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).
In the cellar of Bodegas Tradición, a niche producer of aged sherries, amid the gloom of 625-litre casks of American oak, the temperature is 25°C, while the thermometer outside edges close to 40°C. The smell of sherry is overwhelming.
In the tasting room, among artworks by Goya and Velázquez and ceramic tiles painted by an eight-year-old Picasso, visitors eagerly try the produce. Among the bodega's most sought-after sherries is the Palo Cortado, which has a smoky smell and an aftertaste of dried fruit. Its full-bodied Oloroso somehow combines vanilla, ginger and the smell of Christmas and old wood. Sherry, more than any other wine, requires human intervention at every step along the way. And José (Pepe) Blandino, Bodegas Tradición's cellar master, who has worked in the industry for almost five decades, treats his sherries like his own offspring. 'When we start out, the wines are like little children. We have to teach them how to grow, to help them through the varying stages of getting older. It takes a lot of time and hard work, so that they can become adults we can be proud of.'
But even Pepe admits that each person's response to the final product is as important, and as personal, as his own role in the process. 'We can simply show people what to look for. But the only standard that really matters is whether or not you like it.'
Where to eat
La Carboná: the décor evokes a cavernous wine cellar and its set menu is a lesson in sherry etiquette (set menu £25; lacarbona.com).
Where to stay
The four-star Hotel Bellas Artes occupies a small, converted 17th-century palace, and combines historic character with a central location. Behind the light sandstone façade, architectural features such as the soaring ceilings point to a distinguished past, while warm colour schemes and modern bathrooms ensure contemporary comforts. In summer, the rooftop terrace (with Jacuzzi) has fine views of the cathedral's spires (from £45; hotelbellasartes.com).
Sierra de Grazalema: Best for walking
Cities may provide the drama amid the rolling hill country of western Andalucía, but in the east, where the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema rises from quiet rural byways like an apparition, the natural world takes over. Great buttresses of rock silhouetted against the clouds soar above a forested landscape tinged with green even when the rest of Andalucía turns yellow under a baking summer sun.
Two whitewashed villages serve as gateways to the inner sierra. Grazalema, the largest of the region, is an ideal base for exploration, its narrow white lanes and terracotta roofs set against a backdrop of high mountains. And Zahara de la Sierra is one of Andalucía's most striking villages, sashaying up a craggy, castletopped peak in the park's northern reaches. But in the Sierra de Grazalema they play second fiddle to the cinematic beauty of the landscape that surrounds them. Countless trekking routes weave through the park, of which La Garganta Verde (the Green Throat), accessible off the road between Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra, is the most spectacular.
The initial trail, gently dropping through densely wooded country, provides few hints as to what lies ahead. Then, the final descent through the gorge begins, with steep rock-hewn steps climbing down towards the base, towering cliffs either side. Lush stands of trees and rocks shiny with moss evoke the sense of a kingdom hidden from the outside world, an eerie sensation heightened by the brooding presence of griffon vultures watching over the gorge.
'Few people associate hiking in Europe with the chance to see wildlife,' says Pedro López, a local naturalist. 'But in the Sierra de Grazalema, we almost have our own ecosystem. It's not just the vultures; there are so many birds, especially in spring or autumn when migrating species funnel through the mountains on their way from or to Africa. There's also a good chance of seeing ibex if you get away from the road.'
ven if you don't, the narrow passes connecting the villages lead over high mountain passes, drawing near to some of Spain's prettiest mountain scenery.
Hiking La Garganta Verde requires a free permit from the Centro de Visitantes El Bosque - contact them up to two weeks in advance in summer (00 34 956 72 70 29).
Where to eat
The game at Mesón El Simancón, from venison and quail to wild boar, is served up alongside more traditional meats such as beef and ham, all of which can be enjoyed on the terrace (mains £5-£15; Plaza Asomaderos; elsimancon.com).
Where to stay
At the top end of Grazalema village, the five-room La Mejorana hotel is reason enough to come to the Sierra de Grazalema. With the atmosphere of a mountain lodge and the quality of a hotel, La Mejorana has a swimming pool and good village views from its terrace, while the rooms have simple wood and wrought-iron furnishings (from £50; lamejorana.net).
Tarifa: Best for beaches
On mainland Spain's southern tip, a world away from the overdeveloped resorts of its Mediterranean coast, elemental Tarifa restores the country's reputation for having the best beaches in all of Europe. Cooled by Atlantic breezes and backed by forested hills, the beaches that dot the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light) are continental in scope: across the water, Morocco seems within swimming distance. 'It's a fascinating place, where two oceans meet and two continents almost touch,' says Katharina Heyer, Tarifa resident for the past 13 years and president and founder of firmm (the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals). 'But what's the most special thing about Tarifa? It is pure nature.'
About six miles from Tarifa's beautiful old town, nature certainly seems to dominate the broad sweep of sand that is the Playa de los Lances. Locals and visitors on horseback splash through the waves, while wildlife encounters of a different kind take place out at sea.
Between Europe and Africa, an array of dolphin species swim alongside longfinned pilot whales and endangered fin whales. Orcas call by in July and August, and sperm whales between April and July. Aboard the whale-watching boats that set sail from Tarifa, there are gasps when an ocean giant glides into view. With the Costa de la Luz as backdrop, this is one of Europe's greatest wildlife shows.
Firmm's whale-watching trips include a wildlife briefing (£25; firmm.org).
Where to eat
Locals flock to Restaurante La Olla, where the outdoor tables offer a front-row seat to the activity of Tarifa's port (paellas from £9; bodegalaolla.com).
