The scent of orange blossom, the swish of a flamenco dress, the glimpse of a white village perched atop a crag: memories of Andalucía linger.
The Essence of Spain
Immortalised in operas and vividly depicted in 19th-century art and literature, Andalucía often acts as a synonym for Spain as a whole: a sun-dappled, fiesta-loving land of guitar-wielding troubadours, reckless bullfighters, feisty operatic heroines and Roma singers wailing sad laments. While this simplistic portrait might be outdated, stereotypical and overly romantic, it does carry an element of truth. Andalucía, despite creeping modernisation, remains a spirited and passionate place where the atmosphere sneaks up and envelops you when you least expect it – perhaps as you're crammed into a buzzing tapas bar or lost in the depths of a flamenco performance.
A Cultural Marinade
Part of Andalucía's appeal springs from its peculiar history. For eight centuries the region sat on a volatile frontier between two faiths and ideologies: Christianity and Islam. Left to ferment like a barrel of the bone-dry local sherry, Andalucía underwent a cross-fertilisation that threw up a slew of cultural colossi: ancient mosques transformed into churches; vast palaces replete with stucco work; a cuisine infused with North African spices; hammams and teterías (teahouses) evoking the Moorish lifestyle; and a chain of lofty white towns that dominates the craggy landscape, from Granada's tightly knotted Albayzín to the hilltop settlements of Cádiz province.
It takes more than a few golf courses to steamroller Andalucía’s diverse ecology. Significant stretches of the region's coast remain relatively unblemished, especially on Cádiz' Costa de la Luz and Almería's Cabo de Gata. Inland, you’ll stumble into villages where life barely seems to have changed since playwright Federico García Lorca created Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding). Thirty per cent of Andalucía’s land is environmentally protected, much of it in easy-to-access parks, and these conservation measures are showing dividends. The Iberian lynx is no longer impossibly elusive; the ibex is flourishing; even the enormous lammergeier (bearded vulture) is again soaring above Cazorla's mountains.
One of Andalucía's most intriguing and mysterious attractions is the notion of duende, the elusive spirit that douses much of Spanish art, especially flamenco. Duende loosely translates as a moment of heightened emotion that takes you out of yourself, experienced during an artistic performance, and it can be soulfully evoked in Andalucía if you mingle in the right places. Seek it out in a Lorca play at a municipal theatre, an organ recital in a Gothic church, the hit-or-miss spontaneity of a flamenco peña (club) or Málaga's remarkable art renaissance.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Andalucía.
The Alhambra is Granada’s – and Europe’s – love letter to Moorish culture. Set against the brooding Sierra Nevada peaks, this fortified palace started life as a walled citadel before becoming the opulent seat of Granada’s Nasrid emirs. Their showpiece palaces, the 14th-century Palacios Nazaríes, are among the finest Islamic buildings in Europe and, together with the Generalife gardens, form the Alhambra's great headline act. Tickets sell out, so book ahead; you’ll have to choose a time to enter the Palacios Nazaríes. The origins of the Alhambra, whose name derives from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle), are mired in mystery. The first references to construction in the area appear in the 9th century but it’s thought that buildings may already have been standing since Roman times. In its current form, it largely dates to the 13th and 14th centuries when Granada's Nasrid rulers transformed it into a fortified palace complex. Following the 1492 Reconquista (Christian reconquest), its mosque was replaced by a church and the Habsburg emperor Charles V had a wing of palaces demolished to make space for the huge Renaissance building that still bears his name. In the early 19th century, French Napoleonic forces destroyed part of the palace and attempted to blow up the entire site. Restoration work began in the mid-1800s and continues to this day. Palacio de Carlos V & Around From the southeastern entrance pavilion, a signposted path leads into the core of the complex, passing the 15th-century Convento de San Francisco, now the Parador de Granada hotel, where the bodies of Isabel and Fernando were laid to rest while their tombs were being built in the Capilla Real. A short walk further on brings you to the Iglesia de Santa María de la Alhambra, built between 1581 and 1618 on the site of the Alhambra's mosque. Beyond