The scent of orange blossom, the swish of a flamenco dress, the glimpse of a white village perched atop a crag: memories of Andalucía linger.
The Essence of Spain
Immortalised in operas and vividly depicted in 19th-century art and literature, Andalucía often acts as a synonym for Spain as a whole: a sun-dappled, fiesta-loving land of guitar-wielding troubadours, reckless bullfighters, feisty operatic heroines and Roma singers wailing sad laments. While this simplistic portrait might be outdated, stereotypical and overly romantic, it does carry an element of truth. Andalucía, despite creeping modernisation, remains a spirited and passionate place where the atmosphere creeps up and envelops you when you least expect it – perhaps as you’re crammed into a buzzing tapas bar or lost in the depths of a flamenco performance.
A Cultural Marinade
Part of Andalucía’s appeal springs from its peculiar history. For eight centuries the region sat on a volatile frontier between two faiths and ideologies: Christianity and Islam. Left to ferment like a barrel of the bone-dry local sherry, Andalucía underwent a cross-fertilisation that threw up a slew of cultural colossi: ancient mosques transformed into churches; vast palaces replete with stucco work; a cuisine infused with North African spices; hammams and teterías (teahouses) evoking the Moorish lifestyle; and a chain of lofty white towns that dominates the craggy landscape, from Granada’s tightly knotted Albayzín to the hilltop settlements of Cádiz province.
It takes more than a few golf courses to steamroller Andalucía’s diverse ecology. Significant stretches of the region’s coast remain relatively unblemished, especially on Cádiz’ Costa de la Luz and Almería’s Cabo de Gata. Inland, you’ll stumble into villages where life barely seems to have changed since playwright Federico García Lorca created Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding). Thirty per cent of Andalucía’s land is environmentally protected, much of it in easy-to-access parks, and these conservation measures are showing dividends. The Iberian lynx is no longer impossibly elusive; the ibex is flourishing; even the enormous lammergeier is again soaring above Cazorla’s mountains.
If you had to pick just one region to attempt to explain Andalucía in its full, complex beauty, it’d probably be Cádiz province. Lying in wait across Spain’s southernmost province are craggy mountains, oceans of olive trees, thrillingly sited white towns (Arcos, Vejer, Zahara de la Sierra), fortified sherry, festivals galore, flamenco in its purest incarnation, the font of Andalucian horse culture, and a dreamy blonde-sand coastline, the uncommercial Costa de la Luz, sprinkled with surfer-cool towns like Tarifa.
Packed in among all this condensed cultu whitewashed towns, many with a ‘de la Frontera’ suffix that testifies to their volatile history. re are the expansive Sierra de Grazalema and Los Alcornocales natural parks, covering an unbroken tract of land from Olvera in the north to Algeciras in the south. The same line once marked the ever-changing frontier between Christian Spain and Moorish Granada, and that ancient border remains dotted with castle-topped, whitewashed towns, many with a ‘de la Frontera’ suffix that testifies to their volatile history.
After decades of being pointedly ignored, particularly by tourists to the coastal resorts, hip, revitalised Málaga is now the Andalucian city everyone is talking about. Its 30-odd museums and edgy urban art scene are well matched by contemporary-chic dining choices, a stash of new boutique hotels and a shopping street voted one of the most stylish in Spain. Málaga is at its most vibrant during the annual feria, when the party atmosphere is infused with flamenco, fino (dry, straw-coloured sherry) and carafe-loads of fiesta spirit.
Each region of the province has equally fascinating diversity, from the mythical mountains of La Axarquía to the tourist-driven razzle-dazzle of the Costa del Sol. Inland are the pueblos blancos (white towns), crowned by spectacularly situated Ronda. There’s also the under-appreciated, elegant old town of Antequera, with its nearby archaeological site and fabulous porra antequera (thick local soup).
Nowhere encapsulates the exotic drama of Andalucía’s past to more gripping effect than Granada. The provincial capital is home to Spain’s single greatest Islamic building, the Alhambra, and it retains a distinct Moorish air with its shadowy teterías (teahouses), winding alleyways and whitewashed cármenes (large houses with walled gardens). Elsewhere, monumental churches tower over teeming tapas bars and garish murals adorn off-the-radar backstreets.
For a change of pace, the mighty peaks of the Sierra Nevada provide a magnificent outdoor playground. Hiking possibilities range from summitting mainland Spain’s highest mountain to trekking through the gorges and white villages of Las Alpujarras on the range’s southern reaches. Skiers can take to the pistes at Europe’s most southerly ski resort.
Further afield, you can soak up the sun on Costa Tropical beaches, explore cave houses in Guadix, and bone up on prehistory in Granada’s haunting Altiplano (high plain).
Regularly derided but perennially popular, Spain’s famous ‘sun coast’ is a chameleonic agglomeration of end-to-end resort towns that were once (hard to believe) mere fishing villages. Development in the last 60 years has been far-reaching and not always subtle, throwing up a disjointed muddle of urbanizaciones, each with its own niche. Torremolinos is a popular gay resort, Benalmádena plugs theme parks and aquariums, Fuengirola draws families and water-sport lovers, Mijas poses as one of Andaucía’s authentic white villages of yore, Marbella is loudly rich and partial to big yachts and golf, while Estepona maintains a semblance of its former Spanish self. Take your pick.
