Andalucía – Exploring Southern Spain

Andalucía

the Andalucía region of SpainEarlier this year, we took a trip to the south of Spain, to visit Andalucía. This region is responsible for many of the stereotypes associated with Spain. E.g., flamenco, bullfighting, and the Moorish influenced architecture (it was under Moorish rule from the 8th-15th centuries). As we traveled though Andalucía, we began to feel a better sense of this amazing country. We saw olive orchards that seemed to go on forever. Green pastures with the famous fighting bulls (toro de lidia). Snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada, with their views of the shore of northern Africa in the distance. 

During this two-week trip, we visited Córdoba, Granada, Ronda, and Sevilla, and each had their own rich culture and identities. We visited during winter to avoid the extremely hot temperatures and the busiest times for tourists. Temperatures in Andalucía routinely exceed 40C/104F in summer!

There was a lot to like about Andalucía, but the surprise for us was the food. Tapas are delicious yet cheap, and so is the wine and beer. We absolutely loved this trip, and intend to return to Andalucía in warmer months. We want to experience the southern coast and towns like Málaga, Marbella, Cádiz, and Huelva.

Córdoba

Córdoba is best known for La Mezquita, a huge Moorish mosque built in late 700 A.D.  At one time, Moors and the Christians shared the space before it was converted into a Catholic cathedral in the 1200s. Due to this mixed heritage it’s a fascinating, yet odd, combination of Islamic and Catholic architecture.

Córdoba is also known for it’s courtyards or “patios.” The residents leave their doors open hoping you will peek in to their beautiful courtyards, with their fountains, greenery and flowers. They are really into their courtyards, so they have an annual competition known as the “Battle of Flowers” (Batalla de las Flores) in May. We were in Córdoba during a courtyard tour, and got to step into about ten courtyards around the city. They’re beautiful, and inspired us to put some more effort into our own courtyard back in San Jose.

We happened across El Patio De La Juderia where we enjoyed our first Flamenco show. While eating a delicious dinner at our table near the stage, the 4 performers clapped, sang, and danced with intense energy. It was very entertaining!  

Don’t miss the famous (and gigantic) Spanish tortilla de patatas at taberna Bar Santos, across from La Mezquita. People wait in long lines to get a slice of this, and gobble it up while sipping their wine or beer standing outside the taberna. We saw the line and figured it must be good (it was), and lunch for under 4€ (~$4) is not too bad.

  • La Mezquita

Granada

On our first day in Granada we spent about half the day touring the Alhambra, an enormous and exquisitely-preserved palace and fortress with great views over all of Granada. The Alhambra was built by the Moorish kings starting in the mid-13th century, and the name means Red Castle in Arabic. This is a place even kids will find interesting, with lots of cool architecture and gardens. You need to book tickets in advance online, as it’s popular and hard to get into without a reservation.

We spent several enjoyable hours wandering through the Albayzín, the old Muslim quarter. It’s a maze of old winding streets, sprinkled with cafés and many hippies. The traditional houses in the Albayzín, called “cármenes” make this area very distinctive. A cármen is a house with a garden of grape vines and fruit trees, and a high wall that separates it from the street.

Bars and restaurants in Spain typically give a small snack when you order a drink, e.g., peanuts or olives, at no additional cost. Yet in Granada, they provide a real and substantial tapa with every drink order. Tapas are small dishes meant to be shared, and can be almost anything. The Spanish are serious about their tapas, and even have a verb for going for tapas – tapear.  Back to Granada – it’s brilliant – as long as you keep ordering rounds of drinks, the free tapas keep coming. Tapas in Granada are sized for the number of people drinking. Typically, a beer or glass of wine is 2-3€ (~$2-3), and it is common to bar hop. Tip: ask your waiter to bring you a local wine by the glass that pairs well with your free tapa. 

If you want a little break from tapas, or are looking for a fresh and really inexpensive meal, try the Shawarma King. It was really delicious, and we were happy to get our middle eastern food fix.