the church, the Palacio de Carlos V clashes spectacularly with its surroundings. The hulking palace, begun in 1527 by the Toledo architect Pedro Machuca, features a monumental facade and a two-tiered circular courtyard ringed by 32 columns. Inside the palace are two museums: the Museo de la Alhambra, which showcases an absorbing collection of Moorish artefacts, including the wood-carved door from the Sala de Dos Hermanas, and the excavated remains of the Acequia Real (Royal Water Channel); and the Museo de Bellas Artes, with 15th- to 20th-century artworks. Alcazaba Occupying the western tip of the Alhambra are the martial remnants of the Alcazaba, the site's original 13th-century citadel. The Torre de la Vela (Watchtower) is famous as the tower where the cross and banners of the Reconquista were raised in January 1492. A winding staircase leads to the top where you can enjoy sweeping views over Granada's rooftops. Palacios Nazaríes The Alhambra's stunning centrepiece, the palace complex known as the Palacios Nazaríes, was originally divided into three sections: the Mexuar, a chamber for administrative and public business; the Palacio de Comares, the emir's official and private residence; and the Palacio de los Leones, a private area for the royal family and harem. Access is limited to 300 people every half hour. Entrance is through the Mexuar, a 14th-century hall where the council of ministers would sit and the emir would adjudicate citizens' appeals. Two centuries later, it was converted into a chapel, with a prayer room at the far end. Look up here and elsewhere to appreciate the geometrically carved wood ceilings and elegant tiling. From the Mexuar, you pass into the Patio del Cuarto Dorado, a courtyard where the emirs gave audiences, with the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room) on the left, looking out on the Albayzín. Opposite the Cuarto Dorado is the entrance to the Palacio de Comares through a beautiful facade of glazed tiles, stucco and carved wood. A dogleg corridor (a common strategy in Islamic architecture to keep interior rooms private) leads through to the Patio de los Arrayanes (Courtyard of the Myrtles). This elegant patio, named after the myrtle hedges around its rectangular pool, is the central space of the palace built in the mid-14th century as Emir Yusuf I’s official residence. The southern end of the patio is overshadowed by the walls of the Palacio de Carlos V. To the north, in the 45m-high Torre de Comares (Comares Tower), the Sala de la Barca (Hall of the Boat), with its sculpted ceilings, leads into the Salón de los Embajadores (Chamber of the Ambassadors; also the Salón de Comares), where the emirs would have conducted negotiations with Christian emissaries. The room's domed marquetry ceiling contains more than 8000 cedar pieces in an intricate star pattern representing the seven heavens of Islam. The Patio de los Arrayanes leads into the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), built in the second half of the 14th century under Muhammad V. The palace rooms branch off the Patio de los Leones (Lion Courtyard), centred on an 11th-century fountain channelling water through the mouths of 12 marble lions. The courtyard layout, using the proportions of the golden ratio, demonstrates the complexity of Moorish geometric design – the 124 slender columns that support the ornamented pavilions are placed in such a way that they are symmetrical on numerous axes. Of the four halls around the patio, the Sala de los Abencerrajes, on the south side, is the most impressive. Boasting a mesmerising octagonal stalactite ceiling, this is the legendary site of the murders of the noble Abencerraj family, whose leader, the story goes, dared to dally with Zoraya, Abu al-Hasan's favourite concubine. At the eastern end of the patio is the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings), which has three leather-lined ceiling alcoves painted by 14th-century Christian artists. The central alcove is thought to depict 10 Nasrid emirs. On the patio’s northern side is the richly decorated Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters), probably named after the slabs of white marble flanking its fountain. It features a dizzying muqarnas (honeycomb-vaulted) dome with a central star and 5000 tiny cells, reminiscent of the constellations. The carved wood screens in the upper level enabled women (and perhaps others involved in palace intrigue) to peer down from hallways above without being seen. At its far end, the tile-trimmed Mirador de Daraxa (Daraxa Lookout) was a lovely place for palace denizens to look on the garden. From the Sala de Dos Hermanas, a passageway leads through the Estancias