After reading various books on the history of the land, my intentions to visit the Andalusia region in Southern Spain started in 2018. I eagerly made plans and drafted itineraries. Lo and behold, life happened and before I knew it, the world was engulfed in a worldwide pandemic. My intention to travel to any new countries was shelved both due to the uncertainty and of course, the lockdowns and resulting restrictions.
In 2022, I was finally able to visit Spain. It was an experienced I could not have imagined beforehand, and I left the country with new perspectives on community, history and climate.
Some examples of my activities in Spain are below.
The magnificent city of Cordoba carries a heavy history on its shoulders. It reigned supreme as the capital city of the Umayyad Caliphate during the period of Islamic Spain.
It is most notably home to the famous Mosque-Cathedral, which, as the name suggests is combines both a Mosque and a Cathedral in its structure. How did this come to be? The original building was the main Mosque of the city during the period of Muslim reign. After the capture of the city by the Christians, a Cathedral was built in the middle and the entire building since has been used for that purpose, though its use as a tourist attraction currently seems to be its main function.
Today the structure is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sight, and I had the pleasure of visiting the building myself and being in awe at its majestic beauty. With row upon row of arched columns extending in almost every direction, its not hard to imagine how full of worshippers it must have been in its heyday.
The main attraction inside the complex that everyone lines up to view is the Mihrab, or the Prayer Niche in in which the Imam would have led the prayer in congregation. Lined with verses from the Qur’aan and decorated with wonderful design surrounding it, it remains preserved until this day. It is also definitely worth paying slightly extra to go up the former Minaret (now a Church Tower) on the same premises to get a birdy eye view of the complex as well as the white buildings of the rest of the city.
Just a short walk from the Mosque-Cathedral lies the Roman Bridge of Cordoba, and at its far end, the Calahorra Tower.
The bridge was first built by the Romans in the 1st Century BC but fell into disrepair and was rebuilt by the Muslims during their time. It doesn’t span very far, but allows for a harmonious walk over the Guadalquivir River (taken from the Arabic ‘Al-Wadi Al-Kabir’, meaning ‘The Great River’). Watching the local birds enjoy the coolness of the shade and river at the foot of the bridge provides a relaxing experience in of itself.
The Museum as part of the Calahorra Tower surprised me with more than I bargained for. The intention for the museum is to provide a look back through time to imagine what Cordoba must have looked like in the midst of its greatness as the capital city of the Umayyad Caliphate.
Words and ideas from multiple thinkers the city produced are played back in some sections, while replica models of the Mosque-Cathedral complex and the Alhambra Palace in Granada (more on that later) adorn others. The entire museum provided a valuable insight into the depth of civilisation that once roamed the city, and I would definitely recommend it to all who visit.
My visit to Granada didn’t start off on the best foot. The only reasonably priced train I was able to catch there arrived in the early afternoon, and arrive in the afternoon I did.
Granada is a city that stands upon its own name. It was the last capital city of the last Muslim Emirate, the Nasrid Dynasty, to exist in Spain prior to being conquered by the Christian King Isabella and Queen Ferdinand in 1492 CE. The main attraction in Granada and indeed the most visited landmark in all of Spain today is the Alhambra Palace.
I had to see why.
Wasting no time, I found my way towards the Alhambra Mosque after leaving the train station. I briefly recalled the advice of prior travellers on internet forums advising visitors not to attempt to trek up the hill to the palace by foot. It was harder than it might seem and wasn’t worth the effort.
Thankfully I easily found the bus stops where I paid just under 2 EUR to catch a ride to the entrance of the Palace. As nice as the Palace was, I was sure I would spend only 2-3 hours there at most. It was just a palace right? What more else could captivate a man?
How wrong I was.
Upon entrance to the Palace I was slowly introduced to its scale. Starting off with then Generalife Gardens, I was quickly able to appreciate the running water, the bio-diversity of plant life and the carefully designed path ways. Though the early afternoon sun was bearing down on me, I was captivated by the paradoxical humble extravagance of the Palace.
What conversations had been had here? Perhaps discourse on civilisation, religion and politics were not the only topics these walls had heard. Despite visiting during the peak time of day, the Palace felt large enough to accommodate us all, then some. In fact, it was less accurate to call it a Palace, and more accurate to see it as a city in its own right. It made perfect sense how royals of the past could live their entire lives within its walls, not desiring of anything else that lay beyond its boundaries.
