Enjoying Culture and History in Andalusia

After our Sampling Southwest Spain trip, in November 2021, we were keen to re-visit Spain’s Andalusia region, to enjoy more of its rich history and culture. Granada has been on my wish-list for a few years and we had heard great reviews of Córdoba, so we decided to arrange a road trip around those two amazing cities. And, for good measure, we would throw in a tour of the mountain villages of the Alpujarra, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The trip lived up to all of our high expectations.

We briefly considered riding the Goldwing on this adventure, but the long distances and the distinct possibility of adverse weather in late March, convinced us to hire a car for the journey instead. That turned out to be a wise decision, as we encountered a lot of wind and rain during the trip.

Day 1 – Getting to Córdoba

Our route to Córdoba covered 631km and would take 7 hours (non-stop). With a couple of pit-stops along the way, we actually had an 8-hour drive. We also lost an hour due to the time-zone difference between Portugal and Spain. So it was late afternoon by the time we got checked into the Hotel Macia Alfaros.

Not ones to waste time, as soon as we’d dropped our luggage in the room, we headed out to walk around the old town and familiarise ourselves with its layout.

The Roman Temple was very close to our hotel, so it was the first attraction that we came across. The remains of the temple were discovered in the 1950s. Construction of the temple began during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and ended some forty years later, during the reign of Emperor Domitian.  There was clearly a Roman temple at this location, but we left in some doubt regarding the current structure’s authenticity. It gave every appearance of being a modern reproduction of the columns and their supports.

A stone’s throw away from the temple is Córdoba’s nicest plaza – Plaza de la Corredera. This classic Castilian plaza was built in the late-1600s, and measures 113 metres by 55. For many years the city’s bullfights were held there and it was also the site of the city’s food market.

Nowadays, it’s a beautiful open, yet enclosed, space that houses several open-air restaurants.  We enjoyed looking at the varied basketry work that was displayed outside a couple of gift shops, including woven bulls heads and large standing cacti.

We walked through the more modern Plaza de Las Tendillas, with its central fountain and water-jets coming out of the ground, and continued through the narrow lanes of the old town that would become quite familiar to us, as we walked around the neighbourhood.

As we headed towards the river, we came across the walls of the Mosque-Cathedral. We were saving a visit to this complex until the following day but, in the meantime, we marvelled at the beautiful doorways and windows of its exterior.

Just beyond the Mosque-Cathedral lays the Roman Bridge. It was first built in the 1st century BC and was the city’s only bridge across the Guadalquiver River for almost 20 centuries. The bridge was improved upon after the Romans, so the current structure is a medieval one. This impressive arched bridge is restricted to pedestrians, so it lends itself to a pleasant walk across the river.

This bridge became ‘the Long Bridge of Volantis’ in season 5 of the Game of Thrones series. It is seen here in a clip from the show, with wooden buildings added to it by CGI.

The Calahorra Tower sits at the opposite end of the bridge. This defensive tower is a national historic monument, dating back to the Almohad Caliphate in the 13th century. It was reinforced in the 14th century, after the Reconquest, during the reign of Henry II of Castile. During its history, it has served as a school and a prison. Now it houses the Museum of Al-Andalus.

The narrow, winding lanes of the UNESCO listed historical centre are perfectly suited to just wandering around, wondering what lays around the next corner. A notable section of this old town is the Jewish Quarter, which retains the same street plan that it had hundreds of years ago. Córdoba’s Jewish population thrived during the reign of the Muslim Caliphate. In fact, the institution of the caliphate of Córdoba in 926 ushered in a golden age for Judaism in the Islamic lands. But the Jewish population was expelled from Spain in the late 15th century, when the country was under Christian rule. After the conquest of Granada, Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragón signed the expulsion decree of 31 March 1492. This set out to resolve the thorny question posed by the Jewish presence, by either conversion or exile. A synagogue still remains in the Quarter, behind impressive old walls.