del Emperador (Emperor's Chambers), built for Carlos V in the 1520s, and later used by the American author Washington Irving. From here descend to the Patio de la Reja (Patio of the Grille) and the Patio de la Lindaraja, where, in the southwest corner you can peer into the Baño Real de Comares bathhouse, lit by star-shaped skylights. You eventually emerge into the Jardines del Partal, an area of terraced gardens laid out at the beginning of the 20th century. Here a reflecting pool stands in front of the Palacio del Partal, a small porticoed building with its own tower (the Torre de las Damas) dating to the early 14th century. Generalife The Generalife, the sultans' gorgeous summer estate, dates to the 14th century. A soothing ensemble of pathways, patios, pools, fountains, trees and, in season, flowers of every imaginable hue, it takes its name from the Arabic jinan al-‘arif, meaning 'the overseer’s gardens'. A string of elegant rectangular plots with tinkling water features, the Jardines Nuevos, leads up to the whitewashed Palacio del Generalife, the emirs’ summer palace. The courtyards here are particularly graceful: the first, the Patio de la Acequia, has gorgeous gardens and distant views of the Palacios Nazaríes, while in the second one, the Patio de la Sultana, the trunk of a 700-year-old cypress tree suggests the delicate shade that would once have graced the area. Beyond this courtyard, the Escalera del Agua is a delightful work of landscape engineering with water channels running down a shaded staircase.
A magnificent marriage of Christian and Mudéjar architecture, Seville’s royal palace complex is a breathtaking spectacle. The site, which was originally developed as a fort in 913, has been revamped many times over the 11 centuries of its existence, most spectacularly in the 14th century when King Pedro added the sumptuous Palacio de Don Pedro, still today the Alcázar’s crowning glory. More recently, the Alcázar featured as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series. Note that long entry queues are the norm here. To cut waiting time, it pays to pre-purchase tickets at www.alcazarsevilla.org. The Alcázar started life in the 10th century as a fort for the Cordoban governors of Seville but it was in the 11th century that it got its first major rebuild. Under the city’s Abbadid rulers, the original fort was enlarged and a palace known as Al-Muwarak (the Blessed) was built in what’s now the western part of the complex. Subsequently, the 12th-century Almohad rulers added another palace east of this, around what’s now the Patio del Crucero. The Christian king Fernando III moved into the Alcázar when he captured Seville in 1248, and several later monarchs used it as their main residence. Fernando’s son Alfonso X replaced much of the Almohad palace with a Gothic one and then, between 1364 and 1366, Pedro I created his stunning namesake palace. Patio del León Entry to the complex is through the Puerta del León (Lion Gate) on Plaza del Triunfo. Passing through the gateway, which is flanked by crenellated walls, you come to the Patio del León (Lion Patio), which was the garrison yard of the original Al-Muwarak palace. Off to the left before the arches is the Sala de la Justicia (Hall of Justice), with beautiful Mudéjar plasterwork and an artesonado (ceiling of interlaced beams with decorative insertions). This room was built in the 1340s by the Christian king Alfonso XI, who disported here with one of his mistresses, Leonor de Guzmán, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Spain. It leads to the pretty Patio del Yeso, part of the 12th-century Almohad palace reconstructed in the 19th century. Patio de la Montería Dominated by the facade of the Palacio de Don Pedro, the Patio de la Monteria owes its name (The Hunting Courtyard) to the fact that hunters would meet here before hunts with King Pedro. Rooms on the western side of the square were part of the Casa de la Contratación (Contracting House), founded in 1503 to control trade with Spain’s American colonies. The Salón del Almirante (Admiral’s Hall) houses 19th- and 20th-century paintings showing historical events and personages associated with Seville. The room off its northern end has an international collection of beautiful, elaborate fans. The Sala de Audiencias (Chapter House) is hung with tapestry representations of the shields of Spanish admirals and Alejo Fernández’ celebrated 1530s painting Virgen de los mareantes ( Madonna of the Seafarers). Cuarto Real Alto The Alcázar is still a royal palace. In 1995 it hosted the wedding feast of Infanta Elena, daughter of King Juan Carlos I, after her marriage in Seville’s cathedral. The Cuarto Real Alto (Upper Royal