One of Europe's treasures, Granada owes much of its splendour to North African invaders, as Anna Leask discovers
My Lonely Planet guide told me Granada was "the darker, more complicated cousin of sunny, exuberant Seville" and I was excited to find out why.
Granada sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is home to the Alhambra citadel and palace — the most famous example of Moorish architecture and a spectacular reminder of the Islamic history and legacy in Spain's south.
I was on 13-day tour of Spain and Portugal, and Granada was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting. It did not disappoint.
We made our way to the Sacromonte district, which was a stronghold for the gitano (gypsy) community in the 19th century.
The residents built cave houses and the area became synonymous with vibrant flamenco music and dance, which is still alive today.
We were ushered into a long narrow cave, wooden seats lining the edge of the tiled floor and the walls covered in family photographs. The dancing began and by the end we were all on our feet. It was a show filled with energy and passion with footwork unlike anything I'd seen before.
Sacromonte isn't just famous for its dance, it has brilliant panoramic views of the Alhambra in Granada — views most visitors would never imagine. The citadel at dusk is a vision and I couldn't wait to go there the next day.
It's worth noting here that when you're in Granada you must — must — stop in for dinner at Estrellas De San Nicolas. The fresh grilled sea bass with crispy chorizo is divine, as is the fried aubergine salad — and don't forget to try the local wine: Spain has some fantastic drops.
From our table we could see the Alhambra light up as darkness fell. Close up the next day, it was even more magnificent.
We were guided through the palace, with its ornate tiling, plasterwork and windows looking on to stunning scenery or another intriguing room within.
The Alhambra was designed as a military base but became the royal residence after the Nasrid kingdom — the last Muslim dynasty — was established in the 13th century. Over the years the fortress became a citadel, boasting formidable ramparts, towering defensive posts and separated into two parts — the Alcazaba or barracks — and the medina or "court city".
It's a maze of grand rooms, corridors, in decorated ceilings, floors and pathways, polished pillars, shimmering pools and perfectly manicured gardens.
We spent a few hours at the Alhambra but it would be easy to get lost there for days, examining every carved door, every delicately sculpted window frames and just taking in the sheer majesty and history of the site.
A lot of work has been done over the years to maintain the original beauty of the Alhambra, even after Isabella and Ferdinand successfully seized Granada from Nasrid dynasty.
Miraculously, the Muslim aesthetic and feel remains.
Another example of this is two hours from Granada in Cordoba. The Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba is another Andalusian must-see.
Originally a Catholic Basilica, when the Muslims conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711 they took over the church. A sharing arrangement was reached, whereby the site was divided so each side could worship, but in 784 a Muslim leader bought the site and smashed the entire structure to the ground, building the current mosque. In 1236 the mosque was converted into a Roman Catholic church after Cordoba came again under Christian rule.
For the past 17 years Spanish Muslims have been seeking permission from the Catholic church to worship in the mosque — pleas that have been repeatedly rejected by the Vatican.
But, though it remains a place of Catholic worship, the mosque looks nothing like any cathedral or basilica this Catholic has ever been in. And having toured Europe, I've seen my share.
Inside it is cool and quiet — a contrast from the heat and bustle of Cordoba outside. It's peaceful, still and every metre you walk brings a new view layered with history and architecture. One room feels like a mosque, with high arches, carved and filigreed walls — the next is unmistakably Christian-influenced with Biblical statues, portraits and ornate gold accents.
Cordoba is a beautiful city and though we were only there for a few hours — enough to take in the mosque, city centre tour and a delicious fresh limonade — I saw enough to fall a little bit in love.
Southern Spain is known as the frying pan of the country — it can be searingly hot — but I'll be heading back for a closer look at this hot destination as soon as possible.
Details: Trafalgar's Highlights of Spain and Portugal tour runs for 13 days, starting and finishing in Madrid and taking in the Alhambra Palace, the Hanging Houses of Cuenca, the port of Cadiz and vibrant cities like Valencia and Lisbon. It is priced from $3250 per person. Includes sightseeing, local guides, accommodation, many meals, transport, airport transfers and the services of a travel director.