Granada, Córdoba, and Spain's Costa del Sol
Andalucía’s Moorish heritage sparkles in the historic capitals of Granada and Córdoba. And the pride of the Reconquista and the power of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand enliven the region’s great sights. Tasting the smooth sherry and marveling at prancing stallions, we find the passion in Andalusian culture. And we top it off with fun in the Spanish sun on the Costa del Sol.
The Alhambra (Granada)
This last and greatest Moorish palace is one of Europe’s top sights. Attracting up to 8,000 visitors a day, it’s the reason most tourists come to Granada. Nowhere else does the splendor of Moorish civilization shine so beautifully. While Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, Moorish magnificence blossomed — ornate stucco, plaster “stalactites,” colors galore, scalloped windows framing Granada views, exuberant gardens, and water, water everywhere.
Same-day tickets to the Alhambra’s main sight, the Palacios Nazaries, are virtually never available — reservations are essential. If you’re not prepared, you could become one of the untold number of tourists who show up in Granada…and never see its main sight. You have three main options to ensure that you get into the Palacio during your stay. The easiest is the Bono Turístico city pass, which lets you choose virtually any entry time, even the same day. You can also visit the Palacio at night, when it’s rarely sold out. Or you can make a reservation (book through your hotelier or order online).
Royal Chapel (Granada)
The lavish Royal Chapel holds the dreams — and bodies — of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand. Their marriage united the Aragon and Castile kingdoms, allowing an acceleration of the Christian and Spanish push south. The chapel is Plateresque Gothic — light and lacy silver-filigree style, named for and inspired by the fine silverwork of the Moors.
Alcaicería (Granada’s silk market)
Originally a Moorish silk market with 200 shops, the Alcaicería was filled with precious salt, silver, spices, and silk. Silk was huge in Moorish times, and silkworm-friendly mulberry trees flourished in the countryside. It was such an important product that the sultans controlled and guarded it by constructing this fine, fortified market. Today’s Alcaicería was rebuilt in the late 1800s as a tourist souk (marketplace) to complement the romantic image of Granada popularized by the writings of Washington Irving. Explore the mesh of tiny shopping lanes: overpriced trinkets, popcorn machines popping, men selling balloons, leather goods spread out on streets, kids playing soccer, barking dogs, dogged shoe-shine boys, and the whirring grind of bicycle-powered knife sharpeners.
Explore Spain’s best old Moorish quarter, with countless colorful corners, flowery patios, and shady lanes. While the city center of Granada — which is pleasant enough — feels more or less like many other Spanish cities, the Albayzín is unique. You can’t say you’ve really seen Granada until you’ve at least strolled a few of its twisty lanes. Climb high to the San Nicolás church for the best view of the Alhambra. Then wander through the mysterious back streets.
The striking and inviting Great Mosque of Granada is just next to the San Nicolás viewpoint. Visitors are welcome in the courtyard, which offers Alhambra views without the hedonistic ambience of the more famous San Nicolás viewpoint.
San Nicolás Viewpoint (Granada)
Be here at sunset, when the Alhambra glows red and the Albayzín widows share the benches with local lovers, hippies, and tourists. In 1997, President Clinton made a point to bring his family here--a favorite spot from a trip he made as a student. But this was hardly an original idea; generations of visitors have been drawn here. For an affordable drink with the same million-euro view, step into the El Huerto de Juan Ranas Bar. Enjoy the Roma (Gypsy) musicians who perform here for tips. Order a drink, tip them, settle in, and consider it a concert.
Balcony of Europe (Nerja)
The bluff is the center of Nerja’s paseo and a magnet for street performers. The mimes, music, and puppets can draw bigger crowds than the Balcony itself, which overlooks the Mediterranean, miles of coastline, and little coves and caves below. A castle, and later a fort, occupied this spot from the ninth century until the earthquake of 1884. Now it’s a people-friendly view terrace.
