Spain’s most exotic region is surely Andalusia, where, as Andrew Harper notes, “For nearly 800 years, the Moors lavished their affection on the conquered territory, leaving a legacy of majestic architecture and exquisite gardens.”
Although the Spanish expelled the Muslim Moors (the English word comes from the Spanish moro, or “dark”) in 1492, they didn’t disappear. Their aesthetics, cuisine and culture are very much alive in Morocco, just across the Strait of Gibraltar. Nowadays, it’s easy to combine the best of southern Spain and Morocco into one unforgettable itinerary. Start in Marrakech, Morocco’s most alluring city. Note the elaborate palaces and elegant towers; Indeed, by exploring Marrakech first, the many parallels between Morocco and southern Spain will be that much easier to identify and appreciate.
Although one could certainly spend much longer, we recommend the following 13-day itinerary which encompasses the best of the Moorish cultural legacy.
Arrive in Madrid from the United States. Change planes, and fly non-stop to Marrakech. Here, Mr. Harper recommends a range of hotels and resorts, from historic courtyard mansions in the heart of the medina to oases in the palmery comprising an array of private villas. Some travelers even try both, staying in downtown Marrakech for a few nights before switching to a palmery resort for relaxation and day excursions.
Although Marrakech now practically overflows with luxury hotels and resorts, the exotic soul of the city remains thoroughly and vibrantly intact. On a first visit, a guide is vital for illuminating the rich history of the city and navigating its labyrinthine lanes.
Start at the Almoravid Koubba, the small size of which belies its importance. This two-story tower is the only Almoravid building (dating from 1062 to 1145 A.D.) remaining in Morocco, and its style is at the very root of the country’s architecture (as well as that of Moorish Spain). Across the square, the Marrakech Museum displays Moroccan art in a grand and beautifully restored 19th-century palace. The Ben Youssef Medersa next door dates to the 14th century, but this Koranic school was rebuilt by the Saadians who ornamented almost every surface. The exquisite stuccowork and zellij (geometric tilework) found here resemble that in the Alhambra in Granada.
From the medersa, walk down with your guide through Marrakech’s souks, presenting a profusion of tempting handicrafts. Browse through the leather souk, the souk of the blacksmiths, the souk of the slipper makers and the souk of the carpenters, this last fragrant with cedar. Just beyond, the dyers’ souk glows with brightly colored skeins of wool. Carpets have taken over the former slave market, and nearby stalls sell traditional cosmetics as well as herbal remedies and ingredients used for magic.
Pass through the textile souk into the incomparable Djemaa el Fna, a sprawling, unspoiled square where locals still come to enjoy street food, storytellers, musicians, acrobats, dancers, magicians and other entertainers.
Continue exploring Marrakech with your guide starting with the ornate Bahia Palace, the 19th-century home of a slave who rose to become vizier (a high officer in a Muslim government). Walk through the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter, and wander the evocative ruins of the El Badi Palace. Farther into the kasbah (inner citadel), the Saadian Tombs boast dazzlingly lavish mausoleums and shady gardens.
In the afternoon, take a calèche (horse-drawn carriage) to the Majorelle Gardens, 12 gorgeous acres created by painter Jacques Majorelle and owned by Yves Saint Laurent until his recent death.
Begin by taking a half-day excursion into the Ourika Valley, a cool, green ribbon lined with Berber villages; take a Moroccan cooking class (Morocco boasts a rich culinary heritage); explore Marrakech on your own; or simply relax and take advantage of the amenities of your hotel, many of which have unusually splendid spas.
Fly from Marrakech to Casablanca, change planes, and continue on to Malaga, Spain. Rent a car or engage the services of a driver (the narrow roadways of the region provide some challenging twists and turns), and proceed along the coast to a relaxing resort near the white village of Casares, about an hour’s drive. Take the rest of the day at leisure.
Play a round of golf on one of the adjacent world-class courses; wander hilly (and still relatively unspoiled) Casares; venture into glitzy Marbella; or simply lounge at your resort. Even quirky Gibraltar is only an hour away.
Turn inland and drive an hour to historic Ronda, perched on a ridge and sliced in two by a vertiginous gorge. An 18th-century bridge spanning the gorge makes a sensationally scenic focal point. It’s great fun to wander the narrow, maze-like alleys of La Ciudad, the old Moorish center, and see what you discover.
Continue two hours north to Sevilla and, if you chose to drive yourself, return your rental car. This evening, your concierge can recommend the best bars for some tapas hopping in conjunction with or followed by a traditional flamenco show.
The 12th-century tower next to the cathedral, the Giralda, bears a striking resemblance to the Koutoubia in Marrakech, and indeed, this bell tower was originally an Almohad minaret. Climb to the top for panoramic views of Sevilla, or simply enjoy it from below and head straight into the glorious cathedral, the world’s largest gothic church. After marveling at the interior, take a meditative walk in the adjacent Patio de los Naranjos, a cloister-like Moorish courtyard and orange grove.
The remarkable Alcázar stands next door. This palace was built by the Abbadids and enlarged by the Almohads, but much of the extant architecture and décor is Mudéjar, a style evolved by Moorish artisans after the Christian reconquest.
Take a 10-minute stroll (or a romantic horse and carriage ride) from the palace to the Plaza de España, a colorful confection of tile work, statues, fountains and bridges.
Have a relaxing morning in Sevilla. Explore the romantic Santa Cruz quarter; visit the Museo de Bellas Artes with its fine painting collection housed in a former convent; or meander some of the lively pedestrianized shopping streets like Calle Sierpes.
This afternoon, take the train to Córdoba (about 45 minutes). If you have a driver, stop in picturesque Carmona en route.
For 300 years, Córdoba served as the capital of the western Moorish empire, and before that, it was Roman Spain’s largest city. Today, provincial Córdoba contains one of the Moorish empire’s greatest monuments, the Mezquita. This immense and extraordinary mosque (now a cathedral) is simply breathtaking in its architectural power and splendor. Note in particular the radiant Mihrab (prayer niche), which served as a model for Mihrabs in both Spain and northern Africa.
In the afternoon, wander the Judería, the atmospheric Jewish Quarter, and perhaps pop in the charming Museo Arqueológico, a Renaissance mansion housing artifacts dating from pre-Roman through Moorish times.
Take the train (or go with your driver) from Córdoba to Granada, a trip of about two and a half hours.
After lunch, start exploring the city, one of the last strongholds of the Moors in Spain. Begin with the cathedral, notable for the flamboyant Carrara marble Capilla Real, the mausoleum of Fernando and Isabel who reconquered the city. To the north, the Moorish Albacín quarter makes for a fascinating wander. Don’t miss the square in front of San Nicolás church, which has an unforgettable view of the Alhambra palace.
Devote the bulk of today to the Alhambra, one of the greatest monuments in all of Europe. Arguably representing the apex of Moorish culture, this fortress/pleasure palace dominates three hills overlooking Granada, and though it suffered looting and even partial demolition over the centuries, much of its mind-bogglingly intricate stuccowork, lacéria (the “carpentry of knots”) and zellij tiles remain intact. Explore the reception halls, salons and living quarters linked by gardens and courtyards cooled by ornate fountains. The Alhambra impresses without a word of commentary, but a guide can really help bring this stupendous palace to vivid life.
Take the afternoon at leisure for any final souvenir shopping, or just to relax. The road leading down from the Alhambra into town is lined with several touristy but good-quality shops selling hand-made Moorish-style decorative items and furniture.
Fly from Granada to Madrid, and connect to your flight home.