Head beyond the beaches of the Costa del Sol to discover incredible architecture, epic scenery and Islamic history on an inland Spanish road trip
"Hasta la vista, Costa del Sol!" I declared defiantly, exiting the six-lane coastal autopista to head for the hinterland. Steering northwards, away from the herds getting sand in their sangria at the beachside mega-resorts, I was looking for a different side to southern Spain, swinging through some of Andalucía's cities, villages and mountains in search of the Islamic legacy that still lends the region its uniquely rich character.
After invading Spain from North Africa in the 8th century, the Caliphate of Al-Andalus lasted for seven centuries and occupied most of Iberia at one point. Even traditions that we think of as full-bloodedly Spanish - flamenco, castanets and even bullfights - can trace their origins to this era.
But Al-Andalus' stronghold was here in Andalucía. During my road trip inland I hoped to bathe in the myths and mystery of Moorish times in order to discover the lifeblood of southern Spain. It was for this reason that I found myself driving away from the sun-cooked coast and snaking up towards the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, mainland Spain's highest mountains.
My first stop was at Laroles village in the Alpujarras foothills that make up the Sierra's southern flanks. There I checked in to a little inn on a lane two donkeys wide, lined with tilework and water fountains. The latter were fed by acequias - ingenious stone irrigation channels constructed to carry rainwater and snowmelt from the High Sierra.
The channels were the work of Muslims, who'd fled to the Alpujarras after they surrendered the city of Granada, the last stronghold of Al-Andalus - the final act of 'reconquest' by 'Catholic Monarchs' Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. At the time, these hills were arid, but the refugees survived against the odds by making the slopes fertile. As I would find out later on my trip, the Moors of Granada knew a thing or two about both the practicalities and aesthetics of water.
Many of the channels are still in use today, for agriculture and as routes for hiking trails. I followed the GR7 alongside a babbling acequia on a walk through Lilliputian plots of oats and raspberries terraced out of the hillside. Then I climbed a cobbled mule track through glossy orange groves hung so heavy with fruit that they looked like ornaments. I emerged on to a plateau of goat-foraged scrub splintered by icy rivulets from the snowline high above.
From the Alpujarras I continued by road, corkscrewing up a harrowing gorge to Puerto de la Ragua pass and on to the city of Granada, the province's eponymous capital on the north-west of the Sierra, passing a ski resort in the shadow of 3479m-high Mulhacén peak.
In its Islamic prime, Granada numbered 350,000 people (slightly more than now), and today bears a deeper imprint of Al-Andalus than anywhere in Spain. The main survivor of that era is the Albaicín 'Moorish quarter', which tumbles down a hillside in a jigsaw of cobbled streets too narrow for cars. I allowed myself to get lost by straying from the Moroccan souk-like main thoroughfares. After winding through steep alleys of scuffed white walls, I found myself among cascades of mauve wisteria, minuscule courtyards full of lemon trees and little churches that were once mosques, as evidenced by mihrab prayer niches tucked into their walls.
Another marvel of the Albaicín is its view across the Darro River valley to the russet walls and towers of another of the region's Islamic legacies, the Alhambra. Mexican artist Francisco Icaza is said to have had this image in mind when he quipped: "Nothing in life is worse than being born blind in Granada."
The Alhambra remains an Arabian Nights fantasy of a fort, palaces and gardens spanning the styles of several centuries. This reflects its evolution from small 9th-century fortress to a spectacular citadel by 1333, under the eye of the region's last Muslim rulers, the Nasrid dynasty. I zigzagged up the hill and queued first for the Nasrid Palace, where I found myself amid marble columns reflected in rippling pools of water. I was swept along by the voluptuous excesses of fountained courtyards, pillared porticoes, arched windows of filigree latticework, vaulted ceilings and sculpted stucco.
