Spain began in its north. Say that to the Asturians and they’ll puff up with pride, for when the Moorish wave swept rapidly across the peninsula in the eighth century, the small mountain region stood indomitable.
It was from here that the long process of Christian reconquest began, laying the foundations of modern Spain. It wasn’t necessarily subtle, and the culturally sophisticated Moors must have wondered where they had gone wrong, but the tide turned. The Asturians erected beautiful churches in the eighth century, León had 24 kings before Castilla had laws, and Castilla was a muscly European kingdom centuries before Madrid was heard of. Aragón ruled the western Mediterranean and half of Italy, and progressive Navarra briefly united the whole of Christian Spain in days when Vikings still prowled the seas.
Fascinatingly, these ancient kingdoms still exist, and not just as modern administrative boundaries. Travel between the Basque Country and neighbouring Burgos and you’re crossing a sociocultural border that’s immediately evident in every way: how people eat, dress, earn a living and even what language they speak. The same goes for Asturias, for Aragón, for Galicia; and the cities of the plain in Castilla seem like little autonomous kingdoms.
One common aspect is the region’s immense architectural wealth. Even the most forgotten of villages may flaunt city walls, a majestic church and a handful of imposing stone palacios unchanged by the passage of time. On the natural side is a series of fabulous protected parks and reserves backed by a network of excellent rural accommodation.
Tourism in the north is a world away from the crowded southern coasts. It’s the original Spain, or more accurately Spains, and whether you’re admiring Gothic vaulting, nosing wine in the Rioja, surfing Basque waves or pacing the pilgrim road to Santiago, it’s a vital, vivid and engaging place.
Often described as having one foot in Europe and one in Africa, Andalucía is quintessentially southern, with baking heat, vibrant dance and song, and intoxicating hedonism seemingly wafted on the breeze (with a tinge of orange blossom). Yet it’s a far deeper, more complex place than you might expect. Layers of occupation over the millennia have left a cornucopia of historical treasures and a rich culture resplendent with colour. And flavour: tastebuds are treated like visiting royalty down here. The salty tang of manzanilla wine, a cool, garlicky gazpacho in the summer heat, the freshest of seafood, the rich olive oils, the flavoursome ham and pork from the Huelvan hills. In Andalucía the emphasis is on fresh ingredients, with the local cuisine trumping more pretentious fare and creating a unique eating and drinking culture based around the region’s greatest invention: tapas.
Scenically, there’s an even wider range on the menu. Lush green hills around Grazalema are crowned with postcard pretty white villages, while the desert-scapes around Almería have featured in many spaghetti westerns. You can kitesurf off the windy beaches of the Costa de la Luz, or ski in the Sierra Nevada, while the churches of noble Sevilla and Renaissance splendour of Baeza compete for your attention with the United Nations of birdlife in the Coto Doñana national park.
If you’re looking for Spanish stereotypes, Andalucía’s eight provinces have them all; yet the seeker of less-known cultural and natural jewels also still has extraordinary scope for fulfilling exploration here under the near constant sunshine.