A Spanish region with a diverse and fascinating history, Andalusia is worth a trip for a curious traveler

The travel experience includes so much more than planes, trains and automobiles. Even so, those elements are part of the essential mix that makes for a successful journey.

Once you’ve got boots on the ground though, your adventure really begins. Things look so much different on a map (or computer screen) than they do in real life.

That was my conclusion just after landing in Madrid on a recent trip to the Andalusia region of southern Spain.

We arrived on American Airlines flight from New York, in order to earn some extra Alaska Airlines miles before the end of the year.

Rather than catch a connecting flight to the city of Cordoba, we opted for one of the Alta Velocidad (high speed) trains that zig-zag across the country. Anchorage travel agent Bill Beck of Alaska Travel Source told me about Trainline, which displays train and bus schedules from around Europe. It was much easier than navigating the Renfe railway site, which operates the train.

Spain has the most high-speed rail tracks of any European country: around 2,500 miles. The trains have a top speed of over 190 mph. Passengers haul their bags with them into the train car. There’s a storage section in each car.

To catch the high-speed intercity train, there’s a connecting train that leaves from the airport (Terminal 4). It takes about 20 minutes to reach Madrid’s main station. Even after an overnight trans-Atlantic flight, the process was fast and efficient. It’s even faster and more efficient if you speak Spanish. Most people speak some English. Some speak it fluently. The rest of us struggle with Google Translate on our mobile phones.


The high-speed trains are representative of new technology being built over old infrastructure. That’s the short story of the Andalucia region of Spain, which includes historic capitals like Cordoba and Granada.

These cities were not “born” as Spanish cities. In Cordoba, for example, it was the Romans who built up much of the initial infrastructure, in the second century B.C. In fact, a giant Roman bridge still stands in the middle of town, spanning the Guadalquivir River.

As the Roman Empire fell, Visigoth invaders from the north moved in. But it was an Islamic army from Syria that arrived from north Africa in 711 A.D. that marked the beginning of a Golden Age for Cordoba.

The city became the capital of an independent Caliphate of Al-Andalus. During Muslim rule for the next 500 years, more than 300 mosques, palaces and public buildings were built in the region, including the Great Mosque, or Mezquita, which borders the river.

Christian forces from the north recaptured Cordoba in 1236. The giant mosque was turned into a Catholic Church. A Gothic cathedral was built inside the mosque and still functions as Cordoba’s cathedral. The building still stands as half mosque-half cathedral and is an exceptional example of Islamic architecture.

The entire building was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Adjacent to the giant mosque-cathedral is a royal palace, or Alcazar. The palace, which was a primary residence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the 15th century, was built on the site of a former Islamic structure, which in turn was built on the Roman governor’s residence.

Both complexes are well worth the time and effort to explore, as they offer a well-preserved example of how successive conquerors left their mark on a strategic stronghold.

The year 1492 kept coming up in the historic timeline of Cordoba. While I was familiar with Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the “New World,” there was another darker remembrance: it was the year all Jews and Muslims were evicted by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. The terrible Spanish Inquisition already had begun in 1478, torturing and killing thousands over the course of hundreds of years.

Not far from the mosque-cathedral and the Alcazar of Cordoba is a small Jewish museum, the House of Sepharad. Learn about the language, culture and tradition of the Sepharad, or Hispanic Jews.

The downtown historic district still retains much of its original character. The cobblestone streets are clean and polished. The streets are better designed for pedestrians than they are for cars. It’s easy to spend a morning or an evening wandering the streets of the district, stopping to shop or grab a bite to eat.

The siesta still is an important tradition in Cordoba. That means shops and restaurants close in the afternoon for a couple of hours and open up later. I couldn’t find an exact time, but not much gets done between 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. As a concession to tourists, though, there’s usually something open during those times, including Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King.

Another important capital in Andalucia is Granada. There is a giant blank spot in my Western civilization learning when it comes to Spain and its conquest by the Islamic armies in the 8th century CE. The splendor of this era is on display in Granada, particularly at the giant La Alhambra fortress which overlooks the city.

La Alhambra, built between 1238 and 1358 CE, was the last Muslim palace on the Iberian Peninsula (including Spain and Portugal). It was by far the largest. The fortress includes several palaces, homes and military structures within the massive walls.

La Alhambra really is a shadow of its former glory, as the entire complex was looted following the conquest of Granada and subsequent expulsion of Muslims in 1492.

Afterward, though, several Spanish kings resided at La Alhambra and made improvements to suit their own needs. Other events, such as wars and earthquakes, damaged other parts of the fortress. Gardens, fountains and intricate architecture make La Alhambra a must-see on your visit to Granada.

It’s possible to buy a ticket in advance just for admission. But it’s better to join a group tour — or even get a private tour for a closer look.


Immediately below the Alhambra fortress is the old Muslim neighborhood, Albayzin, a labyrinth of skinny streets built on a steep hill overlooking the Darro River, which separates it from La Alhambra. Spend the day exploring these streets for fantastic views of the city below. Seriously, wear some sturdy shoes. The streets are clean but the angles are steep. Take an extra moment to stop for a drink at one of the many restaurants.

While in Granada, enjoy a pleasant tradition: free tapas. When you sit down and order a drink, your server will bring out a small snack, or tapas. It’s just a little bite — but it’s usually quite good and it’s often enough to entice you to stay around longer.

UNESCO identified La Alhambra and the Albayzin neighborhood as World Heritage sites. That, along with the free tapas, should be enough to encourage you to stick around and learn more about the rich history of the region.

Empire after empire planted its flag over Granada. The connections between the Moors (the Islamic army of the 8th century), the Spanish monarchy, the Catholic popes and the Jews are thick.

For the curious traveler, a trip to Andalucia will leave you with more questions than answers. Questions about history, religion, armies and conquests. But one thing is certain: There’s no such thing as a bad glass of red wine in the region. It’s all grown in-country and served up with pride.

Vino tinto, por favor.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at Subscribe to his e-newsletter at For more information, visit