Cheering up the old town are the many plant pots that adorn walls and courtyards. The pots themselves are mostly blue, but they contain a variety of flowering plants. It is worth wandering into the different courtyards, as some of them are nicely bedecked with flowers and plants.

Before we left the narrow lanes of the old town, we stopped at a small restaurant for dinner. It was there that I had my first taste of Córdoba’s typical dish – Salmorejo. This cold soup is made with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and vinegar, with small pieces of Serrano ham, eggs and bread/croutons. I enjoyed it, and ate it again during the trip.

Day 2 – Visiting Córdoba’s Attractions

Rainy weather threatened to put a dampener on our full day of sightseeing, but the first stop on our itinerary would be spent mostly indoors.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba has been described as one of the wonders of Spain. Construction commenced in 785AD, under the rule of Emir Abd-ar-Rahman, when Córdoba was Europe’s leading city for science and culture. It saw subsequent modifications over the centuries. Following the Christian Reconquest, the mosque was converted to a church and a cathedral was subsequently erected in its centre. The result is an interesting blend of Islamic architecture and Christian decor. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of Islamic art in Spain.

The most striking aspect of this beautiful complex hits you as soon as you enter. There are 850 internal columns, topped by two-tone brick and stone arches. My photos can’t adequately depict the size of the inside of the complex. It is a truly amazing sight. Having been bedazzled by the columns and arches, we walked around to admire more of the beautiful Islamic architecture. This included some gorgeous, ornate door arches and domed ceilings. Very special and well worth the visit.

With rain still falling, we sought out another indoor attraction and headed to the small archeological museum, that sits over an excavated Roman theatre. Frankly, there wasn’t much to see, so our visit was rather short.

The rain had stopped after lunch, so we headed to the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (castle/fortress of the Christian Monarchs). The front of the complex has a majestic wall and the outer plaza has many orange trees that were in blossom when we attended. The aroma was lovely.

This royal compound has a long and varied history. It was the site of a Visigothic fortress, until it fell to the Umayyad Caliphate. Under Islamic rule, it thrived and expanded through the early-medieval period, with gardens, courtyards, and baths being added, as well as the largest library in western Europe.

After Córdoba fell to Christian forces in the 13th century, it became a palace and seat of the Castilian Royal Court. It then became the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, for three centuries.  Christopher Columbus had his first audience here, with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, to seek support for his expedition to find a western sea route to Asia. Napoleon subsequently used it as a garrison, after which it became a prison.

Considering its rich history, the Alcázar didn’t live up to my expectations. It did have some beautiful gardens though.

We rounded out the evening with a tasty Uruguayan steak at the Montevideo Steak House Restaurant, followed by a pleasant walk through the old town.

Day 3 – Next Stop Granada

After a two hours drive from Córdoba, we arrived in Granada. The city has a rich and extensive history, with the surrounding area having been inhabited since at least 5,500BC. It was occupied by the Romans and the Visigoths but, starting in 711AD, it came under Moorish control and remained an Islamic stronghold for centuries, during which time it became an important Islamic intellectual and cultural centre. It was the last Muslim-controlled area in the Iberian peninsula, before it capitulated to the Catholic monarchs in 1492. Over the course of the 16th century, Granada took on an ever more Catholic and Castilian character.

We checked into the small Casa de Reyes Hotel, located on a narrow pedestrianised street, close to the historic centre. The owner has filled a couple of ground floor rooms with medieval style furniture and sculptures, whilst a third room has an Islamic-styled theme. He has plans to hold medieval themed dinner parties for his guests, complete with costumes, at some point in the future. In the meantime, he happily showed the rooms to us as part of the reception process.

We didn’t get to see much of Granada that afternoon, as a thunderstorm and heavy rain drove us back to the hotel. But we did have some wine and tapas, and managed a walk through the Alcaiceria market, built on what was an ancient Muslim silk market. The original souk suffered from a fire in 1843, so what exists now is a 19th century remodelling. The items now on sale are very much modern day tourist offerings, complete with fridge magnets, but the attractive multi-coloured Islamic-style lamps caught our attention. One of them made the journey home with us.

