Travel for the culturally inquisitive

Spain’s culture, long overlooked in favour of its beaches, is these days what draws so many to this unique country. Where else in Europe can you touch the remains of the civilisations of Rome, Islam, Judaism and Christianity? Where are the traditions of community so vividly celebrated as in Andalusia? Our accumulated years of exploring this region enable us to design a trip that allows you to tap into the roots of this incredible history and experience its vibrant culture.

Moorish Spain – sample itinerary

  1. Cór­do­ba is the join­ing point for this tour, and is well served by the high-speed train net­work with AVE trains con­nect­ing the city with Madrid in 1 hour 50 min­utes and Mála­ga in just one hour. After meet­ing in the hotel with your Tour Leader you will be tak­en on an Ori­en­ta­tion Tour through the old city, which is a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, before din­ner in a delight­ful patio restau­rant. As we stroll back to the hotel tonight we’ll see a bridge and remains of a tem­ple from Roman times and walk around the perime­ter of the vast c.8 mosque, its walls and tow­ers flood­lit at night.
  2. Today we dis­cov­er the Cór­do­ba of the turn of the last mil­len­ni­um, described in con­tem­po­rary writ­ings as “The Orna­ment of the World” on account of its cul­tur­al and civic attain­ments. The high­light will undoubt­ed­ly be the Great Mosque, a build­ing unique in its fusion of reli­gions and cul­tures. Our tour will also include the Jud­ería, for­mer Jew­ish Quar­ter of old Cór­do­ba, with entry to a Sephardic Jew­ish muse­um and the small c. 13 syn­a­gogue. We con­clude with a talk on life in c. 10 Cór­do­ba in the relax­ing sur­round­ings of an Arab-style tea room, with our expert local guide. This evening you might like to relax in the ham­mam-style Arab baths, with mas­sages of aro­mather­a­py oils also avail­able.
  3. At the height of Córdoba’s splen­dour in Mus­lim times the glit­ter­ing palace city of Mad­i­nat al Zahra was built to sym­bol­ise the pow­er of its rulers. When civ­il war broke out at the end of c. 10 the mag­nif­i­cent city was reduced to rub­ble by the war­ring fac­tions. What we see today is the result of pain-stak­ing recre­ation by archae­ol­o­gists for over a cen­tu­ry, plus an award-win­ning vis­i­tor cen­tre which brings to life the city. In the after­noon we will tour two oth­er sig­nif­i­cant mon­u­ments in Cór­do­ba from the times of the Caliphate, the Alcazares Reales – palaces of the Chris­t­ian mon­archs built over Moor­ish remains – and the Baños Cal­i­fales (the pri­vate bath-house of the Caliph).
  4. We head south today towards Grana­da, the last out­post of Islam­ic rule on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la. En route we will vis­it two impos­ing Moor­ish fron­tier cas­tles, as we learn of the his­to­ry of the cen­turies-long siege that final­ly led to the sur­ren­der of Grana­da in 1492. Life in the sul­tanate of Grana­da is the focus of a guid­ed walk in the his­toric Albaicín dis­trict this after­noon, explor­ing this once dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed area where esti­mates sug­gest as many as 40,000 peo­ple lived in the lat­ter part of c. 15. As we explore its nar­row streets and alley­ways our guide will relate the cus­toms of the time as well as the dra­mat­ic changes that the neigh­bour­hood under­went upon the Chris­t­ian occu­pa­tion.
  5. After the spec­tac­u­lar views of the Alham­bra, framed by the back­drop of the Sier­ra Neva­da, on yesterday’s walk through the Albaicín, today we vis­it the com­plex and see it at close hand. Our guid­ed tour will take in the Gen­er­al­ife gar­dens, the palaces of the Nas­rid sul­tans, and the Alcaz­a­ba fortress, with free time there­after to vis­it the Palace of Charles V, the gar­dens of El Par­tal, or the His­pano-Mus­lim Muse­um. This evening we ven­ture into the dis­tinc­tive Sacromonte area, to dine in a local restau­rant and then see live fla­men­co in one of the gyp­sy cave hous­es – a spe­cial set­ting for this vibrant art form.
  6. Today is a free day, with a choice of option­al small group activ­i­ties. The cul­ture of Moor­ish Spain is still main­tained in many aspects of mod­ern-day Spain, and these work­shops all con­nect in one way or anoth­er with those influ­ences. The tiles of the Alham­bra are the inspi­ra­tion for a Ceram­ic Tile Paint­ing class in the stu­dio of a local artist; the leather work for which Mus­lim Spain was famed through­out medieval Europe is the sub­ject of a sec­ond craft activ­i­ty, and the culi­nary influ­ences in Span­ish cui­sine from the Arab world are the focus of a cook­ery demon­stra­tion in the kitchen of an Albaicín res­i­dent.
  7. We vis­it Ron­da today, a town whose cap­ture by the Chris­tians in 1485 opened the way towards their con­quest of Grana­da. Here we will see a well pre­served sec­tion of Arab city walls, one of the best exam­ples of a Mus­lim bath-house, and a secret stair­well, hewn out of the tow­er­ing rock-face, by which the Chris­t­ian troops entered Ron­da. This evening in Sevil­la we will walk by the flood­lit cathe­dral, admir­ing the tall, slen­der Giral­da, once the minaret to the main mosque, now the cathedral’s bell-tow­er. We will also depart on an evening riv­er cruise from moor­ings next to the Torre de Oro, a watch­tow­er that con­trolled ship­ping on the Guadalquivir in Moor­ish times.
  8. Our final day is devot­ed to Seville where the Moor­ish lega­cy, although not as tan­gi­ble as in Cór­do­ba or Grana­da, is nev­er­the­less still an impor­tant cul­tur­al influ­ence. After climb­ing the Giral­da for great views of the city we vis­it the Alcázar, where we will learn of the evo­lu­tion of a c. 11 Moor­ish palace into a sump­tu­ous Castil­ian court in the mid c.14 when crafts­men forged ele­ments of Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim archi­tec­ture to form a unique syn­the­sis called “mudé­jar”. We see mod­ern rep­e­ti­tions of this lat­er on in the Par­que María Luisa where the cen­tre­piece of the 1929 Ibero-Amer­i­can Expo stands, the “neo-Mudé­jar” fan­ta­sy of the Plaza de España.
  9. There are var­i­ous alter­na­tives for onward trav­el from Seville: the high-speed train ser­vice links the city with Mála­ga (and its inter­na­tion­al air­port) as well as Madrid and Barcelona; or the local air­port offers flights to a vari­ety of Span­ish and Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions. Or, of course, you may like to stay on in Seville or this region for a few more days in which case please con­tact us for details of our Post-Tour Exten­sions.