We also took a day trip to the snow, to the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range and ski resort. A one-hour bus ride away, you are transported to the southern-most skiing in all of Europe. It was a bargain too. While in the US it’s common for lift tickets to cost $120+, here in Europe they’re normally under 50€ (~$50). The skiing was very good that day!

Preparing to leave Granada we realized we forgot to bring our international driver’s licenses, required for renting the car we’d reserved. It was a good chance to try Blah Blah Car (a ride sharing service) to get us to Ronda, our next destination. We booked the night before and had a great three hour drive with Juan the bombero (fire fighter). As we sped through the countryside of Andalucía, vibrant green and beautiful, endless stretches of olive trees covered the land. Juan told us that most of the olive oil and much of the wine in Europe comes from Spain, but is bottled and labeled elsewhere.

  • A view of the Albayzín neighborhood from the Alhambra

Ronda

Ronda is a small, often overlooked, typical Andalucían town, built atop a dramatic high cliff, “El Tajo”. It’s famous for bullfighting, and the Puerto Nuevo bridge which spans the gorge. Ernest Hemingway and Orson Wells spent time here, and their bronze busts are next to the Plaza de Toros (the bullfighting arena). 

We do not recommend arriving in Ronda on New Year’s Eve without a dinner reservation. We walked around inquiring about availability and discovered the Catalonia Reina Hotel, a beautiful hotel overlooking El Tajo. For our first Spanish New Year we splurged and booked their New Year’s Eve party, which included dinner and dancing. We sat at a table with 7 interesting Spaniards from all over Spain. Our companions were kind and patient with our beginner Spanish, and we had a great time meeting new people. We decided to start a new family tradition of eating 12 grapes at the bells of midnight.

Wandering the streets of the town and hiking below the bridge in the gorge was a great way to spend a day. Ronda is definitely a good place for a short stopover when visiting the region of Andalucía. Consider staying at the Parador de Ronda to enjoy the view of El Tajo. Spain’s Paradors are luxury hotels, usually located in a converted historic building such as a monastery or castle.

  • Ronda's main square

Sevilla

Sometimes described as the Paris of Spain, Sevilla is Spain’s 4th largest city. We fell in love with the Santa Cruz neighborhood, and for a couple of days wondered whether we could live there. In Valencia the weather is much more pleasant, so we’re staying.

We toured the Real Alcázar de Sevilla, a royal palace, originally built by the Moorish kings (no surprise!). One of the funniest moments of the trip – while walking into the Alcazar, our 9 year old son said, “let me guess: this place was built by the Romans, taken over by the Moors, and then by the Catholics.” Game of Thrones fans – the Alcázar is the setting for Sunspear, the capital of Dorne, and its Water Gardens.

We enjoyed the touristy row boats at the Plaza de España. The adjacent Maria Louisa park is highly recommended for its play structures and beautiful walking paths.

  • Canal de Alfonso XIII viewed from Triana

Wow – The Food in Sevilla!

The food was definitely the highlight of Sevilla. Of the Spanish cities we’ve visited, Sevilla has the best and least expensive tapas we’ve experienced. Each night we hopped from one restaurant to another for wine and tapas until we were full. The majority of everything we tried seemed high-quality, was delicious, and inexpensive.

Eating tapas at Bodeguita Romero, we had the good fortune to meet blogger and food critic, Shawn Hennessey. She recommended some good dishes, introduced us to the owner, and generally made our experience better that night. She also gave us several great restaurant recommendations for Sevilla. Her Instagram account has an endless stream of mouth-watering pictures of tapas and food from her travels.

Since we’ve raved about the food, here are our best recommendations for tapas in Sevilla:

  • Bodeguita Romero was our favorite tapas experience in Sevilla

While we traveled through Andalucía for nearly 2 weeks, we enjoyed ourselves and weren’t ready for it to end. We already know we want to return so we can enjoy more of the best food in Spain (so far). We can’t wait to see if that holds up as we explore more of Spain.

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