Even the name is evocative. Conjuring up images of exotic Arab princes, mystical mountains, and the passionate allure of flamenco, Andalusia, Spain’s second largest region spans the entire southern coast of the country, from Huelva in the west to Almeria in the east. With its chequered history deeply influenced by Arabian conquerors – they ruled over Spain throughout the Middle Ages from the 700s onwards, until the Catholic Princess Isabella and her husband Ferdinand V finally managed to regain control over the last remaining bastion of the Moorish, Granada, after a long drawn out battle in 1492 – it is a region that is unique in many ways.
From sky-kissing mountain ranges to beautiful beaches, with lush plains in between, and home to the well-loved holiday coast Costa del Sol, as well as cultural hotspots such as Seville, Andalusia has it all. Plus, of course, a delicious culinary heritage. Quite far removed from the molecular gastronomy and über-chefs that other parts of Spain boasts of, Andalusia lures in the gastro-traveller with a more rustic, home-style, back-to-basics approach to cuisine. Whether it’s seasonal delicacies like espetos, the skewered, slow-cooked on an open fire on the beach sardine dish, typical of the Costa del Sol (which, when in season, are ubiquitous; when not, you’ll be hard put to find one), or salmorejo (the thicker version of gazpacho, a cold tomato soup); ajoblanco (gazpacho’s white cousin, a cold soup of almonds, garlic and bread); pescaíto frito (fried fish); fragrant, delicious Iberian ham, and of course Paella – while there is nothing more emblematic of Spanish cuisine than paella, each region has its own way of making it.
With historic old towns, a colourful culture, delightful Mediterranean architecture with stamps of the Arab influence permeating through it, a love of good food, and a welcoming warmth from proud native Andalusians, there’s something for everyone here. Cherry pick the destination of your choice from the best known Andalusian destinations, or why not combine a few days in each to make for the perfect sojourn in the south of Spain?
For a beach break: Marbella
A well-known summer destination for A-listers, Marbella first shot to fame as the glittering jewel in the Costa del Sol’s crown when Spanish prince Alfonso discovered it by accident en route to vacationing in Gibraltar. He fell in love with the town’s picture-perfect beaches with the shimmering Mediterranean lapping at its shores, and invited his equally well-heeled friends to holiday there with him, and the rest is history. Large tree-lined avenues, not dissimilar to LA, glamorous hotels and mansions belonging to the rich and famous, beautiful beaches and almost year-round sunshine come together to create an irresistible mix; it’s easy to see what seduced the prince!
Do: When in a jet-set destination like this, the people-watching and lying-on-the-beach opportunities offer enough distraction, but take time out to discover the Old Town, which literally transports you into another world and era, quite removed from the modern city that has sprung up in the last 50 years or so. Quaint narrow streets, with shops and restaurants spilling out on to the cobbled lanes, flowers in almost every window of the whitewashed buildings, this is a lesser known side to the city. A leisurely wander around the warren of alleys, stopping for a drink or a trinket at the central Plaza De Los Naranjos (Orange square), can be the perfect prelude to a tapas tour taking you into some hidden culinary gems. The Puerto Banus marina, on the other hand, offers a glitzy contrast, with its rows upon rows of moored yachts, designer boutiques housed within buildings designed to replicate a traditional Andalusian fishing village, and luxury nightclubs. Worth visiting for a peek into how the other half lives, you can also stop for a drink and a bite at any of the lovely waterfront restaurants.
Dine: The Puente Romano beach resort, built in 1974 as an exclusive apartment complex, is at the heart of what is known as Marbella’s Golden Mile – an exclusive series of addresses with prices to match – alongside its sister property, the historic Marbella Club Hotel, built by Prince Alfonso himself. Designed in a traditional Andalusian style, the luxury retreat not only boasts a roster of celebrity guests as its claim to fame, but is probably one of Marbella’s foremost gourmet destinations. The newly opened La Plaza village is an alfresco haven with five different restaurants serving the central courtyard, and is also home to one of Marbella’s hottest nightspots, the Moorish-inspired Suite. But the gastronomic highlight here has to be the two Michelin star Dani Garcia Restaurante (www.restaurantedanigarcia.com), the eponymously named restaurant from Spanish celebrity chef Dani Garcia. Serving up avant-garde Spanish cuisine, Garcia uses traditional Andalusian flavours and reimagines them with contemporary Basque-influenced techniques to highlight contrasting flavours and textures in his delightful creations. Garcia also heads up a more casual outlet at the same venue, Bibo Andalusian Brasserie & Tapas in the same venue, which offers a more relaxed bistro-style dining experience.