The coast east of Málaga, sometimes described as the Costa del Sol Oriental, is less developed. The suburban sprawl of Málaga extends through a series of unmemorable and unremarkable seaside towns that pass in a concrete high-rise blur before culminating in more attractive Nerja.
Once a small coastal village dotted with torres (towers) and molinos (watermills), ‘Terrible Torre’ became a byword for tacky package holidays in the 1970s, when it welcomed tourism on an industrial scale and morphed into a magnet for lager-swilling Brits whose command of Spanish rarely got beyond the words ‘dos cervezas, por favor’. But times, they are a-changing. Torre has grown up and widened its reach. These days the town attracts a far wider cross-section of people, including trendy clubbers, beach-loving families, gay visitors and, yes, even some Spanish tourists. Waiting for them is an insomniac nightlife, 7km of unsullied sand and a huge array of hotels, most of which subscribe to an architectural style best described as ‘disastrous’.
Benalmádena, Torre’s western twin, is more of the same with a couple of added quirks: a large marina designed as a kind of homage to Gaudí and a giant Buddhist stupa.
If you think the Costa del Sol is soulless, you clearly haven’t been to Málaga. Loaded with history and brimming with a youthful vigour that proudly acknowledges its multi-layered past, the city that gave the world Picasso has transformed itself in spectacular fashion in the last decade, with half a dozen new art galleries, a radically rethought port area and a nascent art district called Soho. Not that Málaga was ever lacking in energy: the Spanish-to-the-core bar scene could put bags under eyes of an insomniac madrileño, while the food culture encompasses both Michelin stars and tastefully tatty fish shacks.
Come here for tapas washed down with sweet local wine, and stay in a creative boutique hotel sandwiched between a Roman amphitheatre, a Moorish fortress and the polychromatic Pompidou Centre, while you reflect on how eloquently Málaga has reinvented itself for the 21st century. Look out, Seville.
Nerja, 56km east of Málaga with the Sierra Almijara rising behind it, has succeeded in rebuffing developers, allowing its centre to retain a low-rise village charm despite the proliferation of souvenir shops and the large number of visitors it sees. At its heart is the perennially beautiful Balcón de Europa, a palm-lined promontory built on the foundations of an old fort that offers panoramic views of the cobalt-blue sea flanked by honey-coloured coves.
The town is increasingly popular with package holidaymakers and ‘residential tourists’, which has pushed it far beyond its old confines. There’s significant urbanisation, especially to the east. The holiday atmosphere, and seawater contamination, can be overwhelming from July to September, but the place is more tranquilo the rest of the year.
Spaniards of a certain age remember Nerja as the setting for Verano azul, a hugely popular TV series filmed in the town in the early 1980s.
The Costa del Sol’s bastion of bling is, like most towns along this stretch of coast, a two-sided coin. Standing centre stage in the tourist showroom is the ‘Golden Mile’, a conspicuously extravagant collection of star-studded clubs, shiny restaurants and expensive hotels stretching as far as Puerto Banús, the flashiest marina on the coast, where black-tinted Mercs slide along a quay populated by luxury yachts.
But Marbella has other, less ostentatious attractions. Its natural setting is magnificent, sheltered by the beautiful Sierra Blanca mountains, while its surprisingly attractive casco antiguo (old town) is replete with narrow lanes and well-tended flower boxes.
Long before Marbella starting luring golfers, zillionaires and retired Latin American dictators it was home to Phoenicians, Visigoths, Romans and Moors. One of the joys of a visit to the modern city is trying to root out their legacy.
Estepona was one of the first resorts to attract foreign residents and tourists some 45 years ago and, despite the surrounding development, the centre of the town still has a cosy, old-fashioned feel. There’s good reason for that: Estepona’s roots date back to the 4th century. Centuries later, during the Moorish era, the town was an important and prosperous centre due to its strategic proximity to the Strait of Gibraltar.
Estepona is steadily extending its promenade to Marbella; at its heart is the pleasant Playa de la Rada beach. The Puerto Deportivo is the focal point of the town’s nightlife, especially at weekends, and is also excellent for water sports.
Fuengirola is a crowded beach town decorated with utilitarian apartment buildings, but, despite half a century of rampant development, it retains a few redeeming qualities. Check out the beach – all 7km of it – adorned with a 10th-century Moorish castle. The town also has a large foreign-resident population, many of whom arrived in the ’60s – and stayed (yes, there are a few grey ponytails around).
The story of Mijas encapsulates the story of the Costa del Sol. Originally a humble village, it’s now the richest town in the province. Since finding favour with discerning bohemian artists and writers in the 1950s and ’60s, Mijas has sprawled across the surrounding hills and down to the coast, yet it’s managed to retain the throwback charm of the original pueblo (village).
Mijas has a foreign population of at least 40% and the municipality includes Mijas Costa and La Cala de Mijas, both located on the coast southwest of Fuengirola.