A cruise across the mountains

By Andrew Morrod, Daily Mail

Last updated at 10:28 06 October 2003

Malaga might be the quickest way to the fleshpots of the Costa del Sol, but it's also the gateway to Andalucia, the cradle of Spanish history and identity, heartland of the corrida, flamenco and sherry - never mind the olives.

It's a region still haunted by the Moors who ruled 'al-Andalus' for 800 years until the 15th century, and whose culture was never matched by the Catholic monarchy that drove them out in the great Reconquista.

The great mosques and palaces in Seville, Cordoba and Granada stand as a testament to their Islamic creators, and should not be missed.

But there's so much more to see in the mountains and across the sweeping vega, and the best way to do that is in a car.

The ancient cities form a natural circle which I used as the basis for a 1,000-mile driving odyssey that lasted two weeks and took in five mountain ranges and several hotel stops.

Don't be daunted by the distance - I never felt rushed or tired of driving - but if you're the type to flop on the beach this isn't for you, and it won't suit young children either.

So what do you need to know? First, hire a decent car - we picked a roomy category C Peugeot 307. And don't even think of going without air conditioning and a stereo.

The good news is the roads throughout Andalucia are excellent. If you want to cruise the motorways (autovias), they're quiet and free. But I stuck to smaller roads across country to see the parts package tours cannot reach.

With my wife clutching the map, we decided to set off clockwise around the great loop from Malaga and strike out for Seville.

If you're keen to get there on day one, it's a three-hour run on the autovia, but we chose to spend the night in Ronda and headed across country into the first of Andalucia's breathtaking mountain ranges, thousands of feet higher than Britain's biggest, and studded with the famous white towns - the pueblo blanco.

Ronda has plenty to see, including Spain's oldest bullring built in 1785, and the vertiginous bridge across the El Tajo gorge, from which prisoners were thrown to their deaths during the civil war.

Perched above it is one of the hotels in the Parador chain, which are government-run, decently priced and usually situated in a converted palace or castle. There are several very handily placed in Andalucia.

The next day we drove on to cosmopolitan Seville, to the glamorous Hotel Alfonso XIII, close to the buildings that demand a visit at the heart of the city.

It's an elegant place that feels safe, and there's much to wonder at in the cathedral, the biggest in the world, and next door in the Moorish Alcazar palace, dripping with the ornate carvings of its creators.

In the evenings, lose yourself in the the Barrio Santa Cruz, a maze of enchanting alleys and squares, and the setting for the Barber Of Seville.

In the Plaza Santa Cruz, opposite the former home of the artist Murillo, we found a flamenco club alive with bravado, energy and passion.

Inside, the crowd bayed and whooped as a black-clad hunk stamped and strutted across the stage. It's a primeval business.

Two days in Seville was enough before we struck out for the mountains again. The next stop was a parador in Carmona, 25 miles to the east, but why go straight there when there's so much else to see?

The Sierra Norte is perhaps the most desolate region of Andalucia, a rolling vista of olive groves stretching away to the horizon in every direction.

From Seville, you should drive north but stop at the ancient Roman city of Italica, home town of Hadrian, now dug out and boasting stunning mosaic floors.

Like almost everywhere else in the region it is blissfully quiet - you won't hear a British voice to spoil your enjoyment.

From there, we traced the N630 northwards before plunging off the road into the wilds through grizzled olive trees, snaking upwards towards the area's biggest town, the medieval Cazalla de la Sierra.

For an hour we met not a single car, our only companions the hawks wheeling on the warm risers above the valleys.

In Cazalla, we ate chewy tapas in a bar where the men were in for their lunchtime cervezas (beer) and jamon iberico (sweet-cured ham), and where the sight of a woman in public at lunchtime caused quite a stir.

The trail high in the Sierras clings to every twist and turn, and driving is an exacting business, but the tarmac is smooth and the roads deserted.

Dropping out of the mountains, the road irons itself out into the vast chequerboard floodplain of the Rio Guadalquivir, which links Sevilla and Cordoba.

Rising high from the hazy flats is the startling town of Carmona, whose medieval clifftop palace is now an elegant parador.

This drive was around 110 miles, and took six hours with a couple of stops, but it never felt tedious or tiring. North from Carmona (on the N431) the wide country road follows the Guadalquivir all the way to Cordoba.

This is a two-hour delight with some spectacular sights. To the right are vivid yellow wheatfields, to the left the ever-present hulks of two national parks stretching away to the north.

There's a terrific hilltop castillo at Almodovar, about 20 miles west of Corboda, where a rest breaks the journey nicely.

But if you stop only once, save it for the Radiant City of Medina Azahara.

There's free entry to this doomed 10th-century city, constructed by a vainglorious caliph and now a shadow of its former glory, its ruins gazing jealously from the slopes of the hills across the valley to the glories of Cordoba, former capital of the Moorish region of al-Andalus.