Where to stay
On a quiet lane in Tarifa's whitewashed old town, Posada La Sacristía, a converted 17thcentury townhouse, is one of the loveliest accommodation choices in Spain's south. The ten large, high-ceilinged rooms bear elegant traces of Moorish and Thai Buddhist inspiration, and there's a spa, restaurant and bar on site. The hotel can also help organise various seaside activities, from horseriding and cycling to whale-watching and windsurfing (from £100; lasacristia.net).
Granada: Best for architecture
Granada is where Andalucía's enduring historical legacy is brought to life. For more than seven centuries, Christian monarchs and the Islamic rulers of Al-Andalus battled over the Iberian Peninsula. And it was Granada - the capital of Islamic Spain until its final defeat in 1492 - that came to be the symbol of the sophistication of Al-Andalus.
Exquisite in the intensity of its detail, extravagant in its scope, the Alhambra palace is the culmination of a vision - of paradise, of earthly power, and of the vanity of attempting to combine the two. It is at once a pleasure palace built by rulers who imagined that Islamic rule would last forever, and a formidable defensive fortress because they feared it wouldn't.
To visit the Alhambra is to walk with wonder through storied halls added down through the centuries by rulers eager to leave their mark upon history. In the Nasrid Palaces, a palace complex within the palace complex, the combination of building materials (wood, stone, ceramics and plaster) with traditional Islamic forms (intricate calligraphy, stuccoed ceilings and interwoven geometric patterns) reaches a point close to perfection.
María del Mar Villafranca, the director of the government body charged with conserving the Alhambra, cautions visitors not to rush past the façade of the Palacio de Comares: 'So many of the Alhambra's signature decorative forms are on display here,' she says. She points to the Patio de Arrayanes and the Patio de los Leones as her other highlights. Another indulgence is to rest in the shade in the Alhambra's gardens, enjoying a sense of quiet refinement alongside the perfectly proportioned pools of water.
The Alhambra's graceful use of space finds a counterpoint across the valley in the tangle of lanes that make up the old Islamic quarter, the Albayzín, where cobblestone thoroughfares pass beneath high white walls that suggest more than they reveal: here, a jasmine-scented garden; there, a forgotten palace. The quarter is filled with the smell of incense and tobacco, with the sounds of shouted commerce and hushed conversation in candlelit tea rooms. The Alhambra's rare beauty also works its final magic in the Albayzín, from the Mirador de San Nicolás lookout.
'What I love most about the Alhambra is its harmonious relationship between architecture and landscape,' Ms Villafranca says. With the Alhambra set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada, it's easy to see what she means.
Up to 6,600 tickets to the Alhambra are available each day, but only one-third are sold at the ticket office (£11); start queuing by 7am to get one. Book in advance through Alhambra Advance Booking (alhambra-tickets.es) or ServiCaixa (servicaixa.com).
Where to eat
Find fine Moroccan food in the lower (western) Albayzín at Restaurante Arrayanes, with good couscous, tagine and pastelas, but no alcohol. Here, heartfelt Arabic music and glittering, mirrored décor transport you to Morocco (mains from £10; Cuesta Marañas 4; granadainfo.com/arrayanes).
Where to stay
Arranged around an enclosed patio and occupying a 15th-century Albayzín mansion, Hotel Casa Morisca has modern rooms, some with partial Alhambra views from the balconies; the rooftop Mirador room has great views. The 10-minute walk into town passes along the river below the Alhambra (from £75; hotelcasamorisca.com).
Las Alpujarras: Best for hilltop villages
Las Alpujarras is where the fame of Andalucía's whitewashed villages (los pueblos blancos) was born. Since being immortalised in Gerald Brenan's 1920s South from Granada, which told tales of isolated villages inhabited by curious characters, the area has drawn Europeans eager to escape the modern world.
One of them, Frenchman Jean-Claude Juston, owner of L'Atelier (a vegetarian restaurant and cookery school in the village of Mecina), arrived in 1992. 'I first came here by complete chance to rest and read,' he says. 'And I fell in love with the area, because of the almost permanent sunshine, the natural beauty of its Berber villages, the warmth of its local residents, the silence, and the clean air and transparent waters.'
Little has changed since Jean-Claude arrived. Throughout the region, uniformly white villages have colonised the most unlikely terrain, clinging to steep slopes and seemingly at risk of sliding into the canyons below. The three villages of the Poqueira gorge - Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira - in particular rank among the most dramatically sited pueblos.
Away from the main roads, old men in berets and black-clad women watch the world go by, while donkeys walk along otherwise deserted main streets, flowers cascade from window boxes and people greet each other, friend or stranger.
But it's the transition from winter to summer that Jean-Claude loves most about life here. 'The flowers of spring give way to summers that smell of fireworks, village fiestas and a serious increase in the population as all the family homes reopen. At night, there are reunions, and people play cards and dominoes, eat together, sing - and sometimes there's even dancing in the streets.' It is as if the very heart of Andalucía spills out over the mountains.
There are tourist offices in Órgiva, Pampaneira and Capileira. For more information on L'Atelier, visit ivu.org/atelier.
Where to eat
Restaurante Ibero-Fusión serves Andalucian, Arabic and Indian food, with great views from the upstairs dining room (mains from £8; Calle Parra 1, Capileira; 00 34 958 76 32 56).
Where to stay
High on the hill above Capileira, serenaded by the sound of trickling water and cowbells, Cortijo Catifalarga promises gorgeous views from its grounds and the terraces of its rooms. In a building of local stone, the rooms blend simplicity with regional architectural features. From the restaurant and breakfast room, you can see Africa on a clear day (from £50; catifalarga.com).
Anthony Ham has contributed to more than 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks, including Spain.
The article 'The perfect trip: Andalucía' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.