Quarters), the rooms used by the Spanish royal family on their visits to Seville, are open for guided tours (€4.50; half hourly 10am to 1.30pm; booking required). Highlights of the tours, which are conducted in either Spanish or English, include the 14th-century Salón de Audiencias, still the monarch’s reception room, and Pedro I’s bedroom, with marvellous Mudéjar tiles and plasterwork. Palacio de Don Pedro This palace, also known as the Palacio Mudéjar, is Seville's single most stunning architectural feature. King Pedro, though at odds with many of his fellow Christians, had a long-standing alliance with the Muslim emir of Granada, Mohammed V, the man responsible for much of the decoration at the Alhambra. So when Pedro decided to build a new palace in the Alcázar in 1364, Mohammed sent many of his top artisans. These were joined by others from Seville and Toledo. Their work, drawing on the Islamic traditions of the Almohads and caliphal Córdoba, is a unique synthesis of Iberian Islamic art. Inscriptions on the palace’s facade encapsulate the collaborative nature of the enterprise. While one, in Spanish, announces that the building’s creator was the ‘highest, noblest and most powerful conqueror Don Pedro, by God's grace King of Castilla and León', another proclaims repeatedly in Arabic that ‘there is no conqueror but Allah'. At the heart of the palace is the sublime Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens), surrounded by beautiful arches, plaster work and tiling. The sunken garden in the centre was uncovered by archaeologists in 2004 from beneath a 16th-century marble covering. To the north of the patio, the Alcoba Real (Royal Quarters) feature stunningly beautiful ceilings and wonderful plaster and tile work. Its rear room was probably the monarch’s summer bedroom. Continuing on brings you to the covered Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls), the heart of the palace’s private quarters, featuring delicate Granada-style decoration; indeed, plaster work was actually brought here from the Alhambra in the 19th century, when the mezzanine and top gallery were added for Queen Isabel II. The Cuarto del Príncipe (Prince’s Suite), to its north, has an elaborate gold ceiling intended to recreate a starlit night sky. The most spectacular room in the Palacio, and indeed the whole Alcázar, is the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors), south of the Patio de las Muñecas. This was originally Pedro I’s throne room, although the fabulous wooden dome of multiple star patterns, symbolising the universe, was added later in 1427. The dome’s shape gives the room its alternative name, Sala de la Media Naranja (Hall of the Half Orange). On the western side of the Salón, the beautiful Arco de Pavones, named after its peacock motifs, leads onto the Salón del Techo de Felipe II, with a Renaissance ceiling (1589–91), and beyond, to the Jardín del Príncipe (Prince's Garden). Palacio Gótico (Salones de Carlo V) Reached via a staircase at the southeastern corner of the Patio de las Doncellas is Alfonso X’s much remodelled 13th-century Gothic palace. The echoing halls here were designed for the 16th-century Spanish king Carlos I and are now known as the Salones de Carlos V (after his second title as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). Of the rooms, the most striking is the Salone de los Tapices, a vaulted hall with a series of vast tapestries. Patio del Crucero Beyond the Salone de los Tapices, the Patio del Crucero was originally the upper storey of a patio from the 12th-century Almohad palace. Initially it consisted only of raised walkways along its four sides and two cross-walkways that met in the middle. Below grew orange trees, whose fruit could be plucked at hand height by the lucky folk strolling along the walkways. The patio’s lower level was built over in the 18th century after it suffered earthquake damage. Gardens On the other side of the Salone de los Tapices are the Alcázar’s gardens. Formal gardens with pools and fountains sit closest to the palace. From one, the Jardín de la Danza (Garden of the Dance), a passage runs beneath the Salones de Carlos V to the photogenic Baños de Doña María de Padilla (María de Padilla Baths). These are the vaults beneath the Patio del Crucero – originally the patio’s lower level – with a grotto that replaced the patio’s original pool. One of the gardens' most arresting feature is the Galeria de Grutesco, a raised gallery with porticoes fashioned in the 16th century out of an old Islamic-era wall. There is also a fun hedge maze, which will delight children. The gardens to the east, beyond a long wall, are 20th-century creations, but no less heavenly for it.