Umbrellas were necessary, as we headed to the edge of the Arab Quarter for dinner. The Meknes Rahma restaurant provided us with a taste of Morocco, in very nice setting, as we sat watching the rain hammering down outside.

Day 4 – The Alhambra

We dedicated the entire morning to visiting the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Granada’s star attraction. The morning started with a 30-minutes walk from our hotel and up the hill, where we waited for our tour guide.

Whilst an Islamic Alcazaba fortress existed on the hill as early as the 9th century, it wasn’t until the 13th century that work really took off on the sprawling complex. That was when Mohammed ben Al-Hamar (Mohammed I), the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, settled into the Alcazaba of Albaicín, established a new royal residence of Alhambra and began creating the palatine city known today.

Mohammed I laid the foundations for the Alhambra by fortifying the royal site. He reinforced the Sabika Alcazaba by constructing three new towers: the Broken Tower, the Keep, and the Watch Tower. He also created a channel to transport water from the Darro River, further allowing him to establish a royal residence at the Alcazaba. He built warehouses or halls for soldiers and guards and began construction of the Alhambra palaces and ramparts.

Al-Hamar’s son and grandson, Mohammed II and Mohammed III, continued the work on the palace and ramparts. The latter ruler also constructed the Grand Mosque of the Alhambra and public baths.

Most of the well-known structures of the Alhambra complex known today were constructed by Yusuf I and Mohammed V.

In 1492, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile conquered Granada, unifying Spain under a Catholic monarchy and ending centuries of Islamic rule. The Alhambra soon underwent many changes.

The Alhambra was abandoned starting in the 18th century. It was temporarily occupied by Napoleon’s French troops during the Peninsular War. In 1812, as those troops were leaving, they blew up some of the complex’s towers and were intent on destroying the entire complex. A Spanish soldier was able to intervene and averted much greater damage.

Since 1828, the complex has seen a series of repairs and restoration efforts. It is now considered to be one of Spain’s most beautiful historical sites.

The Alhambra was a citadel – essentially a city within the city of Granada. Within that citadel was a complex of palaces, barracks, defensive structures, gardens and more. Our guided tour was scheduled to last 3.5 hours, and all of that time was required to get around the vast complex.

The highlights of our tour were the Nasrid Palaces, where we enjoyed some beautifully intricate Islamic architecture. The rain and cold weather couldn’t spoil our enjoyment of this historical jewel.

The final segment of our tour of the Alhambra was the Generalife. This part of the citadel included palaces but also formal gardens and terraced fields for agriculture. Fertile soil was carried up from the plains below and the 6 kilometre long water channel provided an ample supply, both for the garden ponds and for irrigation. As it is built on an adjacent hill, the Generalife provides some nice views of the rest of the Alhambra.

We rounded out the evening at a cosy little Syrian restaurant (La Puerta de Syria 2) on the edge of the Arab Quarter. Tasty food at a great price.

Day 5 – Mountain Villages of Alpujarra

We took a break from Granada, and drove out to visit some of the mountain villages in the Alpujarra (a region on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range). We were on the road for a full 11 hours.

There had been some recent bad weather, including a lot of Saharan sand in the air, whisked over from Africa by the strong winds. Amazingly, this sand had coated most of the normally-white buildings in the Alpujarra, turning them a reddish brown. But on that day, the wind dropped, the clouds had cleared and the sun was out. It was a beautiful day for a road trip in the mountains.

Our first port of call was the town of Lanjarón. We had read that people flock to this 19th century spa town from all over Spain, to take its curative waters. But as we drove through the town, looking for somewhere to park, it seemed particularly unimpressive.  We decided not to stop.

