Spectacular Ronda, sliced in two by the El Tajo Gorge!

Spectacular Ronda, sliced in two by the El Tajo Gorge!

It’s the Spain of everyone’s dreams: groves of shimmering olive trees; the scent of bougainvillea; the swish of fiery flamenco dresses; ancient mosques next to Moorish palaces; and white-washed villages perched atop distant craggy hills. Andalucía! Even the name conjures images of mysterious nights followed by sun-dappled days in romantic, faraway lands.

Once you’ve visited, it’s easy to understand why, at one time or another, pre-historic cavemen, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and even Germanic tribes all settled in this southernmost region of Spain. But the Moorish tribes from North Africa were the ones who left the greatest legacy.

Muslim Moors invaded Andalucía in the 8th century. Within a few years, they became a sophisticated and dominant force in Europe and continued to rule (at least parts of) the region until 1492. In those 800 years, they were busy building citadels, fortresses, castles, palaces, mosques and hammams (public baths), often using ruins left by the departed Romans as the base for construction.  Many of these structures remain, and can still be seen today.

By the 1400’s, the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula were in trouble. Córdoba and Seville had already fallen to the Catholics and mean, old Queen Isabella and her sidekick Ferdinand were stirring up all sorts of religious nastiness with the Spanish Inquisition. Not only was Granada the last remaining Islamic stronghold in Spain, Queen Isabella was smitten with the Alhambra (Granada’s lavish royal court, palace and fortress) and fancied it for herself.

So at the same time Isabella was sending Christopher Columbus off to discover the brave New World, she pounced on Andalucía. After an eight-month siege, its Muslim ruler, the last one in Spain, surrendered Granada for a promise of religious and political freedoms for his people. Isabella’s fingers must have been crossed, because before long she ordered both the Muslims and Jews to convert to Catholicism or be exiled.

Once she’d expelled the non-Catholics, she systematically went about transforming Andalucía for her own - very Catholic - purposes. Not to be critical of Isabella, but most the structures she converted still looked like mosques, but topped with Roman Catholic bell towers. So there you have it, Andalucian History 101 (hopelessly simplified for both our sakes).  

On reflection, I think the sangria-style mixture of faiths and ideologies – Christianity and Islam with a dash of Jewish and Gypsy cultures – was what made Andalucía so intriguing to me. Every single one of the pueblos blancos (white villages) we visited seemed to have a story. Here are some of the highlights…

The Alhambra & Flamenco in Granada

Like Queen Isabella, we were drawn by the allure of the mythical palace complex of the Alhambra (“Red One” in Arabic) located in Granada. We didn’t anticipate that everyone else would feel the same. The place was jammed with wall-to-wall tourists.

I get it! The Alhambra’s popular for good reason. A World Heritage Site and considered Spain’s most beautiful monument, it is a ginormous complex and includes the royal court, multiple palaces, a fortress and prison, extravagant gardens and a mini-ancient city. We wandered around with the hordes for at least four hours (Don says, “It felt like ten”), at which time my hubby’s eyes were glazing over from more than just awe!

Exploring the rest of Granada, we clocked on average about fourteen kilometers a day. We’re on Strava, so now we can quantify how badly we get lost. The Muslim quarter, the Realejo (or old Jewish neighbourhood), the original Moorish silk market…we aimlessly wandered them all. My favourite was the Gypsy barrio of Sacromonte, where locals still live in caves carved into the rock, high on the hills overlooking the city.

It was there we witnessed a loud, seductive, sweaty, passionate performance of flamenco. In Spain, flamenco is an art form made up of four elements: the voice, the dance, the Spanish Guitar, and the “Jaleo”, which roughly translates to “hell raising” and involves enthusiastic hand-clapping, foot stomping, and shouts of encouragement!  The cave was tiny, there was room for no more than thirty of us watching the performance. We were so close to the dancers, we could touch them and feel their heat. I think I experienced el duende, that mystical, elusive force associated with flamenco that magnifies emotions and makes one’s spirit soar. Apparently it’s a thing in Spain!

Romantic Ronda

Ronda (not the 60’s Beach Boys tune, but the largest of the Andalucian hill-towns) sits on top of a high plateau and is sliced in half by the sheer vertical walls of the El Tajo Gorge. Three ancient bridges connect two historical town centers – La Cuidad (the ancient Moorish city) dating back to Islamic times and Il Mercadillo, the new town (comparatively speaking). These two quarters are separated by one gigantic, 100 m gash in the rock! If it sounds dramatic - believe me, it is.