It’s impossible to overemphasise the beauty of Córdoba’s great mosque, with its remarkably serene (despite tourist crowds) and spacious interior. One of the world's greatest works of Islamic architecture, the Mezquita hints, with all its lustrous decoration, at a refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side and enriched their city with a heady interaction of diverse, vibrant cultures. Arab chronicles recount how Abd ar-Rahman I purchased half of the Visigothic church of San Vicente for the Muslim community’s Friday prayers, and then, in AD 784, bought the other half on which to erect a new mosque. Three later extensions nearly quintupled the size of Abd ar-Rahman I's mosque and brought it to the form you see today – with one major alteration: a Christian cathedral plonked right in the middle of the mosque in the 16th century (hence the often-used description ‘Mezquita-Catedral’). Patio de los Naranjos This lovely courtyard, with its orange, palm and cypress trees and fountains, forms the entrance to the Mezquita. It was the site of ritual ablutions before prayer in the mosque. Its most impressive entrance is the Puerta del Perdón, a 14th-century Mudéjar archway next to the bell tower. The Mezquita's ticket office is just inside here. Bell Tower (Torre Campanario) You can climb the 54m-high bell tower for fine panoramas and an interesting bird's-eye angle on the main Mezquita building. Up to 20 people are allowed up the tower every half hour from 9.30am to 1.30pm and 4pm to 6.30pm (to 5.30pm November to February; no afternoon visits in July or August). Tickets (€2) are sold on the inner side of the Puerta del Perdón, next to the tower: they often sell out well ahead of visit times, so it's a good idea to buy them early in the day. Originally built by Abd ar-Rahman III in 951–52 as the Mezquita's minaret, the tower was encased in a strengthened outer shell and heightened by the Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries. You can still see some caliphal vaults and arches inside. The original minaret would have looked something like the Giralda in Seville, which was practically a copy. Córdoba’s minaret influenced all minarets built thereafter throughout the western Islamic world. The Mezquita's Interior The Mezquita’s architectural uniqueness and importance lies in the fact that, structurally speaking, it was a revolutionary building for its time. Earlier major Islamic buildings such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus placed an emphasis on verticality, but the Mezquita was intended as a democratically horizontal and simple space, where the spirit could be free to roam and communicate easily with God – a kind of glorious refinement of the original simple Islamic prayer space (usually the open yard of a desert home). Men prayed side by side on the argamasa, a floor made of compact, reddish slaked lime and sand. A flat roof, decorated with gold and multicoloured motifs, was supported by striped arches suggestive of a forest of date palms. The arches rested on, eventually, 1293 columns (of which 856 remain today). Useful leaflets in several languages are available free just inside the door by which visitors enter. Abd ar-Rahman I’s initial prayer hall – the area immediately inside today's visitor entrance – was divided into 11 ‘naves’ by lines of arches striped in red brick and white stone. The columns of these arches were a mishmash of material collected from the earlier church on the site, Córdoba’s Roman buildings and places as far away as Constantinople. To raise the ceiling high enough to create a sense of openness, inventive builders came up with the idea of a two-tier construction, using taller columns as a base and planting shorter ones on top. Later enlargements of the mosque, southward by Abd ar-Rahman II in the 9th century and Al-Hakim II in the 960s, and eastward by Al-Mansur in the 970s, extended it to an area of nearly 14,400 sq metres, making it one of the biggest mosques in the world. The arcades' simplicity and number give a sense of endlessness to the Mezquita. The final Mezquita had 19 doors along its north side, filling it with light and yielding a sense of openness. Nowadays, nearly all these doorways are closed off, dampening the vibrant effect of the red-and-white double arches. Christian additions to the building, such as the solid mass of the cathedral in the centre and the 50 or so chapels around the fringes, further enclose and impose on the airy space. Mihrab & Maksura Like Abd ar-Rahman II a century earlier, Al-Hakim II in the 960s lengthened the naves of the prayer hall, creating a new qiblah wall (indicating the direction of Mecca) and mihrab (prayer niche) at the south end. The bay immediately in front of the mihrab and the bays to each side form the maksura, the area where the caliphs and courtiers would have prayed. The mihrab and maksura are the most beautifully and intricately decorated parts of the whole mosque. The greatest glory of Al-Hakim II’s extension was the portal of the mihrab – a crescent arch with a rectangular surround known as an alfiz. For the portal’s decoration, Al-Hakim asked the emperor of Byzantium, Nicephoras II Phocas, to send him a mosaicist capable of imitating the superb mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the great 8th-century Syrian Umayyad buildings. The Christian emperor sent the Muslim caliph not only a mosaicist but also a gift of 1600kg of gold mosaic cubes. Shaped into flower motifs and inscriptions from the Quran, this gold is what gives the mihrab portal its magical glitter. Inside the mihrab, a single block of white marble sculpted into the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol of the Quran, forms the dome that amplified the voice of the imam throughout the mosque. The arches of the maksura are the mosque’s most intricate and sophisticated, forming a forest of interwoven horseshoe shapes. Equally attractive are the maksura ’s skylit domes, decorated with star-patterned stone vaulting. Each dome is held up by four interlocking pairs of parallel ribs, a highly advanced technique for 10th-century Europe. Cathedral Following the Christian conquest of Córdoba in 1236, the Mezquita was used as a cathedral but remained largely unaltered for nearly three centuries. But in the 16th century King Carlos I gave the cathedral authorities permission to rip out the centre of the Mezquita in order to construct a new Capilla Mayor (main altar area) and coro (choir). Legend has it that when the king saw the result he was horrified, exclaiming that the builders had destroyed something unique in the world. The cathedral took nearly 250 years to complete (1523–1766) and thus exhibits a range of architectural fashions, from plateresque and late Renaissance to extravagant Spanish baroque. Among the later features are the Capilla Mayor's rich 17th-century jasper and red-marble retable (altar screen), and the fine mahogany stalls in the choir, carved in the 18th century by Pedro Duque Cornejo. Night Visits A one-hour sound-and-light show (www.elalmadecordoba.com), in nine languages via audio guides, is presented in the Mezquita twice nightly except Sundays from March to October, and on Friday and Saturday from November to February. Tickets are €18 (senior or student €9).
Seville’s showpiece church is awe-inspiring in its scale and majesty. The world’s largest Gothic cathedral, it was built between 1434 and 1517 over the remains of what had previously been the city’s main mosque. Highlights include the Giralda, the mighty bell tower, which incorporates the mosque’s original minaret, the monumental tomb of Christopher Columbus, and the Capilla Mayor with an astonishing gold altarpiece. Audio guides cost €3. Note also that children under nine are not permitted on rooftop tours. You can also tour the cathedral's stained glass windows – see the website for details and booking. The history of the cathedral goes back to the 15th century but the history of Christian worship on the site dates to the mid-13th century. In 1248, the Castilian king Fernando III captured Seville from its Almohad rulers and transformed their great 12th-century mosque into a church. Some 153 years later, in 1401, the city’s ecclesiastical authorities decided to replace the former mosque, which had been damaged by an earthquake in 1356, with a spectacular new cathedral: 'Let's construct a church so large future generations will think we were mad', they quipped (or so legend has it). The result is the staggering cathedral you see today, officially known as the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. It’s one of the world’s largest churches and a veritable treasure trove of art, with notable works by Zurbarán, Murillo, Goya and others. Exterior With its immense flying buttresses and Gothic embellishments, the cathedral's exterior provides a suitably dramatic shell for the treasures within. Pause to look at the Puerta del Perdón (now the cathedral's exit) on Calle Alemanes, which is one of the few remaining elements of the original mosque. Sala del Pabellón Selected treasures from the cathedral’s art collection are exhibited in this room, the first after the ticket office. Much of what’s displayed here, as elsewhere in the cathedral, is