For 30 years, Ayo — a lovable ponytailed bohemian who promises to be here until he dies — has been feeding locals. Ayo is a very big personality — one of the five kids who discovered the Nerja Caves, formerly a well-known athlete, and now someone who makes it a point to hire hard-to-employ people as a community service. The paella fires get stoked up at about noon and continue through mid-afternoon. Grab one of a hundred tables under the canopy next to the rustic open-fire cooking zone, and enjoy the beach setting in the shade with a jug of sangria (Playa de Burriana, tel. +952-522-289).
This massive former mosque — now with a 16th-century church rising up from the middle — was once the center of Western Islam and the heart of a cultural capital that rivaled Baghdad and Istanbul. A wonder of the medieval world, it’s remarkably well-preserved, giving today’s visitors a chance to soak up the ambience of Islamic Córdoba in its 10th-century prime.
Isabel Martinez Richter
Isabel is a charming archaeologist who loves to make Córdoba come to life for curious Americans (mobile +669-369-645, email@example.com).
Bodegas Campos (Córdoba)
This place is a historic and venerable house of eating, attracting so many locals it comes with its own garage. It’s worth the 10-minute walk from the tourist zone. They have a stuffy and expensive formal restaurant upstairs, but I’d eat in the more relaxed and affordable tavern on the ground floor. The service is great and the menu is inviting. In two visits I nearly ate my way through the offerings, a half-ración at a time, and enjoyed each dish. Experiment — you can’t go wrong. Don’t leave without exploring the sprawling complex, which fills 14 old houses that have been connected to create a network of dining rooms and patios, small and large. The place is a virtual town history museum: Look for the wine barrels signed by celebrities and VIPs, the old refectory from a convent, and a huge collection of classic, original feria posters and great photos.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves. For many travelers, the quintessence of Spain is found here — Andalucía. The sounds, sights, and experiences of southern Spain are shaped by waves of history. Join us as we enjoy the food, music, dance, and art of perhaps Europe’s most passionate corner — Andalucía.
For many, a trip to Andalucía starts and ends here, on the beach. Sure, the Costa del Sol is great fun — and we’ll be back for a break later. But I enjoy the heart and soul of this multi-faceted region in the interior.
After splashing on the sun-soaked beach, we’ll dance flamenco in a street party, slice ham as if it’s a gift from heaven, stumble onto a midnight procession, admire the splendor of a former Moorish mosque, cook paella for the entire neighborhood, shake our castanets to fiery Gypsy music, and marvel at the Alhambra.
Just north of Africa, Spain sits in the southwest corner of Europe. In its far south is the region of Andalucía. We start in Granada, enjoy Nerja on the Costa del Sol, and finish in Córdoba.
Sprawling at the foot of the snow-capped Sierra Mountains, Granada is a thriving city of about 300,000 people. Visitors focus on its old center, where life has a gentility that belies its illustrious past.
Once the grandest city in Spain, its power ebbed and glory faded. It was appreciated mostly by Romantic Age artists and poets. Today, it has a Deep South feel — a relaxed vibe that seems typical of once-powerful places now past their prime. In the cool of the early evening, the community comes out and celebrates life on stately yet inviting plazas.
The story of Granada is all about the Islamic Moors. In the year 711, these North African Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and quickly conquered the Iberian Peninsula, eventually converting most of its inhabitants. Throughout the Middle Ages — for over 700 years — Spain was a predominantly Muslim society, living under Muslim rule.
And that age shapes today’s sightseeing agenda. Granada’s dominant sight is the Alhambra, the last and greatest Moorish palace. Nowhere else does the splendor of that civilization, Al-Andalus, shine so brightly.
For two centuries, until 1492, Granada reigned as the capital of a dwindling Moorish empire. As Christian forces pushed the Moors further and further south, this palace was the last hurrah of a sophisticated civilization.
