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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Ancient olive trees
Main street Zufre
Castle in Cortegana
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