Last spring, I spent almost a month travelling on my own in Spain, primarily in its southernmost district, Andalucía. I started in Madrid, then on to Toledo, Córdoba, Granada, Seville and Ronda, living on a strict budget and going by train or bus.
The Pyrenees Mountains form a natural barrier between Spain and the rest of Europe and for a long period of history it was northern Africa, particularly the area now known as Morocco, that had the greatest influence.
1st stop Madrid
Córdoba and its Mezquita
Alhambra, Granada’s palace-city
Seville, the capital of Andalucía
The drama that is Ronda
The Muslim Moorish kings occupied the Andalucia region from 711 until 1492 and the architecture, art and culture they left behind was considered to be among the most advanced in all of Europe. You have only to look upon the red-and-white striped arches of the Mezquita in Cordoba or the Alhambra palace sitting high over Granada to be convinced of this.
When the Christian monarchs took over, they did not destroy all that the Moors left behind but adapted some of it and the result is rather startling. Not a great surprise to hear that Spain has the largest number of World Heritage Cities and the second largest number of Sites in the world.
Before the Christian monarchs forced everyone to convert or be exiled (during the Spanish Inquisition), there were periods when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived harmoniously. Some synagogs have been restored and may be visited.
You learn a lot about the Catholic monarchs travelling here, particularly about Charles and Isabella who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic that led to the colonization of the Americas. The great wealth that flowed back to Spain ushered in the Golden Age when its arts and literature flourished. Columbus’ tomb was given a special resting place in the largest cathedral in the country.
The landscape, like the culture, varies quite dramatically. From my bedroom in the Arab section of Granada, which I reached by climbing steep stairs (puff, puff), I could look out on the snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest point in the country. The cliffs of Ronda, one of the white villages, are a little too dramatic for my comfort and there are tales of prisoners having been thrown from them during the Spanish Civil War. There’s also the Mediterranean coast, known for its beautiful beaches, but I chose to skip the beaches after hearing they appealed to ‘junk tourism’.
And the gardens! I loved the gardens and visited every public garden I came upon. Just walking along the streets was a joy because the greenery was so lush and well taken care of; I’d turn the corner and there’d be a park or fountain or winding path or vines tumbling over a wall. Stunning really.
Gardens in the Andalusia region
Generalife Garden, Granada
Gardens of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, Córdoba
Courtyards of Viana, Córdoba
I was surprised by the food, actually by the lack of variety. It was a challenge to order a dinner that didn’t include french fries and iceberg lettuce. They do have interesting tapas — appetizers really. And wine is delicious and cheap so bring a corkscrew.
Most visitors arrive in Madrid, the country’s capital and the centre of its airline and railway hub. The city is easy enough to navigate once you become familiar with the metro system and a few landmarks. Madrid was built long after the Catholic monarchs ousted the Muslim Moors so even though it has a different culture than Andalusia it certainly deserves a few days. I would allocate a good amount of time to roaming through the Museum Triangle where you’ll find some of the most notable art in the world including works by El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and Salvador Dalí. Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, is at the Reina Sofia and not to be missed.
The country is crisscrossed with a comprehensive network of rail lines and some trains are so fast that it can only takes 45 minutes to go from Cordoba to Seville. You can make your reservations in advance online. Generous discounts are often available for seniors. You should also think about reserving your tickets for the major museums and the Alhambra before leaving home.
You’ll hear people speaking many different languages all around you and if you speak English you should have little, if any, difficulty travelling in areas frequented by foreign tourists. My experience was that officials at train stations, servers in restaurants, and check-in people at hotels were able to communicate in English; many signs and brochures were in English too.
At times I found the cathedrals, castles, and art to be too much. Like how many pictures of Jesus-on-the-cross do you need in one room? A European hearing me rant about this said that I must be an American (actually I’m a Canadian but we’re from the same continent). I don’t know if that was an insult or a compliment.
What I can say with assurance is that there was no indication that Spain was going through economically tough times. Not a hint of it. Everything was tip-top.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2016