1: Boutique bodega & bullfighting in Hemingway’s Ronda
In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote: Ronda ‘. . . is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone.’
Clinging to a cliff above a dizzying 107-metre chasm created by the Guadalevín River is Ronda, the Ciudad del Sueño (City of Dreams), one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Start at the 17th-century Alameda del Tajo Park, located on the edges of the Tajo cliffs. Saunter through avenues of Himalayan cedars and African acacias, past tinkling fountains and pergolas entwined with fragrant roses.
Pause at the Mirador of Ronda for soul-soaring views of two classic Costa del Sol mountain ranges, the Sierra de Grazalema and the Sierra de las Nieve Serrania.
From Calle Jerez, take a leisurely wander to the vineyards of bodega Descalzos Viejos, a former 6th century monastery with medieval walls, terraced fruit groves, gurgling springs and spectacular views of the valley. Sit beneath an avocado tree and sample award-winning wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay and chat with the owners about anything under the sun.
If you are fortunate, your visit will coincide with must-see events that feature renowned musicians and flamenco stars. Unlike many wine estates, everything is done on demand and privately. Simply message the bodega on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make a booking.
Let’s talk bull
Ronda is the cradle of modern bullfighting so Plaza de Toros is a must, either to watch or simply tour the museum, visit the mighty bull pens and stride out gladiator-like into the centre of the vast ring of sand, which contains the ashes of the great matador Antonio Ordoñez, Hemingway’s good friend.
Main events take place from August 30 to September 2, and you can book in advance online. On the day, wind your way down the narrow alleys of Paseo de E. Hemingway. Listen to canaries shrilling from gilded cages and robust elderly men talking excitedly at open-air cafes.
Grab a £2 cushion at the bullring, admire the Flamenco shows and Lippizaner-style riding tricks and at least stay for your first sight of the matadors as they emerge into the sun, glittering in their traditional traje de luces (suits of light).
2. Tapas crawl through Seville’s medieval Barrio de Santa Cruz
‘Tapas are reason enough to go to Seville’ said TV chef Julia Child. Hometown of the lusty Don Juan, castanet-rattling gypsy Carmen and the enchanting Donana National Park, sunny Seville is a sensuous feast. We’ve curated a gastro-cultural walking tour through four of the native Sevillians’ favourite tapas bars scattered around the cathedral and medieval Jewish quarter and thrown in a little surprise.
Spanish for The Rooftop, La Azotea’s viewpoint alone could turn tapas crawl into tapas stay.
Orchestrated by gastro-slinging legend Chef Juan, this joint is seriously buzzing. British guests with a bloodtooth will rave over the morcilla (black pudding) with caramelised onions topped with a quail's egg. Keep your eye out for the specials, such as suckling pig with Sevilla-style roast spuds and don’t pass up the orange cream with homemade mint ice cream and gin. Open Mon-Sun 9am-12am.
Close to the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, you’ll find Casa Morales, a circa 1850 corner store bar and restaurant. Ultra-traditional tapas of superior quality contrast and accentuate the colourful scenes in the legendary bar, and every meat dish is a marvel.
Grab the Wagyu beef before the locals gobble it off the menu, or the entrecôte with Roquefort sauce. Open Mon-Sat 8pm-12am.
In the shadow of the soaring Moorish La Giralda tower and with unmissable bright blue doors and panoramic windows, is La Brunilda, a trending tapas joint famous for its signature Idiazabal cheese dishes. This smoked cheese from the Basque Country infuses every dish with a sharp, zingy flavour. Try octopus and mushrooms with shrimp or the Cola de Toro (oxtail).
The atmosphere is lively, the tables and chairs simple and the need to arrive early to get seated, a must. Open Mon-Fri 1pm-4pm, 8pm to 12am.
Vinería San Telmo
Run by a husband and wife team, this cosy hideout is a genuine star among the city’s many tapas bars. He does the savouries, with favourites including squid ink pasta with grilled scallops, Argentinian ribeye steak, oxtail in filo pastry and duck breast with chutney and yucca chips.
She does the desserts, with starring roles for her Moroccan pastries and Guinness and cream sponge cake. Open Mon-Sat 1pm-4.30pm & 8pm-12am.
