Almonaster la Real and the wine-red Rio Tinto

Almonaster la Real is a small town that hides one of the great sights of this area of Andalusia, a one thousand year-old mosque dating from the time when the Moors controlled Spain. Older than the mosque in Cordoba, its graceful Mudéjar arches look like a more rustic version of that city’s beguiling Mezquita. Almonaster mosque’s real claim to fame, is that its Mecca-facing prayer niche is the oldest known example in the country.

It’s one of the few remaining rural mosques in Spain, many others didn’t survive the religious fervour that came with the Reconquista and Inquisition. It sits on a hilltop alongside a castle and, bizarrely, just above the town’s bullring. The views, as ever, are pretty impressive. All of which makes it all the more surprising that we had the whole place to ourselves.

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Mezquita, Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Mezquita, Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

The mosque was built on top of a 5th century Visigoth basilica, which in turn was likely built on top of a Roman temple, giving just a hint of the often unseen layers of history that exist all around. We walked back down the hill through the pleasant village streets stopping for a quick look around the 14th-century Iglesia de San Martín, before jumping in the car and heading south towards El Rocío and the Huelva coast.

Directly south of Almonaster la Real lies one if this areas more unusual sights, the blasted, blighted and weirdly coloured landscape of the Minas de Rio Tinto. We didn’t have time to visit the museum or take the official tour (and everything seems to be set up around group tours) in the town of Minas de Riotinto. We did want to see some of the otherworldly effects centuries of mining have had on the landscape though.

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Rio Tinto means Red River, and wine-red water is found throughout this area; it’s a landscape filled with vivid purples, greens, yellows, reds, greys and browns, exposed during mining for lead, iron, copper, silver, sulphur and numerous other mineral ores. Humans have been digging holes in the ground around here for over 5,000 years. The Romans dug up 2 million tons of silver-rich ore to pay for the expansion of the Empire, including the invasion of Britain in AD43.

We hadn’t really done our research and thought we’d be able to visit the massive open-cast mine created by the eponymously-named mining giant, Rio Tinto. Although it has now ceased operation, it’s not open to the public. Still, you’d assume it would be easy to find – you can see the thing from space. We ended up surreally driving around trying to locate one of the largest man-made holes on earth … and failed.

Peña del Hierro, Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Peña del Hierro, Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Peña del Hierro, Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Peña del Hierro, Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

We did find the Peña del Hierro Mine, more by luck than planning, which was pretty dramatic in it’s own right. It’s now part of the Rio Tinto Mining Park, which covers a large area of the old mining operations, and is scattered with the remnants of mining activities. We hadn’t arrived as part of a tour and couldn’t visit parts of the mine. Instead, we walked around the site to the highly acidic red ‘lake’ that sits inside the crater of the mine.

So unique is this landscape, so bizarre the microorganisms living in the otherwise ‘dead’ water, that NASA believe this to be the closest environment to Mars found on Earth. They have set up the Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment here, hoping to unearth clues to how life may have evolved in other parts of the universe. If you’re in the area it’s well worth a visit.

Peña del Hierro, Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Peña del Hierro, Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

Minas de Rio Tinto, Andalusia, Spain

The mountain village of Alájar

Nestling underneath the Pena de Arias Montano, and set amidst forests of cork oak and chestnut trees in the Sierra de Aracena, the tranquil mountain village of Alájar is a place to leave the world behind. The village has an idyllic rural setting and must be one of the prettiest in the region. Home to around eight hundred people, there are plenty of bars and restaurants in which to sample the locally produced specialities of this glorious region of Andalusia.

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

One of Alájar’s main attractions, other than eating and drinking, are the numerous lovely walks on old tracks between the hamlets of the area. One of the most popular walks takes you up the hill to the pilgrimage site of Pena de Arias Montano. Not only does this offer spectacular views over the village, you can see for miles across the undulating forested hills of the Huelva countryside stretching to the south.

The hill is home to a small but historic church, the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, which attracts pilgrims from all over Spain. It’s perhaps most famous for being the place where Spanish theologian, Benito Arias Montano, came to live as a hermit. Montano was royal chaplain to King Philip II and responsible for producing a famed version of the bible, the Antwerp Polyglot. This remarkable book contained the bible translated into Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic.

