If Spain is on your European itinerary, tough decisions lie ahead on where to spend your time. Some swoon for Barcelona, with its gaudy Gaudí architecture and cosmopolitan avenues. Others swear by Madrid, a magnet for the globe-trotting set thanks to its giddy mix of wild nightlife and world-class art-hopping. Still others will rhapsodise about the fertile plains of the Basque country or the windswept beauty of the Galician coast. All those Spanish destinations have their charms, but give me Andalucía any day.
It's taken me several visits over the years to put my finger on precisely what it is about this storied region of southern Spain that has me smitten. Sure, there's the intoxicating sense of history in which Andalucía is steeped: Muslims, Christians and Jews have battled it out for supremacy here over the centuries, leaving indelible marks on the culture, architecture and customs. Not to mention the famed Spanish passion for the pursuit of pleasure, which reaches its apogee in the cities and villages of this ancient land. There's bullfighting, of course, and flamenco, and some of the finest tapas and sherry in the world. But any of those things on their own can be found elsewhere in Spain. It's the glorious confluence of all these things. It's not just a show for tourists, but an abiding drama and passion that underpins life here, from the shadows of the Sierra Nevada to the wind-lashed coast of Cádiz, that makes Andalucía such an unforgettable destination.
Of course, I'm not alone in this particular crush. Europeans have been flocking to Spain's Costa del Sol for decades (in the process turning the coastline into what can charitably be described as urban blight).
Culture vultures have always had the city of Granada on their radar: for the Alhambra - a Moorish palace and fortress - alone it belongs on the must-see-before-you-die list of any self-respecting intrepid traveller.
But in recent years, three of Andalucía's other cities - Seville, Córdoba and Cádiz - have begun to emerge as hip destinations in their own right, not just as whistle stops on a cultural tour or day trips from the coast. Each of the cities has its hot neighbourhoods, a distinct regional flavour and a burgeoning scene, complete with new boutique hotels and chic cafés and restaurants.
Navigating Andalucía's biggest city is a delightful challenge given its chaotic, maze-like layout. A perfect base is Las Casas del Rey de Baeza (Plaza Jesús de la Redención, 2, Seville, +34 95 456 1496, www.hospes.es), a boutique hotel run by the haute-design Hospes group, which is busy transforming some of Spain's most beautiful historic buildings into stylish lodgings. In a converted 18th-century apartment building, the hotel's elegantly furnished rooms overlook leafy courtyards where guests linger over an aperitivo.
From here, a walk through the atmospheric cobbled streets of the old Jewish quarter to Seville's grand 15th-century gothic cathedral and the fortress palace Alcázar - the city's major monuments - is an unbeatable way to spend the morning. While a map is helpful, it's best to simply plunge into the laneways and see where they take you. Check out Plaza San Francisco, the centuries-old main public square, and Plaza Nueva, a swanky shopping area that's a magnet for well-heeled Sevillians looking to stock up on big-ticket items at Loewe and Carolina Herrera among others. The cool girls in over-sized sunglasses that frequent this area prefer to get their retail fix at the vintage boutiques in the surrounding streets, such as the tiny but hip Chicarreos laneway.
Every city needs an oasis, and Seville's comes in the form of the lovely Parque de Maria Luisa, a maze of paths flanked by lush trees, flowerbeds and fountains. Just across the road is the magnificent Plaza de España, a semi-circular building constructed for the 1929 Spanish-American Exposition. It's now government
offices, but the plaza, reminiscent of a bullring and lined with pretty canals, still draws families, couples and tourists alike (no doubt some of them Star Wars geeks - the building stood in for the royal planet of Naboo in Episode II Attack of The Clones).
When the sun goes down (and in summer, long before) stylish Seville locals like to go out and be seen. One neighbourhood that's generated a lot of buzz in recent times is Alameda de Hércules, an area north of El Centro with a thriving restaurant scene and a substantial gay population. Many residents are restoring faded old casas to their former glory, and the long park-like strip is lined with moody bars and alfresco cafés where the beautiful people go to preen.