While the rest of Europe slumbered through much of the Middle Ages, the Moorish civilization was wide awake. The math necessary to construct this palace would have dazzled Europeans of that age.
The Moors made great gains in engineering, medicine, and even classical Greek studies. In fact, some of the great thinking of ancient Greece had been forgotten by Europe, but was absorbed into Islam, and actually given back to Europe via scholars here in Spain.
The culture of the Moors was exquisite…artfully combining both design and aesthetics.
Facing a reflecting pond, the Hall of the Ambassadors was the throne room. It was here that the sultan, seated Oz-like, received foreign emissaries. Its wooden ceiling illustrates a command of geometry. With 8,000 pieces inlaid like a giant jigsaw puzzle, it symbolizes the complexity of Allah’s infinite universe.
Arabic calligraphy, mostly poems and verses of praise from the Quran, is everywhere. Muslims avoid making images of living creatures — that’s God’s work. But decorating with religious messages is fine. One phrase — “only God is victorious” — is repeated 9,000 times throughout the Alhambra.
Like the sultan, we can escape from the palace into what was the most perfect Arabian garden in Andalucía. This royal summer retreat, lush and bursting with water, was the closest thing on earth to the Quran’s description of heaven. In fact, its name — the Generalife — meant essentially that: the Garden of Paradise.
Water — so rare and precious in most of the Islamic world — was the purest symbol of life. Whether providing for its 2,000 thirsty residents, masking secret conversations, or just flowing playfully, water was integral to the space the Alhambra created.
For centuries, Europe struggled to push the Moors back into Africa. This campaign was called the Reconquista. Finally, in 1492, the Moors were defeated. The victorious Christian forces established their rule with gusto here in this last Muslim stronghold.
This victory helped provide the foundation for Spain’s Golden Age. Within a generation, Spain’s king, Charles V, was the most powerful man in the world.
After the re-conquest, Charles built this Renaissance palace incongruously right in the middle of the Alhambra grounds. It’s what conquering civilizations do: build their palace atop their foe’s palace. This circle-in-a-square structure was the finest Renaissance palace in all of Spain.
And back downtown, Granada’s cathedral facade — also built shortly after the re-conquest — declares triumph as well. In fact, its design is based on a triumphal arch, and it was built over a destroyed mosque.
The adjacent Royal Chapel is Granada’s top Christian sight. This fine building provided a fitting resting place for Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, who ruled during the final Reconquista victory. Spaniards consider this couple the first great Spanish royals.
When these two married, they combined their huge kingdoms. And by merging Aragon and Castile, they founded what became modern Spain. With this powerful new realm, Spanish royalty were able to finance many great explorers — including Columbus — and establish Spain’s Golden Age.
The royal tombs are Renaissance in style. The portraits of Isabella and Ferdinand are vital and realistic. They seem to celebrate the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance, and with it, a promising future for Spain.
The gilded altar is all about that Christian triumph: Christ triumphs over sin…and Christendom triumphs over Islam. In fact, reliefs show the eventual forced conversion of Granada’s Moors shortly after the Reconquista.
For a time near the end of its Moorish period, Granada was the grandest city in all of Spain. But eventually, with the tumult that came with the change from Muslim to Christian rule, the city lost its power and settled into a long slumber. Today’s Granada is a delightful mix of both its Moorish and its Christian past.
The silk market, or Alcaicería, was originally across the street from the main mosque, so today it stands across from the main church. Filled with precious goods — salt, silver, spices, and silk — it was protected within 10 fortified gates.
Today, while a tourist trap housed in a modern reconstruction, this colorful mesh of shopping lanes and overpriced trinkets is fun to explore.
You’ll invariably meet persistent Gypsy women pushing their fragrant sprigs and palm reading, and then demanding payment. You can consider them aggressive and annoying…or you can zip up your valuables and have a fun and spirited give-and-take.