It is one of Spain’s oldest settlements and I found its history, which includes not just artists and writers, but also outlaws and banditos, permeated every twisted street of La Cuidad. The setting is so atmospheric, Ernest Hemingway once said, Ronda is: “where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone.” I couldn’t agree more!

Also considered the home of modern bull fighting, the oldest, most revered bullring in Spain is located Ronda’s Il Mercadillo. Sadly, bullfighting is still a thing in Spain, too. We heard from a local in the know, matadors feel the ring there is dangerously large. When a 1300-pound bull is charging you at 35 kph, I guess a couple of meters matter. I’d be rooting for the bull!

Wandering through Ronda’s ancient Arab baths, it was easy to imagine bathers reclined in Moorish bliss, sipping on mint tea, nibbling olives and languishing in the sunlight filtering through the star-shaped openings in the horseshoe-arched roof. Built between the 13th and 14th century, the large brick structure designated warm, hot and cold thermal bathing areas and even an area for changing. They were remarkably well-preserved, considering how few of these (essentially Muslim) structures survived destruction by Queen Isabella.

In Ronda, we hooked up with a fun language school, took Spanish lessons and joined the other students on an excursion to Cueva de la Pileta. The Pileta cave system wasn’t discovered until 1905, when a local farmer noticed bats darting out of a crevice in rocks near his house. He hiked up the mountain and, with the help of a rope, lowered himself down in the abyss to search for bat guano, a highly valued fertilizer for his crops. What he found instead was a massive cavern, 2.3 km long, that contained Stone Age paintings of horses, goats, cattle and one great, big fish from 20,000 to 25,0000 years ago. We hiked by torchlight into the dark depths of the cave, passing eerie stalactite and stalagmite formations, with an old guy who was a descendent of the original, bat-loving farmer. He spoke endearing Spanglish and his family still runs the cave tours. 

White Towns, Craggy Mountains and Endless Olive Trees

We didn’t travel to all the white hill-towns of Anadalucía, but here are a few of our favourites.

We based ourselves in little Grazalema. With it’s sparkling, white-washed houses nestled between the rocky slopes of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, it was perfect for exploring the surrounding areas. From there, we joined a group of Spaniards (with nary an English speaker among them) to tromp a portion of the beautiful El Pinsapar trail.

The next day, we rented bikes and cycled the Via Verde de la Sierra, a thirty-six kilometer rail-trail. It reminded me of the Kettle Valley in BC, back in Canada, except we were surrounded by rugged hills, blanketed in olive groves. Four viaducts, three old station stops and thirty discombobulating tunnels, some over a kilometer long without lights, made for an entertaining ride. Thank God for iPhone flashlights. Our starting point was Olvera, yet another white town, but topped with an Arabian castle. 

Post-card pretty Zahara de la Sierra tumbles down a rocky knoll from underneath an ancient Moorish castle. The scramble to the top was, without question, worth the sweat. From the evocative castle ruins, the views of the wild Andalucian landscapes were endless.

The ultra-high and super steep road between Grazalema and Zahara, the Puerto de las Palomas, was a spectacular drive filled with white-knuckled switchbacks. It was best to look up at the Griffon Vultures lazily circling above, peering down was terrifying.

The labyrinth of cobbled streets and cliff-top location of the truly spectacular Arcos de la Frontera taught us not to drive our rental car into the heart of these ancient hill-towns. Single-lane roads, hopelessly narrow and steep, non-existent parking and back-to-back vehicles inching around tight corners….no way! We parked at the edge of town and walked.

Setenil de las Bodegas is famous for its streets of cave houses which cling to the overhanging ledge of a gorge carved out by the nearby river. Some date back to prehistoric times. Much to the delight of a group of locals having afternoon libations, I got locked in a bathroom bar there. Who knew the door was a slider, not a pusher? The smirking bartender slid the door sideways to get me out. I exited, red-faced, to applause by the drinkers.

Typical of Spanish culture, restaurants in all these towns didn’t open until between 8:00 and 9:00pm. We were consistently the first, and usually only ones dining for the first hour, when the locals started to trickle in.  

The Spanish food was okay, but I couldn’t say I loved it. For some reason, it’s a challenge to find vegetables on a Spanish menu, but if you’re into tapas, paella or, ham, particularly Iberian ham from pigs fed acorns, you’ll think you’re in heaven. I admit to some bias, we’d just come from Italy - a tough culinary act to follow!

That’s all for now! I’m a couple of countries behind in blogging, but mind-twisting Morocco, our next destination after Anadalucía, will be up next. Stay tuned….

Adios for now, mi amigos…