Juan Ferreras  /  EPA via Sipa Press file
The Alhambra, in the heart of Granada, south of Spain, covered in snow, Thursday 27 January 2005.
By Travel columnist
updated 3/4/2005 7:12:00 PM ET 2005-03-05T00:12:00

When winter comes to North America, one of the traditional escapes is to the south of Spain. This region of the world provides a temperate climate, lodging bargains and some of the planet’s best historic tourism.

The major destinations in southern Spain have something for everyone. Seville has the third-largest cathedral in the world. Granada has the spectacular Alhambra and nearby, Sol Y Nieve, one of Europe’s premier ski and snowboard resorts. Cordoba has mild weather and the dramatic Arab mesquita. And Ronda provides a spectacular setting and is the fascinating home of bullfighting in Spain.

Besides sightseeing, Spain now also claims some of the most exciting cuisine and wines in Europe. The southern Spanish cooking is unique. Make sure to try their gazpachos (cold vegetable soup) and migas (bread crumbs), specialties from the Moorish periods. Fish is everywhere. Try the bacalao (cod), rape (monk fish), dorada, besugo (sea bream) and sardines. For meats, specialties are perdiz (partridge), cordero (lamb), lomo (pork) and conejo (rabbit).

Each of the cities is within easy striking distance from the seaside resorts of Malaga, Torremolinos and Nerja.

Seville

Seville has become one of Spain’s main tourist attractions. It hosted a World’s Fair and has been the center of many European cultural events. This is a city with a strong Moorish flavor. Don Juan came from Seville as did Carmen in the famous opera.

Seville’s massive cathedral stands on the site of a prior Roman temple and an Islamic mosque. The Giralda just outside of the current cathedral was the minaret of the old mosque.

Realas Alcazares is a spectacular palace built in the Arabian style. It was constructed in various stages beginning in 884. The newer wings were always constructed with the current Arabian art and architecture in mind.

The narrow streets, flower-filled courtyards and shady plazas of Barrio Santa Cruz are filled with perfect photos around every corner. This was once the Jewish and Moorish quarter of the city. It is now filled with restaurant, shops and art galleries.

Granada

Granada is a sprawling city crowned by the Alhambra, one of Europe’s most extraordinary palaces and the crowning achievement of the Islamic culture in Spain.

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The Alhambra is far more than simply a palace. It was a collection of markets, government offices and the home and retreat of the Moorish rulers for hundreds of years.

Built in the 1300s, the Alhambra was a series of royal residences and government buildings astride a ridge dominating Granada. The decorations in the Alhambra must be seen to be appreciated. Photographs can’t capture the almost mystical effects of repetitive Arab art.

The gilded ceilings, carved walls, gurgling fountains, reflecting pools and spectacular views of the city are jaw dropping. The time spend on pure decorative art adorning this series of buildings is mind-boggling.

The palace was next to the Islamic gardens created in what we now call the Generalife. Here, the Moorish legends of heaven being a marriage of water and greenery took form. These gardens were perfect for contemplation and enjoyment. Several stories recount illicit rendezvous that lead to mortal consequences.

The Islamic rulers presided over this fortress until 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella eventually completed the Christian reconquest of Spain.

Later during the 16th Century, Charles V, built a classical circular palace in the midst of the Alhambra. Though much of the original Alhambra was destroyed, Charles V, left enough of the complex buildings to allow tourists and scholars today to see the height of Islamic building in Europe.

There is much more to Granada. You’ll find the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella in the Cathedral and on the hill opposite the Alhambra is the gypsy quarter, Sacromonte, with excellent restaurants and plenty of flamenco bars opened late into the night. And, less than an hour away, those looking for skiing and snowboarding can find some of Europe’s best at Sol y Nieve resort in the Sierra Nevadas.

Cordoba

Cordoba has long been a major crossroads since the Roman days. The city’s position on the river made this one of the transportation centers of southern Spain. Ships plied the river down to the Mediterranean carrying olives, grains and wines from roman days to the not-so-distant past. The main bridge crossing the river is still on the original Roman foundations.

This city was once the center of the most powerful caliphate in the Muslim world. The Mesquite, or mosque was the largest in the Islamic world. This was the capital city of El-Andalus and was conquered before Granada as Ferdinand and Isabella swept through southern Spain.

After the forces of the reconquest had subjugated Cordoba, Columbus visited here to discuss his trip to the new world with his main backers, Ferdinand and Isabella. The castle where the royal couple met with Columbus, Alcazar de los Reyes, still stands at the opposite end of the Roman bridge from the mosque. Today it houses an excellent museum of Moorish life in Spain, beautiful gardens and a collection of excellent Roman mosaics.

Later in the 16th Century, Charles V built a cathedral in the center of the mosque but again, as in Granada, preserved much of the original Moorish construction and art. The arches and décor that remains from the original mosque is spellbinding.

Ronda

This town with its impregnable setting was the last Moorish city in Spain to be conquered by the Catholic forces of the reconquest. The city clings to sheer cliffs and its only access is across a breathtaking bridge spanning the Tajo River 300 feet above the riverbed.

Ronda is one of Spain’s famous “white towns.” However this city has a spectacular setting and claims to be the home of modern bullfighting.

Here Pedro Romero and eventually his sons, introduced the cape (muleta), the bullfighting team (quadrilla), the sword for killing the bill and the banderilleros. Here in Ronda bullfighting developed its rules and its art as a tempered skill prior to killing the animal.

The best way to move through southern Spain is travel with a rental car. An automobile gives you the ultimate flexibility and travel freedom. And with two or more traveling together, a car can be more economical than taking the train. (For a good rate, check with Auto Europe.)

Whatever your choice, southern Spain offers a perfect winter vacation with plenty of history, excellent food and wine, all with temperate weather.

Weekend is Tripso's regular destination feature. Whether we're cruising the Caribbean or skiing the Sierras, ballooning in the Alps or trekking through the jungles of Borneo, our contributors know how to travel. And they show you how to get the most out of your trip with each new discovery. Got a place you want us to visit? Send us a note.

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