Andalusia, and the roads less traveled by. How to escape tourist throngs and discover for yourself the remote, timeless, and splendid heart of Spain
There's not one stained-glass window, no weathered wooden statuary, no must-see masterpieces. Only the mountain stillness of a tiny Andalusian village; and this little girl, who runs to the edge of the fountain, mysteriously rubs her hands against the stone, then quickly disappears into that absolute whiteness of bleaching sun , white walls, limpid air.
Then, this remote village square is once again a place in which to be alone.
Being alone is often difficult in Andalusia. This region, long popular with Spaniards, has lately ignited the international traveler's imagination.
Andalusia holds, in close quarters: mountain-ocean landscapes, quaint village scenes, Moorish and Roman ruins, and ancient artistic treasures.
None of which is lost on the tour operators and tour-takers of this world. To travel the scenic ''circuit'' from Cordoba to Seville to Granada is, generally speaking, to move with multitudes.
There is, however, a better way.
''On all my walks through Spain,'' wrote Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet laureate of Andalusia, ''whenever I grew a little tired of cathedrals, dead stones, and soulful landscapes, I have tried to search for the perpetually living elements where the minute does not freeze, elements that live a tremulous present.''
With a little canny traveling and some serendipity, you can have both: you can wear yourself out against dead stones, and refresh yourself in the tremulous present of the Andalusian landscape, which frequently hovers just around the corner from some madly contested square, guarded by an avaricious turnstile.
I tested this a few weeks ago, and it worked.
Starting down from the gaunt profile of Toledo, taking the less-traveled N104 , I made my way into the heart of Andalusia via Ciudad Real, and thereafter followed similarly untraveled roads on a 1,000-mile trek through this agriculturally and psychically fertile region.
The roads led through dusty little villages into the blossom-spattered countryside, soft and endless, with here and there a rocky ridge.
Men in dark sweaters and berets - using that old Moorish defense against the sun, heavy dark clothing - sat in small groups on rocks or in village squares. The ravishing countryside was all red-clay earth, tart green cypresses, and yellow-green grass.
It is this mingling of the almost achingly beautiful with the hard, impregnable rock of the place that most characterizes Andalusian landscapes.
That and the duende.
One hesitates to use that overworked word; but how else to account for the dark nimbus that seems to glow around things here than to employ the gypsy-derived term for the spirit of Spain? You see it everywhere. It is the thing that surprises you in the midst of some pastoral reverie - the sudden chill shadow across the landscape. And it evokes a kind of poetry from the people in their naming of things. Things like the promotory they call ''pena de los enamorados'' (''sorrow of those in love''), which comes up out of the countryside all hard, forbidding, and desolate.
Before you get to this rock, which looms near the road between Seville and Granada, you come down into Cordoba, that mysterious city with its massive mosque, venerable synagogue and ancient winding streets. You come to the old Roman bridge spanning the Rio Guadalquivir.
I went down to the Guadalquivir where it flows brown and milky under this bridge. The city traffic roared away in the near distance. But behind me loomed old Moorish walls; bullfrogs lurked among the rushes; ancient chunks of Carthage and Rome, in the form of eroding ruins, stuck up like broken teeth in the belly of the river.
Just above this bend, it flows past walls scrawled with political slogans, which are ubiquitous in this newly enfranchised country, and past a graffitist's remarkable rendering of ''Guernica,'' with the slogan, ''!Espana Libre!'' And then it comes by the Jewish and Arab quarters of the old city, choked with tourists and festooned with shops selling tawdry bric-a-brac and Kodak film.
Cordoba may be a tourist trap, but it is possible during the height of the rush to wander off into empty alleys, to be alone in a peculiarly Andalusian way: with stones and the voices of unseen birds.