When it comes to visiting the Alhambra, it is important to book a specific ticket to see the Nasrid Palaces. This is a specific section of the Alhambra that you simply cannot afford to miss. Ironically, despite it being hard to miss, it is also easy to miss if you don’t show up on time for exactly your specific timeslot. The Nasrid Palaces themselves are a fair walk away from the main Generalife Gardens, so make sure you are prepared to make your way in due time.
Upon entering the Palaces, I was in awe at the level of intricate detail that I saw in almost every corner and in every hall. This was a Palace that lived up to its essence in every manner. There is no way to accurately describe the level of grandeur and royal authority that exuberates from the walls, floors, fountains and designs that adorn every area you cast your eyes upon.
It was even more incredible for me to realise that everything before me was constructed before the invention of modern day machines, making most, if not all, of the work I saw before me the result of diligent dedication and artisanship.
Throughout the palace, the feeling of luxury paraded itself as though time had never passed it. It was the small things that made the Alhambra feel like the wonder it is. The cool, clear water flowing down the bannister of random stairs, the intricately designed carvings on almost every wall, and the Orange Trees which adorned some of the inner gardens.
The Alhambra Palace deserves every visitor it gets, it truly is a city unto its own and although I didn’t have much time to visit as much of the rest of Granada as I wanted, I retired back to Malaga later that evening having felt some of the wonder that the inhabitants of the Palace must have felt all those centuries ago.
Don’t miss this if you find yourself in Granada.
Next, up Gibraltar. Being so close (already being in Southern Spain), I couldn’t resist its allure.
Gibraltar was home to two particular sights I wanted to visit. Since I was young, I had been told that Gibraltar was named after me. More accurately, after my namesake, a Commander named Tariq ibn Ziyad who conquered modern day Spain in the 8th Century CE. The large rock that Gibraltar is best known for comes from the Arabic ‘Jabal Tariq’, meaning ‘Mountain of Tariq’.
How could I not pay it a visit?
I managed to board a coach to Gibraltar from Malaga, and although the journey took 3 hours, I knew the payoff was worth it. The coach itself dropped me off just next to the border with Gibraltar, which is owned and controlled as the territory is, by the Government of the United Kingdom (I need to read up how that came to be!). Thankfully, crossing the border was as easy as flashing my passport with no further checks or documentation required.
The cable car up provided brilliant views over the bay, and the observant rider can make out the mountains of Morocco in the distance….Remember to secure the ‘back’ of the cable car (facing the sea) for the best view!
An important part of the top of Gibraltar experience are the resident monkeys. Once at the top, you are warned about the possibility of your unsecured plastic bags and food being snatched. Your final warning before meeting these monkeys are the hilarious cartoons at the top of the cable car station just before you head outside. These illustrate how these monkeys are able to distract humans in order for one of their brethren to steal your food, or how mocking their animal behaviour can enrage them and cause them to attack you.
Hopefully you experience neither of those. I did however, see a monkey snatch a packet of crisps from an unsuspecting lady’s bag right in front of my eyes. Secure your valuables!
The view from the top of Gibraltar is, as many high point views are, breath-taking. You are able to appreciate the scale of the the mountain itself as it divides the island in two. Its hard not to appreciate the fact that you are able to stand on one continent and look at another with your bare eyes.
Other than the cable car experience, I personally didn’t find much else to do in Gibraltar. I expected it to be more of a bustling peninsula than it was, but even the main street (which actually has that exact name) offered little more than 2 dozen or so shops. Perhaps though, this is the allure of Gibraltar, a quiet, yet familiar satellite of the United Kingdom which many call home. I did ask a local shopkeeper about his experience living in Gibraltar (he had been there for 30 years) to which his reply was that he liked it and that he didn’t have to experiences the same ‘problems back in the mainland’. I didn’t stay long enough to find out about the problems he was referring to, but its an answer that I still think about today.
The second thing I found intriguing in Gibraltar was the fact that the local airport runway exists across a main road which serves as the entry/exit point to the peninsula. This means that when the barriers are up and no planes are landing, you simply drive across the vast runway as if travelling across a concrete desert. If you time it right however, you can wait by the closed barriers and watch a British Airways plane land up close (well, at least as close as you can). If this interests you, make sure you plan which flight you want to see land by checking the landing times on the local airport website…be prepared!