Gardens of Spain – sample itinerary

  1. The Mediter­ranean port of Mála­ga is the join­ing point for our tour. Your Tour Host will take you on an after­noon guid­ed walk through the Alame­da park with its many species of trees and plants import­ed to the city from around the world by gen­er­a­tions of sea-far­ers. Wel­come drinks and din­ner in a char­ac­ter­ful restau­rant in the cathe­dral quar­ter this evening.
  2. On the out­skirts of Mála­ga we vis­it the botan­i­cal gar­dens of La Con­cep­ción, with a col­lec­tion of over 5,000 large­ly trop­i­cal plants. Indeed, this stretch of the Mediter­ranean is known as the “Trop­i­cal Coast” and we will pass cul­ti­va­tions of bananas, man­gos, avo­ca­dos, and the like. The town of Velez de Benau­dal­la has a rare preser­va­tion of a medieval Moor­ish gar­den, dat­ing back to c.13 – 15. Its sunken flow­ers and shrubs, nar­row walk­ways, the exquis­ite use of water as an orna­men­tal fea­ture take us back to a cul­ture in which all five sens­es were involved in the plan­ning and enjoy­ment of a gar­den. This evening in Grana­da we dine with views of the flood­lit Alham­bra palaces.
  3. We vis­it the Alham­bra with an expert guide, focussing on the exquis­ite Gen­er­al­ife gar­dens which recre­ate Moor­ish styles with strong influ­ences from the Euro­pean vogues of the mid-c. 19 and ear­ly c. 20. After­wards we con­tin­ue to the gar­dens of two carmenes, a style of walled gar­den with its ori­gins in the Chris­t­ian re-set­tle­ment of Moor­ish Grana­da, and which are now among the most dis­tin­guished prop­er­ties in the city. The first is the art nou­veau Car­men Rodriguez-Acos­ta, with delight­ful ter­raced gar­dens of foun­tains, stat­u­ary and top­i­ary, as well as a small but sig­nif­i­cant pri­vate art col­lec­tion. Near­by is the Car­men de Los Mar­tires, land­scaped in the Ital­ianate style in the c. 19, where we find pea­cocks strut­ting through the rose beds and orna­men­tal pools.
  4. The coun­try­side of Andalu­sia is often described as a “sea of olives” so dom­i­nant is this crop in local agri­cul­ture. In the town of Bae­na we will vis­it one of the region’s fore­most mills, parts of which date back to 1795. The Nuñez del Pra­do estates pro­duce an organ­ic crop milled using a mix­ture of tra­di­tion­al and mod­ern tech­niques and which yield one of the world’s most high­ly-prized olive oils. Our after­noon in Cór­do­ba takes us to the city’s fine Botan­ic Gar­dens which occu­py a site along the banks of the Riv­er Guadalquivir and are con­sid­ered among the best aca­d­e­m­ic gar­dens in Spain. Din­ner this evening is in a for­mer wine ware­house, now one of the ref­er­ence points of Córdoba’s gas­tron­o­my.
  5. In the year 950 Cór­do­ba had a pop­u­la­tion of up to 500,000, com­pris­ing Mus­lims, Jews and Chris­tians, who shared an advanced civic cul­ture and infra­struc­ture that earnt it the title “The Orna­ment of the World”. Our guide will tell us of these times as we walk around the nar­row streets sur­round­ing one of the world’s most incred­i­ble mon­u­ments, the Mosque-Cathe­dral. We will also vis­it the palace of the Alcazar, with its for­mal gar­dens laid out in the Moor­ish style. In the after­noon, the thir­teen patio gar­dens of the Mar­quis of Viana’s house each show a dif­fer­ent approach to this most Andalu­sian tra­di­tion of bring­ing the gar­den into close con­tact with the liv­ing quar­ters.