Next up was the village of Cáñar. This village has buildings dating back to the 8th or 9th centuries and is known for its ceramics, which are reportedly sold from shops and stalls in the village. We walked around the almost deserted village and didn’t see any sign of ceramics. It was a short visit.

Our 3rd destination was the village of Carataunus. At only 5km square, it is the smallest of the villages, but is famous as the birthplace of Fajalauza ceramics, which feature multi-coloured designs on a white base. Once again, we encountered a sleepy village without much sign of life – or ceramics!

Things improved markedly when we reached the village of Pampaneira. This was a much busier village with an abundance of restaurants and craft shops. We found a lovely restaurant with an outdoor terrace, providing great views of the gorge and surrounding mountains. It had a particularly nice view up the gorge, where the village of Capileira sat below the snowy peaks. I enjoyed some traditional Alpujarra fare before we set out to visit the craft shops.

We enjoyed a wander around the village, checking out the craft shops along the way. They had a nice array of locally woven rugs, for amazingly cheap prices. We found a couple of rugs that we wanted to buy, but the shop owner had gone to lunch, leaving all of his rugs hanging outside.  We waited, rather impatiently, and managed to buy our rugs.

We continued up the gorge from Pampaneira, first stopping at Bubión (1,350 metres elevation). There were a number of restaurants and small shops alongside the main road through the village, but we parked and walked down into the village itself, to see the narrow lanes and now-dirty-brown houses. We could look over the flat roofed houses, and past their distinct chimneys, to see the Poqueira Gorge stretched out below and the snow-capped mountains looming above.

From there, we drove further uphill to Capileira (1,436 metres), the second highest village in Andalusia. The snow capped peaks provided a dramatic backdrop as we approached Capileira, whilst negotiating many tight hairpin turns. This village also had a variety of craft shops lining the main street. Some were selling locally made baskets, mats and other woven items. At the southern end of the village, there is a mirador (lookout point) that provides a view back down to Pampaneira and Bubión. At the northern end of the village, along a narrow footpath, there is a large threshing floor with a low wall around it, that provides a view up the gorge to the snowy mountains.

We saved the highest elevation for last. The village of Trevélez sits at 1,476 metres and is reported to be the highest village in Spain. It is famous for its hams and Moorish pastries, and we saw several shops selling the local hams, as well as local honey and other craft items. The snowy peaks tower over the small village.

As we began our return journey, we stopped briefly to look back and admire the view of the gorge and the village of Trevélez, clinging to the side of the mountain. We then began the long and tightly-winding descent off the mountain and back to Granada. It was a day well spent!

Day 6 – Albaicín and Sacramonte

This would be our final day in Granada, so we headed out to visit two of the city’s cultural quarters.

First up was the Albaicín (or Albayzín), which is the old Arab quarter, located on the hill opposite the Alhambra. This neighbourhood is part of Granada’s UNESCO Heritage site. After the Reconquista, many of the Arabs who wished to remain in Granada settled in this neighbourhood and many of the white-painted houses retain Arabic architectural influences. It’s also a great place to get a view of the Alhambra.

We started out at the Plaza San Nicolás and the adjacent church of the same name. The plaza is touted as one of the best places to to view the Alhambra, sitting atop the opposite hill. As a result, everyone flocks there and it was crowded with tourists and vendors.

The Church of San Nicolás drew a much smaller crowd. Built on the site of an earlier mosque, it dates back to 1525 and is one of the oldest Mudejar churches in Granada. In 1928 it was struck by lightning, requiring parts to be rebuilt. Then, in 1931, it was plundered and set on fire during a civil war, with only the external walls, the tower and part of the porch surviving. It was reconstructed between 1935-1947. It has a very appealing Islamic styled roof. Inside, the most striking feature is a domed stained glass ceiling, that replaces the old nave.

We wandered around the maze of lanes in the neighbourhood at the top of the hill and found a quiet place to eat some lunch. There were more opportunities to marvel at the splendour of the Alhambra, as we descended the hill to the river.