If you find yourself in Gibraltar, I cant say there is much more else to do than go up the Cable Car and watch incoming planes land at the runway. No doubt there will be more to do, but there’s little else I personally discovered in from my brief visit. Still, the towering mountain and the views from its peak made the trip a fond, lasting memory for me. Note though, that the buses can take a while to come and go, so if you are using public transport to get around, leave time for flexibility.
My most common method of travelling is to stay in a single city and then branch out to from that city as required when visiting other areas. For this trip, Malaga was the city I chose to use as my base, considering it was home to the main airport (AGP) in the area.
Despite this however, I only stayed within Malaga for a single whole day along with the evenings that I returned back from my daily excursions.
I flew to Malaga with the understanding that it was mainly a partying hotspot. Not being a fan of such activities myself, I was content to just use it as a geographical centre base to stay in and little else. Almost immediately however I realised that while this preconception I had may technically be true, I saw no such characteristics in the city myself. It seemed as normal and positively average as any other city I’d expect to see in Spain. In hindsight, I realise now my own misconceptions got the better of me. Malaga was a calm yet vibrant city with plenty to offer in its own right.
Staying near the Malaga Maria Zambrano Rail Station enabled me to get around both Malaga and Spain with ease. The adjacent Bus Station hosting Coaches which served many other cities nearby only expanded the possibilities of more travel (make sure to buy your tickets at the station when possible instead of through 3rd party online services, you may find it cheaper) . I was surprised to find out that the Rail Station was also host to a supermarket, multiple restaurants, an arcade and a even a cinema. More than just a transport hub!
I also visited a large outdoor mall called Plaza Mayo. Spain’s sunny weather means that this shopping experience is a pleasant one, but can get very hot quickly, inevitably forcing you into its many restaurants for refreshments quicker than you’d likely choose yourself.
The nearby beaches stretched wide along the coast and provided a relaxed, refreshing experience as I ventured out into the sea, bobbing up above the incoming waves. The highlight of the day? Fashioning for myself a headrest from sand upon which to lean on as I bathed in the sun (I had forgotten to bring any beach accessories!).
From my general observations about Malaga and Spain in general was that there seemed to be a strong sense of community spirit. After trying to think why this might be the case, my current running theory is that the severe heat of the day causes most people to stay indoors either at home or work. The bottled up desire to socialise and go outside only releases and manifests itself in the late afternoon and evening. The result is that people are more likely to spend time outside with friends and family late into the night. It wasn’t unusual to see families with young children out near 11pm, a sight I have never seen back in London.
This also has the effect of many businesses not opening until later in the morning. It wasn’t uncommon to see shops closed until 10-11am daily. I got a clear understanding from my time in Andalusia that work is very much secondary to the weather and the subsequent habits formed by it. This is why I love travelling, understanding how other people live in different parts of the world allows me to understand that there are other ways of living besides my own.
Finally, when it came to transport, I was impressed with both the inter and intra city train offerings. Apps like CityMapper worked excellently and helped me feel confident enough to use public transport enough to get where I needed to go. Ultimately it wasnt always clear where to tap in/out at all train stations within Malaga, but this didn’t seem to be too much of an issue for me in the end.
Malaga was an unexpected gem and my observations there taught me much about the different paces of life other people in the world lived according to.
The final destination on my whirlwind tour of Andalusia was the city of Ronda. It took me a 3 hour coach ride to get there, but the silver lining was that the views were stunning.
If you’ve ever seen any pictures of Ronda, the ‘face’ of it is the bridge which spans the gorge below and connects both the old and new part of the city. This was easily accessible from the Bus Station after a 15 minute walk and it was a pleasure (as it always is) to see something in real life that you have only otherwise read about or seen pictures of.
As I enjoyed the view however, I did get the sinking feeling that there was little else to see or do in the city. Ronda felt like a city where things were taken much slower and relaxed than I had seen in any city so far, a true holiday spot for those wishing to wind down and soak in the Andalusian experience. A trip to the Tourist Office worked somewhat to remedy that feeling and I was provided with a helpful map of things to see in the city.
