The best guidebook. -- Sunday Telegraph, London, UK
The excellent Rough Guide to Andalucia. -- The Daily Telegraph, London, UK --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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The sight and sound of flamenco, when the guitar laments and heels stamp the boards, or cante jondo, Andalucia's blues, as it mournfully pierces the smoke-laden gloom of a backstreet cafi, also tell you there's something unique about the people here. The Muslim influence on speech and vocabulary, a stoical fatalism in the face of adversity, and an obsession with the drama of death are all facets of the modern Andalucian character. Contrastingly, the andaluces also love nothing more than a party and the colour and sheer energy of the region's countless and legendary fiestas - always in traditional flamenco costume worn with pride - make them among the most exciting in the world. The romermas, wild and semi-religious pilgrimages to honour local saints at country shrines are yet another excuse for a jamboree. And in quieter moments there are few greater pleasures than to join the drinkers at a local bar winding down over a glass of traditional fino (dry sherry from Jerez), while nibbling tapas - Andalucia's great titbit invention.
Few places in the world can boast such a wealth of natural wonders in so compact an area. The mighty Guadalquivir river which crosses and irrigates the region from its source in the Cazorla mountains of Jain in the northeast, reaches the sea 250 miles away at the dune-fringed beaches and marismas of the Coto Doqana National Park, Europe's largest and most important wildlife sanctuary. To the east and towering above Granada, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada include the Spanish peninsula's highest mountain, snowcapped for most of the year, while twenty miles away and close to the sweltering beaches, sugar cane thrives. This crop was another contribution to Europe by the Moors, along with oranges, almonds, aubergines, saffron and most of the spices now used to flavour the region's cooking which features an astonishing variety of seafood. Nestling in the folds of the same mountains are the valleys of the Alpujarras, a wildly picturesque region dotted with dozens of mountain villages, many of them little changed since Moorish times. Further east again come the gulch-ridden badlands and lunar landscapes of Almerma's deserts, sought out by film-makers and astronomers for the clearest skies in Europe.
On the coast it's easy to despair. Extending to the west of Malaga is the Costa del Sol, Europe's most developed resort area, with its beaches hidden behind a remorseless density of concrete hotels and apartment complexes. But even here the real Andalucma is still to be found if you're prepared to seek it out: go merely a few kilometres inland and you'll encounter the timeless Spain of white villages and wholehearted country fiestas. Travel further, both east and west, along the coast and you'll find some of the best beaches in all Spain, along the Costa de la Luz, near Cadiz, or the Costa de Almerma.
Andalucia's sunshine image - projected across the world in advertising campaigns - belies the fact that this is also Spain's poorest region where an economy rooted in near-feudal landownership (two per cent of the landowners possess fifty per cent of the land area) stifles investment and is the cause of desperate poverty. Rural life is bleak; you soon begin to notice the appalling economic structure of vast absentee-landlord estates, and landless peasants. The andaluz villages saw little economic aid or change during the Franco years, or indeed since, even though the former governing Socialist party has its principal power base here. Tourism in coastal areas has brought some respite to the alarmingly high levels of unemployment, and Spain's growing importance as a member of the European Union promises to speed up progress, but there is still a mighty long way to go.
Where to go: Andalucia's manageable size makes it easy to take in something of each of its elements - inland cities, extensive coastline and mountaineous sierras - even on a brief visit. The main characteristics and appeal of each province are covered in the chapter introductions, but the more obvious and compelling highlights include:
Sevilla. Andalucia's capital city, the home of flamenco and all the clichis of the Spanish south has beautiful quarters, major Christian and Moorish monuments and extraordinary festivals at Easter and, afterwards, at the April feria.
Moorish monuments. Granada's Alhambra palace is perhaps the most sensual building in Europe; the exquisite Mezquita, a former mosque, in Csrdoba, and the Alcazar and Giralda tower in Sevilla, are also not to be missed.