the work of masters from Seville’s 17th-century Golden Age. Tomb of Christopher Columbus Once inside the cathedral proper, head right until you come to the tomb of Christopher Columbus (the Sepulcro de Cristóbal Colón) in front of the Puerta del Príncipe (Door of the Prince). The monument supposedly contains the remains of the great explorer, but debate continues as to whether the bones are actually his. Columbus’ remains were moved many times after his death (in 1506 in Valladolid, northern Spain), and there are those who claim his real bones lie in Santo Domingo. Certainly his bones spent time in the Dominican Republic after they were shipped to Spanish-controlled Hispaniola from their original resting place, the Monasterio de la Cartuja, in 1537. However, they were later sent to Havana and returned to Seville in 1898. DNA testing in 2006 proved a match between the bones supposed to be Columbus' and bones known to be from his brother Diego. And while that didn’t conclusively solve the mystery, it strongly suggested that the great man really is interred in the tomb that bears his name. Sacristía de los Cálices To the right of Columbus' tomb are a series of rooms containing some of the cathedral’s greatest masterpieces. First up is the Sacristy of the Chalices, behind the Capilla de los Dolores, where Francisco de Goya’s painting of the Sevillan martyrs, Santas Justa y Rufina (1817), hangs above the altar. Sacristía Mayor Next along is this large room with a finely carved stone cupola, created between 1528 and 1547. Pedro de Campaña’s 1547 El descendimiento ( Descent from the Cross), above the central altar at the southern end, and Francisco de Zurbarán’s Santa Teresa, to its right, are two of the cathedral’s most precious paintings. Also look out for the Custodia de Juan de Arfe, a huge 475kg silver monstrance made in the 1580s by Renaissance metal smith Juan de Arfe. Sala Capitular The circular chapter house, also called the Cabildo, features a stunning carved dome and a Murillo masterpiece, La inmaculada, set high above the archbishop’s throne. The room, whose design was inspired by Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, was built between 1558 and 1592 as a venue for meetings of the cathedral hierarchy. Also impressive is the Antecabildo with its decorated vaulted ceiling. Capilla Mayor Even in a church as spectacular as this, the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel) stands out with its astonishing Gothic retable, reckoned to be the world's largest altarpiece. Begun by Flemish sculptor Pieter Dancart in 1482 and finished by others in 1564, this sea of gilt and polychromed wood holds more than 1000 carved biblical figures. At the centre of the lowest level is a tiny 13th-century silver-plated cedar image of the Virgen de la sede (Virgin of the See), patron of the cathedral. Coro West of the Capilla Mayor and dominating the central nave is the 16th-century Coro (Choir). This giant box-like structure incorporates 114 elaborately wooden seats in Gothic-Mudéjar style and a vast organ. Capilla de San Antonio The chapels along the sides of the cathedral hold yet more artistic treasures. Of particular note is the Capilla de San Antonio, at the western end of the northern aisle, housing Murillo’s gigantic 1656 depiction of the Visión de San Antonio de Padua ( Vision of St Anthony of Padua). The painting was victim of a daring art heist in 1874. Giralda In the northeastern corner of the cathedral you’ll find the entry to the Giralda. The climb to the top involves walking up 35 ramps, built so that the guards could ride up on horseback, and a small flight of stairs at the top. Your reward is sensational rooftop views. The decorative brick tower, which tops out at 104m, was the minaret of the mosque, constructed between 1184 and 1198 at the height of Almohad power. Its proportions, delicate brick-pattern decoration, and colour, which changes with the light, make it perhaps Spain’s most perfect Islamic building. The topmost parts – from bell level up – were added in the 16th century, when Spanish Christians were busy ‘improving on’ surviving Islamic buildings. At the very top is El Giraldillo, a 16th-century bronze weather vane representing ‘faith', that has become a symbol of Seville. Patio de los Naranjos Outside the cathedral’s northern flank, this patio was originally the mosque's main courtyard. It’s planted with 66 naranjos (orange trees), and has a small Visigothic fountain in the centre. Look out for a stuffed crocodile hanging over the courtyard's doorway – it's a replica of a gift the Sultan of Egypt gave Alfonso X in around 1260.