Peña de Arias Montano, Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Peña de Arias Montano, Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

When you arrive at the top of the hill, it’s easy to see why Montano chose this as a place of contemplation. Coming back down towards the village, I followed dirt tracks between the trees and came across fields of inquisitive goats. The scenery was beautiful, and although it was a warm day the trees offered plenty of shade. The only noise I could hear was bird song and the breeze in the trees.

Back in the village, time seemed to have decided to stand still. I wandered around the deserted streets, popped into the empty Iglesia de San Marcos, and headed into the main square to see if any of the tapas bars had any life. Not much was the answer. After a light lunch we decided to explore the villages of the area a little more, including Jabugo, legendary home to what many consider to be the very finest jamon in Spain.

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Alájar, Andalusia, Spain

Jabugo may be the epicentre of jamon iberico de bellota, but the town didn’t seem to have the same charm as others we passed through. There were a few to many industrial units – presumably filled with legs of ham – and we decided not to spend too much time here. Driving south again, we came to the arresting sight of the village of Cortegana.

It might be possible to overdose on medieval churches and castles in this part of Spain, but we decided to visit anyway. The impressive Castillo de Cortegana was built in 1253, while this area was still under Moorish control, as part of a defensive line of fortifications intended to prevent attack by Christian forces from Portugal. The border is only a short distance form here.

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana, Andalusia, Spain

Cortegana is a bit bigger than most of the villages in this area, but still felt very sleepy. We walked through quiet streets up to the castle, which has been faithfully restored to its former glory. The views from the keep were magnificent. Deciding we’d had enough history for one day, we headed back to Alájar to sample more delicious local cooking.

Exploring the villages of the Sierra de Aracena

To the west of Seville lies one of Andalusia’s most beautiful and least visited areas. It’s home to the oak and cork forested hills of the Sierra de Aracena, and full of ancient towns and villages that come with a traditional mix of narrow streets, over-sized churches and medieval castles that date back to Moorish times. It’s not quite off the beaten track, but after Seville the pace of life in Huelva Province is not so much slow as from a different period in history.

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

The Sierra de Aracena is famous throughout Spain for its black Iberian pigs, considered to produce the finest (and most expensive) of all Spanish pata negra (black hoof) hams. You can spot the pigs all over the countryside eating the acorns that are essential for giving their meat its distinctive flavour. The area is a culinary cornucopia, with some of Spain’s most delicious goat and sheep cheeses, honey, fungi, wild asparagus, artichokes and chestnuts.

We had a couple of days in the area to do some walking on tracks around the villages, and sample the region’s traditional foods. On the drive to Alájar were we were staying in a small rural hotel, we stopped in Aracena, the region’s largest town with around 8,000 people. It’s an atmospheric and historic place with pleasant cobbled streets, a couple of attractive churches and a picturesque medieval castle sitting dramatically on a hilltop.

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena is also home to the Gruta de las Maravillas, a cave system filled with truly amazing limestone formations, stalagmites, stalactites and colourful pools of water. The cave system lies under the hill upon which the castle stands. The temperature and humidity make a visit a little unpleasant, but the unearthly beauty of the place is extraordinary. Sadly, photos aren’t allowed.

When we emerged out of the caves we headed into town, stopped for a reviving coffee and a little tapas, and headed up to the castle to take the views. This area has a long and turbulent history of conquest and reconquest. It was under Moorish control for 500 years before the Portuguese drove them out in 1251. It became Spanish in 1267 in a rare peaceful transition.

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

The castle was built in the 13th century while still under Moorish control, but seems to have been too little, too late to prevent Christian forces from capturing the town. Within the old walls is a small church, built in a Gothic-Mudéjar style by the Knights Templar, who controlled the area until the mid-14th century. The walk up the hill is worth it for the panorama over the town and surrounding countryside.

On our way out of town we came across a couple of fields of the region’s prized pigs, all roaming freely around the countryside, and shovelling up as many acorns as they could eat. It would be a recurring sight over the coming days, along with plenty of sheep and goats. It was like stumbling upon a version of rural Spain that Laurie Lee so vividly conjures up in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Truly glorious.

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

Aracena, Andalusia, Spain

A walk through historic Seville

Seville’s long and majestic history has been made possible by the fact that the city sits on the banks of the broad Guadalquivir, Spain’s only great navigable river. Flowing into the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of Cadiz, it was perfectly placed to make Seville the great port of the Spanish Empire. It helped that the city held a royal monopoly on trade with the new colonies in Latin America.

