Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Perfect Trip


On this journey, from the cities of Spain’s south to its quiet country trails, we sample flamenco and sherry, Islamic architecture, pristine beaches and mountain scenery

Executive summary by darmansjah

Seville is peppered with establishments featuring live flamenco shows. 

Your Trip Mapped Out

SEVILLE Best for flamenco; Andalucia’s fiery capital city is a place of twisting lanes, shady squares and unrivalled architecture – but it is flamenco that brings it to life.

JEREZ Best for Sherry; The centerpiece of the region’s sherry Triangle, Jerez de la Frontera is home to more than 20 bodegas, most of them open to visitors.

SIERRA DE GRAZALEMA Best for walking; The rugged mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema hide peaks, valleys and gorges and pretty villages, making them perfect walking territory.

TARIFA Best for beaches; Tarifa has some Spain’s best beaches, with miles of white sand facing south to Africa; add to this whale-watching trips and a pretty old town.

GRANADA Best for architecture; The capital of Islamic Spain until the 15th century, Granada is a city of historical treasures presided over by the incredible Alhambra Palace.

ALPUJARRAS Best for hilltop villages; Las Alpujarras, a line of valleys along the Sierra Nevada’s southern flank, is home to los pueblos blancos, Spain’s beautiful ‘white villages’.

SEVILLE Best for flamenco.

SEVILLE is the soul of Andalucia, and flamenco is its soundtrack. This beguiling city, southern Spain’s largest, is Andalucia at once writ large and in microcosm: grand tapestries in stone-monuments to Spain’s Islamic and imperial Christian past – watch over intimate squares, all dressed in white and shaded by orange trees.  But architecture tells only half the story in this place where so many peculiarly Spanish passions-bullfighting, fiestas and flamenco – find their most vivid expression.

It was in the area surrounding Seville that flamenco was born among gitanos (Roma People) in the late 18th century. And to this day the true of flamenco’s authenticity, the guitar legend Paco de Lucia told a Spanish newspaper in 2009, is that it must ‘sound like Andalucia, its people and its traditions.’

Passion stands at the heart of the genre. ‘Up on stage, I’m in my own world,’ says Maria Jose Vargas, a bailaora (flamenco dancer) at Tablao El Arenal: admission, show and drink $41; Calle Rodo 7; performances at 8pm n 10pm daily.., who has been dancing flamenco since she was 10. But whenever I catch a glimpse of someone crying in the audience, that’s when I know I’m dancing well.’

The live show at the Tablao-amid a formal, slightly old-world atmosphere, with bow-tied waiters and hand-painted posters from early 20th century Seville – is love and tragedy rendered in musical form. Dancers such as Maria Jose, with her head as still as a sprinter’s, flowers in her hair n polka dots on her dress, share a public camaraderie on stage with black-suited male guitarists and singers. The delicacy of the hands and mesmerizing quickness of the feet, the overwrought facial expressions and rapid shifts in tempo produce a performance in which the distance between ecstasy and agony is barely discernible.

The tablaos (flamenco shows) can be expensive, but come with a guarantee of professional performers. In contrast, crowded flamenco bars with no scheduled performances carry a magical spontaneity. Casa Anselma -: admission free, Pages del Corro 49; open from midnight Monday to Saturday, - across the river in the old flamenco barrio (district) of Triana, is beloved by aficionados who every night launch into impromptu performances.

And, according to Maria Jose, therein lies Seville’s secret as Spain’s top flamenco destination: ‘Seville is special, partly because of flamenco’s strong roots here, but also because there’s so much more variety than anywhere else. N in a special Seville touch ,we dress up for the occasion.’

El Rinconcillo : one of Seville’s oldest tapas bars specializing in cured meats and cheeses; tapas from $2.45.

Hotel Amadeus Music of a different kinds is the inspiration for the family-run Hotel Amadeus, where some of the rooms have been soundproofed for piano or violin practice. The rooms are fine adaptations of an 18th-century sevillano mansion, and the location – in the heart of the Barrio de Santa Cruz but slightly removed from its clamour – couldn’t be better (from $99).

If there is one city in Andalucia that most perfectly combines all the flavours of southern Spain, Seville wins out. Here you will find tapas and flamenco, magnificent architecture and the rich legacies of Moorish times. Make Seville the first stop on your perfect to Andalucia.

Seville airport deals mostly with domestic flights. The easiest way to get to Seville is to fly to Barcelona from Singapore or Malaysia via Singapore Airlines. Then take a connecting flight to Seville on AirEuropa, AirBerlin or TAP Portugal.

Seville’s fine public transport includes buses, metro and trams (one trip tickets start at US$1.40). airport buses to the bus station cost $2.45, a taxi $21.50.  Pick up Andalucia and Spain guides, and Robert wilson’s thriller : The Blind Man of Seville or see Spain info for more information. 