The Alhambra symbolises not only the lavish luxuriance of the Al- Andalus Caliphate but also its significance as a centre of philosophy, art, music and scientific learning. Moreover, there are walls inscribed with eulogies about Muslims, Christians and Jews all living together in peace. But just when all this began to sound too paradisiacal, I heard a guide in the marbled Sala de los Abencerrajes hall explain that the ruddy blotches on an exquisite fountain are the blood stains of 'traitors' slaughtered in a Nasrid sultanic power struggle.
There is no disguising the fact that Nasrid Granada was a pretty hedonistic place - towards the latter end of the dynasty, at least. For instance, alcohol was consumed liberally, in defiance of Islamic strictures. Tales are told of frolicking concubines, bathhouse harems and erection creams made from musk and mustard. This heady spirit seems to inform much of Granada's structures. A short wander from the Alhambra, the Generalife gardens remains potent with rustling trees, seductive streams and gushing fountains.
Lorca, Granada's most celebrated poet, pined in verse for the perceived - and in truth, slightly over-romantacised - tolerance lost with the fall of Al-Andalus. Gay and socialist, Lorca was shot by Nationalists in 1936 while civil war raged in Spain; his place of execution is often reported to have been near a natural spring whose water feeds the Generalife's channels, known to the Moors a millennia earlier as 'The Fountain of Tears'.
But while Granada marked a full stop for the Islamic dynasties, my journey through that era's history had much more to reveal. The landscape beyond the city is still imprinted everywhere with its Moorish past. Driving north-west towards my next destination, the wilds of the Sierras Subbéticas Natural Park, I passed dazzlingly white villages clustered around churches with minarets that masqueraded as bell towers. High ridges all around were crowned by the ruins of amber-coloured forts dating from the centuries-long conflict between Catholics and the Caliphate.
Even after the reconquest, Moorish and morisco (Christian convert) farmers continued much as before. In this region, olive cultivation was king and the legacy of those times can still be seen today in the rolling seas of silvery groves that ripple to the horizon.
Lunchtime was spent at the El Fuente restaurant in the village of Zagrilla. Here, gruff old owner Francisco was especially proud of his extra virgin oil, which came with a variety of flavourings ranging from raspberry vinegar to chilli. Sitting by a stream next to an ancient water-driven olive press, I drizzled these over my salad of chipirones (baby squid), pomegranate seeds and cinnamon-dusted figs. Tugging on his white handlebar moustache, Francisco expressed delight that I had ordered one of what he termed a "half-remembered morisco dish, neither sweet nor savoury". He was even more pleased to hear that I was on my way to meet his "amigos Ingleses, Tim y Clara".
There are lots of foreign-owned haciendas in Andalucía, so it is a sign of the esteem in which Tim and Claire Murray-Walker are held that locals regard them as friends. A few years ago the fluent Spanish-speaking Brits bought and restored Casa Olea, a ruined finca (farm house) in a far-flung valley largely overlooked by tourism. "Max, our son, goes to the local school, which helps us with fitting in. That and the fact that we are also farmers," Tim told me, referring to the 100+ olive trees whose crop they tend, press and serve in their restaurant.
The couple run Casa Olea in a down-to-earth way, chatting with guests over a glass of the local Montilla wine and sharing tips about sites and activities in the area. Casa Olea is sat on the olive-growing country's border with the rugged, uncultivated Sierras Subbéticas Natural Park, where Tim has built up a repertoire of hikes and mountain-bike routes for which he has prepared written instructions complete with photos.
After a day of local walks from the house - not arduous but way off the beaten track - I opted for a more challenging hike though the Bailón canyon, from near the cliff side clinging Zuheros village. The trail starts at a gash in a sheer limestone escarpment where the Bailón River gushes into a broad valley. I hopped over fords and past dark, yawning caves guarded by stalagmitic figures, making my way up to wild open country scattered with boulders and holm oaks. The thorny scrub was strewn with wildflowers: poppies, peonies and gum cistus like miniature fried eggs. There was no sound but birdsong. Butterflies bounced in profusion. Vultures wheeled overhead and I counted at least 15 of them at a time.