A handy minibus service loops from downtown through Spain’s best old Moorish quarter, the Albayzín. Increasingly around Europe, minibuses wind locals through narrow lanes of old quarters. Tourists can hop on for a cheap and scenic joyride.
The Albayzín, with flowery patios and shady lanes, is a delight. Exploring these labyrinthine back lanes and inviting neighborhood squares, you feel the Arab heritage that permeates so much of Andalucía. Enjoy a drink on a no-name square…savor the lazy tempo of Granada life.
An alternative community of young people — nicknamed pie de negro, or black feet, for their basic earthiness — hangs out in the Albayzín.
And Granada is home to tens of thousands of Gypsies, or Roma people. While their nomadic culture makes traditional employment a challenge, one vocation in which they excel is music.
In the evening, in the hilly Sacromonte district, Gypsy families entertain tourists with colorful folkloric shows. These intimate concerts are performed in the very caves that once housed Granada’s Gypsy community.
Along with Gypsies and hippies, tolerant Granada has a sizable Muslim population. A modern mosque, built in 2003, fits in with the local architecture and comes with a live call to prayer. The muezzin cries “God is great” from the minaret without amplification…as non-Muslim neighbors insisted.
There are about 700,000 Muslims in Spain, and that includes nearly 10 percent of Granada’s residents.
To learn more, we’re joined by Malik Basso, a member of Granada’s Muslim community.
Rick: Would you say most of the Spanish Muslims are immigrant neighbors coming over from Africa for better jobs?
Malik: Yes — Moroccans, Algerians, Turks, Pakistanis. But of course, there is the recent phenomenon of Spanish Muslims as well.
Rick: You’re Spanish?
Malik: Yes. I’m from Barcelona.
Rick: So tell me a little bit about this mosque.
Malik: Well, it was the first mosque built in Granada after the Reconquista. So, for 500 years, this was the first purpose-built mosque in Granada. It was promoted by a lot of people who were native Spanish Muslims, born and raised in Spain, although it caters for all the Muslims.
Rick: So, how has the process been with community relations?
Malik: Well, some people were fearful at first, you know…the effect of the media and such. But 10 years later, here we are. And some of our most vocal opponents are now our best friends, because they appreciate what we are doing and who we are.
The mosque stands next to one of Europe’s most romantic viewpoints. From the St. Nicolás Terrace, as the sun sets, locals and visitors alike enjoy both a historical backdrop and a convivial moment.
To extend the magic, grab a prime table at one of the several historic Albayzín manor houses — called carmens — for dinner. You’ll pay a bit more, but I can’t think of a better way to cap your visit to Granada.
From Granada, it’s a two-hour drive over the mountains and down into Europe’s fun-in-the-sun headquarters: the Costa del Sol.
I find this strip of Mediterranean coastline generally overbuilt and very commercialized. Málaga, the major city of the coast, is a good place to pass through. And almost anything even resembling a quaint fishing village is long gone — replaced by timeshare condos and golf courses.
The big draw is the beaches. There are plenty of hotels, and sun worshippers enjoy themselves in spite of the congestion and lack of charm or local culture.
Nearly every country from Europe’s drizzly north tucks an expatriate community somewhere along this coast. They don’t want to leave their culture…just their weather.
My favorite Costa del Sol stop is the resort town of Nerja. While capitalizing on the holiday culture, Nerja has retained some of its charm. The church fronts the square, which fronts the beach…and everybody’s out strolling, eventually winding up on the proud Balcony of Europe terrace.
This bluff, jutting jauntily into the sea, overlooks miles of coastline. A castle occupied this spot for centuries.
Nerja’s castle was part of a 16th-century lookout system. After Reconquista forces drove out the Muslim…oh, that’s right. You don’t come to the Costa del Sol for history; you come for fun in the sun…and relaxation.
And relax is what countless expat residents do. Nerja’s expats are mostly British. Like many along this coast, they actually try not to integrate. They enjoy their English TV and radio, and many barely learn a word of Spanish.