While not in the old quarter and not a tapas bar, Los Valencianos is a specialty ice-cream parlour and then some. By all means try the exotic La Medina sorbet with orange, ginger and cinnamon and even the weird but wonderful goat’s cheese and quince jelly.
But you’re not here for the after-dinner ice cream, you’re here for the artisan horchata (pronounced or-chatter).
Legend has it James I of Aragon was approached by a small girl carrying the drink when he was in Andalucia and after taking a sip he exclaimed ‘Açò és or, xata!’ (‘That's gold, darling!’). Made with tiger nuts, this chocolaty drink is like Marmite. You’ll either love it. . . or not. Open Mon-Sun 2pm till late.
3. Flamenco, palaces & royal gardens in Granada’s old Moorish citadel
‘Granada is so moving that it stimulates and melts all of the senses’ French impressionist Henri Matisse raptured. Join us as we explore Granada’s UNESCO World Heritage district of Albayzín, home to Little Morocco, flamenco bars and the ornate palaces and gardens of the Muslim caliphs.
Of caliphs & courtesans
As early as possible, set out for the fairy tale Alhambra, the royal palace built in the 1200s by the Nasrid kings.
When visiting the Alhambra, enter through the Gate of Justice into this once royal city, and perhaps sense the shades of caliphs and courtesans roaming the palace halls and patios, intricately adorned with cedarwood, stucco arches and geometric mosaics.
Admire the fountained courtyards and clipped hedges of The Court of the Myrtles and the glorious 124 marble columns in the Court of the Lions.
Where Boabdil’s Sultana strayed
Head past the Tower of the Princesses to the Generalife, the Sultan’s summer palace. Traipse through decorated arches to intimate gardens with myrtle hedges, rose and orange trees, past tinkling fountains to the jaw-dropping Patio of the Cypresses, a lush emerald wonder where Boabdil’s Sultana would secretly meet an Abencerrajes knight.
Colours of passion
Recharge with fresh mint tea or a puff of shisha and at sunset, visit the Mirador de San Nicolás viewpoint, to see the Alhambra and snow-capped Sierra Nevada glow with otherworldly glory.
The smouldering ruby-red radiance of the Alhambra, the traditional tinto of flamenco dresses and the translucent Tempranillo tones of the city’s symbol, the granada (pomegranate) capture the vivid spirit of romance that pervades this timeless, medina-like Albayzín quarter, one of the oldest centres of Muslim culture in southern Spain.
So, if authentic falafel and kebabs finished off with honey-drenched pastries is your thing, here’s the spot to indulge.
And where better to experience flamenco than in the place it was born? Follow the winding alleys to an authentic Albayzín gypsy tavern, Peña Flamenca La Platería. Give your emotions full reign as the hand clapping, foot stomping and castanet clattering combines with heart-wrenching Andalucian guitar and the soulful, husky singing of a true flamenco artista.
Follow the old Silk Road
To really go back a few thousand years, follow the curly-toed, mojari-slippered footprints of old Arab merchants to the Alcaicería, the former Moorish silk market in the lower city.
The narrow streets are filled with treasures for the souvenir hunter, including wire figures of Don Quixote chasing windmills and glorious damascene jewellery that competes with the finest Toledan work.
4.Hidden treasures of Mijas by electric Tuk Tuk
Perched most panoramically on the side of a mountain, a high eyrie for sensational views of the Mediterranean and Morocco’s eerie Rif Mountains, Mijas is a must-see and one of the region's prettiest pueblos blancos (white villages). A guided electric tuk tuk tour brings the best out of this artist’s mecca in ways a stuffy bus or traditional but snail-paced burro taxi can only dream of.
Board your tuk tuk at the central square for the full 45-minute tour, complete with local guide. First admire all the sights encircling the flower festooned Plaza Virgen de la Peña.
Perhaps avoid the tourist trap-esque Carromato de Max museum, unless you’re really into curiosities such as shrunken heads and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painted on a grain of rice, or a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on a pinhead.
Next, swoosh down narrow Calle Malaga taking in the whitewashed houses draped in jasmine and bougainvillea. Ask your driver guide to give you a minute to take a peek at the Pablo Picasso Museum for great ceramics by Malaga’s most famous son, in addition to exhibits by Salvador Dalí.