For a dose of culture: Seville
Seville may not have the Costa del Sol’s myriad attractions, but it more than makes up for it with its rich heritage and vibrant street life. Steeped in history, this inland city used to be an important trading hub through the middle ages because of its major river port, which has led to a patchwork of influences being left behind on the local culture. Surrounded by a landscape carpeted with sunflower fields and olive groves – this is, after all, one Spain’s best known olive oil producing regions, and home to some of the oldest trees – this pretty city is an Instagrammer’s delight. With jacaranda- and orange tree-lined avenues giving way to narrow cobbled alleys, overlooked by colourful houses with wrought iron balconies in the old town, Seville boasts a certain, for lack of a better word, Spanish-ness in its vibe that is infectious. You’re surrounded by music, dance, and liveliness wherever you turn. As the sun sets, the town squares come to life with people getting together for a drink and tapas, laughter and chatter fill the air, as does music from the many buskers for whom the streets are all the stage they need.
Do: A walk through the old town is a must, taking in the Alcazar palace, a 9th century royal home still in use today – the combination of Islamic and Christian motifs and symbology in its architecture is representative of the many wars waged over control of this region – and the nearby Plaza Virgen de los Reyes cathedral, one of Spain’s last Gothic cathedrals, and the third biggest in the world. Luckily, they are all located close together, around the central Triunfo square, a busy and lively plaza, thronged by tourists and locals alike. Follow up your city tour with a taste of flamenco. After all, no visit to Spain is complete without a flamenco performance, and where better to enjoy one than in Andalusia, the home of this passionate, intense performance art form? Seville is home to the world’s only museum dedicated to flamenco, where interactive exhibits take you through the dance’s history. The museum also hosts daily performances – the 1-hour show in an intimate setting (give the front row a miss unless you want to be sprayed by the dancers’ sweat as they flounce around with passion!) is a mesmerising experience where the percussion comes from the hands and feet, the melody from the toque (guitar) and soulful cante (song), and the rhythm from the baile (dance). An emotive response in the audience is guaranteed.
Dine: While tapas is an integral part of the culinary culture anywhere in Spain, nowhere is it more woven into the local lifestyle than it is in Seville. And to enjoy tapas while being surrounded by living, breathing history, head to Entrecárceles (www.grupolaraza.com), a century-old tavern and deli that has been given a trendy, modern makeover. Housed in a former prison building dating back to 1894 (it is rumoured that parts of Don Quixote was written within these walls by iconic Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes), the small, nondescript restaurant offers a shabby chic-meets-industrial setting, with distressed wood, exposed brick walls and a relaxed bistro-style menu offering. Highlighting local produce – the big pork displays at the window are hard to miss! – the menu offers contemporary twists on traditional Andalusian delicacies, such as salmorejo and Iberian ham in various avatars, to thick, chunky frittatas (known there as tortilla), flavoursome grilled vegetables and salads, and seafood specialties.
The Guadalquivir river is Seville’s lifeline, and also offers a picturesque setting for waterfront dining. The Restaurante Rio Grande (www.riogrande-sevilla.com), overlooking the majestic Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold, a 13th century military watch tower), is a renowned restaurant formerly patronised by royalty and cultural celebrities. Today, a popular draw with tourists for its enviable location, the candle-lit, white-linen restaurant offers an ingredient-led menu highlighting seafood from nearby coasts, as well as meat and vegetarian Spanish specialties, given an innovative twist. Don’t miss their paella – served table-side from the traditional shallow pan it is cooked in, with prawns, clams, squid and chunks of fish nestled in a fragrant saffron-infused bed of rice. While good food is easy to come by in Seville – just stumbling into any tapas joint that catches your eye is likely to lead to a memorable meal – for a refined dinner with a great view and romantic setting, this is clearly one of the city’s foremost dining destinations.
For a history lesson: Granada
Best known for the iconic Al Hambra palace, the most enduring remnant of the Arab legacy in Spain, Granada is a gorgeous, historic town oozing romance and mystic allure. Overlooked by the majestic, snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, and with the fertile La Vega plains at its foot, Granada enjoys a unique location and climate.