It really wouldn't do to leave Seville without sampling several Andalucían dishes: white gazpacho - a thick, garlic and almond soup - is ubiquitous, though each restaurant tends to add its own spin on ingredients such as raisins, prawns or asparagus. Jamón Ibérico is, of course, a staple and can be found at every good tapas bar, and foie gras (more often associated with French cuisine) is a big hit, often served fried and accompanied by caramelised apples.
A fun day trip just an hour's drive east of Seville is the lovely medieval city of Carmona. The old city is contained within an ancient fortress (the Roman gates and parts of the fortifications still remain) and was originally part of the Roman Way which stretched from Cádiz to The Pyrénées - a fact that lends it an impossibly romantic air. Inside is a maze of cobbled streets and a town that doesn't seem to have changed much over the centuries. Prime example: in one church, the nuns still bake cakes to raise funds for their convent, and the entire transaction - the ordering of cakes, the passing of money - is performed by way of a recessed wooden wheel so that the nuns can remain unseen.
One of Carmona's hidden gems is La Yedra restaurant (*General Freire, 8, Carmona, +34 95 414 4525, www.restaurantelayedra.es) - converted stables with whitewashed walls, terracotta floor tiles and linen-covered farm tables. A degustation menu begins with fresh anchovies in a creamy avocado sauce and ends with a tasting plate of five miniature desserts, from homemade ice-cream to multi-layered chocolate cake.
After Seville, Córdoba seems quiet, even quaint, but scratch the surface and you'll find a city that's fast developing a spirited scene. The entire old city, which is UNESCO World Heritage-listed, is surrounded by a Roman wall which was once the capital of al-Andalus (the Muslim-ruled regions of Spain during the medieval period). These days, Córdoba is known for its elaborate patios (courtyards) of its private houses, open to the public each May, and the Mezquita, a mosque founded around 785, widely considered to be one of the best examples of Moorish architecture in the world.
Starting from the Roman gateway, where white doves are nestled in niches in the rock, enter the city by way of the Juderia, the Jewish Quarter. It's beyond picturesque, with its warren of narrow stone streets, whitewashed houses and iron lanterns. A small stone medieval synagogue remains, one of only three in all of Spain. In the streets of the Jewish quarter, several private houses have patios that can be viewed year-round, allowing a wonderful glimpse into traditional Andalucían life. Each year Córdoban families try to outdo each other with the lushness of their gardens, and ducking into one of them provides a moment of tranquility - and a little real-estate envy.
While unprepossessing from the outside, the Mezquita is undoubtedly the jewel in Córdoba's crown. Inside lies an architectural anomaly: rows and rows of romantically lit stone columns with double arches of striped red brick and white stone that seem to go on forever (this is the structure of the original mosque), then in the middle, a cathedral, which was plonked there during the 16th century. It's as incongruous a building as you're ever likely to see, and depending on which way you look at it, a testament to either religious tolerance or extreme provocation. Either way, it's astoundingly beautiful and it's easy for hours to slip by while wandering its corridors.
One reliable sign of the city's burgeoning coolness may be read in the boutique hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío (Ramírez de las Casas Deza, Córdoba, 10-12, +34 95 749 8993,*www.hospes.es), a converted 16th-century palace that blends contemporary chic - avant-garde twisted metal light fittings, velvet chaise longues - with original antique touches. The stylish lobby seems to be forever buzzing with Prada-clad, Goyard-toting travellers.
It's hard to leave the modern, elegant rooms, thanks to capacious bathtubs and wickedly comfortable beds, but Córdoba by night is well worth investigating. At one of its most noteworthy restaurants, Bodegas Campos, effusive waiters bring out course after course of rustic, delicious Andalucían dishes for hordes of well-heeled locals who come to enjoy its intimate, Old-World atmosphere (look for the vintage bullfighting posters on the walls). Afterwards, those in the know head to Tablao Flamenco el Cardenal (Buen Pastor, 2, Córdoba, +34 69 121 7922, www.tablaocardenal.com) - one of the city's best flamenco bars.