The vast wealth of Aztec gold and Incan silver poured east on Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic and, with them, the Spanish Golden Age sailed up the Guadalquivir to Seville. The city grew enormously wealthy. The architectural legacy left behind by 500 years of Moorish rule, was immeasurably enriched as Seville grew in size and grandeur. Today, it has one of the most attractive centres in Europe.

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Guadalquivir River and Torre del Oro, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Guadalquivir River and Torre del Oro, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The city is forever associated with Christopher Columbus, who set sail and returned to Seville on his four voyages to the New World. The marble tomb holding his remains has a prominent place in the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, measured in cubic metres it’s apparently the largest cathedral in the world. His massive tomb is hoisted on the shoulders of four giants, who represent the ancient kingdoms of Spain.

The river is as good a place as any to start an exploration of the city. Sitting serenely on the eastern bank, the 13th century Torre del Oro is one of Seville’s great landmarks. Built as part of the river defences when this was capital of Moorish Spain, it offers panoramic views down the river and across Seville’s rooftops to the cathedral. We had a stroll along the river bank, and then into the city proper on our way to La Macarana.

We headed into the bewildering maze of narrow streets that was once the old Jewish quarter. Today barrio Santa Cruz is the main tourist area, but it remains an atmospheric place. The labyrinthine streets are a result of the entire jewish population being forced into this small barrio after the city was captured from the Moors. The narrow streets keep the sun out, but must be oppressive in the height of summer. They reminded me of the stifling world conjured up in Lorca’s House of Bernarba Alba.

Santa Cruz is full of small plazas, fountains, churches and tapas bars. It’s impossible to go far without coming across an inviting tapas bar offering a delicious speciality of the house, washed down with a chilled fino sherry. We’re easily distracted by nicely tiled tapas bars filled with hanging legs of jamon iberico, which could explain why it took us so long to explore this area.

It’s difficult to describe the route we took to reach La Macarana, except to say that in Seville it’s both unnecessary and nearly impossible to follow a route. We wandered generally in the right direction, popping down streets that looked interesting, and stopping to visit the occasional market or church. I could meander around these streets for weeks and never tire of it.

We stopped in an ancient looking tapas bar filled with bull fighting memorabilia, photos of Seville’s great and good posing with the proprietor hung on the wall. It was an unlooked for surprise of a place, but Seville is full of similar surprises. We eventually arrived in La Macarana, where we hoped to visit the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena, home of the famous Virgin of Hope of Macarana.

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Tapas bar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Tapas bar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Street art, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Street art, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

We’d had a long day exploring the city, luckily the Macarana area is full of good tapas places, and a newer crop of gastro pubs serving up microbrews. We made a leisurely journey back toward the centre, planning to go to our hotel in preparation for an early start into the Sierra de Aracena in the morning. Before we got too far though, the sound of music attracted our attention.

 

We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a musical extravaganza. Bands in traditional costumes were roaming the streets and taking over bars. It was brilliant. We joined one group and were adopted by the double base player. Let’s just say many drinks were drunk, and our early start seemed to be slipping out of our grasp into the warm Seville night…

Seville’s magnificent Alcázar

Words fail to express the extraordinary beauty of Seville’s Alcázar Palace. In reality, it’s three palaces in one, built over the centuries by Seville’s different rulers, with attached formal gardens filled with shaded, tree-lined avenues. For three centuries this was the epicentre of Islamic civilisation on the Iberian peninsular. On the other side of Plaza del Triunfo, where today the cathedral stands, was Moorish Seville’s grand mosque.

In The Land of the Blessed Virgin, William Somerset Maugham summed up the intensity of Moorish Spain that you feel visiting the Alcázar: “In what you divine rather than in what you see lies half the charm of Andalusia, in the suggestion of all manner of delicate antique things, in the vivid memory of past grandeur. The Moors have gone, but still inhabit the land in spirit and not seldom in a spectral way seem to regain their old dominion.”

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Maugham goes on to describe the powerful visions of Moorish Andalusia that he’d had travelling through this part of Spain. He recounts seeing “a Muslim knight riding in pride and glory, his velvet cloak bespattered with the gold initial of his lady”. His imaginary and romantic visions of Al Andalus before the Reconquista culminates in a savage battle battle between Moorish and Christian forces.