‘The air soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it. ‘ Christoper Columbus.

Seville grew rich on the trappings of Spain’s empire – Christoper Columbus set sail from here – and the historic Archivo General De Indias is the main archive on Spain’s American empire (admission free; Calle Santo Tomas;

The huge Catedral De Sevilla has priceless paintings and the tomb of Christopher Columbus. The Giralda, once a Mosque minaret, is a fine piece of Islamic architecture (admission $9; Calle manuel Rojas Marcos).

All things flamenco fill the newly opened Museo Del Baile Flamenco, housed in an 18th-century building. As well as displays, there are performances, classes and workshop ($11).

Not far from the Museo del Baile Flamenco in the city centre, Pension Casa Sol Y Luna is in an early 20th-century home, with Spanish-British owners, which is filled with period furnishing (from US$41).

Located in an historic building in the heart of Barrio de Santa Cruz, a five-minute walk from the cathedral and the Alcazar, Hosteria Del Laurel has bright, spacious rooms with marble floors (from US$124).

The four-star Hotel las Casas De La Juderia has gorgeous rooms surrounding a series of patios in Barrio de Santa Cruz. The rooms are decorated with antique furniture and paintings (from US$125).

At Catalina the best fresh ingredients and high-quality traditional cured meats and cheeses are presented in creative and unusual combinations (tapas plates from $10; Paseo de Catalina de Ribera 4).

A seventh-generation family tavern sold to the forebears of the present owners in 1850, and decorated with tiles dating from the 17th century, El rinconcillo is a bastion of old Andalusia (tapas from $2.45, mains from $15).

Andalucian-style fine dining is given a contemporary Basque twist at Restaurante Egana Oriza. Dishes include a terrine of foie gras with hoey, and lobster with herbs (mains from $23-$33; closed Sunday).

Extraverde is a fresh addition in Barrio de Santa Cruz. This bright modern bar and shop specializes in a choice of olive oil, and the ingredients and drinks that best complement it (tapas from US$2.45; Plaza dona Elvira 8).

Close to flamenco spot Tablao el Arenal, tapas bar Meson Cinco Jotas features great wines and Andalucia’s finest food. Tapas include Iberian pork sirloin in Pedro Zimenez wine (tapas US$4; Calle Castelar 1).

A wine bar since the mid-19th century, Casa Morales, in El Arenal, has changed little. Huge tinajas (earthenware jars)  carry the day’s chalked-up tapas choices (half plates US$12; closed Sunday; Garcia de Vinesa 11).

JEREZ FRONTERA Best for Sherry

THERE are many reasons to visit Jerez de la Frontera – the ornate and decaying whitewashed buildings at every turn, the Islamic-era Alcazar fortress crowning its summit, and the city’s role as southwestern Andalucia’s heartbeat, thanks to its extravagant embracing of flamenco and thoroughbred Andalucian horses. But none of these reasons is more compelling than the city’s promise of the perfect sherry.

Jerez (known as ‘Sheris’ in medieval Muslim times), along with Anlucar de Barrameda to the west and El Puerto de Santa Maria to the south, is the centerpiece of Andalucia’s world-renowned Sherry Triangle. Here, a combination of climate and chalky soils provides the ideal conditions for sherry production – the town is home to more than 20 bodegas (wineries or wine cellars).

In the cellar of Bodegas Tradicion, a niche producer of aged sherries, amid the gloom of 625-litre casks of American oak, the temperature is 25C, while the thermometer outside edges close to 40C. The smell of sherry is overwhelming.

In the tasting room, among artworks by Goya and Velazquez and ceramic tiles painted by an eight-year-old Picasso, visitors eagerly try the produce. Among the bodega’s most sought-after sherries is the Palo Cortado, which has a smoky smell and an aftertaste of dried fruit. Its full-bodied Oloroso somehow combines vanilla, ginger and the smell of Christmas and old wood.

Sherry, more than any other wine, requires human intervention at every step along the way. And Jose (Pepe) Blandino, Bodegas Tradicion ( orgnises guided visits by appointment &18.50 also visit cellar master, who has worked in the industry for almost five decades, treats his sherries like his own offspring. ‘When we start out, the wines are like little children. We have to teach them how to grow, to help them through the varying stages of getting older. It takes a lot of time and hard work, so that they can become adults we can be proud of.’

But even Pepe admits that each person’s response to the final product is as important, and as personal, as his own role in the process. ‘We can simply show people what to look for. But the only standard that really matters is whether or not you like it.

La Carbona: the décor evokes a cavernous wine cellar and its set menu is a lesson in sherry etiquette (set menu $31).