There, by the riverside, you will find the awe-inspiring Mezquita, the mighty mosque inside which the famous double arches - resting on their slender pillars - soar into the rafters. It's worth a couple of hours inside, and for dinner seek out the nearby Jewish quarter which, as in Seville, is the best place to stroll and eat.

For a taste of the Moorish heritage, wallow in the Hammam - or Arabic baths - where you will be massaged on a slab between the pillars amid a maze of heated pools.

A couple of days in Cordoba is perfect, but after that I was itching to hit the open road again. It's only an hour-and-a-half east from there to the renaissance gems of Baeza and Ubeda, hilltop neighbours bristling with cathedrals and palacios which, for once, overshadow their Moorish antecedents.

Their sumptuous churches close at 1pm, so don't start late or you'll miss out. You can stay overnight in Ubeda at a charming Parador in the main historical square, Plaza de Vazquez de Molina.

The hotel's gorgeous shaded courtyard is a prime spot for lunch if, like me, you're happy to drive back to Cordoba and make it a day trip. The next city stop after Cordoba is Granada, and the route there proved to be my favourite drive of the whole tour, a 100-mile adventure in the high country.

Cutting south-east (on the N331) you can dip into Montilla, the main sherry-producing town in the region, before you lose yourself in hundreds of square miles of olive groves across the Sierra Subbetica.

Stop for lunch in the bustling mountain town of Priego, but before and after it for an hour's drive each way you'll be alone in an undulating sea of olive groves, set out in plumbline straight rows and bearing in high summer - if you stop for a cheeky bit of scrumping - tough little pea-green olives like miniature rugby balls.

Throughout these hills you won't meet another tourist, and you're not likely to come across more than a couple of locals either.

We dropped into Granada along the signposted Washington Irving Route, the trail taken by the American writer on his way to a stay of residence in the Alhambra Palace in 1829.

The motorways snaking close to Granada's suburbs are rather like Spaghetti Junction, but hundreds of feet above the plain the Alhambra rises majestically, commanding a breathtaking view to the snowcapped tops of the Sierra Nevada.

We stayed in the Alhambra Palace Hotel, a delightfully kitsch rip-off of the real thing and only a stone's throw away.

The palace is the most extravagant sight in Andalucia, but book your tour a day or so in advance to avoid queuing at dawn - and pay a few pounds for a guided tour if you can.

Hidden deep within the palace walls is an old monastery which is now a Parador, and superb spot for lunch away from the crowds, with a view of the sultans' divine country gardens at the Generalife.

The palace is worth devoting a day to, and there are other things to see in the centre of Granada, but if you want to get on the road again, there's an ambitious 100-mile circular route which will take you far up into the mountains, to the highest village in Spain, and all the way back for a bracing day on the road.

It's an easy run south to Lanjaron through rising gorges and then it's time to grip the wheel, drop a couple of gears and throw yourself into the Alpujarras, the vertiginous collection of villages hanging off the southern edges of the Sierras.

This often steep, winding route will take you to Orgiva, the pretty town where Chris Stewart farms the land made famous in the best-selling book Driving Over Lemons.

After that you work your way up a succession of valleys to Trevelez, set at 4,842ft, a cheeful town above a chattering river and below the lowering reaches of the Mulcahen peak.

East from here you literally take the high road over the mountains amid steepling forests of fir.

Even here, so far from anywhere, we stopped to let a goatherd walk his animals across the road before they disappeared down a path into a gorge below.

Dropping into the plain after nearly an hour, you come suddenly upon the town of Guadix, 30 miles east of Granada, nestling in a bowl of astonishing red rock faces - the tufa - whipped by the wind into a giant edifice that might have been carved by Gaudi.

But it's the town you'll find most captivating, for this is the home of the troglodytes - hundreds of families who live with all mod cons in caves below the low hills on the edge of the town.

Their smart painted front doors open into the hillsides and neat, hobbit-like chimneys puff out smoke above. It's more film set than settlement.

From Granada, it's only an hour-and-a-half on the autovia to Malaga, but if you fancy mothballing the motor for a couple of days, stop at the sumptuous private estate of La Bobadilla 45 minutes to the west and leave yourself only a short run on the last day.


The Magic Of Spain can show you the other side of the Costa del Sol. For reservations, tel: 0870 888 0220 or visit website www.magictravelgroup.co.uk.

* Hotel La Bobadilla - prices start from £950 per person for seven nights bed and breakfast. Price is based on two people sharing a double room and includes return flights and car hire (this applies to all the hotels).

* Hotel Alfonso XIII - prices start at £525 per person for two nights B&B.

* Hotel Alhambra Palace - prices start from £440 per person for two nights B&B.

* Hotel Melia Cordoba - prices start from £380 per person for three nights B&B. Paradors can be booked on a nightly basis, usually to add on to a holiday. All include breakfast.

The Paradors include those at Carmona, Ronda and Ubeda, all £60 per person, per night, and Granada at £95 per person, per night. Car hire with Hertz for a category C (i.e. Peugeot 307) vehicle is £147 per week, or £294 for a fortnight.

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