Despite its appearance and Islamic history, much of the Alcázar dates from after the fall of Seville to Castilian forces in 1248. There are several architectural styles, added by Spanish monarchs who used this as a royal residence over the centuries. Much of it though, was constructed in the Mudéjar style of North Africa by Moorish craftsmen under Christian rule during the reign of Pedro the Cruel, as he’s known to history.

The Alcázar is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a visit to Spain, and consequently comes with a proportionate number of tourists. It’s worth booking a ticket and getting in as early as possible if you want to be there before the tour groups start arriving. We were visiting outside of the main season, but a Spanish national holiday made up for any lack of international visitors.

Some areas of the palace were pretty crowded, but that doesn’t take away from the joy of exploring this amazing place. The exquisitely delicate architecture is delightful, and the scale and detail of the buildings and gardens absorbed half a day of our time. It passed in the blink of an eye. The first Moorish palace was built here in the early 10th Century, making it the oldest royal residence still in use.

After the a few hours of marvelling and getting a cricked neck viewing the carved and tiled interior rooms, we arrived in the gardens. After the busy palaces, these were a scene of peace and tranquility. It’s remarkable how few people make the effort to explore the gardens beyond the areas close to the palace. We often found ourselves walking alone amongst the orange, lemon and pomegranate trees.

It’s no surprise to discover that the Alcázar has been the backdrop for many films over the years. It played a starring role in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ridley Scott’s medieval crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven. More recently, it features in the immensely popular Game of Thrones series, as the royal palace in the Kingdom of Dorne. This really is a place where fantasy and reality merge.

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

The Royal Alcázar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, where the ancient and the modern mingle

Seville is one of the most vibrant towns in Spain, and a genuinely exciting place to visit. Famed as the home of flamenco, with a legendary culinary scene, and a buzzing nightlife that rarely ends before the small hours of the morning, it seems to condense the spirit of all of Andalusia into its tightly packed streets. Home to just over 700,000 people, it has the feel of a much bigger city and a small town simultaneously.

Bull on a bar, Seville, Spain

Bull on a bar, Seville, Spain

Cathedral and Giralda, Seville, Spain

Cathedral and Giralda, Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville’s compact historic centre, and fascinating barrios of La Macarena, Alameda, Santa Cruz and Triana, are some of the most atmospheric of any city in Europe. It combines strong Moorish influences, with classical Spanish Golden Age magnificence, and harmoniously blends the ancient and modern. In the heart of the city, the futuristic Metropol Parasol rubs shoulders with the 16th century Iglesia de la Anunciación.

Stay in Seville for any length of time and I defy you not to fall in love with it. It’s often described as ‘sultry’, a word applied equally to the weather, music and people, giving the impression that it’s a hotter (in both senses of the word) version of Paris. It’s also a friendly and stylish place where, thanks to the sultry weather, life is played out on the streets. Even in the cooler days of winter, the squares and parks are where you find the city’s pulse.

We arrived without much of a plan. We definitely wanted to revisit several tapas bars, remembered from our previous visit. Granada had whetted our appetite for Moorish architecture, so the Alcázar was on our list. You can’t not visit the glorious cathedral, or a climb up it’s gorgeous Moorish bell tower, the Giralda. The greatest pleasure of being in Seville though, is to simply wander the ancient streets and discover the city at walking pace.

This now includes a walk above the rooftops on the Metropol Parasol. Seville’s ‘mushrooms’, as this addition to the cityscape is known, and not always affectionately, is an extraordinary piece of architecture. Towering over the otherwise ordinary Plaza de la Encarnación, the Parasol does just that, provides much needed shade to the people below. Up above though, it is an undulating walkway offering views over the city.

Cathedral and Giralda, Seville, Spain

Cathedral and Giralda, Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Cathedral, Seville, Spain

Cathedral, Seville, Spain

We stayed out of the centre, in Heliópolis, a colourful Seville neighbourhood of beautiful white houses and orange tree-lined streets. It was built for the Exposición Iberoamericana de Sevilla in 1929, a World’s Fair for the Americas. Far from the tourist hoards, the area offers a different perspective on Seville. Our hotel, Hotel Holos, is also one of the nicest hotels we’ve stayed at in Spain.

