June 15, 2012

Spain Part 3: Andalucia

Jumping on a high-speed train (going 269 km/hour) from Madrid, we rendezvoused with my dad in Malaga for a weeklong tour through Southern Spain – also known as Andalucia.

From roughly 700-1492 AD, this area of Spain was controlled by the Moors – Muslims from North Africa. What resulted is a section of Spain with wonderfully strong Islamic influences that make it look and feel different from the rest of the country.

Our first stop was the city of Granada, the capital of Moorish control in the Iberian Peninsula.

The Alhambra was the Moors’ crown jewel. Part fortress and part palace, the Alhambra stuns with its hilltop setting, ornate Moorish architecture and manicured gardens with peaceful water features.

Southern Spain’s countryside is full of olive trees, orange groves, sunflower fields and bull billboards – with no advertising purpose other than to serve as a cultural reminder.


So after visiting Granada, we rented a car and spent 3 days hopping among Andalucia’s charm bracelet of white hilltop villages. 


Ronda is a beautiful village straddling a gorge with an impressive bridge and Spain’s oldest bullring.

Arcos de la Frontera is a curious little town perched on top of a dramatic cliff.

It’s been called the “Queen of the White Towns” and has been compared to the train of a wedding dress – its white-washed houses tumbling down the back of the ridge. This is one of those places that makes a mark in your memory.

It’s the small details that make Arcos so charming…the flower pots, the door knockers, the circle in front of the church where they used to perform exorcisms.

Steve was such a trooper driving through the tiny and steep roads, around corners that seemed impossible, and dodging baby strollers and motorcycles. After our third attempt to reach our hotel at the summit of the village, I asked Steve if he was traumatized by the experience. He answered an emphatic, “yes”.

Next up was Jerez de la Frontera, famous for flamenco, Andalucian horses and sherry. In the same way that champagne can technically only come from the Champagne region of France, sherry can only come from Jerez. We took a nice bodega tour of the most famous of sherries, Tio Pepe.

Our last stop in Andaluica was the charming city of Sevilla.

Here’s how I would sum up Sevilla in one picture…

There are striking Spanish buildings, but even more impressive are the colorful ceramic tiles that blanket the city. The Moors developed the craft of glazing ceramic tiles and they are now a defining feature of Sevilla’s parks and streets.

It's very common for buildings to have interior patios, and it's fun to casually peak into them whenever a door is left cracked open.

Sevilla also has a wonderful Alcazar or “royal palace”. It was the summer home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel – the Catholic Monarchs who led Spain to victory over the Moors and who financed Spain’s explorations of the New World. It felt weird to stand in the private chapel off of their bedroom and know that these were the same people who took down the Incas and so heavy altered the entire destiny of South America.

This palace is also where Ferdinand Magellan charted his course to circumnavigate the globe and where Chistopher Columbus met with the monarchs before his famous voyage to the Americas. There was a room dedicated to the Virgin of the Navigators where explorers would come to pray for good winds on their expeditions.

Because of the heavy Moorish influences throughout Andalucia, Sevilla’s Alcazar at times felt reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada…but I liked it even better.

This is a truly breathtaking palace of immense detail that we highly recommend to anyone traveling to Spain.

By the time we got to Sevilla, we were itching to see some flamenco. We struggled with whether to go to a “show” or simply seek out an impromptu performance in a local bar. This is a reoccurring travel conundrum, and both sides have their pluses and minuses. We ended up choosing a show, and we were glad that we went this route so that we could see a bit flasher of a performance.

Flamenco dancers must be the world’s best tap dancers. It’s a highly rhythmic art combing guitar, singing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping. Flamenco artists snap their fingers so loud that you honestly think there must be tiny microphones hidden on their hands somewhere. There are also fancy ruffled dresses and very intense facial expressions.

I couldn’t possibly write about Spain without mentioning their obsession with ham. Thanks to our local friends, we got the low-down on the legs of ham that have been hanging all over the country. For example, it’s better to buy a leg with a black hoof instead of a white hoof. Who knew!

