The Daily Telegraph - Travel

Moorish, magical and mysterious

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On a whistlesto­p tour of Andalusia by coach, Sophie Campbell marvels at architectu­ral splendours, Holy Week wonders and tremendous tapas bars

The only person who was truly rude in the whole of Andalusia made such sensationa­l coffee that I had to forgive him. I wanted to be like everyone else, standing around nonchalant­ly, sipping a small glass of café con leche while sucking my teeth over the papers, but couldn’t quite hear how much I owed him. “CI-EN-TO VEIN-TE,” he said loudly, as if talking to a village idiot. He pronounced it “beinte”.

Then the coffee turned up and it was so rich and earthy that instead of tipping it over his head it seemed easier to smell it and twirl it like a good wine and drink it standing half in and half out of the café, peering along the alleyway behind Seville’s covered market to see if my group had assembled.

That’s the mildly annoying thing about being on a coach: out of courtesy to the group, you have to forgo finishing your sublime coffee to turn up on time. On the other hand, you get to whirl through the highlights of Andalusia without lifting a finger or making a decision: the ideal option for first-timers.

Our tour – A Journey through Andalusia with Voyages Jules Verne – was a circuit from Malaga, taking in Seville, Córdoba and Granada with a final day in the white villages of the Alpujarras. Three nights in Seville and three nights in Granada meant minimal repacking. And from the moment we stopped for lunch in clifftop Ronda, with its blinding white bullring and iron bandstand a precipitou­s 390ft above the Guadalevín River, I knew I’d love it.

For a start, the bridge joining the two parts of the old town is like Acapulco for choughs: you can lean on the warm stone and watch them plummet off the cliffs, swooping and braking above the green water below. From the choughs it was minutes to the delightful brick tower, once a minaret, of San Sebastian church. And near the ex-minaret was a restaurant with a tiled courtyard and florid toreador paintings on the walls, where tapas of soft red peppers and hard circlets of sausage and sliced Andalusian morcilla, or black pudding, which was in fact red, arrived on little wooden boards.

Had I known it, that was the regional template: spectacula­r scenery and a centuries-old marriage of Christian and Islamic cultures – sometimes as beautiful as the minaret, sometimes jarring, like the baroque cathedral crash-landed in the middle of Córdoba’s lustrous mosque – plus (mostly) courtly Andalusian­s, endless teeny plates of tapas and an awful lot of stand-up eating and drinking.

We reached Seville in the late afternoon, as swallows tipped over the short section of old city wall across the road from our hotel. Some people weren’t keen on this position, north of the main sights, but I was. The wall was floodlit, with two rows of toothy battlement­s and pastry-cutter doorways. Inside, people perched on stools outside brightly lit bars, dogwalkers gossiped and worshipper­s poured out of the yellow-and-white Basílica de La Macarena. Conviviali­ty bounced off the walls.

In all the excitement­s of the day I’d forgotten about Holy Week until I pushed open the church door, expecting the end of an evening service. I wasn’t expecting a Virgin, with dark eyes and glass tears running down her plaster cheeks, on a float so riotous with gold that it could have been Indian. She was dwarfed by a forest of 4ft-tall white candles set in a froth of white wax flowers, and flanked by floats carrying sombre scenes of the Passion and a stand holding full-sized wooden crosses.

“They make the things here, in Seville”, said a chap I met later in the Bar Los Claveles. “Quite near here, actually. They’re usually family businesses and it’s usually the man who does the designs and the woman who makes them, but not always.”

Andalusia was the last Islamic stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula until Ferdinand and Isabella, Henry VIII’s parents-in-law, expelled the Moors from Granada in 1492. Months later, Christophe­r Columbus set sail for the future, funded by the feisty Isabella (“She definitely wore the trousers,” said Lola, the first of our three excellent local guides). She was the only European monarch with the chutzpah to believe he wouldn’t fall off the edge of the world. So New World wealth poured into Spanish, not Italian, coffers and would

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