Romans, Caliphs and Catholics: a grand tour of Andalucia

The adventures of Chili III
Peter & Belinda Vernon
Fri 5 Nov 2021 10:59

5th November 2021

36:32.4N 006:16.9W

Subject: A Grand tour of Andalucia


On previous sailing adventures we have taken a week or so to explore inland by train, bus or hired car. Our train journey around the Peloponnese in Greece and drive around Castile and Leon further north in Spain for example. They give us the opportunity to see much more of the country than the coastal cities and landscape.

On 30th October we left Chili 3 at her berth in Cadiz Harbour for a tour of Andalucia. As chief tour guide and travel agent I completed a frenzied evening of activity on having planned where we wanted to go and I was all set to guide Belinda smoothly and without incident from one delightful small hotel to the next in our Avis hire car, booked for 1300. We had a great morning in Cadiz visiting its stunning yellow domed Baroque / renaissance Cathedral when I decided to check the email from Avis. I noticed the office closed at 1300. It was 1305. Panicked phone call; no reply; running up the street for a cab (in the rain), found one eventually, arrived at Avis (trading estate middle of nowhere) to find so sign of life whatsoever. Things were not going well. I called every Avis number I could find including the mobile on the door and a confused woman at Avis in Zambia who was the only human Avis voice I was able to reach. In the end, gave up, back to Chili 3.

To cut a long story short, by 1800 we were on a train to Jerez airport, hired a car from Enterprise, drove to our hotel in Jerez (lovely - in the old town) and made it to dinner at the wonderful La Carbona by 2100. Things were looking up. Dinner was spectacular in a lovely old Sherry Bodega and as we were in Jerez we sampled 3 sherries with dinner by which time things really were looking up.

A damp but lovely walk around Jerez and visit to the Alcabazar on Sunday morning where we got our first glimpses of the beautiful Islamic architecture of Moorish Spain that were to be a theme of our tour. The Palace built inside the old Islamic Fortress in the 17th Century had been beautifully restored as an events space having been handed between wealthy families who did not have the resources to keep it up.

We left Jerez at midday to begin a drive through the Pueblos Blancos to the East; across the large flat plain between Jerez and the mountains. It was a cloudy, and at times rainy day but that only added to the atmosphere as we climbed to explore Arcos de la Frontera, Ulbrique, Grazalema and finally Zahara de la Sierra where we were royally looked after at the lovely small Al Lago hotel overlooking a turquoise reservoir. This drive crossed the Parque Natural de Grazelema with great walking in stunning mountain scenery  - noted for the future. These white villages clinging to the tops of the hills with narrow winding streets, clay tiled roofs and modest but cared for squares create a unique landscape. Everywhere we found huge impressive churches seemly out of all proportion to the town almost as though in the period following Islamic rule, especially here on the frontier, the Christians were determined to make a big statement.

On to Cordoba the following day with the primary aim of visiting the Mezquita. By now I was beginning to regain some credibility as the travel agent and we found our way to Hotel Viento 10, a minimalist and stylish conversion of an C17th home into an 8 room guest house. Walking into the courtyard from the street greeted by sunlight, lilies and classical guitar felt so calming after a long drive.

The Mezquita is impossible to put into words – the scale is breath-taking; a mosque designed for 40,000 people with its characteristic horseshoe red and white arches set above slender columns reached though a beautiful courtyard with orange and cypress trees providing shade. The Cathedral carved from the centre of the old mosque is impressive but was a brutal imposition on one the greatest Islamic buildings in Europe.

From Cordoba to Sevilla by car and a walk into the centre of the old City and another small hotel in the heart of Cathedral district. We spent only 2 nights and 36 hours in Sevilla and left us both wanting to be there for so much longer. It is a truly beautiful city. The highlights were once again the Cathedral, the world’s largest gothic cathedral, the home of one of Spain’s 3rd most important art collections and containing the impressive tomb of Christopher Columbus. The Real Alcabazar, comparable to the Alhambra of Granada in terms of its interconnected courtyards and gardens, pools and fountains beautifully decorated with Islamic ceramics and plasterwork. The Plaza de Espana was built for the 1929 Exposition Ibericoamerican and is a fantastic, bold and flamboyant _expression_ of Sevillano culture and especially ceramics. We visited on Sunday morning and were treated to an impromptu and excellent flamenco show. The night before, we joined a very special evening of Flamenco at a cultural centre in the old town that was powerful and moving at the same time – not to be forgotten.

A week is such a short time. Andalucia is so unusual in that is combines layers of Roman, Muslim and Christian history, cuisine, culture and architecture. Although Spain is now a strongly Catholic country it celebrates its Islamic history. We’ve scratched the surface and would love to experience more – especially Sevilla – such a special City.