de la Frontera.
The annual carnival at Cádiz is generally thought to be the most colourful of its kind in Spain whilst Córdoba in May is home to the ‘Battle of the Flowers’ and their Patio Contests, in which you can roam around private courtyards normally not open to the public, as well as the highly decorative May Crosses, which can also be found in other parts of the region.
Jerez has two notable festivals – the one dedicated to sherry in September and the impressive Horse fair at the end of April, when the world famous animals can be seen in all their pomp and splendour. In August, the Málaga Fair is a glorious ten days of celebration of the re-conquest of the city by Isabella and Ferdinand – it’s just one long street party.
Where to Visit in Andalucia
Cities of Andalucia
The main cities all have enough historical, cultural, sporting and entertainment available in them to keep visitors happy. The capital of the region is Seville, Spain’s 4th largest city, which is a fascinating hotchpotch of a place – some impressively wide boulevard-type streets with imposing palaces on either side of the road and the narrow, tangled old streets in the centre and on the banks of the Guadalquivir in Triana. The architecture in the streets around the cathedral, the Alcázar and one of the most elegant bull rings in the country is simply stunning but what cannot be described is the special atmosphere the place seems to generate. This is a city of style, life and culture that few can match.
Obviously, Granada, Córdoba, Cádiz, Jerez, Jaén and Málaga can also be sure to enchant the visitor. There can be few better experiences than wandering the streets of Granada under the shadow of the Sierras and the Alhambra; standing high above Málaga on the Castillo de Gibralfaro and surveying the city and the Mediterranean beaches below you; or strolling along the south bank of the Guadalquivir in Córdoba, admiring the impressive Mezquita opposite before crossing over the river at the Puente Romano so that you can enter that compelling, mysterious and mesmerising cathedral cum mosque.
Hill Towns of Andalucia
For many, though, it is the smaller towns of Andalucía that capture its greatest glory. Not merely the obviously touristy places such as Ronda and Mijas but also the more ‘authentic’ towns that still feel relatively untouched by the developments further south. There are still lots of these ‘undiscovered’ gems in the hills of Andalucía. Try finding places like Zahara de la Sierra, in the Sierra de Grazalema, for instance. Or perhaps visit the country’s highest village, allegedly, at Trevélez in the Sierra Nevada – making sure to try some of their incomparable Jamón Serrano. Just as much ‘off the beaten track’ is the small town of Cazorla, in Jaén province, and at the beginnings of the stunning natural park of the same name: a ruined castle, a picturesque town square and some typically Andaluz eating places – what more could you want?
Coast of Andalucia
The coastline of the region has much more to offer visitors than the Costa del Sol, although that has its own delights for many people – the marina at Puerto Banús and the busy little Málaga suburb of Pedregalejo are beautifully contrasting places for an evening paseo. Completely different, though, is the area around the Doñana national park, with its abundant wildlife and totally unspoilt Atlantic beaches. In the east of the region, the volcanic cliffs around Cabo de Gata offer another, totally different, experience.
Inland, Andalucía has some of the best walking and climbing areas in the whole of Spain. Particular favourites are the Alpujarra mountains, the foothills to the Sierra Nevada; the Sierra de Grazalema; the fantastic El Chorro Gorge, where you can walk, cycle or climb in fantastic surroundings; or visit the strange, distorted rock formations of El Torcal near Antequera.
Discover the Alpujarra
The Alpujarra is a corner of Andalucia which it often seems time forgot! It skirts the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the highest in mainland Spain, boasts stunning scenery, hot sunny weather and is a wonderful area for walking. During the spring and autumn months the surroundings are particularly beautiful; in spring the land is carpeted with a vast array of wild flowers and blossom adorns the fruit trees which are dotted around the slopes.
The area is characterised by steep valleys scoured by rivers and streams hurtling down the mountainside from the snow covered slopes above, many of which rise to over 3000 metres. Traditional farming has left a legacy of terraced valley sides dotted with small buildings or cortijos which were the summer residence of village farmers.
The Alpujarra was one of the last outposts of the Moors when they ruled Spain many years ago. They left a legacy of attractive villages, built in a style unique to this part of Spain, together with many miles of acequias, a complicated system of irrigation which remains to this day.
Things to do in Andalucia
There are so many possible tourist activities to do in Andalucía that you could not begin to list them all here. Watersports abound – from surfing and kitesurfing in Tarifa, to diving around Cabo de Gata, Almuñecar or other sites that provide a mix of rocky underwater scenery and interesting wrecks. Sea fishing is possible all along the coast – the World Coast Fishing Championships are held annually at Adra in Almería – and you can catch everything from snapper and bream to Moray eels, swordfish, blue fin tuna and blue shark. You can even go whale watching.
Horse riding, walking, climbing, painting, hunting, bird watching, cooking, flamenco dancing and wine tasting – all of these and many more are offered to tourists in Andalucía. And, additionally, it is a golfer’s paradise, with some of the most prestigious courses in Europe to be found in the region.
Andalucia is the home of ‘tapas’ and visitors love to spend their evenings in the cities of the region wandering from bar to bar trying the local delicacies. Dishes specific to Andalucía include gazpacho soup along with the sumptuous kidneys in sherry sauce and pork in almond sauce. Near the coast, seafood and fish are plentiful but, inland, Córdoba is known for its deer and wild boar, Jaén for its partridge and Seville for its duck served with olives.
Keep an eye out to for places in the country that might look quite unprepossessing but have large car parks and are called Ventas. These country eating places began when there was a large seasonal workforce in the summer but now they tend to offer good home-cooked meals at very reasonable prices. They are very popular amongst locals for Sunday lunch.