Nerja has several well-equipped beaches. The one just below town retains its fishing-village charm. Fishermen do their thing, while the tourists do theirs. The humble cottage evokes a bygone day. Spaniards love their little beach restaurants.
A short hike takes us to a broader beach that appeals to different tastes. While it’s packed through the summer, we’re here in May, when the heat and crowds are just right.
Ayo’s place is famous for its beachside all-you-can-eat paella feast. For 30 years, he’s been cooking up this classic Spanish specialty.
To create this culinary work of art, start with some junk pallets for fuel, and slip on your handmade heat shields. Then, fry up as many pieces of chicken as can fit in the pan. Add just a pinch of garlic and about a week’s-pay worth of saffron. When the chicken is golden-brown, add about a dozen skinned tomatoes and as many red and green peppers as you can stand chopping. Stir everything with a clean shovel. Now add a laundry bin of arborio rice, and just a dash of smoked, sweet pimentos. Stir briskly until the rice has become coated with the oils and spices. Add a few gallons of stock, and bring to a boil. Add another pallet if necessary. Mix in a boatload of fresh, whole shrimp.
When the rice is done, remove — remembering to lift with your knees — and let set for 10 minutes. Now you could just stare at the pretty colors and textures, but I recommend eating it for the full experience. Dish out servings daintily, and garnish with a wedge of lemon. Feeds 48 hungry vacationers. Adjust recipe measurements accordingly.
A 100-mile drive back inland takes us to the city of Córdoba. While Granada was the last Moorish capital, the capital through the glory days of Muslim rule was Córdoba.
Tucked into a bend of its river, Córdoba has a glorious past. While its old wall evokes a tough history, its elegant cityscape and convivial squares show a modern pride. As is typical of Andalucía, it’s a people-friendly city, filled with energy and color.
Córdoba’s centerpiece is a massive former mosque — or, in Spanish, Mezquita. This huge rectangle dominates the tangled medieval town that surrounds it.
Grand gates lead to the courtyard. It was here, when this was a mosque, that worshippers would gather to wash before prayer, as directed by Muslim law.
Entering, you step into a forest of delicate columns and graceful arches dating from over 1,000 years ago.
At its zenith, this mosque was the center of Western Islam and the heart of a cultural capital that rivaled Baghdad and Constantinople. A wonder of the medieval world, it’s remarkably well-preserved, giving today’s visitors a chance to appreciate Islamic Córdoba in its 10th-century prime.
The columns and arches seem to recede to infinity, as if reflecting the immensity and complexity of God’s creation.
The mihrab — the focal point of worship in a mosque — was built in the mid-10th century. It’s richly mosaicked with 3,000 pounds of tiny, multicolored glass-and-enamel cubes.
A painting in the adjacent treasury takes us back to 1236, when Christians conquered the city and everything changed. Here we see the Spanish king accepting the keys to Córdoba’s fortified gate from the vanquished Muslims.
According to legend, one morning Muslims said their last prayers in the great mosque. That afternoon, the Christians set up their portable road altar and celebrated the first Mass in what would later become this glorious cathedral.
As if planting a cross into its religious heart, this grand cathedral was built in the middle of the mosque. Taking two centuries to complete, the cathedral is a glorious mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles.
A statue actually called “St. James the Moor-Slayer” stands next to the altar. Sword raised as usual, James is busy conquering Muslims.
Other art is less provocative. The Baroque-era choir stalls are made of New World mahogany. With exquisite carving, it’s considered one of the masterpieces of 18th-century Andalusian Baroque.
And, towering over the former mosque, a bell tower makes it clear: This huge edifice now houses a place of Christian worship.
In the 10th century, when a minaret stood where the bell tower stands today, Córdoba was arguably Europe’s greatest city. It was the cultural capital, with over ten times the population of Paris. Imagine the city, with paved streets, lit at night by oil lamps, piped-in running water, hundreds of mosques, palaces, and public baths.