Hotel Bellas Artes The four-star Hotel Bellas Artes occupies a small, converted 17th-century palace, and combines historic character with a central location. Behind the light sanstone façade, architectural features such as the soaring ceilings points to a distinguished past, while warm colour schemes and modern bathrooms ensure contemporary comforts. In summer, the rooftop terrace (with jacuzzi) has fine views of the cathedral’s spires (from $56).

SIERRA DE GRAZALEMA Best for walking

CITIES  may provide the drama amid the rolling hill country of western Andalucia, but in the east, where the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema rises from quiet rural byways like an apparition, the natural world takes over. Great buttresses of rock silhouetted against the clouds soar above a forested landscape tinged with green even when the rest of Andalucia turns yellow under a baking summer sun.

Two whitewashed villages serve as gateways to the inner sierra. Grazalema, the largest of the region, is an ideal base for exploration, its narrow white lanes and terracotta roofs set against a backdrop of high mountains. And Zahara de la Sierra is one of Andalucia’s most striking villages, sashaying up a craggy, castle-topped peak in the park’s northern reaches. But in the Sierra de Grazalema they play second fiddle to the cinematic beauty of the landscape that surrounds them. Countless trekking routes weave through the park, of which La Garganta Verde (the green throat – Hiking La Garganta Verde requires a free permit from the Centro de Visitrantes El Bosque-contact them up to two weeks in advance in summer 00 34 956 72 70 29), accessible off the road between Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra, is the most spectacular.

The initial trail, gently dropping through densely wooded country, provides few hints as to what lies ahead. Then, the final descent through the gorge begins, with steep rock-hewn steps climbing down towards the base, towering cliffs either side. Lush stand of trees and rocks shiny with moss evoke the sense of a kingdom hidden from the outside world, an eerie sensation heightened by the brooding presence of griffon vultures watching over the gorge.

‘Few people associate hiking in Europe with the chance to see wildlife,’ says Pedro Lopez, a local naturalist. ‘But in the Sierra de Grazalema, we almost have our own ecosystem. It’s not just the vultures; there are so many birds, especially in spring or autumn when migrating species funnel through the mountains on their way from or to Africa. There’s also a good chance of seeing ibex if you get away from the road.’
Even if you don’t, the narrow passes connecting the villages lead over high mountain passes, drawing near to some of Spain’s prettiest mountain scenery.

The game at Meson El Simancon, from venison and quail to wild boar, is served up alongside more traditional meats such as beef and ham, all of which can be enjoyed on the terrace (mains from $6-$18.50; Plaza Asomaderos).

At the top end of Grazalema Village, the five-room La Merjorana hotel is reason enough to come to the Sierra de Grazalema. With athe atmosphere of a mountain lodge and the quality of a hotel, La Mejorana has a swimming pool and good village views from its terrace, while the rooms have simple wood and wrought-iron furnishings (from $62).

TARIFA Best for beaches

ON mainland Spain’s southern tip, a world away from the overdeveloped resorts of its Mediterranean coast, elemental Tarifa restores the country’s reputation for having the best beaches in all of Europe. Cooled by Atlantic breezes and backed by forested hills, the beaches that dot the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light) are continental in scope: across the water, Morocco seems within swimming distance. ‘It’s a fascinating place, where two oceans meet and two continents almost touch,’ says Katharina Heyer, Tarifa resident for the past 13 years and president and founder of FIRMM (the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals-firmm’s whale-watching trips include a wildlife briefing $31). ‘But what’s the most special thing about Tarifa? It is pure nature.’

About six miles from Tarifa’s beautiful old town, nature certainly seems to dominate the broad sweep of sand that is the Playa de los Lances. Locals and visitors on horseback splash through the waves, while wildlife encounters of a different kind take place out at sea.

Between Europe and Africa, an array of dolphins species swim alongside long-finned pilot whales. Orcas call by in July and August, and sperm whales between April and July. Abroad the whale-watching boats that set sail from Tarifa, there are gasps when an ocean giant glides into view. With the Costa de la Luz as backdrop, this is one of Europe’s greatest wildlife shows.

Locals flock to Restaurante La Olla, where the outdoor tables offer a front-row seat to the activity of Tarifa’s port (paellas from $11).

On a quiet lane in Tarifa’s whitewashed old town, Posada La Sacristia, a converted 17th-century townhouse, is one of the loveliest accommodation choices in Spain’s south. The ten large, high-ceilinged rooms bear elegant traces of Moorish and Thai Buddhist inspiration, and there’s a spa, restaurant and bar on site. The hotel can also help organize various seaside activities, from horse-riding and cycling to whale-watching and windsurfing (from $124).

GRANADA Best for architecture

GRANADA is where Andalucia’s enduring historical legacy is brought to life. For more than seven centuries, Christian monarchs and the Islamic rulers of Al-Andalus battled over the Iberian Peninsula. And it was Granada-the capital of Islamic Spain until its final defeat in 1492-that came to be the symbol of the sophistication of al-Andalus.

