Andalucia in southern Spain is well known for the beautiful cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada and for the resorts along the Mediterranean coast beloved of British holiday makers and, anecdotally, crooks. But away from the coast and outside the cities it is a region of unique landscapes, national parks and other protected areas, forests, photogenic white villages known as pueblos blancos and ... good walking.
Geographically, the heartland of Andalucia is the basin of the Guadalquivir River which rises in the mountains to the north and is the most important waterway in southern Spain. It runs through Cordoba and Seville and then through the marshlands of the Parque Nacional de Donana to the Atlantic. North and south of the Guadalquivir are two chains of mountains extending roughly east-west. The Sierra Morena forms the northern border of Andalucia. Further south is the Cordillera Betica best known for its individual ranges, the Sierra Nevada towering as a backdrop to Granada and, further north, the high peaks of the Parque Natural de Cazorla.
There are four areas where walking is particularly promoted - the Alpujurras in the Sierra Nevada, south of Granada, the Sierras of Grazalema and Ronda between Malaga and Arcos de la Frontera, the Sierra de Aracena near the border with Portugal and the Sierra de Cazorla west of Jaen and Ubeda. In the spring of 2012 with six weeks to immerse ourselves in Andalucia we weighed up the advantages of all and decided to devote a couple of weeks to the cities, and then to spend a week each in Aracena and the Alpujurras with whatever remaining time the itinerary would allow around Grazalema and Ronda.
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The Cities
Sierra de Aracena
Between the 8th and 15th centuries southern Spain, or Al Andalus, was home to a spectacular flowering of cultural and artistic activity. Under Muslim, or Moorish, influence the city of Cordoba flourished between 756 and 1031, Seville between1040 and 1248 and Granada from 1248 to1492. Great buildings were constructed and beautifully decorated, science and literature thrived, water was harnessed into irrigation systems to nurture beautiful gardens and there was a period of religious tolerance perhaps never again achieved anywhere. After 1492 the Catholic reconquista, originating in the north of the country and gradually moving south, had triumphed, the Reyes Catolicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, ruled and the good times were over. Religious tolerance disappeared, ideas were stifled and many of the wonderful buildings were destroyed or modified to Christian uses.

Happily much remains of the blockbuster architectural treasures from the Moorish period. In these three cities there are intimate historical precincts and a lifestyle that is easy to slip into and enjoy.
The Cities
In Cordoba there is the Mesquita, the 9-10th century mosque where the modifications designed to convert the building into a cathedral interfere with, but do not diminish, the beautiful curved arches and lofty spaces of the original mosque.

Nearby are the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter and a maze of alleys and passages (you can't call them streets) which lead to small plazas and courtyards.
Our visit to Cordoba coincided with the annual patio festival, which provided a unique chance to see inside the decorated internal courtyards of private houses. With highly competitive enthusiasm, the small tiled spaces are crammed with colourful plants, most conspicuously petunias and geraniums, in standing pots and hanging baskets, all carefully groomed without a falling petal or leaf.

This is such a popular event that keen gardeners are bussed in from the surrounding areas to queue for entry to the most highly acclaimed patios. These may have a special alcove dedicated to a display of prize certificates. It was quite wet during our stay and the melee became more intense as umbrella wielding hordes hustled to enter the small spaces.
Seville is Spain's fourth largest city and home to flamenco, good tapas and azulejos, or decorative tiles. Its architectural triumphs are the cathedral and royal palace, the Alcazar. The15th century cathedral was built over the former mosque and is notable for being enormous and for housing the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Only the belltower and courtyard give a hint of the original Moorish mosque. The minaret has become the cathedral's belltower.
The Alcazar is a sensational confection of walls and spaces and high ceilings decorated with colourful azulejos and delicate filigree ornamentation. Water filled gardens and courtyards create cool and peaceful spaces where you can well imagine the lifestyle of the rulers who built and extended it. It is a gorgeous place.
Seville also has precincts of small colourful streets, hidden courtyards and cool spacious parklands with many bars and restaurants.
In Granada there is the Alhambra with its extravagant palaces, fortifications and gardens where you can spend a whole day and still come back for more. It has all the decorative style of Seville's Alcazar, but is bigger and more rambling and is set in gardens where colourful roses are reflected in long shallow pools of water and fountains and water features continue to use the water channels incorporated in the original design of the city.

From the heights of the Alhambra there is a splendid panorama of the city and a view towards the snow capped Sierra Nevada.