This unmissable museum in the city of Picasso’s birth provides a solid overview of the great master and his work, although, surprisingly, it only came to fruition in 2003 after more than 50 years of planning. The 200-plus works in the collection were donated and loaned to the museum by Christine Ruiz-Picasso (wife of Paul, Picasso’s eldest son) and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso (Picasso's grandson) and catalogue the artist’s sparkling career with a few notable gaps (the ‘blue’ and ‘rose’ periods are largely missing). Nonetheless, numerous gems adorn the gallery’s lily-white walls. Highlights include a painting of Picasso’s sister Lola undertaken when the artist was only 13; sculptures made from clay, plaster and sheet metal; numerous sketches; a quick journey through cubism; and some interesting late works when Picasso developed an obsession with musketeers. The museum, which is housed in the 16th-century Buenavista Palace, has an excellent cafe and holds revolving temporary exhibitions.
It’s hard to imagine the surreal world that lies beneath the mountain foothills 4km east of Nerja, and it’s even harder to believe that these vast caverns weren’t discovered until five local chicos (young men) who had gone out looking for bats stumbled across an opening in 1959. Hollowed out by water around five million years ago and once inhabited by Stone Age hunters, this theatrical wonderland of extraordinary rock formations, subtle shifting colours, and stalactites and stalagmites is evocative of a submerged cathedral. About 14 buses run daily from Málaga and Nerja, except on Sunday. Alternatively you can take a mini tourist train from Nerja's museum, or you can walk (there's pavement all the way). The whole site is well organised for visitors, with restaurants, a car park and a short walking trail above the caves. A full tour of the caves takes about 45 minutes. Note that there's no extra charge for guided tours.
One of Andalucía's most fabulous beaches, Punta Paloma, 10km northwest of Tarifa, is famous for its huge blond sand dune. At its far western end, you can lather yourself up in a natural mud bath.
Housed in a grand Mannerist palace, the former Convento de la Merced, the Museo de Bellas Artes is one of Spain's premier art museums. Its collection of Spanish and Sevillan paintings and sculptures comprises works from the 15th to 20th centuries, but the focus is very much on brooding religious paintings from the city's 17th-century Siglo de Oro (Golden Age). Works are displayed in chronological order, with the Golden Age masterpieces clustered in salas V to X. The most visually arresting room is the convent's former church ( sala V), hung with paintings by masters of the Sevillan baroque, above all Murillo. His Inmaculada concepción (aka La Colosal; 1650) at the head of the church displays all the curving, twisting movement so central to baroque art. Other artists represented include Pacheco (teacher and father-in-law of Velázquez), Juan de Valdés Leal, Zurbarán (look for his deeply sombre Cristo crucificado, c 1630–35) and sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés. Elsewhere, look out for El Greco's portrait of his son Jorge Manuel (c 1600–05), Velázquez's Cabeza de apóstol (1620), and a portrait by Goya in sala XI. For a change of subject matter, push on to sala XII where Gonzalo Bilbao’s Las cigarreras ( The Cigarette Makers; 1915) is one of several canvases depicting scenes of Sevillan life.
A glorious oasis of green, the 34-hectare Parque de María Luisa is the perfect place to escape the noise and heat of the city, with duck ponds, landscaped gardens and paths shaded by soaring trees. The land, formerly the estate of the Palacio de San Telmo, was donated to the city in the late 19th century and developed in the run-up to the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana. Amidst the lush gardens, the park contains several notable drawcards. Chief among them is Plaza de España, the most flamboyant of the building projects completed for the 1929 Expo. A vast brick-and-tile confection, it features fountains, mini-canals, and a series of gaudy tile pictures depicting historical scenes from each Spanish province. You can hire row boats to pootle around the plaza's canals for €6 (for 35 minutes). In the south of the park, the Museo Arqueológico has some wonderful Roman sculptures, mosaics and statues – many gathered from the archaeological site of Itálica just outside Seville. Opposite is the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, dedicated to local customs, costumes and traditions. The park is a great place for children to let off steam and families to bond over a bike ride – four-person quad bikes are available to hire for €14 per half-hour.