It was 9.30 PM on a Tuesday evening and the sun was still up — from afar you could still spot locals boisterously socialising over refreshing sangria and mouthwatering tapas, after a long summer’s day of work. Yes, this is Spain, where people really know how to live life to the fullest, without fretting what day of the week it is!

I am in Andalusia or Al Andalus (as locals refer to it), which lies in the southernmost part of Europe, in the south of the Iberian peninsula, close to the African continent, and I literally feel overwhelmed with the beauty and warmth that surrounds me. With almost 320 days of sunshine per year, this balmy Spanish atmosphere makes locals one of the warmest, friendliest and happiest in the world, so it is no wonder why so many travellers feel so incredibly comfortable spending their holidays here.

Paella

Gourmands will enjoy the versatile cuisine of Andalusia.

Epicurean haven
But Andalusia is not only about sun and merry-making. The region is also renowned as a gastronomic powerhouse, boasting everything from topnotch cured meats to pure olive oil to exquisite vinegar courtesy of Jerez.

And as nearly everywhere else in Spain, there are tapas. I was told the Spanish “tapas culture” is all about sharing and caring. So you will notice for yourself that in every bodega or home, locals are religiously spending time together with loved ones over some good food and meaningful conversation on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, if you have children or you are alone, there is a place for everyone to have fun. As my new Spanish friend Ana said, “life is the best school to learn that there are at least two important things: living it and living it with love and joy.” Well said, Ana! It was only my second day in Andalusia, and I was already falling in love with it and its people!

It dawned on me later, as I sat with my new friends in the historical Albaycin area of Granada, gazing at the magnificence of the Alhambra by night, that Andalusia is exactly the place I’ve been dreaming of travelling to — a place full of history, natural beauty, exquisite cuisine and most importantly — charming people!

Seville Torre Del Oro

Andalusia boasts a myriad of historical sights.

The past — a must!
For history buffs, the allure of Andalusia is undeniable. Its vivid culture and history have been influenced by early Iberians, Romans, Muslims and Christian nationalities, which all left their imprint on this pretty patch of Spain. Today, the region is peppered with examples of architecture influenced by a meld of these cultures. Some of the most prominent landmarks remain the mosque cathedral of Córdoba, the Alcazar of Seville and Granada’s grand Alhambra. As we visited each of these historical sights, we were amazed that our guides displayed such an intense pride in their region’s rich heritage.

However, apart from history, Andalusia is also famous for the hip ultra-glamorous beaches of Puerto Banús and Marbella in Costa Del Sol region as well as many quaint small towns and pretty villages nestled in between the main cities. Each of these offer a different facet of Andalusia, making it an intriguing and fun exploration worth every effort made to be there.

Hospitality abloom
Farther on, on the way from Córdoba to Granada, we visited the beautiful town of Preigo de Córdoba. This region is also famous for olive plantations and flowers. I loved the traditional Andalusian homes criss-crossed by narrow streets festooned with potted flowers bursting with colour. What a sight to behold!

Flowers in Priego

Bright-coloured flowers dot the patios of nearly all houses in Priego.

It was here that the friendliness of the people really showed. While admiring one of the flower-bedecked homes, the owner, a lady, actually invited us inside her home and generously offered us some homemade cakes. We were touched by her shower of affection. In these small towns, locals are part of a tight community — everyone knows each other literally and they are part of one big family.

If you truly want to explore the region in-depth, consider renting a car. If you are behind the wheel, you can definitely explore many of small-town gems at your own pace, stopping at will to savour everything they have to offer.

Driving around the region is delightful in itself and might even bring you to a nice parador accommodation, which can be a centuries-old castle, a historical building or a modernly revamped convent that still retains its ancient charms. We stayed in a parador in Carmona, a small town dotted with endless sunflower fields, located just half an hour away from the bustling city of Seville. The parador experience was one of a kind! What was particularly memorable was the chef of the restaurant in the parador personally came out of the kitchen to chat, after learning of my compliment on the vegetarian spinach dish.  Despite the fact it was well past the restaurant’s closing time, he went on to share his recipe with me.

White Villages of Andalusia

Several white-washed villages crown the dramatic landscape of Andalusia.

Pearls on a string
In the province of Cádiz, while driving towards Ronda, we came across another breathtaking sight: the unique Pueblos Blancos or the White Towns of Andalusia. We saw hills dotted with immaculate, white-painted abodes and thought what a captivating sight they were. We stopped at a small town called Ubrique, one of the largest white villages in the region, which is also famous for its leather products.

But my best experience was near the sherry town of Jerez. There we visited the Yeguada de la Cartuja stud farm and we truly had the time of our life. Even if you are not into horses, you will be amazed by the well-kept, green surroundings and the most majestic horses that enthrall you the moment you step into the farm. The farm is doing a commendable job of preserving the centuries-old Carthusian lineage and protecting its genetic heritage, making the Carthusian horse the most celebrated and appreciated stock in the world. Take note to visit the farm on Saturday, when the highlight is the “Dancing Horse” show, which is stunning and leaves one a little teary-eyed at the moving finale. See it to believe it!

Carthuja Horse

Yeguada de la Cartuja farm is still preserving the lineage of the celebrated Carthusian horse.

In spite of all my presumptions and prior knowledge of the region, my trip to Andalusia was not only about all things Spanish — flamenco, tapas, matadors and bullfights — but it was truly an eye-opening experience thanks to the warm hospitality and inner beauty of the people I had the pleasure of meeting. Everywhere we went we were greeted with a genuine smile and a friendly “hola”. The pace was incredibly laidback and yes, siestas still do happen there! People do work hard, it’s just that they play even harder. It’s the locals’ fervour for life that struck me the most. No doubt Andalusia is a beautiful place, but to me, its people make it even more captivating!