This magical region epitomises the warmth and vibrancy of Spain and its people. There can be few places more romantic than Andalusia with its evocative scenery and pulsating lifestyle that embodies the unavoidable Arabic heritage reflected wherever one goes.
Forget about beaches and the concrete jungles of the coastline and move inland to the magnificent cities of dignified Cordoba, majestic Granada, grandiose Sevilla and noble Jerez de la Frontera. With the historic ports of Cadiz and Malaga, these are the jewels in Andalucia's crown. But if seeking more peace visit the tranquil white towns in the Sierras where, under clear, azure blue skies you can soak up the restful surroundings observing the warm hearted people who always have time to spare.
The Moorish architecture of the extraordinary Mosque [Mezquita] in Cordoba with a Catholic Cathedral built later in the 16th century is a highlight of the city. What a treasure future generations would have been denied if the Bishop of Cordoba had obeyed instructions to demolish the Mosque. The Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar at Sevilla with its wonderful Cathedral are more highlights in a region that astonishes with its magnificence while projecting a romantic air in the warmth of the surroundings.
Temperatures vary widely between the Atlantic coast [+4ºC to 40ºC], the interior [0ºC to 45ºC] and the Mediterranean, first around MÃ laga [+4ºC to 35ºC], and then around Almeria [+8ºC to +40ºC]. Ejica near Cordoba is generally the hottest place in Spain with temperatures exceeding 50ºC. There are well over 300 days of sunshine during the year, and rainfall is low at 200mm [8 inches] in Almeria up to 600mm [24 inches] in Cadiz.
Traces of Neanderthal man of 50,000 years ago were found at Gibraltar. Later in 8,000 BC there was an influx of African tribes called Iberians, followed by the Phoenicians in 1100BC who formed trading posts and made CÃ diz Europe's oldest city. There followed the Celts in 800 BC, the Cathaginians in 500BC and Romans in 206BC, who ejected the former invaders and renamed the region Betis, turning it into one of the wealthiest and best organised of their colonies and introducing Christianity in 400AD. Subsequently the region was devastated by a succession of invaders including the Moors  who stayed for nearly 800 years.
Their influence on Andalucia has been enormous and greater than anywhere else in Spain with their cultural legacy becoming the focal point of tourism. They called the region Al Andalus, a description still used in places today. In the 15th century the Catholic Kings united Spain under one banner and finally evicted the Moors from Granada in 1492. In the same year Christopher Columbus sailed from Sevilla on his voyage of discovery thereby establishing that the city would be one of only three through which the riches he discovered could be shipped into Spain.
By the 19th century the Empire was collapsing and the region's prosperity with it; the trade in wines, especially Sherry and Malaga, and later Montilla being among the mainstays of trade. In recent times tourism and property development have become the key to peoples' wealth while the local wine business went through a recession from which it is now emerging.
The swarthy, stocky people who populate this glorious region are great characters and it's often quite difficult to tell the difference between those who are Gypsies and those who are not. Their love of living and seemingly carefree attitude depicts a way of life many of us would like to choose, but do not think they don't work hard, because they do. While this is the land of the siesta, and who can blame them for retreating from the blisteringly hot sun at the middle of the day, life has never been easy for a people whose ancestors literally scraped a living from the inhospitable environment around them. Tourism has become their lifeline.
You need not travel far inland to discover how real Andalucians live. The quiet towns of shuttered houses during daytime becomes a hive of activity at the time of Paseo [early evening stroll] when families wander along greeting friends, stopping off at cafes and bars for coffee or a wine and tapa. There one sometimes finds a strumming guitarist and Flamenco singer accompanied by proud, emotional dancers tapping out their teasing and haughty routines unique to the nature of this art.
Flamenco's origins are multinational and multidoctrinal being Arabic, Jewish, Visigoth, Gregorian and Byzantine and was originally sung and danced just to a beat of rhythmic percussion and it was not until the early 19th century that the guitar was adopted. It is most classically practised in Jerez and Cadiz and is an emotional art depicting the extremes of love and hate, joy and sadness, jealousy and hope. To enjoy it most find a small bar where it is practised informally, buy a half bottle of Fino and soak up the emotive atmosphere.
Granada was the home of Lorca, one of Spain's great poets while at the other end of the scale Ernest Hemingway; the American writer spent much of his time in Andalucia. He adored the bullfight, a sport that originated in Ronda. In the 20th century the Domecq Sherry dynasty made a major contribution to bullfighting by breeding massive bulls and providing probably the greatest horse riding Bullfighter [Rejoneador] in Alvaro Domecq.
Horses are an important feature of Andalucian life and invariably the pivot of any fiesta whether a Horse Fair, Sevilla's May Fair, Racing on the beach at Sanlucar be Barrameda or the Romeria at Rocio in Huelva, 'El Rocio' pays homage to the statue of the Madonna of the Dew and is attended by more than a million people who make the pilgrimage either on horseback or in colourful horse drawn wagons to this hamlet in the Guadalquivir wetlands the weekend before Pentecost.*
The religious traditions that dominate the culture of Spain are never more evident than during Easter week [Semana Santa] when there are processions in every town and city in Spain. While each has its own traditions, the most famous and most spectacular takes place in Sevilla. Two weeks later is the Spring Fair or 'Feria de Sevilla', which is nothing more than a good excuse for a whole week of Bull Fights and partying with Flamenco and Sherry [during the week some 1 million bottles of Sherry are consumed.
