Exploring Andalucia in Spain
by Cecilia Yee.
In the sun-baked heartland of Spain, the tapas, flamenco and sangria will have you feeling moorish, as will the awesome Andalusian architecture.
In Spain, hedonism is a way of life. Siesta is taken seriously, so expect pretty much everything to shut down in the afternoon. Take a nap yourself or head to a bar and order a sangria – you'll be given free tapas. Walk around to take in the sites later in the afternoon and the locals will greet you with a smile.
Andalusia, in the deep-south, may be steeped in Moorish history but to me it's the quintessential Spain. Despite creeping modernisation, significant pockets of the region's coast remain relatively unspoilt and inland, you'll stumble upon bucolic farming villages where time seems to have stood still.
Seville, the capital of Andalusia, is the life and soul of the region. In this spirited and passionate city, the atmosphere – rather like a good flamenco performance – creeps up and taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it.
Oozing history and a whole lot of charm, Seville boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Seville Cathedral, the Alcázar and the General Archive of the Indies. These three sites form a monumental must-see complex in the heart of the city.
After its completion in the early 16th century, Seville Cathedral supplanted Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as the largest cathedral in the world, a title the Byzantine church had held for nearly a thousand years. Today, it is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest church in the world. It's also the burial site of Christopher Columbus.
Opposite the cathedral is the Alcázar: the oldest and possibly the most beautiful royal palace still in use in Europe today. The elaborate tilework, brickwork, wood carving and ornamental metalwork is typical of Mudéjar style.
The narrow streets twisting away from the cathedral and Alcazar make up the old Jewish quarter – the Barrio de Santa Cruz – delicately perfumed with orange blossom. While it's getting flocked with tourists these days, every street and courtyard is still reminiscent of the olden days.
South of the Alcazar along the riverbank is the expansive Maria Luisa Park, Seville's principal green area. After living in the compact city that is Hong Kong, visiting a huge park is a real treat. Its orange trees, palms, Mediterranean pines and stylised flower beds were first planted in 1911, and stretch along one bank of the Guadalquivir River. One of the highlights is the Plaza de Espana. Built for the Ibero-American Exhibition back in 1929, the Plaza is now being used as government office. If this place looks familiar, it's because the plaza was used as location shoot for Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars Episode II.
Getting to know Granada
My favourite city in Andalusia, Granada, nestles in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Best known for the Alhambra, a grand, sprawling hilltop fortress dating back to the 11th century, there are myriad medieval monuments and indeed entire medieval areas (including the Jewish and Moorish quarters) to explore.
Rising above the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, the Alhambra is Granada's most emblematic monument and one of the most visited in Spain. The Castle of the Alhambra was first developed as a walled town and military stronghold in the 11th century, but it enjoyed its heyday in the 13th century, when it grew into a palace, citadel and fortress, home to sultans and their entourage.
In addition to the sublimely beautiful and intricately decorated, 13th century Nasrid Palaces, the ornamental Generalife gardens are one of the Alhambra's main attractions. Built on the Hill of the Sun and dating back to the 14th century, they offer up superb views over the city.
The Alhambra and the Generalife form an exceptional example of royal Arab residences of the medieval period. As it's immensely popular, it's best to reserve your ticket to the Alhambra ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
Awed as I was by the Alhambra, the highpoint of my trip to Grenada was Sacromonte, home to Granada's Romani inhabitants since the 16th century. Located on Valparaíso Hill, it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in Granada. Here the resident Romanis still live in whitewashed caves cut into the rock. Should you visit in the evening, I guarantee you will enjoy some of the best flamenco in all of Spain.
Andalucia is like a drug. Once you see it for the first time, you'll crave for it over and over again. And while I write this article, I'm dreaming about sitting in one of the cafes eating tapas, drinking sangria, watching ladies dance flamenco amidst the backdrop of the Alhambra.