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A confluence of two cultures

From sublime Seville to mighty Granada, Simon Calder traces the footsteps of Washington Irving through Spain's wild west

Choice in travel is a marvellous thing. And five years into the 21st century, the range of holidays on offer has never been wider. In southern Spain alone, for example, you can select anything from an all-inclusive package to an independent adventure on the trail of an extraordinary American writer. Try the latter, and you will discover that you even get to sample two alternative Andalucias.

It was Andalucia the sublime that first seduced a man by the name of Washington Irving in the 1820s. He was among the first generation of diplomats sent forth from the young United States, or at least endowed of sufficient private means to take what amounted to a gap year in Seville. His project: to investigate the life and voyages of Columbus. But Irving soon became intrigued by the exoticism of the region, a result of the fusion of its European and Moorish heritages. He spent months immersing himself in the culture of Seville - capital of the lowlands, Andalucia the sublime. Then he decided to embark on a 250km journey to the "other" Andalucia. His destination Granada: the mountain city that is guardian of the highlands, Andalucia the mighty.

Seville and Granada have long been sibling cities that strive to out-do one another. This rivalry has been going on since the Moorish days, when the cities were the civic custodians of the constantly shifting borderlands. Seville became capital of the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus in 1163, and when Islamic rule began to fragment, Granada became capital of the Nazrid kingdom under Mohammed Ben Nasar early in the 13th century.

Travellers argue for hours about which is the lovelier city. Seville (altitude 10m) boasts the strongest concentration of ambience, elegance and panache that you can find anywhere in Europe, while Granada (700m) is draped seductively over dramatic terrain and topped with an immense study in magnificence: the Alhambra, built by the Moors eight centuries ago and refined by the Spanish. But most agree that the journey between the cities is one of the finest in Spain.

Washington Irving set out on his ride of discovery in the company of a Russian royal, Prince Dolgoruki, an envoy to the Court of Persia, who was equally interested in the confluence of Europe and Africa, Christianity and Islam. East met west to explore the deep south of Spain and in 1829 this odd couple were the first outsiders to cut a cross-section across the region.

Their starting point, Seville, is like a glass of fino sherry: cool, complex and (usually) dry. Its ruffled layers of history are revealed, most seductively, when the summer heat begins to dissipate. The city centre is enclosed to the west by the Guadalquivir river, the waterway that brought the riches of the Americas to the city. To the east lies the wilds of Spain, beginning with the Guadalquivir plain, which reminds me of the faces of many of Andalucia's older residents: roasted gently by the sun, a little rough but very appealing, and carved with lines. Today, a pair of these lines leaves Seville, roughly in parallel, to head a little south of east: they are the railway and the A92 motorway. You could rent a car or follow the route by bus or train. Whichever you choose, you will find yourself crossing flat land that seems as relentless as the prairies, with occasional red-roofed villages to act as way-points.

The road to Granada was well established as an old trade route long before the 19th-century tourists set out. Irving's journey was endangered by bandits, but enlivened by the hostelries where he stayed: "the most miserable inn is as full of adventure as an enchanted castle", he later wrote.

The first part of the journey is through rice country, but then the olives proliferate. As I approached Osuna, about an hour east of Seville, I prepared to find out how the noble olive is transformed from tree to extra-virgin oil - and to witness the incredible dancing trees of Andalucia. To make the luscious oil that lubricates the Andalucian palate, farmers employ a marvellous motor-and-belt combination that will shake the trunk to its roots, shrugging off hundreds of the ripe, black fruits with every shudder.

After this bizarre sight, you can learn more about the way the olives are tenderly pressed and delicately blended. Or you can move on to the first serious sierra, which starts roughly where the province of Seville ends and Malaga's rule begins. Barely 50km south across the hills lies the Costa del Sol's busiest resorts. But this is a journey through the past: another country, where they do things differently.

Antequera poses perfectly. The town is compressed into a rough triangle of land that sits aloof from the road, railway and river, and rests comfortably against the Sierra de las Cabras - the mountain range that insulates it from the coast. And, stuffed with beauty and antiquity, it is frankly entrancing on every level. On a roasting summer's day, the town seems to be suspended in a heat haze. You can wander through the tranquil, shady streets, or clamber up to the fortress that commands the plain. "Everything in this venerable city has a decidedly Spanish seal," wrote Washington Irving. Yet like much of Andalucia, Antequera has Roman connections. The sonority between Antequera and antiquity is appropriate - indeed the Roman name of the settlement was Antiquaria.

The town's history stretches even further back. On the outskirts is a location that is Spain's equivalent to the ancient sites of Wiltshire. A pair of dolmens - prehistoric man-made mounds - rise up behind a petrol station on the scruffy northern fringe of the town. The dolmens of Menga and Viera are burial chambers up to six millennia old - they are supported by massive stone monoliths, and have been called "the first real architecture in Spain". And from them, you get a fine view of La Peña de los Enamorados, or Lovers' Rock, where local legend insists that a Christian warrior and a Muslim girl leapt to their deaths rather than be forced to live separate lives.

East from here is where Andalucia starts to get crumpled. The landscape is latticed with olive groves, while meticulously graded aqueducts dart across the terrain; water is regimented here. Continuing towards Granada, you can see why Southern Spain doubles as the Wild West of America in so many cowboy movies. A backdrop of rock and scrub transports you to Arizona, give or take the occasional decrepit finca.

The road and railway squeeze through a neck of hills and into a thickly populated valley housing San Francisco de Loja. But the old trail - the route used by the Spanish to seal the Reconquest in 1492 - passes this modern expansion and continues to climb steadily. On the far side of Granada you could embark on the long climb to the highest road in Europe, but for most of us, the Alhambra is the end that justifies a journey by any means. The first time I visited Spain, shortly after the dictator Franco died, I sat transfixed atop the Mirador de San Nicolas, staring at the miracle of the Alhambra. Three decades on, I did exactly the same, this time in the company of even more fellow tourists. And every one of us has Washington Irving to thank for its preservation and celebration.

When he reached the end of the road, Irving took up a suite of rooms in what was then the abandoned Alhambra. Over the next couple of years he wrote The Alhambra: A Series of Tales and Sketches of the Moors and the Spaniards, which soon became a best-seller and kept him comfortably until he died in 1859. In an early example of literary tourism, visitors soon started converging on the city, and Granada reappraised and refurbished its heritage. So popular is it now that the palace opens until half an hour before midnight every day - and the ideal time to view the Alhambra is after dark.

Take time to appreciate the delicate decoration inside the palaces, the graceful decay elsewhere, the fortress, and the convergence of Christian and Islamic artistry that has created this ensemble. And then meander down to the bonhomie of the bars around the Plaza Nueva, and raise a glass to Washington Irving. Amoroso or fino: you choose.

For accommodation in Seville, try the Casas de la Juderia (00 34 954 415 150; www.lascasas.es), in the Santa Cruz district. In Antequera the best choice is the Parador (00 34 952 840 261; www.parador.es ), with its fine views across the valley. In Granada, you can stay within the Alhambra's walls. The Parador de San Francisco (00 34 958 221 440; www.parador.es) is a lavishly converted 15th-century Franciscan monastery in the midst of the fortress

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