  6. Every year in May, Cór­do­ba throws open its court­yards to the pub­lic, reveal­ing a visu­al feast of colour­ful flow­ers, stone mosaics and strik­ing water fea­tures as part of its cel­e­brat­ed Patios Fes­ti­val. Tucked behind heavy iron gates for most of the year, the patios reveal their secrets and release the exot­ic scent of jas­mine and orange blos­som. Patios are a key archi­tec­tur­al fea­ture of Cór­do­ba dat­ing back to Roman times, the shade and veg­e­ta­tion that they offer being an essen­tial rem­e­dy to the hot, dry cli­mate. You will have the whole day to fol­low walk­ing routes around the city, vis­it­ing both pri­vate and pub­lic build­ings such as the beau­ti­ful con­vents of San­ta Isabel de los Ange­les, Las Capuchi­nas and San­ta Maria.
  7. As we trav­el towards Seville we will see exten­sive agri­cul­ture as well as the landown­ers’ sub­stan­tial hacien­das and man­sions We vis­it one of these, the roman­tic Palace of Moratal­la, with its sev­en lawned ter­races, foun­tains, mosa­ic motifs and lush woods, once the hunt­ing estates of the Mar­quis of Viana. Close to Seville, the arbore­tum of El Caram­bo­lo offers us more than 600 species in its land­scaped gar­dens, includ­ing themed gar­dens of aro­mat­ic, culi­nary and med­i­c­i­nal plants. We stay in the his­toric San­ta Cruz dis­trict, quin­tes­sen­tial Seville, the leg­endary birth­place of Car­men and Don Juan, where this evening you may like to stroll around the nar­row lanes, stop­ping for drinks and tapas in some of its old­world bars.
  8. This morn­ing takes us to the exten­sive Par­que Maria Luisa, favourite recre­ation spot for the peo­ple of Seville. Cre­at­ed in a “Moor­ish par­a­dis­i­cal style”, there are ponds, foun­tains, lush plant­i­ngs of palms, orange trees, Mediter­ranean pines, and styl­ized flower beds and with bow­ers hid­den by vines. No less enchant­i­ng are the gar­dens of the Real Alcazar, which con­tin­ue the archi­tec­tur­al fusion of the palaces, with foun­tains and paint­ed tiles giv­ing the ensem­ble a spe­cial Moor­ish-Chris­t­ian flavour. No vis­it of Seville would be com­plete with­out see­ing the vast goth­ic Cathe­dral. The third largest cathe­dral in the world, its c. 15 archi­tects boast­ed that all those who wit­nessed their work would “think us mad” for the scope of their ambi­tion.
  9. High-speed train takes us through the vast plains of La Man­cha to Madrid. We begin our explo­ration of the cap­i­tal with a guid­ed walk­ing tour of the Par­que Buen Retiro. Known as the lungs of the city, the vast park con­tributes a large per­cent­age of the city’s 250,000 trees and fea­tures a c. 18 parterre and a rose gar­den dec­o­rat­ed with foun­tains and stat­ues. Close by are the Roy­al Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, designed in the c. 18 to teach Botany, exhib­it plants and pro­mote expe­di­tions for the dis­cov­ery and clas­si­fi­ca­tion of new species. Time this evening to enjoy strolling through the live­ly streets of the Plaza San­ta Ana dis­trict in a city that has a proud rep­u­ta­tion for its socia­bil­i­ty.
  10. An excur­sion north from Madrid, cross­ing the Sier­ra de Guadar­ra­ma, takes us to La Gran­ja de San Ilde­fon­so, built in 1724 as the retire­ment home for Philip V. Extend­ing over 1,500 acres, the gar­dens are one of the best exam­ples of 18th-cen­tu­ry Euro­pean gar­den design. Their French archi­tect, Rene Car­li­er, used the nat­ur­al slope from the moun­tains to the palace grounds both as an aid for visu­al per­spec­tive and to gain suf­fi­cient head to allow water to shoot out of the twen­ty-six sculp­tur­al foun­tains that dec­o­rate his parter­res. Water is also a cen­tral motif of the city of Segovia, which we vis­it this after­noon. Still stand­ing to this day, its aque­duct is one of the finest Roman mon­u­ments in all Europe.
  11. Let us help you with your arrange­ments for fur­ther trav­el in Spain or trans­fers to Madrid Air­port for the flight home. We also offer, for those who would like to stay on in Madrid for a few more days, hotel and activ­i­ty pack­ages — ask us for details of our Post-Tour Exten­sions.