Castles. Niebla in Huelva and Baqos de Encina in Jain, as well as those in the cities of Malaga and Almerma are the outstanding Moorish examples; the best Renaissance forts are at La Calahorra in Granada and Vilez Blanco in Almerma, whilst hilltop Segura de la Sierra in Jain has the most dramatic location.
Cathedrals. Sevilla's Gothic monster is the biggest, but those of Cadiz, Granada, Jain, and Almerma are all worthy of a visit.
Renaissance towns and hill villages. Small-scale towns and villages, once grand, now hardly significant, are an Andalucian forte. Baeza and Zbeda in Jain are remarkable treasurehouses of Renaissance architecture, while Ronda and the White Towns to the west are among the most picturesque hill villages in Andalucma.
Baroque. The Baroque splendours of Andalucia are without equal; towns such as Icija and Osuna in Sevilla province, and Priego to the south of Cordoba have clusters of stunning Baroque churches and mansions.
Roman and prehistoric ruins. Italica near Sevilla, Baelo Claudia near Tarifa and Carmona's Roman necropolis are all impressive Roman sites, while for an atmospheric "lost city" Mulva, in the hills of the Sierra Morena, is hard to beat. Andalucma also has some of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, including a group of third millennium BC dolmens at Antequera, and the remarkable Los Millares site near Almerma.
Beaches and resorts. For brashness and nightlife it has to be the Costa del Sol, but you'll find the more authentic resorts such as Nerja, Almuqecar and Mojacar are less frenzied. The region's best beaches lie along the Atlantic coast and to the east of Almerma.
Hiking. The Sierra Nevada and the nearby foothills of Las Alpujarras in Granada are excellent places for hiking, as are the densely wooded hills of the Sierra de Cazorla and the Sierra de Morena - including the latter's less well-known offshoot, the Sierra de Aracena, in the north of Huelva. Andalucma's dozen or so parques naturales (natural parks) are located in areas of great natural beauty, and are detailed in the Guide.
Seafood. This is Andalucma's speciality and is excellent all along the coast but particularly so in Malaga and seafood-crazy Cadiz. The many good places to try it are listed in the relevant chapters throughout the Guide.
Bars. Spain has the most bars of any country in Europe, and Andalucma has more than its share of these. For sheer character and diversity, the bars of the cities of Csrdoba, Sevilla and Cadiz are some of the best anywhere.
Offbeat. Among the more curious things to see in Andalucia are a self-styled "pope" who has built a "New Vatican" near Utrera in Sevilla province; a rosary museum at Aroche in Huelva displaying beads once owned by the famous; a nineteenth-century English-designed housing estate in the middle of the city of Huelva; a mini-Hollywood in Almerma which preserves the film-set of famous "paella westerns"; still-functioning nineteenth-century sulphur baths used by Lord Byron at Carratraca in Malaga; a Communist village run on Utopian principles at Marinaleda in Sevilla; the spectacular mines of Rmo Tinto in Huelva, and Andalucma's oldest inn, complete with highwayman's cell at Alfarnate, in the rugged Axarquia district of Malaga.
When to go
In terms of climate the question is mainly one of how much heat you can take. During the summer months of July and August temperatures of over 400C (1040F) on the coast are normal and inland they rise even higher in cities such as Sevilla, generally reckoned to be the hottest in Spain. The solution here is to follow the natives and get about in the relative cool of the mornings and late afternoons finding somewhere shady to rest up as the city roasts in the midday furnace. The major resorts are busy in July and packed in August (the Spanish holiday month) when prices also are at their highest. Better times to visit are the spring months of April, May and early June when lower temperatures combine with a greener landscape awash with wild flowers. The autumn is good, too, although by this time much of the coastal landscape looks parched and the resorts have begun to wind down; in hilly areas, however, such as the sierras of Cazorla and Aracena and the high valleys of Las Alpujarras the splendours of autumn can be especially scenic. The winter months - particularly December and January - can often be dismal and wet as well as cold at altitude, although Almerma sees only one day of rain a year on average and in winter has many days of perfect crystal visibility.