Southern Spain tickles the senses for American tourists

By: Jeff Kohmstedt

By: Jeff Kohmstedt

By: Jeff Kohmstedt

Andalucia is Flamenco. From its dance to its food, southern Spain is ripe with passion and awash in interesting places to see in one of Spain's most beautiful regions.

My wife and I began our second visit to Spain in Madrid and took the train to Granada, the first stop on our 14-day trip. We rented an apartment for four days near the Plaza Nueva, convenient to downtown, low in cost, and within easy walking distance of the main attractions.

Granada is rich in history and boasts wonderful views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Granada's greatest draw is Alhambra, the Moorish fortress complex that sits atop a ridge overlooking the city. Alhambra is a city icon, and it does not disappoint.

Built in the late 12th century, Alhambra represents a stunning example of Moorish architecture and design, with delicately carved walls and archways incorporating the Arabic text of the Quran and geometric motifs. You can find no better place to experience Alhambra than in its shadow along the Paseo de los Tristes, enjoying a romantic dinner at the Restaurante Ruta Del Azafran (http://www.rutadelazafran.es/).

From Granada, we took the train to Ronda, 120 miles to the west. Much smaller than Granada, Ronda offers a less frenetic pace that works well for relaxed day trips to Gibraltar and the Pueblos Blancos (the white villages) that draw travelers to the region.

Puente Nuevo, an 18th-century bridge splitting the city in two, attracts visitors to Ronda. We hiked the path down into the valley below for a stunning photo opportunity of this engineering marvel.

We rented a car for a day trip through the mountains and down to the Mediterranean. With vistas and resort towns to stop at along the coast, there are endless opportunities for sightseeing. Many people visit Gibraltar, but we did a drive-by instead, choosing to head inland to the Pueblos Blancos.

Twenty-five miles north of Gibraltar, we stopped in Jimena de la Frontera for Mediterranean cuisine and paella at La Tasca, a cozy restaurant in town. We drove back to Ronda and stopped at conveniently placed lookouts for wonderful views of the gleaming Pueblos Blancos that dot the landscape.

As the sun set in the mountains, the Pueblos Blancos provided a spectacular backdrop for a picture-perfect end to the day.

We left Ronda by bus and headed for Sevilla, our base for the next six days. Sevilla is the capital of Andalucia and the birthplace of Flamenco culture.

Sevilla offers endless possibilities for things to see and do, from the cathedral to the royal palace (Real Alcazar) to the twisting streets of the Barrio de Santa Cruz. Sevilla's streets twist and turn in narrow, unmarked and confusing ways, so bring a map, your natural navigating skills and a sense of humor. This is part of the adventure. We found free Flamenco and other performances by looking in the local express newspapers to make the most of our visit.

From Sevilla, we took day trips by train to Jerez de la Frontera for sherry tasting and to Cordoba to visit the absolutely stunning Mezquita, an eighth-century mosque and subsequent cathedral that is a must-see.

Spain tickles the senses with friendly people, spectacular food, wonderful spirits and magnificent sights. You don't know passion until you've lived Flamenco in the region of its birth: Andalucia.

Jeff Kohmstedt is an unabashed world traveler who speaks few foreign languages well, including his native English. He works for the University of Illinois and lives in Champaign with this wife and two dogs.

How to make the most of your trip

-- Read local papers for free performances, shows and other entertainment. It's a great way to be among locals.

-- Rent an apartment. It is cheaper in the long run than a hotel. You can purchase food at local markets to save money, and most apartments are quieter and more comfy than hotel rooms.

-- Have a backup plan in case things don't work out. We arrived in Sevilla to an apartment filled with cucarachas and needed to find other accommodations.

-- Confirm when sights are open to the public. Cathedrals in Spain aren't museums; they are living buildings.

-- Use public transportation. Trains are very convenient, fast, on dedicated passenger rails and inexpensive.

-- Rent a car to go off the beaten path. Remember your international driver's license.

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