Do: Of course the first thing to be checked off anyone’s list in Granada has to be the Al Hambra. A remarkable feat of human achievement, the sprawling palace complex – thus named because of the beautiful reddish colour it appears to take on when the setting sun casts a warm glow on its brick walls; it literally translates into Red Fort – served as a fortress, royal residence and watch tower all rolled into one. Originally built in 9th century, it had since been further built on and developed by subsequent Arab emperors to emerge as one of the most impressive executions of Islamic architecture – a walk through the well-preserved grounds, past trickling fountains, gardens and shady courtyards, reveal room after room of intricate, geometric-patterned tile work and stucco relief, calligraphy-lined walls, Arabesque latticed windows, and carvings and sculptures, that will leave even the most prosaic of us open-mouthed in wonder.
Dine: The Al Hambra, much like the Eiffel Tower, is an inescapable part of Granada, so I recommend embracing it wholeheartedly. And what better way to do it than by grabbing a table with the best views of the castle at sunset? Located in the historic Albaycin district – the original Moorish quarter, a picturesque labyrinth of narrow streets, whitewashed buildings, and numerous rooftop restaurants and bars taking advantage of the incomparable views of the Al Hambra is Restaurante Las Tomasas (www.lastomasas.com), a charming, family-run restaurant set within the owners’ terraced home carved into the hillside. Sup there at sunset, and the views – which look like they’ve been placed there on a photographer’s instruction – will be enough to satisfy anyone, but the home-style, Mediterranean-inspired food is no less impressive. Feast on fresh, seasonal produce, cooked simply and tastily – from a delicious rendition of that Andalusian specialty Salmorejo, and other tapas treats such as scrambled eggs with vegetables, to local fish Corvina (a kind of seabass), grilled to perfection – as you watch the twinkling lights come on over the valley. Unforgettable!
For a shopping spree: Malaga
Malaga is often overlooked as a destination in its own right, being treated as a gateway into the better known attractions of the Costa del Sol. But this capital city, built around a busy port, is a vibrant urban centre with lovely beaches, and a burgeoning art and foodie scene of its own – deserving of a couple of days spent here en route to any of the other coastal resorts.
Do: Malaga, like most other self-respecting southern European cities, has its own old town with a Renaissance cathedral, Moorish palace and museums. But, if you’ve seen similar, more impressive versions of these in other towns can be given a miss. Instead, make your way to the Casa Natal, birthplace of Picasso, and the nearby Picasso museum, to get a peek into the artist’s early life. That done, pay homage to the other kind of art Spain is famous for, that of high-street fashion, at Calles Marques de Larios, Malaga’s main shopping street. A bustling, pedestrian zone in the heart of the city, this is where you’ll find not only the well-loved Spanish fashion brands, but also quirky little boutiques and leather-ware galore – from local shoe labels to bespoke accessory outlets. You’ll also find plenty of souvenir shopping options here, including local handicrafts, at prices slightly cheaper than the more touristy towns.
Dine: One of Malaga’s other celebrity sons, apart than Pablo, is Antonio Banderas; he was born here in 1960. Even if the likelihood of bumping into him here are slim, you can still dine at a restaurant part-owned by him! Kaleido restaurant, located right by the port, offers modern Spanish cuisine in a contemporary, sun-drenched space with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Everything on the menu is made using produce that is as local as possible, whether it’s the prawns from the Malaga harbor or the tomatoes used in the salsa and salmorejo.
For a more traditional experience, head to Bodegas El Pimpi (www.elpimpi.com), an atmospheric wine bar located in the heart of the city just off Calle Granada popular with tourists and locals alike. Themed around Malaga’s seafaring history, the bar and restaurant is divided into several intimate rooms and courtyards, offering a homely, relaxed environment to enjoy local wines and delicious tapas. Seat yourself in the main Barrel hall, decorated with wine barrels signed by fans and famous visitors – including, you guessed it, Antonio Banderas – and enjoy the traditional sweet wines of Malaga, with delicious sharing platters of the best of local produce – think El pascaito frito (traditional fish fried in olive oil), Patitas de pulpo Malagueno con ajito y perejil (Malaga octopus tossed with parsley and garlic), and local specialty, Chivifrito (fried goat).
Getting there Turkish Airlines, one of the best connections into most of Europe at affordable prices, offers flights to Malaga from Dubai and Abu Dhabi via Istanbul with convenient stopovers. On board, enjoy Turkish hospitality with fresh, delicious food from their award-winning catering service offering Turkish treats and international delicacies alike – on business class, there are sky chefs on board who create your meals according to preference – and on the ground, enjoy the facilities of the glamorous CIP lounge at Istanbul airport during the stopover where facilities range from freshly prepared meals and a snooze room to large screen entertainment and indoor sports – waiting around at airports was never so much fun!
Ticket prices start from around Dhs3,080 for economy, Dhs10,800 for business class, visit www.turkishairlines.com.