Andalusia is one of my favorite places in all of the world. From the sun-splashed sea to the dramatic, barren mountains, the region is full of delights from the history, to the culture—and of course the food is among the world’s best. Interestingly, whereas the eastern and western Mediterranean regions are littered with Roman ruins, all across southern Spain you come across the remains of a once great and vibrant Islamic civilization that conquered the southern part of Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries (Islamic forces began raiding Spain in the early 700s through North Africa; a Caliphate was set up later that century—it stretched to the Pyrenees).
The name Andalusia is derived from the Arabic name for the region, al-Andalus (which itself is probably the original Arabic word for Vandals, the tribe that populated the Iberian Peninsula when the Arabs first arrived). So extensive is the Islamic influence in Spain that many Spanish words with the letter ‘z’ comes from Arabic (azul, meaning blue; azúcar, meaning sugar; ajedrez, meaning chess). So, while there are extensive Roman ruins around Spain, the Islamic influence (especially in Andalusia) is unmistakable.
The jewel of the region is probably Granada, where the architectural treasure known as Alhambra commands the heights of the city. This fortress complex eventually became the royal palace not only of the Sultan of Granada, but also for the royal pair Ferdinand and Isabella after the Spanish Reconquista in the late 1400s. In fact, it was in the Alhambra where the pair gave Christopher Columbus his commission to sail west across the Atlantic. Sevilla also has outstanding examples of Moorish architecture, including the wonderful Alcázar.
Our favorite place, however, in Andalusia was Córdoba, which became the one of the centers of Islamic art, medicine, philosophy, science, and learning. Politically Córdoba became the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate, stretching all the way from the Arabian Peninsula and Persia. The Great Mosque of Córdoba (Mezquita) was converted to a Catholic cathedral (the opposite of what happened to the great church Aya Sophia in Istanbul), but its Islamic themes are unmistakable in the arches and intricate brickwork. What we liked most about Córdoba was that it was such more laid back, and though it is touristed, it was not as heavy a presence as in Granada and Sevilla. Of course, it also didn’t hurt that our hotel there near the center had the best gin and tonics I’ve ever tasted.