After the drive over from the Sierra Nevada we reached Seville late. Instead of heading into town we went to a popular local tapas bar specialising in seafood. The place was full and we joined the locals eating and drinking – the perfect way to relax into the Sevillano way of life. The next morning we had an early start to try to get ahead of the crowds exploring the Alcázar…

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

“Kill your man and flee to Olvera”, another beautiful pueblo blanco

The hills of Andalusia are home to more than their fair share of breathtaking villages. They frequently come with a picturesque Moorish fortress, a massive church towering over the whitewashed houses, and a long and dramatic history. Drive the Sierra de Grazalema north of Ronda, and every turn of the road seems to reveal another beautiful village. For sheer dramatic effect though, it would be hard to beat Olvera.

I’ve wanted to visit Olvera ever since I saw it in the distance while visiting Setenil de las Bodegas. Its immense church and Moorish fortress perched on a craggy hilltop, and the white houses tumbling down the hillside surrounded by olive groves on all sides, make it hard to miss. It’s a quintessential pueblo blanco, steep narrow streets offer glimpsed views of the church, fortress and surrounding rolling countryside.

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The picture-postcard-perfect surface hides a turbulent history though. In the 19th century it became notorious (as did many of these quaint mountain villages) as a hiding place for bandits and murderers. Far removed from the reach of the authorities, Olvera became the subject of an Andalusian saying, “Kill your man and flee to Olvera!” Things seem a lot quieter these days.

The town was probably founded in the 9th century as the invading Arab and Berber forces advanced across Andalusia. By the time the fortress was built in the early 13th century, the town had been absorbed into the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. It was a strategic point between Muslim and Christian areas of control. The town fell to the Reconquista in 1327, and became vital to the Christian advance on Gibralta.

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Mad dogs and an Englishman, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Mad dogs and an Englishman, Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Its other claim to fame, is that Nicolás de Ribera, one of the original conquistadors who accompanied Francisco Pizarro on his conquest of the Incan Empire in Peru, was born here in 1487. Ribera was one of the ‘trece de la fama’, or famous thirteen, who defied orders from Spain’s governor in Panama to abandon their plans to conquer Peru. In 1535, Ribera was made the first mayor of the new colony’s capital, Lima.

Today the town has a sleepy feel, especially out of season, and is a fabulous place to spend a few hours wandering the medieval streets. There was a market on the day we arrived and it took us an age to find somewhere to park, but once we did we headed upwards towards the church and castle. It’s hard to get lost, just keep going up and eventually you’ll find yourself in the Plaza de la Iglesia.

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

From here the views of the town and the castle are simply magnificent. We stopped for a breather and decided to have a look inside the church. The huge facade towers over you as you enter, and the interior is much bigger than I’d expected. Having said that, I’m constantly surprised that even the smallest Spanish village will have a church that seems to have been built for a much larger community.

The interior was more austere than a lot of Catholic churches in Spain, and it was nice and cool after our hike uphill under a hot sun. Afterwards, we made our way up to the castle, which offers a panoramic view over the town and surrounding countryside that is unrivalled. Standing on the ramparts, it was clear that attacking this place must have been near impossible.

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The pueblo blanco of Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

The view from Olvera castle, Andalusia, Spain

We were on our way to Seville, but before we set off again we walked through the maze-like streets, stopping in the pleasant Plaza Ayuntamiento for a drink and snack. Refreshed, we were back on the virtually empty highway towards Seville.

The mysterious Dolmen of Antequera

When UNESCO announced that Antequera’s three prehistoric megalithic monuments, the Menga and Viera dolmens and the Tholos of El Romeral, were to be given World Heritage status in 2016,  they described them as, “one of the most remarkable architectural works of European prehistory, and one of the most important examples of European Megalithism.” It’s hard to argue with that.

These fascinating temples or tombs were built 5,000-or-so years ago during the Bronze Age. Despite some hard evidence and many theories, they remain mysterious structures. The dolmens were built because they aligned with the summer or winter solstice, but it’s likely that their view towards the human head-shaped Peña de las Enamorados mountain was just as important.

Menga Dolmen (L) and Peña de las Enamorados (R), Antequera, Spain

Menga Dolmen (L) and Peña de las Enamorados (R), Antequera, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

The Dolmen of Menga, one of the largest megalithic structures in Europe, would have been an extraordinary architectural feat at the time. During its excavation in the 19th century, archaeologists found the skeletons of several hundred people inside. If you were here on the solstice, you’d see the sun rise over the Peña de los Enamorados and shine down the entrance corridor into the interior chamber. That’s not coincidence.

