Sunday 28 December 2014

Andalucia: Fiesta for the senses

We explore the stunning vistas and buildings that continue to charm visitors to Spain's Andalucia

Cleo Murphy

Published 18/08/2013 | 05:00

The Alhambra palace complex sits on a hilltop overlooking Granada.
Seville's imposing cathedral.
Colourful flowers cover the whitewashed walls fo a Cordoba property.

You can fill up your senses in Andalucia: gorgeous art for the eyes, flamenco for the ears and paella for the belly. And after a morning at the small Picasso Museum, my head is swirling from colours, shapes and distorted faces.

Although the artist turned his back on his hometown at 19, and never returned, the city of Malaga honours him with this building, housing the art collection of his grandson Bernard. It is a small, beautifully proportioned museum, which offers a modest sample of his work – nothing too overwhelming.

Still, my eyes have had enough and my stomach is now rumbling. In a small laneway, a waiter serves up a plate of paella, the rice yellow and glistening, along with a generous glass of hearty red wine. All for €7. Malaga is making a good first impression and there is so much more of Andalucia yet to explore.

A bus runs from the main station to Antequera. It's a simple Spanish town, with none of the fabulous sites that its surrounding city sisters can claim, but it's a great base for making day trips to Seville, Cordoba, Ronda and Granada.

The Spain of our imagination is usually a hot-blooded, dramatic place, and that passion is found most in Andalucia. This homeland of bullfighting and flamenco attracts macho men and feisty women.

Ronda bears this out. The town is set on a frightening precipice, on top of which is the sparse, white bullring. There's no fighting on the day we visit, so I take a picnic lunch up to the stalls and sit there contemplating the simple empty circle that on another day will be filled with blood-thirsty humans baying for the blood of the bull.

The Mezquita mosque in Cordoba is an example of some of Europe's most beautiful Islamic architecture.

It's reminiscent of Christians and lions; a base form of entertainment.

And yet Ernest Hemingway insisted that bullfighting was an art form. It was Ronda that inspired his books 'Death in the Afternoon', about bullfighting, and 'For Whom the Bell Tolls', a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Actor Orson Welles was another who loved to frequent Ronda for the bullfighting.

It is now banned in Catalonia and discouraged in other parts of Spain but, love it or hate it, bullfighting lives on in Andalucia.

In Cordoba, we're faced with different challenges to our sensibilities. It's home to some of the most beautiful Islamic architecture in Europe. The Mezquita was once a massive mosque. Rows and rows of pillars and arches, in pale yellow and terracotta, stretch on to a back wall, somewhere out of view. The atmosphere is prayer-like in spite of the tourists.

The Moors arrived in Spain in 711 and stayed until the fall of Granada in 1492, by which time the Christian reconquest was complete. As part of the reconquest, a section of the Mezquita was converted into a Christian cathedral.

The conversion was sanctioned from afar by the Emperor Charles V in the 1500s before he had seen the expanse of the mosque and its unique architecture. He bitterly regretted his decision when he saw what had been destroyed to make space for the cathedral.

You share that regret on your stroll through the Mezquita, when you turn a corner and are faced with an ornate, Renaissance-style church. It appears like a savage attack on a sacred place.

Not that the Christians had the monopoly on ostentatiousness. The Mezquita also features the intricate mosaics of Islam in the Mihrab on the far wall. Next to it is the Christian treasury with religious artefacts in new-world gold.

There are few places in the world where you can encounter such contrasting religious art under one roof and within a few footsteps. Here, Islam and Christianity stand on an almost equal footing – except that the religious services are Christian only. Even today, some of Spain's 1.5 million Muslims are lobbying the Vatican for permission to pray at the Mezquita.

Later that evening, we are treated to a flamenco performance. The dancers give it their all with flashing eyes, wrists flicking the castanets and stomping heels stirring our blood.

But flamenco is not solely about dancing. It is a three-part performance incorporating song (cante), dance (baile) and guitar (toque), and within it there are variations for the regions and the seasons. This I learn from a Dublin man in our group, who has studied flamenco for years. His wife tells me he plays flamenco on guitar; he modestly dismisses any ability but is eager to share his knowledge and love for it.

Another musical genre has a feisty Sevillian factory girl as its heroine. The opera 'Carmen' was written by French composer Georges Bizet, based on a novella by fellow Frenchman Prosper Merimee, but at its heart is the wild passion of Andalucia. Carmen was a woman to be reckoned with, and dangerous with a knife.

The cigarette factory where Carmen and her friends worked is no fiction. When tobacco arrived from the new world, Seville developed a manufacturing business rolling the leaves into snuff and trading it throughout Europe.

The first Royal Tobacco Factory was completed in the mid-18th century, but 200 years later it was deemed too beautiful – and probably too unsuitable – for use as a factory, so it was converted into a university building in 1950. It's located on San Francisco Street.

As a place to visit, Seville is overwhelmingly beautiful. The cigarette factory is one of many imposing buildings. Plaza de Espana is another – a series of buildings constructed for the 1929 World Fair which pull on Renaissance and Moorish influences.

Far more casual is Granada. In spite of being home to the Alhambra, downtown Granada is a less imposing, more accessible place to explore, particularly around the Carrera del Darro – an old street on the bank of the little Darro river. Here you'll find funky little bars and artisans' outlets. It is a place of small alleys and humble old Moorish dwellings, in contrast with the Alhambra itself.

Set on a hilltop over the city, this magnificent palace complex remains one of the highlights of any visit to Andalucia. One impressive room leads to another, with fountains, marble, stucco and Islamic architecture showing how the other half lived.

The only thing wrong with the Alhambra is that you will have to share this very evocative space with a large number of fellow tourists, but this is not reason enough to skip it.

Perhaps it is location that has fertilised the culture of Andalucia. It is the very southern part of Spain, almost reaching out to touch Morocco, far from the centre of mainland Europe. Often such outcrops are a law unto themselves, places where the old culture of a nation survives long after it has been diluted at the centre.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there Cleo Murphy toured Andalucia with Travel Department (01-637 1600; traveldepartment.ie) on its seven-night ‘Highlights of Andalucia’ trip. Flights leave from a number of Irish airports into Malaga.

Accommodation is in the four-star Hotel Antequera Golf, from where excursions are organised to Granada, Seville and Cordoba, as well as a tour of Antequera itself.

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