Exquisite in the intensity of its detail, extravagant in its scope, the Alhambra palace is the culmination of a vision – of paradise, of earthly power, and of the vanity of attempting to combine the two. It is at once a pleasure palace built by rulers who imagined that Islamic rule would last forever, and a formidable defensive fortress because they feared it wouldn’t.

To visit Alhambra is to walk with wonder through storied halls added down through the centuries by rulers eager to leave their mark upon history. In the Nasrid Palace, a palace complex within the palace complex, the combination of building materials (wood, stone, ceramics and plaster) with traditional Islamic forms (intricate calligraphy, stuccoed ceilings and interwoven geometric patterns) reaches a point close to perfection.

Maria del Mar Villafranca, the director of the government body charged with conserving the Alhambra, cautions visitors not to rush past the façade of the Palacio de Comares: ‘So many of the Alhambra’s signature decorative forms are on display here,’ she says. She points to the Patio de Arrayanes and the Patio de los Leones as her other highlights. Another indulgence is to rest in the shade in the Alhambra’s gardens, enjoying a sense of quiet refinement alongside the perfectly proportioned pools of water.

The Alhambra’s graceful use of space finds a counterpoint across the valley in the tangle of lanes that make up the old Islamic quarter, the Albayzin, where cobblestone throughfares pass beneath high white walls that suggest more than they reveal: here, a jasmine-scented garden; there, a forgotten palace. The quarter is filled with the smell of incense and tobacco, with the sounds of shouted commerce and hushed conversation in candlelit also works its final magic in the Albayzin, from the Mirador de San Nicolas lookout.

‘What I love most about the Alhambra is its harmonious relationship between architecture and landscape,’ Ms Villafranca says. With the Alhambra set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada, it’s easy to see what she means.

Up to 6,600 tickets to the Alhambra are available each day, but only one-third are sold at the ticket office ($13.50); start queuing by 7am to get one. Book in advance through Alhambra Booking or ServiCaixa.

Find fine Moroccan food in the lower (western) Albayzin at Restaurante Arrayanes, with good couscous, tagine and pastelas, but no alcohol. Here, heartfelt Arabic music and glittering, mirrored décor transport for you to Morocco (mains from US$12; Cuesta Maranas 4).

Arranged around an enclosed patio and occupying a 15th-century Albayzin mansion, Hotel Casa Morisca has modern rooms, some with partial Alhambra views from the balconies, the rooftop Mirador room has great views. The 10-minute walk into town passes along the river below the Alhambra (from US$93).

Las ALPUJARRAS Best for hilltop villages

Las ALPUJARRAS is where the fame of Andalucia’s whitewashed villages (los pueblos blancos) was born. Since being immortalized in Gerald Brenan’s 1920s South from Granada, which told tales of isolated villages inhabited by curious characters, the area has drawn Europeans eager to escape the modern world.

One of them, Frenchman Jean-Claude Juston, owner of L’Atelier (a vegetarian restaurant and cookery school in the village of Mecina), arrived in 1992. ‘I first came here by complete chance to rest and read,’ he says. ‘And I fell in love with the area, because of the almost permanent sunshine, the natural beauty of its Berber villages, the warmth of its local residents, the silence, and the clean air and transparent waters.’

Little has changed since Jean-Claude arrived. Throughout the region, uniformly white villages have colonised the most unlikely terrain, clinging to steep slopes and seemingly at risk of sliding into the canyons below. The three villages of the Poqueira gorge – Pampaneira, bubion and Capileira – in particular rank among the most dramatically sited pueblos.

Away from the main roads, old men in berets and balck-clad women watch the world go by, while donkeys walk along otherwise deserted main streets, flowers cascade from window boxes and people greet each other, friend or stranger.

But it’s the transition from winter to summer that Jean-Claude loves most about life here. ‘The flowers of spring give way to summers that smell of fireworks, village fiestas and a serious increase in the population as all the family homes reopen. At night, there are reunions, and people play cards and dominoes, eat together, sing – and sometimes there’s even dancing in the streets. ‘It’s as if the very heart of Andalucia spills out over the mountains.

There are tourist offices in Orgiva, Pampaneira and Capileira. For more information on L’Atelier, visit

Restaurant ibero-Fusion serves Andalucian, Arabic and Indian food, with great views from the upstairs dinning room (mains from US$9.90; Calle Parra 1, Capileira 00 34 958 76 32 56).

High on he hill above Capileira, serenaded by the sound of tricking water and cowbells, Cortijo Catifalarga promises gorgeous views from its grounds and the terraces of its rooms. In a building of local stone, the rooms blend simplicity with regional architectural features. From the restaurant and breakfast room, you can see Africa on a clear day (from US$62).

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