The prehistoric communities that lived in this area, and who were responsible for leaving these impressive structures behind, were farmers. They must have gone to some extremes to quarry and transport all the stones – the heaviest of which is 180 tonnes. For context, the heaviest stone at Stonehenge, which was built around the same time, is only 40 tonnes.

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

The Menga dolmen is only a short distance from the Viera dolmen, both are reached on a newly laid path from a newly constructed visitor centre, a result of funding from their new World Heritage Status. There were only a handful of people at the site, but its new found fame didn’t stop some of them from climbing on the mounds and entrance stones to take selfies.

Other than the interiors of the dolmen there’s not much to see. We popped into the visitor centre where there was a short video and some information on the history of the dolmen, but not enough to keep us for more than a few minutes. Back in the car we headed the 4km to the Tholos of El Romeral, which is the youngest and most dramatic of the three dolmen.

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

The drive to El Romeral was along a dispiriting road that passed through an industrial estate, picturesque it was not. The UNESCO money clearly didn’t extend to paying for good signposts. We got lost a couple of times before finally driving down an unpaved potholed road that ended by a portacabin, inside of which was the world’s most disinterested woman.

The walk down the entrance tunnel into the dolmen was thrilling though, the interior is a domed room with a smaller domed antechamber leading off to one side. Perfectly preserved for 4,000 years. It was humid inside, but just about as atmospheric as you could hope a prehistoric burial chamber might be. It was a fantastic place, but there wasn’t a scrap of information about the site anywhere.

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Tholos of El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Tholos of El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

We headed off bewitched by the mysteries of El Romeral, but also slightly baffled that a very new World Heritage Site could provide so little insight into itself. Maybe it’s an unintended tribute to the people who built these prehistoric structures, about which we also know very little.

Las Alpujarras, a timeless corner of the Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada rises majestically behind Granada. It’s fantastically beautiful, and so close to the fleshpots of the Costa del Sol you can see the blue of the Mediterranean from here. The name means “Snowy Range”, and it’s one of Spain’s most attractive national parks. There are twenty mountains over 3,000m, and hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails. More than it’s glorious snow-capped peaks though, this is an area with a fascinating history.

Visit the picturesque pueblos blancos that are scattered dramatically around the mountains and valleys of the Alpujarras region, and you can’t help but notice ancient irrigation systems that arrived in the region with the Moors in 711AD. The village houses have distinctive flat roofs and mushroom-like chimneys, imported from north Africa by Berbers who were part of the invading Arab forces.

Pampaneira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Pampaneira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

This whole region, as remote as it was possible to get in 15th century Spain, was the final refuge of Spain’s Moors after the capitulation of the Emirate of Granada in 1492. The rugged mountains and deep valleys sheltered the remaining Muslim population and, for several decades, the communities that lived here maintained a unique Islamic culture that had thrived for nearly 800 years.

They also maintained a fierce independence from the rest of Spain, and resisted forced conversion to Christianity. On several occasions the people rebelled against Spanish rule and oppression, waging guerrilla warfare from their secure mountain hideout. The region was only pacified after the Morisco Rebellion of 1568 was ruthlessly crushed after three years of fighting.

The rebellion’s leader, Ben Humeya, was publicly executed in the square in Granada, and a royal decree was issued expelling anyone of Arab descent from the region. Taking no chances, the Spanish authorities then imported thousands of Christian settlers from as far away as Galicia and Asturias. Regions as remote and different from Andalusia as you can get in Spain.

Presumably the hope was that the new settlers would wipe out all traces of Islamic culture. I’m not sure they succeeded, the region feels different from other bits of Spain I’ve visited – although tourism may well succeed where religious fundamentalism failed. We’d been told that the most ‘authentic’ area of Las Alpujarras was to be found in the Poqueira Valley, a narrow gorge that is accessed by a steep and winding road.

Strung out high up the valley are three extraordinarily attractive and picturesque villages, the luminous white houses improbably clinging to the mountainside. The drive to the first village was an adventure in itself. The road to Pampaneira has numerous switchbacks and is very steep in places, but the nausea-inducing journey is worth it when you finally arrive.

Pampaneira was the busiest of the three villages, a fact underscored by the arrival of a tour bus as we sat drinking a coffee and eating pan con tomate in the fresh mountain air. There are cafes, restaurants, arts and crafts shops, and a very pleasant little church in the main square. If that was all you saw of the village, you wouldn’t be disappointed, but a walk through the narrow, steep streets gives you a real sense of the place.

