Exploring Spain’s Andalusia Region

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Looking into an interior courtyard in Granada’s Alhambra.

Traveling in Spain’s southern Andalusia region, I was entranced by the Alhambra in Granada. Islamic rulers designed the Alhambra to be “paradise on earth” when they built it in the 14th century. Then I visited the Mezquita (Great Mosque) in Cordoba, once capital of Al-Andalus Islamic empire in Iberia. I was even more amazed by this artistic edifice that dates back 12 centuries.

On to Seville… where the Real Alcázar (“royal house”) encompasses the residence begun 1364 by Christian King Pedro I – within a 10th-century Moorish palace. Each of these three cities and their landmark structures tell fascinating tales of Andalusian history. Visually, they are all stunning; my camera quickly became hard to put away.

Road Scholar tour group exploring a typical Albayzin lane.

Moors (Arabs and Berbers from North Africa) invaded the Iberian Peninsula and conquered the ruling Visigoths in 711 AD. They imposed Muslim rule for nearly eight centuries. During this time, the Moors’ Al Andulus civilization excelled in mathematics, science, architecture and decorative arts. Its ruling Caliphate was located in Cordoba, which quickly became early Medieval Europe’s leading city in the 9th and 10th centuries.

However, Christian kingdoms in northern Spain began the Reconquest/Holy War, winning possession of Toledo in 1045 AD. Over the next four centuries, the Christians slowly pushed back the Moors until the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, in 1492 AD.

I visited Andalusia (derived from Al Andulus) on a Road Scholar tour that highlighted these three cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. As its name implies, Road Scholar combines travel with learning experiences. These ranged from a lecture on Andalusia’s history to visits to the Olive Oil Cultural Museum and a bull-raising ranch.

The heart of Granada is laced with narrow, winding streets; its backdrop is the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest in Iberia. I wandered the Alcaicera, originally the Moorish silk/silver/spice bazaar with over 200 shops in tiny alleys with fortified entrance gates. Tourist shops now fill the narrow lanes, but the medieval atmosphere lingers.

Washington Irving’s room plaque at the Alhambra.

Granada’s golden era was during the Nasrid dynasty that ruled during the 13th and 14th centuries. They built the amazing Alhambra, designed to be “paradise on earth.” We toured its Palacios Nazaries, the Moorish royal palace, and marveled at the intricate detail in its wall carvings, scalloped windows and colorful azulejos (tiles). This included the Hall of the Ambassadors, ceremonial rooms, tranquil courtyards and private quarters — including Washington Irving’s room. He lived there as a guest in 1829 and wrote Tales of the Alhambra.

View of Alhambra from the old Moorish quarter of Albayzin.

Generalife Gardens is just across from the Alhambra. Here Moorish rulers enjoyed a small summer retreat to contemplate its flowers, water features and great views of Albayzin, now Granada’s old Moorish quarter across the river. Later I explored Albayzin’s labyrinth of narrow lanes with photo-compelling views back at the Alhambra.

Cordoba boasts the Mezquita (Great Mosque), considered the most striking example of Islamic art in the West. It dates back 12 centuries — the original mosque was begun 785 AD — and had many additions. The 10th century produced most lavish enhancements, including the richly gilded mihrab (prayer niche). This held a gilded copy of Koran; worn flagstones show where pilgrims circled it seven times on their knees in homage.

The Mezquita embodied the power of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula. In the main part, more than 850 columns of granite, jasper and marble support the Mezquita’s double arches and ceiling, creating a dazzling visual effect. The ornate structure also features minarets, brilliant mosaics, windows of colored glass and a large courtyard of orange trees where faithful Muslims washed their feet before prayer.

Smack in the middle of the Mezquita is a large Roman Catholic cathedral, complete with Renaissance nave. A Christian chapel was first built within mosque’s center in 1371, then the cathedral was erected starting in 1523. The archeological discovery of 6th-century Visigoth mosaics under the mosque floor later proved an early Christian church was situated on the site even before the mosque. We viewed the mosaics through protective glass and marveled at the many centuries of history contained in this one edifice.

In Seville, Christians did the same thing to the Real Alcázar, building the royal residence of Christian King Pedro I (“the Cruel”) within a 10th-century Moorish palace. The Real Alcázar actually served as a “royal house” for many rulers over the centuries and continues to be used by Spain’s current royal family for state functions.

The UNESCO-listed palace complex is an incredible mix of Islamic Mudéjar and Christian architecture and art. We toured room after astonishing room. The most spectacular was the Ambassadors’ Hall, originally Pedro I’s throne room; its dazzling, star-patterned dome ceiling was added later in 1427. Other highlights: Charles V Rooms, decorated with tapestries & 16th-century azulejos, and the Hall of the Tapestries with floor-to-ceiling, 18th-century Spanish copies of 16th-century Belgian tapestries. An interior Patio del Yeso soothed with 12th-century Moorish arches bordering a long reflecting pool.

The Real Alcázar shares its UNESCO designation with the Seville Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and the third largest after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London. It was begun in 1401 on site of 12th-century mosque (a familiar theme) and took over a century to complete. The Seville Cathedral’s High Altar is the highest ever made at 65 feet; it displays 44 wood-carved, gold-leafed scenes from lives of Jesus & Mary.

My tour group enjoyed so many other sights and experiences on this Road Scholar tour — from Granada’s also stunning cathedral to Italicia, one of Iberia’s earliest Roman ruins dating from 206 BC. For more information on Road Scholar tours, visit www.roadscholar.org

— Story and photos by Julie Gangler

Julie - headshot 2013Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

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