GRANADA/SEVILLE, Spain: Southern Spain is famous for its traditional Spanish flare, from Flamenco to tapas, but it also provides a unique opportunity for travelers to take a walk through history, tracing the footsteps of Arab influence in Andalusia.
The Muslim Kingdom of Granada may have fallen in 1492, marking the end to Arab rule in Andalusia, but a wealth of ruins and landmarks remains today, offering visitors wonders from the eight centuries of Arab presence in the region.
Granada, Cordoba and Seville are some of the many cities that stood witness to the great period of Arab rule in Andalusia and are perfect tourist destinations as the hot summer begins to cool.
One of the finest landmarks of Granada is the magnificent Alhambra complex, located on a hill overlooking the beautiful city.
The name Alhambra is likely derived from al-Hamra in Arabic, a reference to the red color of the oxidized soil covering the hill upon which the complex sits.
The name may also come from Mohammad ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr, founder of the Nasrid dynasty in 1239, which ruled Granada for more than two centuries.
Mostly constructed by rulers of the Nasrid Kingdom, the complex once comprised royal palaces, mansions of prominent families, soldiers’ houses and a mosque.
The citadel at the heart of the complex pre-dates even the Nasrid dynasty.
The Alhambra, like many structures and sights in southern Spain, shows the combined influences of Muslim and Christian dynasties that lost, conquered and reconquered the region for hundreds of years.
In 1492, Granada was retaken by Christians. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, constructed his own palace inside the complex in the 16th century in an attempt to make the Alhambra the center of his empire.
The magnificent Charles V fountain emerges at the entrance of the Alhambra, announcing a new era to all visitors after the fall of the Arab kingdom.
Beyond the fountain lies the Puerta de la Justicia, or Justice Gate, a square tower leading to Alcazaba citadel and then to the three Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar, Comares and Lions, each a masterpiece of architecture and ceramic tiling.
One of the dazzling parts of the Comares Palace is the courtyard of the myrtles, which owes its name to the myrtle bushes bordering the central pool.
Visitors are surprised to see the entire palace mirrored in the water of the pool, a technique that was used three centuries later in India’s Taj Mahal.
The courtyard of the Lions, in the Palace of Lions, is also a work of art, featuring a forest of pillars and 12 white marble lions around a fountain of the citadel with water pouring out from their mouths.
Some of the wood of the ceilings in the Alhambra palaces was imported from Lebanon.
A tour of the Alhambra won’t be complete without a visit to the amazing Generalife Garden, where the Sultans went to relax away from daily concerns.
The complex is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. during summer and from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter every day except for Dec. 25 and Jan.1.
Visitors should be careful not to fall victim to pickpockets or get lost among the 350 visitors who enter the Alhambra almost every 30 minutes.
Another city that should not be missed in Andalusia is Seville, which boasts the Giralda bell tower – a monument visible from almost any place in the city.
Once a minaret, the Giralda was converted into a bell tower of the Seville Cathedral in 1248, when the city was conquered by Ferdinand III.
The minaret was originally built in the 12th century, during the Almohad dynasty, and the Giralda bell tower derives its name from El Giraldillo – a huge statue representing the triumph of faith located on its top.
At 130m in length and 76 in width, the Seville Cathedral is the largest church in Spain and boasts a wide array of monuments.
It includes the Puerta del Perdon – or Pardon Door – built during the Almohad dynasty, as well as a mausoleum containing remains of Christopher Columbus, tombs of Spanish kings and a 20-meter-high altarpiece with more than 1,000 figures portraying scenes from both the old and new testaments.
If you are not tired from touring, climb Giralda’s 35 inside ramps to enjoy the spectacular view of the city from its bell chamber.
Just a few minutes walk from the Seville Cathedral lies Alcazares, a complex featuring a number of palaces that are very similar to Alhambra in terms of architecture, though smaller in size – a more manageable version of the larger complex for those short on time.
Today, most of the palaces that still stand in Alcazares were built by Spanish kings, using materials from the original, 12th century Alcazar palace built by the Almohades.
Little remains of the original palace, but the site is beautiful nonetheless.
But Seville is not all about landmarks, as the city is famous for its delicious “tapas” – a type of appetizer in Spanish cuisine served in restaurants and bars across the city.
Made for all tastes, tapas can be served both cold, such as dishes of olives and cheese, and hot, like the dish “chopitos” – battered, fried baby squid.
As the weather becomes cooler at night, tourists can board one of the many boats offering a trip down the Guadalquivir River that crosses the city.
On the boat trip sample some Sangria, the refreshing mix of Spanish wine with fruit and spirits.
To complete tracing the footsteps of the Arabs in Andalusia one cannot miss Cordoba.
Once home to around 500,000 people at a time when the population of Paris was just 15,000, Cordoba was the capital of Andalusia during the 10th century.
A highlight is a visit to the Cathedral Church of Cordoba, which was once the Great Mosque of the city.
Arabs began constructing the mosque in the year 785, after demolishing the martyr’s church of San Vicente. Cordoba was retaken by Christians in 1236, and the mosque was later reconverted into a church.
With plenty of double-arched pillars built during the Arab period along with Christian monuments added later, the cathedral is a spectacle of both Islamic and Christian architecture.
Finally, if you plan to do any souvenir shopping be sure to set out before 2 p.m. or after 5 p.m., as this is the time when shops close for the Spanish siesta.