My hike traced a 'vía pecuaria', one of the ancient trails that were used for transporting livestock and as the main access between villages during the centuries of the Caliphate. Although this area has been returned to near wilderness through Natural Park protection, I found ruins of Moorish wells and round stone watchtowers dotting the landscape. But the history here is not just Islamic. There are also remains of abandoned fincas that speak of the desperate emigration in the years known simply as El Hambre - 'the hunger' - following the Spanish Civil War.
From the Sierras Subbéticas I drove east towards the Serranía de Ronda, a range slashed through by even more limestone gorges. Perhaps none of these is more famous or photographed than the cleft spanned by Puente Nuevo bridge at Ronda. This final leg of my journey through Andalucía was also one of the last redoubts of Islam in Spain, holding out til just six years before the fall of Granada itself.
On the lofty bridge a father from Seville was telling his children about the historical significance of Ronda. While the trio peered over the edge, down into the vertiginous 130m-deep chasm, I listened in.
"Because it was so well defended, this was one of the last towns that the Christians reconquered from the Arabs," said papa. The youngsters' eyes widened as he skipped a few centuries, going on to explain how, during the Civil War, "fascists were captured, beaten through the streets and finally thrown, alive, over the bridge". Hemingway, I recalled, describes this in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Such horrors notwithstanding, Ronda had a relaxed atmosphere, teeming with tourists and busking flamenco guitarists but compact enough to be wandered on foot. The brilliantly white La Ciudad 'Moorish quarter' perches on one lip of the gorge, looking from a distance like builder's rubble as it falls down to the rocky bank of the river Guadalevín. Pausing to look at brass-studded oak doors inscribed in Arabic and iron gates hiding tiny garden sanctums, I made my way down to the Arab bathhouses that were closed down at the time of the reconquest as 'dens of immorality'. But unlike Granada's lifeblood-filled Albaicín, La Ciudad felt more like an oversized Moorish museum and I felt instinctively drawn back across the gorge to the post-Caliphate Mercadillo district.
The city's centrepiece and principal attraction is the bullring, Spain's oldest and the spiritual home of bullfighting, where every aspiring matador dreams of performing one day. From the sandstone arches around the arena, where so many unfortunate toros have been put to the sword, I observed a middle-aged Spanish lady brandish her scarlet cardigan in theatrical sweeps while onlookers chorused "Olé!".
From Ronda the A397 leaves the hinterland behind, twisting down to join the coastal autopista. With brooding mountains and whitewashed villages in my wing mirrors and Lorca's eulogies for the Moors on my mind, I felt that my inland adventure had let me experience a little of the real heart and soul of Andalucia. But this road gifted me one last spectacle before I joined the sunloungers on the Costa del Sol: an amazing panorama stretching all the way from Marbella to Gibraltar unfurled before me.
From my mountain vantage point, the rock looked sensational, a standing sentinel on the wind-harassed straits. On the horizon loomed the purple Rif Mountains in North Africa, a final reminder of which direction the spirit of southern Spain really points.
The author travelled with Pura Aventura (01273 676712, pura-aventura.com). A seven-night tailored itinerary, including car hire, three nights full board at Casa Olea, four nights B&B at other hotels in the Alpujarras, Granada and Ronda, plus a half-day guided tour of the Albaicín and entrance to the Alhambra.
Hotel Rural Real de Laroles (turismorurallaroles.com) is a frills-free but comfortable two-star inn in a nice, out-of-the-way Alpujarras village.
Located in Granada's city centre, the quirkily-styled Hotel Casa Palacete (casapalacete1822.com) has large rooms, each different and loosely themed to a country. It's also within walking distance of Albaicín and Alhambra.
High up in the olive groves of Priego de Cordoba, Casa Olea (casaolea.com) is a fine get-away-from-it-all hotel with commendable eco-credentials.
Hotel Fuente de la Figuera (hotellafuente.com) is a plush, rural hotel with a lovely swimming pool, beautifully set in an olive grove 7km from Ronda.