Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra in Andalucia, Spain
Andalucia is a dry, sunburnt land in the south of Spain. The region is among Spain’s largest and most populous regions, with small communities spread out over a blanket of brown hills, jagged mountains and rolling fields. Many such communities are part of the Pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, picture-perfect villages beloved by tourists. This particular pueblo blanco, Zahara de la Sierra, is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooked by the Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra. The castle dates back to the Moorish era of Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was inhabited by the Moors, broadly defined as muslims originally from the Maghreb living in southern Europe, who greatly influenced Spanish art and architecture and even language (Andalucia, for example, comes from Al-Andalus) until finally being driven out completely by the 1490s. Very little remains of this once-impressive fortification in the village of Zahara. Today, all that’s left are the vestiges of a few walls and a signal tower, which, once climbed, will provide stunning views of the cheery white-washed walls and orange roofs of Zahara, the azure waters of the local reservoir, the sun-kissed chocolate-coloured fields hugging the village, all the way out to other nearby villages. Though beautiful, it is evident to see why this may not always have been an easy place to live. The castle, and the village below it, is carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop, with heights ranging from 300m to 1100m, and the village’s name “zahara” comes from “sahra” meaning desert. The seemingly-romantic sun-kissed fields, rocky outcrops and windswept panoramas may be seem idyllic today, but life in such a dry and remote place (it’s 100 km from the sea after all) wouldn’t always have been so perfect!
Pro tip: There’s a lovely wee restaurant with a comfortable terrace perfect for people-watching called El Rincon De La Ermita.
Andalucia is a region full of adorable white villages, chocolate-coloured fields and rugged landscapes. There are dramatic castles and sun-kissed farmlands basking under the brilliant Spanish light. Around each bend, there is something beautiful and heart-throbbing. One such place is the little hilltop village of Zahara de la Sierra. Tiny alleyways wind their way around the natural rock face. Quaint houses are painted white and framed with wrought iron lamps and pots bursting with colourful flowers. Intricate doorways frame picturesque steps that lead the wayward traveller up the hill towards the castle. And yet, what we think as quintessentially Spanish was actually brought here by the Moors. Though the Al-Andalus tribes left some 500 years ago, the mark they left is ever-present and has embedded itself literally into the fabric of Spain – or at least its architecture. Moorish architecture – married with Spanish creativity – is what inspired this doorway – just as it was that constructed the beautiful Teruel Cathedral or Cervantes’ birthplace (Alcalá de Heneres). Even more famously, Moorish design is what makes Andalucia’s most famous sites so unique in the world – Sevilla, Grenada, Cordoba. From big cities to tiny villages, Andalucia – and Spain in general – is full of hidden gems like this little doorway and alley, if only you set out to explore them.
Pro tip: Malaga might be Andalucia’s most convenient airport to arrive in the region, but spend as little time in Malaga and as much time in the rest Andalucia as you can. The beaches are meant to be nice (and are where most visitors want to go) but unless you love overcrowded sandy places that look the same as overcrowded sandy places anywhere else in the world, leave the coast behind and head inland for off the beaten path wonders like this one. Ronda is a great jumping-off point to explore the region.
“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá.
Pro tip: Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid stations Atocha or Chamartin , if you buy tickets from the machine. Madrid stations aren’t always manned, and buying tickets can be complicated, so be sure you leave extra time to buy tickets
The sun shines brightly on the ornate Teruel Cathedral in the city of the same name, located in eastern Spain. An exceptional example of Mudejar architecture, the cathedral dates back to 1171 when Teruel itself was founded by Alfonso II of Aragon. Originally constructed in Romanesque style, it was later much renovated at the end of the 1200s to fit the Mudajar style, with further modifications in the 1300s, by Jozaff the Morisco (a term used to describe Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity but who often still secretly practiced Islam). As this cathedral is one of the best examples of Mudajar architecture in Spain, it is of great interest to historians, architects and scholars – but also those who are searching for great beauty. The inside of the cathedral is just as beautiful as the outside; the ceiling is of particular beauty. For clarification, Mudajar is the term used to describe the Moors or individual Muslims who remained on the Iberian Peninsula after the famed Reconquista by the Christians. As they did not convert, they developed their own culture and style, of which many buildings remain to this day.
Aside from its ancient dinosaur fossils and its famous story, Los Amantes de Teruel, the city of Teruel is most known for its Mudéjar architecture. Along with a few other structures in the Teruel province, its Mudéjar buildings comprise a UNESCO world heritage site. The term “Mudéjar” refers to the Moors or Muslims of Al-Aandalus that remained on the Iberian peninsula after the Reconquista by the Christians. Unlike other groups, these were Muslims who had not converted to Christianity, and continued to influence buildings, decorations and architectural style in Iberia throughout the 12th-16th centuries. Above is Teruel’s beautiful Cathedral of St. Mary de Mediavilla and bell-tower. Commissioned in the 1200’s by Alfonso II in typical Romanesque style, a Muslim architect called Juzaff completely restructured it in 1257, embellishing it in Mudéjar style. Two centuries later, it was further restructured in Gothic-Mudéjar style. The ceiling is especially spectacular, a mix of the two cultures and covered in beautiful, hand-painted designs; though to see it, you must pay for a tour and sadly, photography is strictly prohibited. Today, Teruel’s cathedral and bell-tower remain some of the best-preserved and most representative relics of Mudéjar architecture still visible on the Iberian Peninsula.
Climbing up the ancient Roman roadway of Via Augusta in the small Spanish town of Xàtiva, the weary traveller beholds the ancient castle of Xàtiva. Clinging to the top of a mountain that overlooks rooftops, orange groves and cactus fields is this castle, a rambling stone structure over a kilometre long. The castle is over a 1,000 years old, yet, visitors are permitted the freedoms of exploring every inch of the castle without the guards, warnings or barriers installed at other such monuments. For a time, the castle was held by the Almoravid dynasty – and for almost 150 years, Moors occupied the fortress. Then King James I of Aragon charged the castle in 1239, in a desperate crusade to recapture Xàtiva – which, after 5 months, he did. The Moors gave him the small castle while keeping the larger, though eventually, the Christian residents pushed them out. It is amazing that in Spain, when tour guides speak of war and destruction damaging the architecture and the local heritage, they often refer to wars 800 years old, the complete opposite of ancient ruins in Poland or other Soviet-held nations.