Spain Creative – sample itinerary

  1. After inde­pen­dent arrival into Mála­ga Air­port our jour­ney begins – as it will end – with Pablo Picas­so. The city where the great artist was born boasts a small but fine col­lec­tion of his ear­ly work in a new muse­um near the Roman amphithe­atre in the his­toric cen­tre of Mála­ga. There is also time to look around the col­lec­tion of the Car­men Thyssen gallery before we head by pri­vate coach to Grana­da, our base for the next three nights. After a brief ori­en­ta­tion walk, to give you your bear­ings, we will enjoy an ear­ly din­ner in a local restau­rant in the city cen­tre.
  2. Sit­u­at­ed on fac­ing hills are Granada’s twin UNESCO World Her­itage Sites — the Albaicín and the Alham­bra. The Albaicín is a cat’s-cradle of nar­row streets and alley­ways that rep­re­sent a unique ves­tige of medieval His­pano-Mus­lim Spain. The Alham­bra, the pala­tial city of the Nas­rid sul­tans, is the crown jew­el of this bril­liant his­to­ry. We will be shown both by expert guides, who will place them in con­text and give empha­sis to the incred­i­ble craft and sophis­ti­cat­ed designs of the peri­od. We explore the Albaicín in the late after­noon, dine in the gar­dens of a neigh­bour­hood restau­rant, and then vis­it the palaces at night when num­bers of vis­i­tors are far few­er and their mag­ic is per­va­sive.
  3. We return this morn­ing for a longer look at the whole Alham­bra com­plex of palaces, fortress, urban areas and gar­dens. Begun in the mid c. 14, this was the work of the Nas­rid dynasty whose 250 year reign in Grana­da proved to be the swan­song of Mus­lim rule on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la. The exquis­ite Gen­er­al­ife gar­dens are a recre­ation of Moor­ish styles heav­i­ly influ­enced by the Euro­pean vogues of the mid c. 19 and ear­ly c. 20, rep­re­sent­ing an intrigu­ing and unique syn­the­sis of styles. In the after­noon, you will work in mini-groups on the first of your cre­ative activ­i­ties, either Ceram­ic Tile Paint­ing or Andalusí Leather Craft. For details, see below, “Cre­ative Activ­i­ties”.
  4. Resum­ing the Cre­ative Activ­i­ties, you will swap to the oth­er workshop/class this morn­ing, col­lect­ing at the end your fin­ished works. After free time to fur­ther explore the city, per­haps the mag­nif­i­cent Roy­al Chapel, bur­ial place of the Catholic Mon­archs, we will spend the after­noon in a ham­mam (recre­ation of an Arab bath­house). The Andalusí style dec­o­ra­tion, Arab music gen­tly play­ing in the back­ground, and the soft light and drowsy warmth all make for an ide­al way to unwind. Sup­ple and relaxed you will then be shown some of the basic steps of fla­men­co in a fun class before round­ing off the day see­ing pro­fes­sion­als show­ing how it’s (real­ly!) done, in the unique set­ting of a Sacromonte cave house.
  5. Like Grana­da, the city of Cór­do­ba is a trea­sure-trove of Spain´s his­to­ry, from Roman times onwards. At the height of its pow­ers the Caliphate of Cór­do­ba (756−1013) was referred to as the “orna­ment of the world”. As we vis­it the Great Mosque, and the old Jew­ish ghet­to with one of Spain’s few sur­viv­ing for­mer syn­a­gogues, we will learn about the rela­tions in medieval Cór­do­ba between Mus­lims, Jews and Chris­tians. After a late lunch we board the high-speed AVE train that, in just over 4 hours, will have us in Barcelona, a dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent part of the Iber­ian mosa­ic. The Cata­lan cap­i­tal, one of Europe’s most ele­gant cities, is our home for the fol­low­ing three nights.
  6. Barcelona pro­vides a strong con­trast with Andalu­sia, with a “mod­ern” Euro­pean and dis­tinct­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed face which wins fans from all over the world. Its live­ly arts scene, an infra­struc­ture boost­ed immea­sur­ably by the 1992 Olympic Games, and a proud Cata­lan sense of iden­ti­ty, all make for a fas­ci­nat­ing city to explore. Our local guide will bring these strands togeth­er in a full day tour, see­ing the works of the leg­endary Mod­ernist archi­tect, Antoni Gau­di. His unfin­ished mas­ter­piece, the basil­i­ca La Sagra­da Famil­ia, will undoubt­ed­ly be a high­light of the tour. We will also vis­it the best-known of his civic works, the hous­es of Casa Mila and Bat­tló, plus the play­ful, imag­i­na­tive Parc Guell.
  7. This morn­ing we vis­it the immense and colour­ful food mar­ket of La Boquería in the com­pa­ny of a local chef who will show us what to look for when buy­ing the ingre­di­ents need­ed for the cook­ing class that fol­lows. We will learn some clas­sic Cata­lan dish­es such as Red Bell Pep­per soup flavoured with Saf­fron and Cod, and typ­i­cal desserts like Cre­ma Cata­lana. Lunch, tast­ing all four cours­es pre­pared, rounds off the expe­ri­ence and there are print­ed recipe sheets to take away too. The rest of the day is for a well-earned sies­ta and then per­haps an evening bar-hop­ping in Barcelona, sam­pling the mul­ti­tude of local and nation­al tapas dish­es, or din­ing in one of the city’s top-notch restau­rants.
  8. Picas­so spent his for­ma­tive years in Barcelona and the muse­um here holds prob­a­bly the most com­plete col­lec­tion of his works. After a guid­ed vis­it with an expert guide and suit­ably inspired (!) we will spend the rest of the morn­ing in a light and spa­cious art stu­dio giv­ing free rein to our cre­ative side with a paint­ing work­shop. For details, see below, “Cre­ative Activ­i­ties”. The rest of the day is free to fur­ther explore such sights as the Bar­ri Got­ic (the medieval quar­ter), the boule­vard of Las Ram­blas where all the world meets, the Port Olympic com­plex, and per­haps take the cable car up to Mon­tjuic for superb panoram­ic views over the city and the Mediter­ranean.
  9. Today we say our farewells before embark­ing on the jour­ney home or onward trav­els. Or, you might like to extend your stay in Cat­alo­nia with a few more nights in Barcelona, Girona or Tar­rag­o­na: please ask us about our Post-Tour Exten­sions..

