ORNA Cunningham embraces the emotion as she heads in from the Costa del Sol to a different world in Andalusia.
Tears start to prick my eyes. Before I know it, fat drops are rolling down my cheeks. I can feel my face turning red – I’m in a cathedral, in a small Spanish town and it’s not really the ideal venue for a good Wednesday morning cry.
My colleagues have started sniggering. Even the live performer, whose eloquent tale of love, betrayal and double suicide has prompted my watery reaction, looks faintly embarrassed.
But the story she’s acting out is a tragic one which took place in romantic Antequera, a town in Andalusia, Spain, and concerns Lovers’ Rock.
The mountain is located in the near distance, visible from the hilltop castle and eerily resembles the profile of a man’s face lying on its side.
Two star-crossed lovers – a Muslim girl and a Christian boy – leapt from its peak, rather than face religious persecution and separation, hundreds of years previously.
Civilisation began in Andalusia with the Romans and made its way through through the Moors and Roman Catholicism, several mass expulsions of Jews, the Spanish Inquisition and built era upon era, brick upon column and reclaimed land from the sea.
Andalusia itself is a startlingly beautiful province. Home to the major cities of Malaga and the capital Seville, it’s located at the bottom of the country, on the Iberian Peninsula.
Economically speaking, Spain is in a similar boat to Ireland – if not a much leakier one. Speaking to our Dublin-based tour operator, I ask her if it’s nice to be immersed in crowds speaking Spanish again.
She nods, but adds sadly that now, people there are mostly talking about the economic crisis.
Historically, Andalusia has been one of the poorer regions of Spain, and from the unfinished La Mantiqua (one-armed) cathedral in Malaga alone, it’s clear the money has dried up in many areas of society.
However, one thing that Andalusia is certainly rich in is culture.
Many things considered classically Spanish (like bullfighting and flamenco) are largely Andalusian in origin.
In Cordoba, a city of two distinct sides – a modern district, and a labyrinthine older town – dancers stamp late into the night on the stage at El Cardenal, including a Michael Jackson type, suited, booted and adept at flirting with his audience.
Religion and iconography are markers of Spain’s most prevalent religion, Roman Catholicism, and churches are gilded testaments to the power of faith.
Huge altars abound, and cherubs, angels and popes in gold, plaster, paint and mahogany, adorn walls and ceilings. Statues of saints and the holy family stand watchfully over hallowed halls of prayer, wearing intricately crafted and sewn robes.
Andalusia offers a wealth of regional foodie delights too. They’re not keen on butter or salt, preferring instead locally-produced, flavourful olive oil. Their soups – the most famous of which is salmurejo, a thick tomato dish best slurped noisily and similar to gezpacho – are thickened with bread and served cold.
Their diets are expansive too, with sumptuous Iberian pork a feature on all menus. Spaniards are masterful cooks, and their meat and fish dishes are equally tasty.
Hacienda Olontigi in Aznalcazar serves this delicious traditional fare in its intimate surroundings (which comprise five guesthouses and a pool), and is an oasis of calm only 20 minutes from Seville by bus.
The area in which it is situated includes 70km of walking trails, and the town’s mayor is enhancing its appeal, having convinced a local stud owner to open up horse riding to the public within the next year.
Cordoba offers incredible attentive service as well as more local delicacies, at El Churasso Restaurant and Casa Palacio Bandolero. Try Churasso’s steak, which comes with a hot plate to reheat as you eat.
And don’t leave out dessert – the Leche Frita, or fried milk, is a particular treat. As for Casa Palacio, try everything.
The tapas menu is huge, and real thought has gone into the savoury, fresh food. Marvellously, the proprietor of Coso de San Francisco in Antequera is keeping the old dishes alive.
This restaurant can’t be missed for Spanish food, as it was cooked hundreds of years ago.
Finally, Malaga’s seaside is beautiful, with deep blue waters, and the cafes lining the beach serve marine specialties. Try the fish tapas (and enjoy eating with your hands!).