Bubión, a little further up the mountain road, is smaller but equally picturesque. The top of the square church tower stands out against the mountain behind, and a walk through the village to reach the church square was fabulously atmospheric. Be warned though, the streets are steep and whenever you go down, you have to come back up again.

Although it was a hot sunny day, the tops of the mountains were covered in cloud, obscuring the fresh snow that had fallen. When we reached Capileira at the top of the valley, the cloud was descending and the sun disappeared. The temperature noticeably dropped the moment the sun went behind the cloud, but it didn’t spoil the magnificent views down the full length of the valley.

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Bubión, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Capileira, Las Alpujarras, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

At  1,436m in altitude, Capileira is considered to be one of the most traditional villages in the Alpujarra. It certainly felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. We sat and had a drink while drinking in the spectacular views, and made plans to return when the weather was a little warmer, and the trails into the mountains fully open.

Granada, 1492, a nation is born

The year 1492 is the stuff of legend in Western Europe. Even if history is a continuum, it was a year that marked a dramatic change in the course of world history. The Spanish Reconquista led by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, finally defeated the Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic kingdom in what had once been a vast Moorish empire covering most of Spain and Portugal.

It took eight months of siege warfare to force the surrender of Granada, and with it the collapse of Moorish rule. It was January 1492 and, after centuries of conflict, the fall of Al Andalus must have seemed like a pretty good start to the year for Ferdinand and Isabella. Liberated from reuniting the Iberian Peninsula under their rule, they turned their attentions to other things.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Fatefully for the peoples of the Americas, they decided to finance the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. The Italian explorer had been pleading with the two monarchs to support his plans for several years, the fall of Granada made that investment seem worthwhile. In August 1492 Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic. As the Moorish empire in Europe ended, Europe took its first steps to colonise the Americas.

The fall of the Emirate of Granada brought to an end nearly eight centuries of Moorish culture across the Iberian Peninsula. Despite the constant warfare, this was a period of extraordinary political, economic and artistic flourishing. It has bequeathed Spain a vast cultural legacy that can be summed up in three words: Cordoba, Granada, Seville.

All three cities preserve magnificent examples of Islamic rule – Cordoba’s Mezquita, Seville’s Alcázar and Granada’s Alhambra – but it’s in the narrow medina-like streets of the historic heart of these cities that Spain’s Islamic past truly comes alive. I’ve visited all three, and for pure atmosphere the cobbled streets, winding alleyways and narrow lanes of Granada’s Albaicín district are hard to beat.

This is a touristy part of town, but it didn’t seem too difficult to find ourselves walking alone on the cobbles, discovering pleasant squares, grabbing picturesque views of the Alhambra, and discovering lovely tapas bars. At night the tranquil, silent streets oozed atmosphere. It just needed the sound of the call to prayer from a minaret and we’d have been transported back to the 14th century.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

South of the Albaicín is El Realejo. Before all Spanish Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity or thrown out of the country, this was the historic old Jewish quarter. It’s a vibrant place with good tapas bars and bustling squares. We wandered through it on our way to explore the area around Granada’s enormous and imposing cathedral, another barrio worth spending some time in.

Granada’s cathedral was designed to make a statement. Commissioned by the same King Charles who added the Renaissance monstrosities to the Alhambra, it was never likely to be a subtle, simple building. It was constructed on the ruins of Granada’s Great Mosque, and was meant to send a message: Spain, with its newly conquered empire in the Americas, was the greatest of European powers.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The cathedral towers upwards but is hemmed in by narrow streets and houses. It’s hard to get a real sense of the whole building, and even the square outside the grand entrance does little to remove the feeling of claustrophobia. Maybe that’s the point, because, once inside, the vast interior space and white stone columns transcend the ordinary exterior.

As with Cordoba’s Mezquita, which had a church built in the middle of it, it’s hard not to judge the two architectural styles that have been handed down to contemporary Granada. While the Arabic Alhambra feels light and uplifting, Granada cathedral feels heavy and oppressive. As if to compensate, the area around here has a lot of lively bars and restaurants filled with happy crowds.

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada Cathedral, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

We spent our final night in the streets around the cathedral, carousing with the local crowds and trying the tapas specialities of each bar. The next day we would leave Granada to explore the Sierra Nevada’s pueblo blancos, where nightlife would be hard to find.