Creative Activities

  • Ceramic Tile Painting

    In an absorb­ing 3 hour class you will learn how to hand-paint ceram­ic tiles under the guid­ance and inspi­ra­tion of a local artist. Suit­able for all lev­els of artis­tic apti­tude, this is a great activ­i­ty for chil­dren and adults alike, and takes place in the artist’s stu­dio in her fam­i­ly home on the slopes of the Alham­bra. The tiles you paint are yours to take away – a unique sou­venir of Grana­da.

  • Leather Craft Workshop

    Learn about the ancient craft of leather tool­ing and stamp­ing in this cre­ative work­shop, giv­en by an Amer­i­can res­i­dent of Grana­da who has recov­ered one of Spain’s most tra­di­tion­al crafts, with its roots in the eight cen­turies of Mus­lim his­to­ry, al-Ándalus. You will be shown tech­niques for hand carv­ing and stamp­ing leather with tra­di­tion­al designs, and then make small item in leather, such as an iPhone cov­er, bracelet or drinks coast­ers.

  • Picasso Painting Class

    Inspired by the works of Pablo Picas­so and his many self-por­traits, this fun work­shop encour­ages us to exam­ine how we see our­selves and record that impres­sion in water­colours. Under the cre­ative direc­tion and guid­ance of an art teacher you can either give free com­plete­ly rein to your imag­i­na­tion or take inspi­ra­tion from art books and repro­duc­tions of some of the works we have seen in the ear­li­er vis­it to the Picas­so Muse­um.