A lively port town crowded onto a promontory jutting out into the Atlantic, Cádiz is thought to be the oldest city in Europe, but that hasn't stopped it from exuding a fun-loving, youthful spirit. The contrast of placid beachfront and crammed city is a heady one, and it's easy to get swept up in the pursuit of the good life, which - while a preoccupation throughout Spain - seems particularly embedded in the way of life here. One of the best places to stay in town is Hotel Argantonio (Argantonio, 3, Cádiz, +34 95 621 1640,*www.hotelargantonio.com), a 19th-century home decorated in a style somewhere between colonial and Moorish, with touches such as white lace bedspreads, beamed ceilings and hand-painted tile floors.
The medieval remains of Cádiz make up only a small part of the old city - they were largely destroyed in the 1500s - and the predominant architectural style is 18th-century colonial buildings replete with lacy ironwork and balconies, an aesthetic that's often had the city compared to Havana. Strolling through the narrow stone streets is the best way to acquaint oneself with the city's charms, particularly given the plethora of shady squares that break up the warrens. The Torre Tavira watchtower (Marqués del Real Tesoro, 10, Cádiz, +34 95 621 2910, torretavira.com), reached via 172 steps - believe me, it feels like more - provides superb panoramic views over the city with its jumble of white rooftops, majestic yellow-domed cathedral and ocean lapping at both sides. You'll also be able to spot the Parque Genovés, a 19th-century garden on the city's northern waterfront: this beautiful avenue lined with Cyprus trees and fountains provides a welcome respite from the sweltering heat of an Andalucían summer.
When the sun goes down, locals head to one of the city's many tapas bars and seafood restaurants to begin their night. The formula is ingeniously simple: take a group of friends, order several local cervezas (beers) or finos, proceed with lively conversation to accompany fresh, delicious food eaten under the stars. It's a recipe for the good life that is followed all over the south of Spain. Just try to resist joining in.
Up until my most recent trip to Andalucía, my only experience with the Costa del Sol, over 150km of coastline along Málaga province, had been from the passenger seat of a car. This time around, I ended up in Marbella for a few days and with a little help from locals, it's possible to eat, drink and live it up like royalty in this glitzy little corner of the world. In fact, don't be surprised if you end up rubbing shoulders with bona fide European royalty and a few rock 'n' roll types, too. Here's the pick of where to stay and what to do.
WHERE TO STAY
Kempinski Hotel Bahía Estepona A five-star hotel set in lush gardens and situated on one of the area's most beautiful beaches. Doubles from about $420. Carratera de Cádiz km 159, Estepona, +34 95 280 9500, www.kempinski-spain.com.
Hotel Villa Padierna
A lavish Italianate mansion set back from the coast featuring swanky public areas and a world-class spa. Doubles from about $410. Carratera de Cádiz km 166, Marbella, +34 95 288 9150, www.hotelvillapadierna.com.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Restaurant Calima Chef Dani García is taking molecular gastronomy to new heights (the 'iced popcorn' deserves an award on its own). Gran Melía Don Pepe, José Melía, Marbella, +34 952 770 300, www.solmelia.com.
Hotel Puente Romano A fine hotel with an even finer restaurant, Roberto, which serves refined Italian dishes in a romantic beachfront setting. Carratera de Cádiz km 177, Marbella, +34 95 282 0900, www.puenteromano.com.
Nikki Beach Marbella An outpost of the famous Miami nightspot, it's the place to spot celebrities and dance the night away under the palm trees. Playa Hotel Don Carlos, Carratera de Cádiz km 29600, Marbella, +34 95 283 6239, www.nikkibeach.com.
WHAT TO SEE
Museo Picasso Málaga A museum dedicated to the works of Picasso, who was born in Málaga. It's set in a 16th-century palace in the old quarter and houses a 155-strong collection of rarely seen works, all donated by Picasso's daughter-in-law and grandson. San Agustín, 8, Málaga, +34 95 212 7600, www.museopicassomalaga.org.