At Plaza Constitución, pause to visit Spain’s only oval-shaped bullring (bulloval?) and spend time admiring the exquisite gardens of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, with picture postcard panoramic views from its pretty terrace. While the interior won’t send you into raptures, venturing inside the already picturesque chapel of San Sebastian certainly might do, and is well worth it.
So is the old quarter of Mijas, the Barrio Santa Ana.
Here, you can admire the delightful Plaza de los Siete Caños (Seven Spouts Square) home to the 1600s Church of Santa Ana, fragrant well-kept gardens and historic city walls built by Moors, one of the many great vantage points overlooking the Med.
The silent tuk tuk also takes a scenic route to the hermitage of San Anton at the bottom of the village of Canillas de Albaida.
Set on its own against the green pine-covered hill, the bell tower alone is an Instagram ready moment and you almost expect John Wayne to materialise and shoot it out with Mexican banditos on the dusty street.
5. Finding beach bliss & kayaking nirvana in Nerja
Stroll the marble-paved promenade of the dramatic Balcony of Europe. Bliss out on a selection of silky sand beaches, shellfish and seafood BBQs sizzling away nearby. Cut loose on a sea kayaking cruise through turquoise waters, cliffside fountains and other natural wonders of Nerja, named from the Arabic narixa, meaning bountiful spring, and a must-see stop on any southern Spain itinerary.
Once a sleepy fishing village, Nerja is often called the Jewel of the Costa del Sol for the combination of charming whitewashed houses, beautiful beaches and setting at the mouth of the Río Chillar beneath the jagged coastal mountains of Sierra Almijara.
Once in Nerja, grab your flip flops and sun cream and hit the beaches. You have 16 kilometres of beaches to choose from – powdery sand, crystal clear water and interesting little coves included. One of the best is the blue flag Burriana with its long beach, watersports and superb food.
Shellfish, king prawns, lobster and even swordfish steaks are prepared from beachside barbecue stalls. Every lunchtime, the aroma of seafood and spice fills the air as giant-sized paellas are prepared in whopping great woks. Anglo-Spaniard types can visit the Black Horse pub for English staples from steak and kidney pies to traditional pints, which go down beautifully beside the Iberian beach.
From Burriana, hire a sea kayak and set course for neighbouring Playa de Maro. Get set to discover Nerja’s hidden beaches of Cala del Pino, El Cañuelo, Las Alberquillas and Molino de Papel, strung like pearls on a necklace at the base of the Maro cliffs.
From your kayak you’ll also pass through caves filled with sapphire waters, spectacular cliffs and cascading waterfalls of the Parque Nacional de los Acantilados de Maro. Kayaking is something you can do even in winter, as temperatures in the south are typically higher than those in northern Spain, which incidentally, is further south than the south of France.
If you have the time, just under two miles from the centre is the famous Cueves de Nerja, the Nerja Caves, where flamenco festivals are held every July. Underground caverns amaze with stalagmites, stalactites, tall columns and the world’s widest column in the Sala del Cataclismo (Cataclysm Hall), which soars up to 32 metres. Oh, and don’t miss the Palaeolithic wall paintings dating back 20,000 years.
Conclude your Nerja adventure with a sundowner along the Balcón de Europa (Balcony of Europe), a palm-shaded promenade jutting out into the Mediterranean.
6. Fairytale Frigiliana & the ghost village of El Acebuchal
If you’re a perfectionist in search of pretty or a connoisseur collecting rare experiences, grab your gadgets, walking shoes and cash, because we’re going to places where paradise exists and electricity is still considered a novelty.
Voted prettiest village in Andalucia by the Spain Tourism Board, Frigiliana’s gorgeously decorative cobbled streets of the Mudéjar district or Moorish quarter (El Barrio Morisco) echo the mountainside town’s old Arabian past. Mudéjar (from the Arabic for tamed or permitted to remain) is the term used for the Moors of who remained in Spain after the reconquista.
Walk to the old district via Calle Zacatín or Hernando El Darra. Either way, you’ll be lavishly rewarded with patterned cobbles, blue-doored houses garlanded with lavender, bougainvillea and jasmine, contrasting vividly against the dazzling lime-washed walls.