The famed Mosque here - architecturally desecrated by the Spanish in the 16th century with an ugly cathedral grafted into its innards - is neither as meditative nor as touching as the much smaller, and less famous one in Toledo. The synagogue is a bit disappointing. But the teeming life of Cordoba's crooked streets, as well as its mingling of historical strains, is deeply satisfying. One can follow one's nose into the most interesting places. I spent an illuminating half hour wandering through the tiny university just off the Jewish quarter, with its cool hallways bedecked with Moorish patterns, flagstone floors , and dark wood paneling, none of them included in anybody's tour package.
And I found, even in the six-star, must-see attractions, the unexpected. In the ugly tower that sits on the corner of the Mosque's courtyard, for instance.
You climb up the inside of this narrow tower by means of steeply raked stone stairways, which end at a heavy wooden door bearing the scrawled pronouncement: ''25 pesetas, if you want to go higher, just knock.'' Your knock is answered by an elderly woman who takes your money and sends you up along your way . . . unless you stop to inquire about the curtain beside her.
It turns out after some questioning that this curtain leads to her apartment in this slender stone tower. She was born in that apartment; so was her father; and so were three generations of parents before that.
You begin to sense that, behind the perpetually shuttered windows and tightly drawn curtains of Andalusia, many such stories lurk, hidden in the shadows.
The fact is, though, that you will never find out. Not unless you have decades to spend here. Because, while the people are open and warm, they are private as well. The woman in the tower, quite understandably, did not wish to show her home to a visiting reporter; and in most families here, getting beyond the front parlor is a privilege you have to be born into.
All of which enhances the mystery of the place.
Strangely, this mystery is all but entirely absent from Seville, which is, after all, the Andalusian city celebrated in opera, theater, and film. And that may be the problem. There is something about Seville, with its perfect little streets and its garland of roses behind every wrought-iron balcony, that suggests a movie set.
Normally, visitors travel the highway back to Cordoba and down into Granada; but on local advice I took route 339, which snakes down through the village of Marchena to an unnumbered (and unmarked)road down to the town of Osuna, before joining up with a larger highway cutting across to Granada.
It was good advice. This route led past the aforementioned ''Pena de los Enamorados.'' It took me into a village where a man with a tiny baby goat in the basket ofhis bike gave me directions. And it led me into the splendid heart of Andalusia. There, the most casual turn in the road yielded a sudden view of olive groves that spread in patchwork pieces to the horizon, and a Spanish town in the near distance spilled down a hillside from the promontory-fortress of its spired cathedrals, profiled against a turbulent sky.
As I drove, I thought of Garcia Lorca's gypsy nun, ''seeing clouds and mountains in distances unyielding.''
The distances, however, did yield, and I found my way into Granada, that most Andalusian of cities, in which the Alhambra and its attendant Moorish walls dominate the panorama of daily life. Granada is a cultural cornucopia and a sightseer's paradise. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to escape the hordes of fellow tourists who want a glimpse of every gold-leaf mosaic in the sprawling Alhambra and each turned leaf in the Generalife gardens next door.
You are simply well advised to bite the bullet, stand in line, and gawk in wonder with them.
After you've done all that, however, it behooves you to pop into a car and make your way down the road to Motril, past ''el ultimo suspiro del Moro,'' (the last sigh of the Moor). That title identifies the point in the road where a Moorish overlord supposedly turned and sighed over the Granada he had just lost to the Christians; and his mother told him he should well sigh like a woman over what he could not defend like a man.
The road cuts up into the Alpujarras region of the Sierra Nevadas, veering over harrowing precipices and vast spectacles of mountains and canyons, into some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world.
Up there, in the high silence of the mountains, the small village of Bubion sits snug and quiet. You walk its steep, narrow streets without seeing a soul. The wind, often your only companion, seems to take definite form, like the tail of a cat brushing by your leg.
In the late afternoon, trees cast a thousand long shadows on the opposite mountain. A little snow caps the ridge; and the slow form of a cloud comes rolling over the mountaintop, hugging it closely.
Similarly, this village clings to the side of its mountain, white alleys twisting between white dwellings. A little girl runs to the village fountain, rubs her hand mysteriously against the stone and slips quietly into the solitary white streets.
And, once again, one finds oneself alone in Andalusia.