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A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Andalusian Adventures

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This itinerary features western Andalusia, the area that most foreigners picture when they think of Spain, and surely that most often visited by tourists. This part of the region is characterized by the warmth of its people, as well as its climate. Pueblos blancos, white towns, stepping down hillsides topped by the brooding ruins of ancient castles will become a common, though never commonplace, sight. While this is primarily agricultural and cattle-raising country, this itinerary also includes one of Spain's major metropolitan areas: Seville-the country's fourth-largest city and the scene of Don Juan, Bizet's Carmen, Mozart's Figaro, and glorious 16th-century adventures to and from the exotic New World. It also includes the most tourist-intensive area in the country-the Costa del Sol from Málaga to San Pedro de Alcántara.

This is the part of Spain that extends to within about 15 kilometers of the northern tip of Africa and was the first area conquered by the Moors in 711. Except for the relatively small group of Moslems in Granada, Seville was also the last area reconquered by the Christians in the 13th century, making it the area that retains the strongest traces of Moorish culture-not necessarily just architecture-to the present day.

The culinary specialties of the area include gazpacho and fried seafood dishes. Due to the warm climate, sangría is also delightfully ubiquitous. And, of course, this is the home of sherry, whose name comes from the English pronunciation of the wine-producing center of Jerez (formerly spelled Xerez, with the x pronounced sh).

PACING: Skip the Costa del Sol if you are not one for crowds and opt instead to spend several days in the hinterland before heading up for a stay in Ronda or Arcos de la Frontera before exploring Seville.

Malága had seen occupation by the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors, before being recaptured by the Catholic monarchs in 1487. Today, Málaga lies prey to a new onslaught, as tourists flock from Northern Europe to soak up the sun-an invasion that has somewhat dimmed its old-world charm. However, this seaside town still has much to offer. It is famous for its Málaga dessert and aperitif wines (sweet Pedro Ximenes, and Dulce and Lágrimas muscatel). Early works of Picasso can be found in the Museo de Bellas Artes on the Calle San Agustín. Explore the cobbled side streets off the main plaza where you can relax at outdoor cafés, and check out the bustling shopping street, Marqués de Larios. From the 14th-century ramparts on the nearby Gibralfaro Castle (lighthouse hill) are gorgeous gardens with magnificent views of the town and harbor, and just down from there is the 11th-century Alcazaba (Moorish fortress).

It's only an hour's drive from Málaga to Ronda. Leave Málaga on A7-E15 along the coast (following signs for Cadiz, among various other destinations) past touristy Torremolinos (which Michener's characters from The Drifters would no longer recognize) and Fuengirola before reaching Marbella, the most aristocratic of the Costa del Sol resorts, with its hidden villas, lavish hotels, long, pebbly beach, and the inevitable remains of a Moorish castle. If you like shopping, you will enjoy the many elegant international shops in the city, where strolling along the main street and side streets is a pleasure. Numerous restaurants of all types and categories are available here, including La Fonda, with a Michelin star, on the Plaza de Santo Cristo. From Marbella, take the N340 and continue west for a few kilometers to Puerto Banús, where the marina is home to enough yachts to rival Monaco or the French Riviera. Unless your yacht is moored there, you will have to park in the lot just outside the harbor area proper and walk in. Inside are numerous chic shops, bars, and restaurants. This is the center of Spain's jet-set scene.

From Puerto Banus, return to the freeway for just a few kilometers and turn north on A376 towards Ronda. For sheer dramatic setting, Ronda takes the prize. Ronda is perched on the edge of the Serranía de Ronda, slashed by 153-meter gorges and cut in two (the old Ciudad through which you enter from the south, and the new Mercadillo) by the Tajo ravine carved by the Guadalevín River (which explains why every other sentence describing the site must necessarily include the word "view").

On your stroll through the town, be sure to include the Bullring with its wrought-iron balconies. One of Spain's oldest (1785), it inspired several works by Goya. Francisco Romero, the father of modern bullfighting (he introduced the cape and numerous so-called classical rules), was born here in 1698. His descendants continued what is still known as the Ronda school of bullfighting. Farther on you discover the spectacular Puente Nuevo (the 18th-century bridge that connects the two parts of town and which you crossed on your way in) with its incredible view of the ravine. When you cross it, you are in the Ciudad section with its winding streets and old stone palaces. Visit the Plaza de la Ciudad and its church, Santa Maria la Mayor, whose tower (a former mosque) affords still more picture-perfect views. Some dramatic walking excursions (30 minutes each) can be taken on footpaths leading off the Plaza del Campanillo down to ruined Moorish mills; or look for the footpath to the upper mills that offer spectacular views of a waterfall and the Puente Nuevo. To the left of the Puente Nuevo (near the Puente Romano, or Roman Bridge) is the Casa del Rey Moro (note the Moorish azulejo plaque in the façade), a lavishly furnished old mansion with terraced gardens and a flight of 365 stairs cut into the living rock leading to the river and the Moorish baths. The ancient ambiance is hard to beat and invites you to take your time strolling around the lovely streets and plazas. In the newer Mercadillo section of town, Carrera de Espinel is a picturesque, pedestrian-only shopping street. You find it running east from near the bullring.