Every city, town and village has its own celebrations during the year, not least Carnival [Carnaval] on Shrove Tuesday. A notable one is held in Cadiz, but several others also in the province stand not least that at Puerto de Santa Maria, one of the Sherry towns. In Cordoba they tend to be more sedate with contests for the best decorated crosses or a Patios Contest, which is a great opportunity to visit the patios of many lovely houses and inspect the magnificent floral decorations. Both are in May.
In Granada in June they celebrate Corpus Christi extravagantly with a fabulous Festival of Music and Dance. Almost everywhere you will encounter festivals that celebrate the eviction of the Moors with timings that vary according to local circumstances. Do not be deterred that most of these Fiestas are founded on Religion, nobody knows better how to let their hair down than Spaniards once they have attended to their religious duties.
Landscapes and Nature Reserves
The Guadalquivir river rises in the Coto Nacional (National Nature Reserve) of the Sierra Cazorla in the east of the autonomous region and flows west under the imposing Roman bridge in Cordoba and onto Sevilla. Then the river goes south between the Doñana and the Sherry region before exiting into the Atlantic at Sanlucar de Barrameda, home to Manzanilla Sherry.
South of the Cazorla is the Sierra Nevada which includes the mainland's highest peak at 3,482 metres [10,670 feet] and a ski station, the snow capped Pico Veleta Mulhacen, which overlooks Granada to the north and the Alpujarra valley to the south. In spring there's nothing to stop you skiing in the morning and having a swim in the sea that afternoon. The Sierra Morena reaches Andalucia's boundary with the rest of Spain to the north, and there are more Nature Reserves there, but the most famous of all is the Parque Nacional de Doñana on the marshlands alongside the Guadalquivir River by the Atlantic.
This is a World Heritage site and home to 125 different species of birds including the endangered Spanish Imperial eagle, flamingos, herons, falcons, partridge and storks. At the right times of year you will see as many different species that migrate to and from here as they rest during their long journeys.
Here also are the seriously endangered Lynx and Egyptian Mongoose, with boar, deer, badgers and several reptiles, amphibians and types of fish. The park also supports an incredible array of vegetation in the scrublands with heather, rosemary, glasswort and thyme. There are Stone Pines, Juniper and Cork Oak trees with exotic flora like gladioli, irises and lavender.
The Sierra de Grazalema between Arcos de la Frontera and Ronda is one of Spain's largest and most famous National Parks being 51,600 hectares [127,500 acres] in size. At 2,200 mm [88 inches] it has the highest rainfall in Spain, which leads to dramatically rugged limestone cliffs and gorges with the largest cave system in the world; the biggest gallery is 4 kms long. It houses a very rare Griffon Vulture colony, 1,300 species of Mediterranean plant life and is home to many of the white towns and villages.
The main crops of Andalucia are olives [you will see literally millions of trees reaching far into the distance], vines, round rice, market gardens with soft fruits and vegetables plus oranges, both the bitter Seville variety and the sweet Navals. With the abundant supplies of fish from the oceans and meat from the hunting estates of the Sierras, the region is blessed with plenty of fresh ingredients. Traditional cooking was based on frying and that is still widely used, but is now balanced with more varied ways of presentation in the many stylish, top quality restaurants.
But Jerez [Herreth] is the home of Tapas. Tapa means a hat or covering and many years ago an imaginative bar owner decided to cover the Sherry copitas with a small saucer to keep away the flies. But an empty dish looked mean so he asked his wife to prepare a free bite of something, an olive, cube of cheese or slice of egg on a small biscuit or, at fiesta time maybe a prawn or something else lavish. The flies came back but the custom was established.
Spain has the second highest consumption of fish in the world after Japan. Andalucia has abundant shellfish on the Atlantic side, and nowhere better than Sanlucar de Barrameda with its several bars and restaurants along the Bajo de Guia by the river estuary. A plate of prawns and a half bottle of the local, delicate Manzanilla between you is mandatory.
There are several variations of the indigenous Gazpacho soup, which is made from bread soaked in water with garlic added. These days one usually adds tomato and olive oil with a few herbs like basil. An alternative is without tomatoes but with almonds, garlic and herbs for a white version. In Cordoba they make a creamy one [Salmorejo] by removing the surplus water. Another treat found at Aracena north of Sevilla is Jamon Jabugo uniquely farmed in this part of Huelva; it's so deliciously tender it justifies its high tag and a portion is well worth the treat.
When dining al fresco on a warm summer's evening in a picturesque setting under a clear sky romance is never far from your shoulder. On a cooler evening one might choose a patio or courtyard filled with the exotic colours and aromas of Hibiscus, Jasmine and Bougainvillea under Mudejar arches. These are the sorts of memories of Andalucia that will stay with you.