In just about every restaurant or café throughout Spain, you can spot a leg attached to an apparatus with a gentleman manually and so skillfully slicing the thinnest piece of meat you’ve ever seen. There are many different kinds of cuts, with the best being in this order: Iberico, Serrano, Lomo, Chorizo, Taquito. Funny enough, the lean Taquitos (the worst quality on the leg) were our favorites! This is simply because our American stomachs can’t handle the 70/30 fat-to-meat ratio on the other cuts. Our Spanish friends assured us several times that the fat was the best part.

Finally, as our week through Andalucia progressed, so did our encounters with all things bullfighting. Our first night in Malaga, we walked onto our hotel balcony and found this view.

Just about every town we visited had a bullring – each with different architecture, sizes, colors and flair. In Ronda we toured Spain’s oldest bullring and learned all about the traditions and progressive acts of the fight. There’s a chapel that the matadors pray in before they go into the ring and a hook where they hang the slain bull to sell off its meat. Bullfights are such an interesting cultural jewel of Spain.

I bet most Americans would expect that bullfights are just as common as football or baseball games, but that’s not so. These are special sporting events, and each city may only have bullfights during one week or maybe a few weekends out of the year. That’s why we were extremely lucky to be in Malaga for two bullfights of very different proportions...

On our first night in Malaga, our Spanish friend Mamen swooped us up from the train station and took us to the countryside for her boyfriend’s uncle’s 70th birthday party. As we parked the car and walked up to the party, this is what we found.

The family had rented out a bullring for the day. With a live guitarist and violinist playing in the background, we watched a mock bullfight. A man pushes around a fake bull’s head on wheels while a mounted matador narrowly escapes the plastic bull using highly skilled horsemanship. Have you ever seen a horse gallop sideways? In the end, the mounted matador strikes the bull with fake swords and proceeds to proudly puff out his chest while milking the applause of the crowd. Bullfighters have incredible arrogance showmanship.

After the “bullfight”, they brought a real baby bull into the ring and let family members take turns with the cape. Mamen’s boyfriend, Jesus, had been practicing off You Tube videos and held his own in the ring. His brother, on the other hand, had his shirt ripped to shreds.

Then on our last night in Spain, the real deal took place at the Malaga bullring. Set to the tune of a 25-piece band, 3 matadors with the help of their small entourage of picadors and banderilleros each get a shot at 2 bulls a piece. By the end of the night, 6 bulls had been fought and a 7th bull entered the ring but was spared...we have no idea why.

The matadors are household names, but the bulls are equally as important. Just like in horse racing, the each bull’s farm, name, and weight are publicized prior to the fight.

I don’t know why we found this surprising, but the bullfight was very bloody. There’s a lot more involved, but to sum it up quickly and in layman’s terms…

The bull is released from its pen and the matador takes his first passes with a hot pink cape.

The matador’s first team member, the picador, comes out on an armored horse and stabs the bull in the shoulders with a long arrow-like pole. This is the first puncture of the bull and releases the tension that has built up in its shoulders.

The matador’s second set of team members, the banderilleros, run at the bull and – jumping in the air towards it face – plunge colorful barbed sticks into its back. If they miss or the sticks fall out, they have to do it again. This further weakens the bull’s muscles.

In the final stage, the matador comes back out and does some more passes with the bull using a red cape. His final act is to plunge a slightly curved sword through the bull’s shoulders straight into its heart. Within less than 20 seconds, the bull hits the ground.

One of the matador’s team members comes out with a dagger to put the final touches on the death near what looked to be the spinal cord.

A team of men come out to hitch the bull to a cart and drag it out of the stadium to the cheers of the crowd. Then they shovel up all of the blood into a bucket. Fight over.

After the initial shock wears off, it’s very entertaining. I always assumed that the word “Ole!” was just a stereotype that no one actually uses. Not so! Brave or skilled moves displayed by the matadors draw audible oles throughout the crowd. If a matador does an exceptional job, the crowd waves white handkerchiefs and he is awarded one of the bull’s ears. What a fitting way to spend our last night in this culture-rich country.

So to recap…Andalucia: sun, bullfights, olives, heat, ham, and flamenco. Soak it up! Ole!


  1. Impressive post! I was in Spain couple times and equally enjoyed every time. I do agree that Ronda is a beautiful village straddling a gorge with an impressive bridge. Great place.
    southern spain itinerary

  2. Did you know that you can shorten your urls with AdFly and receive dollars from every click on your shortened links.