After gazing over the sights provided by the bridge, I decided to visit Casa del Ray Moro. This building served as a house/mini-palace for the resident Muslim Ruler who lived in Ronda at the time. The grounds and garden were pleasant, albeit small compared to what I had experienced at the Alhambra. In fact, there is no comparison that can do justice to it. I enjoyed the peacocks living peacefully in the garden grounds and the view overlooking the valleys and plains in the horizon.
The main attraction of this palace is the water mine which extends beneath the structure all the way down to the gorge below. This was built in order for slaves to bring water up from the gorge to the palace at the equivalent vertical distance of 20 storeys!
Eager for the unexpected challenge, I made my way down as I imagined what life must have been like in the palace at its heyday. The audioguide for the building did a wonderful job of explaining the different uses of various rooms and what life was like in older times. It was only when I reached the bottom however, did I see why this was so highly recommended to visit.
The door at the end of the stairs opened up almost immediately to the river at the bottom of the gorge. There is a metal platform installed at the bottom which allows you to step out and experience the coolness of the air just above the river. The audioguide dutifully explained that this secret mine door entrance was left open by a traitor within the palace and allowed the invading Castillian armies to take the building. A stunning conclusion to my journey down the mine and a much welcome surprise in response to my earlier doubts about Ronda’s attractions.
As I made the walk back up, I knew I had to walk halfway down the gorge and along the old city walls. I could see people make this brief journey when I gazed over the bridge earlier. Now it was my turn.
I made my way down the path leading to the old city walls. As I did so, I was able to view the famous bridge in its full splendour. I realise that you’re only ever able to see something most perfectly from the outside, not when you’re on it. I’m sure there’s a life lesson to be learn there somewhere.
Turning my gaze towards the horizon, I was able to soak in the magnificent views the plains afforded me. It was at this point I realised and appreciated that the mere freedom afforded to my sight to roam as far as it could reach helped me to feel happier and at ease with my soul. Living my normal life in a major metropolitan city doesn’t necessarily afford me this luxury. My sight is continuously blocked and restrained by buildings and skyscrapers. This restraint of my vision leads to a restraining feeling within my soul. It is only by setting my vision free to pierce the horizon do I feel refreshed and free once more. The city walls of Ronda were perfect for just that.
I would warn anyone wishing to tread the same path however, that the way back up is more difficult than you are lead to believe. I am no stranger to hiking mountain paths, but the easy decline to get to the relevant viewpoints can mask the difficulty in getting back up. Make sure you’re wearing suitable shoes and be prepared to struggle a little bit, especially in the heat!
Thankfully, a cool, shaded fountain awaits you once you complete your journey back up. There’s little in the world that I would take as a replacement for cool, refreshing water on a hot day, and this time was no different.
Overall, time in Ronda seemed to flow a little slower than other cities I visited in Spain, and it perhaps wasnt suited for a quick visit, more to a slow, relaxed enjoyment instead. It did however offer me the opportunity to marvel at both its history and natural beauty, meaning that I left the city feeling fulfilled and mentally refreshed.
I would highly recommend Ronda to anyone who is considering it, don’t miss out!
My visit to Spain taught me many new things, from a human psyche standpoint as well as an historical one. I realise now that the climate of an environment likely contributes to the layout of its cities. Spain seemed to share more city-layout wise with the Middle East or America rather than its Northern European neighbours. I can only begin to wonder if the weather being so hot means that the wide streets and abundance of car accessible malls otherwise hostile to public transport were more popular than in other formats offered by colder climates.
Another interesting realisation I had was that no matter how much history a specific place has, it is only relative to the amount that has been preserved. After reading multiple history books on the country, I found it hard to imagine what it must have been like, despite standing on the same soil as the events I was fond of reading about. When everything has been inevitably modernised and entire cities redesigned beyond imagination, trying to think about what the city must have been like centuries before is challenging. Cities like Ronda were easier to imagine due to their being shaped by the physical topology more than anything, but this was the exception rather than the rule.
What no one told me about Spain was how similar it seemed to countries in the Middle East or North Africa. While much of what people come to see in Spain is now a part of its ever increasing distant history, it is clear that it is this same history which still holds influence over the culture today.
My time in Spain was memorable and I hope to go back and visit other regions in future.