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, Spain was a predominantly Muslim society. That time period shapes today’s sightseeing agenda.

Granada’s dominant sight is the Alhambra. Built in the 14th century by the Nasrid Sultan of Granada, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “Red Fortress” is the largest Islamic palace in Spain and one of the most iconic highlights of Andalusia. Rising at the foot of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range, it features luxuriant gardens where fountains trickle and exotic birds sing, walled by a seemingly never-ending succession of royal suites with intricately carved trappings. Notable sights at the Alhambra include Generalife Gardens, Palacios Nazaríes, as well as Patio de los Leones. Nowhere else does the splendor of that civilization, Al-Andalus, shine so brightly. For two centuries, Granada reigned as the capital of the Moorish empire. As Christian forces pushed the Moors further and further south, this palace was the last hurrah of a sophisticated civilization. The Albayzín, with flowery patios and shady lanes, is delightful. Exploring these labyrinthine back lanes and inviting neighborhood squares, you can feel the Arab heritage that permeates so much of Andalusia. Be sure to enjoy a drink on a no-name square while savoring the slow tempo of Granada life.

Andalusia’s heritage is alive in today’s culture, and it expresses itself in iconic themes. The town of Jerez is famous for three of them: dazzling horses, velvety sherry, and a spring fair that brings out the entire community for a weeklong party.

Originally a horse fair, when the sherry producers joined in, it grew immensely over time. Today, the Jerez Fair is a vast collection of over 200 casetas (or tents), each owned by a family or local business that host parties until late into the night. For locals, the fair, which takes place early each May, kicks off the summer season. During the day, the fair grounds are jangling with fancy carriages. It is all about fine Andalusian horses and the proud traditions they represent. Women, dressed in their peacock finery, seem ready to break into dance at the click of a castanet. Just down the street, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art provides a foundation for this culture of horses. Performances pack its arena several times a week. The stern riders and their obedient steeds perform to the delight of both tourists and horse aficionados. The riders cue the horses with the slightest of commands, whether verbal or with body movements. The horses are bred and trained with balance and focus in mind. The equestrian school also functions like a university, open to students from around the world.

All over Jerez, sherry bodegas welcome visitors. Just around the corner from the horse school, the venerable Sandeman Winery has been producing sherry since 1790. Tours explain how the stacked barrels are part of the production process. In a time-honored tradition, new wine is blended with aged wine, which is then fortified with alcohol.

The aptly-named Costa del Sol or “Sun Coast,” is not a hidden gem by any means; masses of European travelers flock to these shores every year in dire need of a vitamin D therapy with a side of exotic cocktails. But the busier resorts will not keep visitors from enjoying the soothing waves of the Mediterranean Sea on the quieter stretches of the coast in El Bajondillo, Duquesa, Sabinillas, and Estepona. These beaches are simply too blissful to be overlooked!

If you love the idea of spending your vacation exploring small, sandy coves, then the most westerly province of Almería, on the Mediterranean coast, might appeal. Europe’s driest region, Almería is also home to the beautiful and littleknown Tabernas Desert.

Blessed with both character and beauty (it is, after all, the setting of the illustrious opera Carmen), Seville, the sun-kissed Andalusian capital city, spans 3,000 years of history quite effortlessly. Rumor even has it that none other than Hercules himself founded it. April is a particularly great time to visit, as Seville celebrates the annual Feria de Abril, a weeklong party of non-stop street revelry, which is either preceded or followed by the worldfamous Easter festivities of Semana Santa.

Seville’s sights include Plaza de España, Alcázar Palace, medieval Santa Cruz quarter, maze-like Triana area, La Giralda minaret, and colonial riverside walks. When the time comes to delve into the flamenco, Casa de la Guitarra, Museo del Baile Flamenco, and La Casa del Flamenco offer unadulterated displays of the poignant Spanish dance. Nearby, Ronda’s treasured 200-year old bullfighting ring named Plaza de Toros de Ronda is a must-see.

The narrow streets of Córdoba’s Juderia quarter, flanked by whitewashed houses and only partially concealed patios adorned by bountiful fuchsia azaleas, are undoubtedly a little slice of paradise. But if there is only time for one stop in Córdoba, the Mezquita should be it. It remains, to this day, one of the most significant Islamic buildings in the world, a tribute to the thriving Moorish empire that ruled the better part of the Iberian Peninsula six centuries ago.

Córdoba, as then Europe’s most prosperous city, was blessed with a splendid mosque that outshined all others and paralleled these new zeniths (including the now-iconic prayer room filled with 850 Byzantine-inspired red and white marble arches). For a unique gastronomic experience head to Mercado Victoria. A huge range of stalls serving everything from oysters to steaks to sushi will let you taste all sorts of local flavors and tapas.

The biggest challenge in planning a trip to Andalusia is the amount and diversity of attractions: ancient ruins, Moorish castles, whitewashed hill towns, cosmopolitan cities, sunshine, beaches, natural parks, and small wineries and gastronomy are all on the menu for an unforgettable Andalusia vacation.

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