Though Ronda encourages you to linger, take comfort in the fact that you are headed to another impressive town, Arcos de la Frontera, following the signs to Arriate and Setenil. The latter is a classic, little white town with one very interesting aspect-at the bottom of the town, in the ravine, the houses are actually built into the cliff itself. All along this route, you enjoy numerous spectacular views of the mountainous countryside. Leave Setenil in a westerly direction and follow MA486, then MA449, which seem to be taking you back to Ronda. However, on reaching A376, take a right and you'll be back on the road to Arcos de la Frontera.

Back on A376, after about 6 kilometers, you see a road (MA505) to the left indicating the way to the Cueva de la Pileta. Upon arrival in this desolate place, park your car and climb the steep path to the small entrance to the cave, almost hidden among the rocks. You need to join a group of other tourists and follow a guide to visit the caves. (Before leaving Ronda, check with the tourist office or at your hotel to verify what hours the caves are open.) If there are only a small number of tourists when you visit, you may be allowed to see some of the ancient black-and-red animal drawings found here. The paintings are said to predate those in the famous Altamira Caves and, apparently, indicate that the caves were inhabited 25,000 years ago. The ceramic remains from the caves are claimed to be the oldest known pottery specimens in Europe.

Wind your way back to A376 and continue northwest, then west on the A382. You are on a road called the Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos, or white-town route, and you soon see why as you pass several very picturesque little towns with their whitewashed buildings and red-tile roofs. On the right, you'll see Montecorto and have a splendid view of the mountains in front of you. A bit farther, the town of Zahara, with a ruined castle and Arab bridge, rises to your left. Built on a ridge, it was a stronghold against the kingdom of Granada during the Moorish occupation.

You notice on this itinerary several towns with the "de la Frontera" tag on their names. This means "on the border" and alludes to their status during the Reconquest of Spain from the Moors. As you approach Arcos, you have several marvelous opportunities to capture its incredible setting on film.

Arcos De La Frontera clings impossibly to an outcropping of rock with the Guadalete River at its foot. Navigate carefully up its maze of narrow, one-way alleys or you may (as we did once) find yourself backing down those steep, twisty streets in the face of a big truck with traffic being expertly (sort of) directed by amused locals. Since you are approaching from the north, the route up the hill to the Plaza de España at the heart of the old town on top is fairly easy. Although the view here is the main attraction, you will also want to see (and perhaps climb the tower of) the Santa María de la Asunción church on the plaza and wander through the ancient, romantic, winding streets of the old town, where you get a real feeling that you have stepped into life as it was in the Middle Ages.

The next destination, Seville, is the centerpiece of romantic Spain and, appropriately, has retained its beauty and ambiance even in this modern age. We hope you have managed to leave enough time to enjoy its unsurpassable attractions. Leave Arcos heading west, still on the white-town route, and you pass rolling hillsides resplendent with sunflowers (if it is summer), numerous typical Andalusian cortijos, or ranches, and more dazzling white villages. Then the terrain becomes flatter, and the roadside towns less impressive, as you approach the famous town of Jerez De La Frontera.

Jerez's main attraction is visiting the bodegas where sherry is made. The traffic in and out of Jerez is exasperating. Most of the bodegas are open for visitors from 9 am to 1 pm only, so plan your time accordingly. Unfortunately, due to the ever-increasing number of interested visitors, some bodegas have instituted a reservation policy. To be on the safe side, call ahead as soon as you know when you plan to be in Jerez (ask for assistance from your hotel desk staff). English seamen in the 18th century found sherry wine an agreeable alternative to French wine. The varieties commonly produced here are fino (extra dry, light in color and body), amontillado (dry, darker in color and fuller-bodied), oloroso (medium, full bodied, and golden), and dulce (sweet dessert wine).

The Jerez region is also renowned for quality horse breeding. The famous Lippizaner horses originally came from this area and are trained at the Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre. Dressage displays are given on Thursdays.

When you are ready to call it a day and discover what Seville has in store for you, make your way to the A4 toll road, which takes you there in no time. From the outskirts, follow the signs indicating centro ciudad, while keeping your eye on the skyline's most outstanding landmark-the towering golden spire of the Giralda, attached to the magnificent cathedral, which is the largest in the world.

In order to fully appreciate the many marvels of Seville, turn to the itinerary Seville Highlights.

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