Here are my top five destinations for your trip, full of the spirited, passionate feel of this beautiful Spanish region.
Andalusia was ruled by the Moors for seven centuries, and everywhere you go you find evidence of this Moorish influence. But nowhere else did the Moors create such decorative art and such exuberant splendour as in the complex of palaces known as The Alhambra: centuries of craft, design and technique delicately carved in stone, marble, plaster and wood, with gushing fountains and canals, a glorification of a long-distant past. American writer Washington Irving wrote of the Alhambra: ‘Everything here appears calculated to inspire kind and happy feelings, for everything is delicate and beautiful. The very light falls tenderly from above, through the lantern of a dome tinted and wrought as if by fairy hands.’ It really is straight out of Arabian Nights.
Andalusia is well known for its pueblos blancos, which translates as white villages, so-called because their white-washed buildings stand out in the landscape, serene and luminous. The residents take great pride in keeping their houses whitewashed; they repaint them each year in the spring, a wonderful cleansing to celebrate the end of winter.
Of all the pueblos blancos, my favourite is Grazalema, which lies in the foothills of the Sierra del Pinar mountains. You can happily while away a summer’s afternoon wandering the cobbled streets, admiring the beautiful old buildings, taking in the stunning views, browsing locally made handicrafts, taking a drink in the village square and sampling the local ham.
With such an impassioned culture, rich historical heritage and stunning landscapes and seascapes, it is no wonder that Andalusia has a strong artistic legacy. The painters Velázquez and Murillo were from Andalusia, but the most famous son of this region is undoubtedly Pablo Picasso, who was born in Malaga.
Museo Picasso Malaga pays homage to this hugely influential artist, and its 233-work strong collection largely comprises donations from Christine and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, the artist’s daughter-in-law and grandson. Here, then, you can see works that are not on display anywhere else in the world, encompassing all the stages of his career. It’s a deeply inspiring, peaceful place where hours slip by unnoticed and all the exists is you and the art.
The Moors compared the city of Cadiz to a ‘dish of silver in a bowl of blue’, so vivid are the colours there; the 19th-century French writer Théophile Gautier described it as ‘lively and luminous’. It is a lovely city; the most beautiful in Spain, I think, with mellow-stone churches and whitewashed houses shining under a bright-blue sky like a spray of water lilies on the dancing, glittering waters of the Atlantic.
Dating back to the 16th century, the ten-day Cadiz Carnival is the carnival to visit in Spain. As you would expect at a major carnival, Cadiz has music and dance and costumes and feasting and revelry aplenty. But what really sets it apart is the satirical song contest at its heart, which is so high profile that it is televised nationally. If you love music on the streets and spectacle all around, you’ll love the Cadiz Carnival.
Jerez de la Frontera is the capital of horsemanship, sherry and flamenco, and its fair, the Feria de Caballo, has been drawing huge crowds for more than 500 years. The horses on display are some of the most beautiful and expensive in the world; after all, this is the city of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art.
There is nothing quite like standing at the side of the Paseo de Caballistas y Enganches (Carriage and Riders’ Avenue) and watching the processions of horses and carriages go by. Some are bedecked in the most amazing colourful attire. Meanwhile, in the Parque González Hontoria, a small village springs up full of casetas: little house tents. Here, you eat tapas and drink Jerez’s golden fino sherry (or perhaps the rebujito cocktail; sherry mixed with lemonade and ice – very refreshing). Then, to the stirring thrum of the guitar rhythms, you watch flamboyant, dramatic flamenco dancing. Olé!
Legacy by Hannah Fielding is out 29th September (£7.99) hannahfielding.net