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2005-11-15 Let loose on magical Andalusia

God created the earth in six days, and on the seventh, he created Andalusia.

 

At least, that is what my taxi-driver in Granada claimed anyway. I wondered how many other people around the globe claim that about their homeland. Spain has so many distinct regions, many of whom dream of breaking away and claiming independence. The most vocal of these separatists of course are the Basques, who have never felt Spanish, and feel like aliens on the Iberian Peninsula. The Catalunyans proudly boast their own unique language and traditions. Galicia is greener, and more Celtic in its origins and customs, like Brittany and Ireland.

Andalusia is the size of Portugal, and stretches from Portugal right across to the east coast of Spain. This is the home of Carmen, de Falla, Lorca, Segovia, and the setting for some of Don Quixotes mysterious travels. Andalusia is the true home of bullfighting (you cant win them all), flamenco, elaborate fiestas and religious processions, tapas and sherry, as well as a huge assortment of costas with such famous resort-names as Estepona, Puerto Banus, Marbella, Fuengirola and Torremolinos. Andalusia has some of Spains finest art and architecture, breathtaking national parks and nature reserves, the highest mountain peaks on mainland Spain, and the deserts near Alméria, made famous in the wild west films and spaghetti westerns.

A few years ago, I was disappointed when I visited the geographically and historically controversial Gibraltar. Cádiz, on the other hand, once briefly the Spanish capital, is possibly Europes oldest city, and one of Andalusias most enticing. Moorish influences are everywhere in Andalusia, and the big three cities of this region, with its wealth of Hispano-Islamic architecture, are Córdoba (with the mind-blowing Mezquita), Seville (with its magical Alcázar), and Granada (with its astounding Alhambra). It was principally Granada I had wanted to experience on this visit.

I arrived in Malaga airport, courtesy of our national airline, secured a record-cheap car-hire deal (E15 a day) thanks to www.carjet.com, and drove through the spectacular Sierra Nevada to spend two days in this enchantingly dreamy city (meriting a separate column). For the remainder of my time in the province of Granada, within Andalusia, I was fortunate to stay in a friends apartment, about fifty minutes from Malaga, on the beachfront, in the horseshoe bay of La Herradura on the Costa Tropical. Granada provinces coastline is rugged and cliffy. Palatial and humble residences appear to hang precariously from cliff-edges. I went in August, temperatures were high, beachfronts were buzzing, but it was still possible to dine in the evening on the beach, to the restful lapping of Mediterranean waters. A near vertical descent to the neighbouring naturist beach of Playa Cantarijuan frightened even this intrepid explorer. And no, I didnt get them off.

The southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada are known as Las Alpujarras, offering magnificent mountain scenery. As I drove up and up, around treacherous hairpin bends, 1,500 metres above sea-level, air-conditioning on full, it was difficult to imagine these arid hillsides as snowbound winter ski-resorts. The Pueblos Blancos, oasis-like villages whitewashed in the Moorish tradition, perch on hillsides, defying erosion above this wrinkled landscape, like mystic ornaments on a vast patchwork quilt sprinkled with chestnuts, walnuts and poplars. Compact, flat-rooved, whitewashed houses, with their characteristic conical chimneys, are grouped together in clusters. These are working agricultural towns in the fertile uplands of Las Alpujarras. I stopped every few miles at a viewpoint, always reminding myself when I got back into the car, that I had parked my car in gear, so as not to take a closer look at the valley, vertical miles below me.

Trevelez is, perhaps, Spains highest village, the gateway to the Upper Sierra Nevada and the winter ski-slopes, and was as high as I drove. Trevelez lies in the shadow of Mulhácen  mainland Spains highest mountain, at 3,500 metres. The mountain village souvenir shops display brightly-coloured hand-woven rugs, local ceramics, as well as the usual souvenir tack. Trevelez is famous for its ham, cured in the dry mountain air. Hundreds of pig legs suspended from shop and restaurant ceilings are at times ominous and disturbing, one in particular which seemed to only have left legs. I barely touched the surface in my recent Andalusian trip, and realise I could probably never see all this magical region has to offer.