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(2017 - Winter Issue)


High on a hill, The Alhambra looms over the city of Granada, Spain, as distant and mythical as the Moorish history it represents.

In the golden evening light, we climb steep walkways from an ancient Arab silk market, past white houses that might have existed in the Moorish quarter centuries ago. As we walk, Alhambra teases us, appearing through laneways and at a park where dogs run in the waters of a small reflecting pool.


At the end of our ascent, we are rewarded with a generous five-course dinner and a full panoramic view of The Alhambra situated across the Darro River. As we linger at Mirador de Morayma restaurant, the walls of the complex redden. A rising full moon soon spotlights the nearby white summer palace. The scene is nothing less than magical.

Alhambra is the last architectural wonder of the Moors’ eight-century domination of the Iberian Peninsula. Built in the years of decline, it was confiscated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, the same year they lent their support to Christopher Columbus.

Such a history is bound to draw crowds. An average 8,500 visitors come to The Alhambra each day to see its restored massive palaces and the Christian royal court in the middle of it all. As I shuffle through courtyards and halls, wherever I look there is beauty: textured ceilings drip with plaster carvings and walls are adorned with colourful tiles and sculpted Arabic script. When we take shelter in the shade of one of the four wives’ alcoves by the Court of the Myrtles reflecting pool, swallows swoop past the opening and, poolside, a cat stretches into the water to catch a goldfish. And, for a moment, the past comes to life.


Alhambra is just one of many attractions in Andalusia that reflect the layered culture and history of this southern region of Spain.

Nowhere are the strata so clearly seen as in Cordoba. Roman columns support the corners of residents’ renovated houses. Streets are occasionally as narrow as a handkerchief, as one lane is named. During Moorish times, people lived behind the walls around their courtyards, away from the streets. Between the close walls of Flower Pot Street, I glimpse the bell tower of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and try to picture the minaret that once called the faithful to prayer.

On the site of a Christian basilica, the mosque expanded in the ninth and 10th centuries as three caliphs sought to demonstrate their power. Inside, it is supported by arches of red and white stone often compared to a forest of palm trees. The effect was, no doubt, stronger before the Catholic conquerors removed the arches to build a Renaissance chapel at its centre. However, they left alone one of the most beautiful mirabs of the Muslim world. The mosaic and gold wall niche indicated the direction of prayer to Muslims and became a decorative marvel in the cathedral. 


We forgo the architecture and flamenco dancers of Seville and head off the beaten track. In the twin World Heritage towns of Ubeda and Baeza you can experience the past of Andalusia without the crowds.

In Ubeda’s old city, time has stood still since an era when gold poured into Spanish coffers and rewarded the nobles who held this key buffer zone for the Christians. Many of the Renaissance private palaces they commissioned and public buildings such as the Hospital de Santiago were built by one man, a stonemason named Andres de Vandelvira, a genius who likely would be better known if he had worked in a major centre. His greatest achievement is the Sacra Capilla de El Salvador, a magnificent private mausoleum.

In Ubeda, guide Andrea Pezzini hints at a surprise as he leads us on an early morning walk in June. Next to the office of the Spanish Inquisition, we stop at the Synagogue of Water, a relic of Jews expelled after the Christian conquest of 1492. Buried for more than five centuries, the synagogue was only reclaimed seven years ago during a renovation project when symbols of a Jewish home were found on the ground floor. Digging through rubble, a synagogue was discovered below, its women’s gallery filled with garbage. And, below the synagogue was a mikveh, a room where Jews purified themselves in the natural water that flowed into a stone bath.

As we stand in the mikveh, Andrea’s surprise appears. During the summer solstice, for about one half-hour, beams of light enter through a hole in the wall and shine on the waters. Pezzini points at a curved red wall that suggests this place was sacred as long ago as 5,000 years. We stand entranced.

History may be Andalusia’s biggest draw. But the region is constantly developing other forms of tourism. The six million olive trees around Ubeda not only produce 20 per cent of the world’s olive oil but offer opportunities for olive tasting at the Centre for Interpretation of Olive Oil and Olive Groves, a gastronomy experience centred on olive oil and agritourism.


Providing easy flight access to the region, Malaga has freshened up its image with botanical gardens and pedestrian streets lined with high-end shops and casual cafés to become much more than a layover. It has also emerged into a major cultural centre with 34 museums, including a branch of the Pompidou Centre.

It’s worth a trip to Malaga just to visit the Picasso Museum. The museum opened in Picasso’s birthplace in 2003 and was filled with unsigned pieces that had stayed in his family, including his final self-portrait.

Complete the day with a walk by the Roman theatre and the Alcazaba with its Moorish palace, followed by tapas at the seaside Restaurant El Palmeral where you can savour the boquerones, fresh anchovies soaked in vinegar and fried. And you will have come full circle, back to the time of Phoenician fishermen.

Travel Planner

Be sure to book your tickets in advance online for your tour of The Alhambra. For more information on what to see and do in Andalusia, visit:

Discover Andalusia: andalucia.org

The Alhambra: alhambradegranada.org/en

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