|map of Andalucía © Robert Bovington|
Andalucía is diverse - a country of extremes and its people live life to the full. Most British holidaymakers head for the beaches of the Costa del Sol. The more adventurous and perhaps slightly more cultured may venture further afield - perhaps to the cities of Málaga or Granada. Some might even visit the fantastic Alhambra! Most do not see the real Andalucía and miss an incredible array of cultural and ecological splendour.
There are eight provinces in Andalucía: Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Málaga and Sevilla and, within this land, the diversity of things to see is astounding. There are the green foothills of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, the alluvial plains of the Guadalquivir River and the desert lands of Almería. There are fields of golden barley and yellow sunflowers, rolling hills of olive, almond, citrus and terraces of grape - all under an intense blue sky. Scattered across this spectacular fabric are the charming white villages that often cling precariously to the many mountain slopes in the region and the great cities like Granada, Sevilla and Córdoba.
Andalucía is the second largest region of Spain and the most densely populated yet it is seventy percent of the size of England but with only seven million people and most of these are congregated around the Costa del Sol - poor sods. The result is that there are many wide open spaces and a lot of these are conservation areas. In 2005, Spain had 1.6 million hectares of protected landscape representing 9.1% of the total area - the highest in Europe. Andalucía, however, had a whopping 18.92 per cent! One hundred and sixty three actual sites were under some sort of protection including two National Parks (Sierra Nevada and Doñana), twenty-four Natural Parks and eight Biosphere Reserves.
The areas that I have visited are delightful places to visit, walk, drive or live. The Sierra Nevada is a favourite of mine and it is the location of the highest mountain in mainland Spain, Mulhacén. It also has the charming Alpujarras spread across its southern slopes. The Doñana National Park is the largest of Spain's national parks and has three distinct ecosystems: the salt marshes, the brushwood and the salt dunes. An amazing array of fauna and flora is to be found there. The same can be said of another favourite of mine - the Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata-Níjar to give it its full title. Located a short distance from Almería, some of its species of flora are unique to the area - like the pink snapdragon antirrhinum charidemi. This park really mirrors the diversity of the region - it is volcanic in origin and comprises coastal dunes, steep cliffs, spectacular beaches, salt marshes, saltpans, arid steppe inland, dry riverbeds and a substantial marine zone. It is probably this ecological diversity that has led to the park being designated a UNESCO Biosphere reserve.
Near Ronda there are other beautiful protected areas including the Sierra de las Nieves and the Sierra de Grazalema. I discovered the former when I drove from Fuengirola to Ronda via Tolox and Coín, a longer but much more splendid drive than the more direct route via Marbella. When I visited the Sierra de Grazalema I decided that I liked it even more than the Alpujarras. It too has charming pueblos blancos - like Zahara de la Sierra, which is reckoned to be one of the most attractive of the 'White Villages of Andalucía'. Grazalema too is delightful. However there are charming white villages throughout the region - many clinging precariously to hillsides.
It is not just countryside that has been afforded protection - buildings too are on the list of protected sites. For example, the Alhambra Palace in Granada is a World Heritage site - but then the great cities of Andalucía are magnificent - Sevilla with its Cathedral and the Giralda - Córdoba and the Mezquita - Granada.
The reason for this splendour was the great influence of Muslim rule on Andalucian culture. The Moors ruled over this region for eight hundred years until the Catholic Monarchs re-conquered Granada in 1492. These Arabs and Berbers of Muslim faith had a profound effect on architecture; agriculture and the arts in this region whose name, incidentally, was derived from the Arabic name "Al Andalus".
There are other fine towns in the region: Cádiz is purportedly Europe's oldest city, Ronda is the largest of the 'White Towns' and the birthplace of bullfighting, Baeza and Ubeda have magnificent Renaissance buildings and Almería has the imposing Alcazaba - also built by the enterprising Moors.
Yes - these Arab peoples built some of the most marvellous buildings in Spain and introduced irrigation systems that are still in use today in places like the Alpujarras. It beats planting bombs and running corner shops! But I digress.
Andalucía has so many wide open spaces, delightful countryside and magnificent cities that it amazes me that most holidaymakers head for the Costa del Sol. However I hope they continue to do so - the beauty of this delightful region is enhanced by the fact that most of it is not despoiled by mass tourism. I don't want English bars in the Alpujarras thank you!