A visit to the remains of the old Moorish castle at the top of the old village offers incredible views. You can only imagine what an Arabian knight would have thought, standing up here on a clear day and seeing the coast of their mother continent so near.
Also worth seeing in Frigiliana is the pretty Fuente Vieja (old fountain), San Antonio church, Santo Cristo de la Caña chapel. Pause to enjoy any one of the rooftop bars or restaurants such as El Mirador, which is lit up at night by lovely little Moroccan pottery lanterns.
Just 7kms from Frigiliana is El Acebuchal, an exceptionally charming little ghost village in the heart of the Alhama National Park, a haunting little hamlet where time stands still and donkeys and mules wander the fantasy-novel streets.
Abandoned during the Spanish Civil War, El Acebuchal was slowly, lovingly restored by individuals, with electricity only arriving in 2003. There are no landlines, which is why you need to bring cash to pay for a meal at Bar Restaurante El Acebuchal, which specialises in game such as wild boar, duck and venison.
With the produce all grown and sourced locally, it’s no surprise the salads are sensational, as is the homemade bread, dessert, ice cream and olive oils. This is how food was meant to taste.
7. Leather, whips & pleasure domes of Córdoba
Romans, Visigoths and Moors all left their mark on Córdoba. But it was the Umayyad caliphs who, at the time the Dark Ages were defining Europe, were establishing this beautiful city as a beacon of learning, culture and – lucky for us – an incredibly opulent lifestyle.
If you ever doubt Córdoba was once the capital of Spain, wander the maze of red and white candy-striped Moorish horseshoe arches of the Great Mezquita, one of the world’s most striking monuments. The Mezquita (Arabic for mosque) replaced a Visigoth temple, which in turn replaced a Roman basilica.
Not to be outdone, the Catholics later built a cathedral in the spiritually powerful centre, but it does nothing to destroy the beauty of the peppermint-striped forest of arches. For Muslims back in the day, a pilgrimage to this magnificent mosque was said to have been on par with a hajj to Mecca.
Kublai Khan eat your heart out
Faithful worshippers of more earthly persuasions were called to Córdoba by her harem-filled pleasure palaces. Just outside the city is the Madinat Al-Zahra, a pleasure dome to rival that of Xanadu, boasting over 400 baths in its heyday.
Grab your cozzie and make a beeline (and prior appointment) for Hammam Arabic Baths (Baños Arabes) next to the Mezquita. Feel what it was like for those hedonistic sultans with an indulgent 90-minute bath. With a bath including a massage, Moroccan tea and, if you’re in luck, belly dancers, you’ll be on cloud nine come final whistle.
Float out and aim for the narrow cobblestone streets of the Judería (Jewish quarter) for a vivid slice of history accompanied by colourful little craft boutiques offering flamenco shawls, Arabian inspired textiles and the Córdoban specialty, hand-embossed leather products, from Ottoman covers and attaché cases to jewel cases and cigarette boxes.
While you’re in the area, check out the Galeria de la Tortura museum, as seen on Águila Roja, Spanish TV’s popular period drama series. Perfected over 700 years by the Spanish Inquisition, the gruesome range of torture instruments on display will make even the most hardcore S&M gimp go weak at the knees.
A-List Accommodation in Andalucia
To get the very best out of your stay in Andalucia, we’ve handpicked three hotels from our network, two conveniently located in Malaga and one closer to the Donana National Park in Huelva.
Club La Costa at Marina del Sol is overlooked by the Moorish Castillo Sohail castle and is right on the Malaga coast, just steps away from the golden sandy beach, and boasts beautiful gardens, two large swimming pools, children's pool, tennis courts, games room, spa, three restaurants and three bars.
MacDonald Dona Lola Resort offers landscaped gardens, beautiful views of the ocean from the rooms, huge swimming pool, on-site bar and restaurant. Also on site are tennis courts, heated indoor pool, children's pool, gym, snooker and pool, Turkish bath and fantastic evening entertainment including traditional Spanish Flamenco shows at the hotel.
Surrounded by pine woodlands Sentido Ama Islantilla offers incredible views, a semi-Olympic pool and a 27-hole golf course, gym, spa including Turkish baths, Finnish saunas and a heated indoor pool.Complementary shuttle service is offered to the stunning beach of Islantilla.