The perfect trip: Andalucía
The rugged mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema hide peaks, valleys and gorges and pretty villages, making them perfect walking territory. (Yadid Levy)
On this journey, from the cities of Spain’s south to its quiet country trails, we sample flamenco and sherry, Islamic architecture, pristine beaches and mountain scenery.
Seville: Best for flamenco
Seville is the soul of Andalucía, and flamenco is its soundtrack. This beguiling city, southern Spain's largest, is Andalucía at once writ large and in microcosm: grand tapestries in stone - monuments to Spain's Islamic and imperial Christian past - watch over intimate squares, all dressed in white and shaded by orange trees. But architecture tells only half the story in this place where so many peculiarly Spanish passions - bullfighting, fiestas and flamenco - find their most vivid expression.
It was in the area surrounding Seville that flamenco was born among gitanos (Roma people) in the late 18th century. And to this day the true test of flamenco's authenticity, the guitar legend Paco de Lucía told a Spanish newspaper in 2009, is that it must 'sound like Andalucía, its people and its traditions'.
Passion stands at the heart of the genre. 'Up on stage, I'm in my own world,' says María José Vargas, a bailaora (flamenco dancer) at Tablao El Arenal, who has been dancing flamenco since she was 10. 'But whenever I catch a glimpse of someone crying in the audience, that's when I know I'm dancing well.'
The live show at the Tablao - amid a formal, slightly old-world atmosphere, with bow-tied waiters and hand-painted posters from early 20th-century Seville - is love and tragedy rendered in musical form. Dancers such as María José, with her head as still as a sprinter's, flowers in her hair and polka dots on her dress, share a public camaraderie on stage with blacksuited male guitarists and singers. The delicacy of the hands and mesmerising quickness of the feet, the overwrought facial expressions and rapid shifts in tempo produce a performance in which the distance between ecstasy and agony is barely discernible.
The tablaos (flamenco shows) can be expensive, but come with a guarantee of professional performers. In contrast, crowded flamenco bars with no scheduled performances carry a magical spontaneity. Casa Anselma, across the river in the old flamenco barrio (district) of Triana, is beloved by aficionados who every night launch into impromptu performances.
And, according to María José, therein lies Seville's secret as Spain's top flamenco destination: 'Seville is special, partly because of flamenco's strong roots here, but also because there's so much more variety than anywhere else. And in a special Seville touch, we dress up for the occasion.'
Tablao El Arenal: admission, show and drink £33; Calle Rodo 7; performances at 8pm and 10pm daily (tablaoelarenal.com). Casa Anselma: admission free, Pagés del Corro 49; open from midnight Monday to Saturday (sevilla5.com).
Where to eat
El Rinconcillo: one of Seville's oldest tapas bars specialising in cured meats and cheeses; tapas from £2 (elrinconcillo.es).
Where to stay
Music of a different kind is the inspiration for the family-run Hotel Amadeus, where some of the rooms have been soundproofed for piano or violin practice. The rooms are fine adaptations of an 18th-century sevillano mansion, and the location - in the heart of the Barrio de Santa Cruz but slightly removed from its clamour - couldn't be better (from £80; hotelamadeussevilla.com).
Jerez de la Frontera: Best for sherry
There are many reasons to visit Jerez de la Frontera - the ornate and decaying whitewashed buildings at every turn, the Islamic-era Alcázar fortress crowning its summit, and the city's role as southwestern Andalucía's heartbeat, thanks to its extravagant embracing of flamenco and thoroughbred Andalucian horses. But none of these reasons is more compelling than the city's promise of the perfect sherry.
Jerez (known as 'Sheris' in medieval Muslim times), along with Sanlucar de Barrameda to the west and El Puerto de Santa María to the south, is the centrepiece of Andalucía's world-renowned Sherry Triangle. Here, a combination of climate and chalky soils provides the ideal conditions for sherry production - the town is home to more than 20 bodegas (wineries or wine cellars).
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