It was a city of poets and scholars. While things changed later, the Golden Age of Al-Andalus, as this society was called, was marked by a remarkable spirit of tolerance and cooperation among all religions.
To learn more, I’m joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Isabel Martinez.
Rick: So Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all living together peacefully here?
Isabel: Yes, certainly. It worked out during certain times, especially during the 10th century.
Rick: Three different cultures, together.
Isabel: Well, that’s what most of the people think. But I think it’s more correct to say it was one culture with three religions, because at the end, all the people here talked Arabian language, cooked the same dishes, and wore the same clothes.
Rick: OK, one culture, three religions.
Rick: How Andalus.
Isabel: It was magic time.
Córdoba’s narrow, flower-bedecked lanes invite exploration. With Isabel’s help, a simple stroll becomes meaningful.
Isabel: Notice how nice and fresh these little streets are, Rick?
Isabel: Its narrowness and whitewashed walls. Natural air-conditioning.
Rick: It feels cool.
Isabel: It’s brilliant.
Isabel: So this beautiful shutter reminds us of the times when the women were hidden from public. Muslim Córdoba had hundreds of mosques, but most of them were destroyed. But some minarets survived as church bell towers.
Rick: So this was a minaret first, and now it’s a bell tower for that church.
Isabel: Yeah, exactly.
Córdoba’s characteristic patios have functioned like outdoor living rooms since ancient Roman times. They’re quiet, an oasis from the heat, and filled with flowers. Locals decorate them with pride. In fact, each year, many compete and open their patios to the public.
And here, as throughout Andalucía, festivals fill the calendar. We’re here for the Festival of the Crosses, where each neighborhood parties around its own cross made of carnations. Church bells ring not only a call to prayer, but a call to fiesta.
Neighbors pack the squares for a community party. This barrio entered for the first time this year. They won…and they’ve been reveling ever since.
Major squares host bigger events. I find experiencing traditional flamenco culture celebrated by and for the locals beats any tourist show.
Here in Andalucía, revelry and religiosity seem to go hand-in-hand, as the same passion and energy is put into long, sober religious processions, which clog the city’s narrow streets. Trumpets blare a fanfare, children carry candles, and everyone runs to the streets to be a part of the procession.
Many of these same locals will party on squares until late into the night. Others will sit down to a classic Andalusian dinner.
Isabel has invited us to Bodegas Campos — a historic and venerable house of eating — for our own festival of Andalusian specialties.
And here in Andalucía, no special meal starts without the porcine gold standard, jamón ibérico.
Isabel: This is a special jamón.
Isabel: Jamón ibérico.
Rick: Why does it taste so good, the jamón ibérico?
Isabel: Because the pig lived outside.
Rick: Okay so he’s running around…
Isabel: It lives in the countryside. It’s free.
After the jamón ibérico, the plates just keep on coming. This place specializes in traditional Andalusian fare — rustic food that originated with the peasantry. And a few dishes that have a Moorish influence. But if there is one common denominator to all the food, it’s…
Isabel: Olive oil.
Rick: Olive oil.
The finale, definitely for carnivores only, is pork from the Iberian black pig, and — what could be more Spanish? — bull’s tail.
Rick: We’ve had nine different plates.
Isabel: Yeah, we love eating — and we love sitting around the table for hours.
Rick: It’s living well.
Isabel: Yes, that’s Andalusian lifestyle.
You want a recipe for a wonderful trip? Blend history, culture, local friends, and great food. I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at some of the highlights of southern Spain. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Adiós.
Okay so we’ll start talking at that little piece of poop there, okay?
But I enjoy the multi-faceted heart and soul of this multi-faceted region with a multi-faceted visit to the interior first.
Spain was a predominately Muslim society living under Muslim rule.
Imagine the city, paved streets, lit at night by running water, piped in lamps powered by oil [laugh].