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Three Spanish jewels

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October 23rd, 2012

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain are best known in the U.S. for backing Christopher Columbus s expedition to the New World. But in Spain, they re also lauded for finally kicking the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. For tourists visiting Andalusia, the southern province that retains much of the flavor of the 700-year occupation by Muslims (even the name Andalusia stems from the Arabic name given to Spain), the royal couple also deserves thanks for not having destroyed every last remnant of Moorish influence, most especially the world-renowned fortress Alhambra. The best time to go is spring or fall when the heat isn t at its most oppressive and the crowds aren t at their peak. Unless you plan to sunbathe on Spain s beaches, stick to the three inland cities Granada, Cordoba, and Seville.

Granada

If there s a must-see on this list, it s Granada because of the Alhambra, a Moorish castle whose construction began in the ninth century and went on for almost 500 years. When it was finally captured by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, they decided not to destroy it because of its incredible beauty (though damage was inflicted over the intervening years, as much from neglect as anything else.) The Alhambra stands on a hill overlooking Granada. If you plan ahead, you can stay on its grounds giving you access before and after the tourists. Spain has a system of unique hotels that have been built in historic monuments called paradores and there s one on the grounds of the Alhambra. It s gorgeous, but pricey. Next door is Hotel America. The best way to describe this small hotel is that it s got character. You have to carry your bags up the winding stairs, so ask for a room on the first floor. And while cars aren t allowed on the Alhambra grounds, guests get to drive up to deposit their luggage the looks of other tourists wondering what makes you so special will bring a smile to your face. The garden where they serve lunch is in a central courtyard, and the conversation raises the noise level, but the hotel settles down at night. You ll want to get to bed early because, as a savvy traveler, you booked your tickets for the castle months in advance and as early in the morning as possible so you can roll out of bed and start your visit. Only small groups are let in every half hour, but they don t kick anyone out, so the later you go, the more dense the throngs. What draws visitors from all over the world? Muslim culture doesn t allow images, but the craftsmanship and intricate detail that went into the construction of this palace have to be seen to be believed. If you rent a headset for a self-guided tour, you ll hear the "voice" of Washington Irving, one of the early tourists to be awestruck by the Alhambra s beauty.

Cordoba

Cordoba also has an incredible landmark of Muslim origin, The Mesquite. Unlike the Alhambra, this landmark was transformed. The Mesquite was an enormous mosque, but the Spanish built a cathedral inside of it! This unique combination of two religions will make your jaw drop as you wander through the vast mosque and suddenly find yourself inside an entirely different perspective of worship. Both Granada and Cordoba also offer you the chance to savor fine food (stay away from the tourist menus), wander narrow streets filled with quaint shops, and soak in Spanish culture. You ll rarely run into language problems as enough people speak English. And while you should always be on the lookout for pickpockets, these cities are relatively safe to walk around, especially during the day.

Seville

The third jewel of a city in Andalusia is Seville, which is the capital of the province and though inland the city from which Columbus sailed. Seville s great mosque no longer stands, but in its place the Spanish built one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world. You can visit Columbus s tomb and then climb the bell tower (a series of ramps) to get a magnificent view of the city, which includes all of the rooftop restaurants and pools as well as the bull fighting ring. An important part of Spanish culture is flamenco, a spirited combination of flamboyant guitar playing, soulful singing, and staccato dance. To catch a performance in Seville, you can go to one designed for tourists, including drinks and a meal for a complete evening s entertainment. Or, you can visit a place like the Casa de la Memoria, which is a cultural center with reasonably priced flamenco shows that offer an hour of wonderful music and dance. Given the proximity of these three Spanish jewels, not much travel time need be spent going from one to the other, so you can book a week in Andalusia and then either go up north to visit Madrid and Barcelona or head west to sample another culture, that of Portugal and its enchanting capital, Lisbon (more on Lisbon in the January 2013 edition of the Tribune).

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