Granada is a pleasant city to wander around in. Its Science Museum holds a comprehensive display of Moorish science, agriculture and culture.
Sierra de Aracena
The Sierra de Aracena is located at the western end of the Sierra Morena, close to the Portuguese border. This is more an area of rolling hills than high mountains. There are cork forests, photogenic pueblos blancos, castles perched on prominent hilltops and a profusion of wildflowers in the spring.
Walking trails follow old pathways and link the villages, sometimes following small streams and passing by the grand gates of rural estates. In the forests are sounders of the black Iberian pigs for which the region is celebrated.
We made a base in a rustic cottage on an organic farm just outside the small town of Galaroza and 15 km from the town of Aracena, the regional centre for the area. The owner was Pepe who had relocated to this rural life from the city and created a peaceful life in the country, restoring the old cottage and building his own ecological environment. We could shop in Aracena and go to bars and restaurants either in Galaroza or Aracena. Pepe kept us supplied with fresh eggs and wild asparagus.
Our cottage was located right on a rough walking track that led down to Galaroza and linked up with the network of tracks that criss-crossed the area. It was good walking but total confusion. There were many more tracks than indicated on any of the available maps. Any tracks that were on the maps rarely corresponded with the signage on the ground. Sometimes the style of signage would change along the way, introducing new destinations none of which were on the maps. Guesswork plus trial and error were useful navigation tools.
Even though it was still spring, it was very hot - apparently the hottest May temperatures on record. We would get up early to walk, take a snack, stop in a bar somewhere and come for a late lunch and a siesta.
Sounder is the collective noun given in most dictionatries for a group of wild pigs. Other words that can be used are mob, herd, drift or drove. Take your pick.
One of the best walks climbed up a ridge through cork and chestnut forests where gnarled old trees had been cut back to encourage regrowth. We wondered how old these trees were. Views opened up to distant villages and we found the lovely village of Castano Robledo. Its narrow streets led through whitewashed houses to a central square where there were two huge churches and a small bar. We completed a circuit, walking downhill alongside stream on a route called the Ribera de Jabugo - "the riverside of the Jabugo"
Along the paths were olive and chestnut groves, sometimes sheltering the very contented looking pigs. The pathways were edged with purple, pink and white cistus, yellow broom and a profusion of small flowers whose names we never knew. There were very few other walkers - sometimes a local with dogs, a farmer watching over his pigs and very occasionally some backpackers paying careful attention to maps. Many of the companies that run walking tours offer itineries in this area and they may provide better instructions than can be found locally.
Many walking tracks doubled as rough access roads to rural residences, sometimes old farmhouses or holiday houses hiding behind very grand entrances and gates. All these would be quite difficult to access and we reflected that it would be no fun arriving on a Friday evening after the drive from Cordoba or Seville.
When not walking, we spent some days following a route round the white villages and castles of the area. These small villages are gleaming white and seemingly deserted. The few inhabitants are very old and disabled and walk with sticks. There is always a big church, sometimes a market, usually a bullring, a castle towering from a high peak and storks sitting on nests on church spires and chimneys.

At times the landscape looked Australian as there were vast eucalyptus forests, in place of the native grown cork and scrubby vegetation.

This area offers a real alternative to the busy touristy parts of Andalusia. There is not only good walking but much to discover around the pueblos blancos and forested mountain roads.
Most of the castles in the area were constructed in Moorish times as a defensive line against the encroaching Reconquista. Particular examples are Zufre, Aroche, Aracena, Cala, Santa Olalla and Cortegana.

Following the Reconquista, in the 13th and14th centuries, the castles were the frontier in the territorial dispute with the neighbouring kingdom of Portugal. A solid line of defensive strongholds was enforced, incorporating these old fortifications.

Further conflicts during the 16th and 17th century saw the fortifications strengthened but in more recent times they have fallen into disrepair and ruin.

These castles are prominent landmarks on the horizon, each one having been able to signal to the next in times of conflict.
The small mosque in Almonaster has a history that parallels in miniature that of the grand mezquita of Seville. From Roman beginnings it became the site of a Visigothic monastery. In the 9th century it was rebuilt by the Moors as a mosque. The name is thought to mean 'the monastery'.

In the 13th century it was back in the hands of the Christians, first the Portuguese and finally the Spanish.

It is still in use as a mosque on special days.
Mosque in Almonaster
The Cities and Sierra de Aracena
Castano Robledo
Ancient olive trees
Pink cistus
Almonaster mosque
Main street Zufre
Castle in Cortegana
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