Four special cities: Córdoba, Sevilla, Granada and Cádiz

From a cruise among tapas bars to the magical Alhambra

Córdoba is once again a flourishing city, connected by fast trains to Sevilla and Madrid, and recapturing the buzz and reputation it had a thousand years ago, when it was the largest city not just in Spain, but in Europe. Today's visitors make for Córdoba's matchless Mezquita, a massive and dramatic mosque built over a period spanning two centuries, starting in 784

We'll never know what it was like at the time because, after the reconquest of Córdoba in 1236, the Mezquita was re-dedicated as a Christian cathedral, and in subsequent years underwent some huge architectural changes. Now, in the midst of the bewildering forest of elegant columns topped by red-and-white horseshoe arches you'll see a huge baroque choir. Incongruous or harmonious? It's certainly fascinating. Spring is the time to visit, when orange trees in the exterior patio are in bloom and the fiery heat of the Cordoban summer is still to come. Admission is €8.

Just south of the Mezquita, beside the river Guadalquivir, is one of the main Christian monuments of Córdoba, the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, the Royal Palace. Dating from the 13th century, the style is mudéjar, a fusion of Moorish and Christian architecture, though its main attraction are its delightful Moorish-style gardens (closed Monday, free on Fridays, admission €4).

Ferdinand and Isabella, the most celebrated royal residents, were also responsible for building a dozen churches to replace Córdoba's mosques. Known as Fernandine churches, they are built in attractively coloured sandstone, the most interesting of them being Santa Marina, in the square of the same name.

You can only really appreciate the scale of medieval Córdoba by wandering its tight, whitewashed streets. The Judería or Jewish quarter is particularly attractive but often crowded; equally interesting is the area between the Plaza del Potro and Plaza de la Corredera, which is a lovely arcaded square where heretics were once burnt at the stake, but is now the venue for a market and tapas bars. Wherever you go in Córdoba you'll get tantalising glimpses of flower-filled patios behind the imposing doors of private houses. During the Festival de los Patios, many of these are opened to the public. MW

Although the origins of the Spanish tapas are still a matter of conjecture, Sevilla's claim to be its capital is indisputable. Andalucía's largest and arguably most fun-loving city is home to around 4,000 tapas bars, which makes it the ideal place to indulge in the sociable and pleasurable custom of a tapas bar crawl (un tapeo). There are tapas dishes to suit all tastes, starting from around €2; typical opening hours are from around midday till 5pm, then again from 8pm until after midnight.

For the visitor who's just finished exploring the Alcázar and Giralda, not to mention the cathedral, the Bodega Santa Cruz at Rodrigo Caro 1 (00 34 954 213 246), with its distinctive columns, is a welcome oasis. It's small, crowded and noisy, but it provides a stream of good-value dishes, such as the excellent spinach with chickpeas.

One hundred metres away, at Mateos Gago 20, is the eccentric Álvaro Peregil La Goleta, named after its larger than life owner. Enjoy the unusual orange wine, the montadito de pringá (a panino-style roll filled with pork meats) and the quirky collection of signs.

Beyond the city centre are several other clusters of tapas opportunities. Across the Guadalquivir, in the barrio of Triana, the riverside Calle Betis has a whole row of tapas bars. They are headed, at number 66, by the cheap and cheerful La Primera del Puente (00 34 954 276 918). On the fine terrace overlooking the river, try seafood, such as chipiró* a la plancha (grilled baby squid).

In Santa Catalina district, at Calle Gerona 42, is the atmospheric El Rinconcillo (00 34 954 223 183). It was founded in 1670, making it Seville's oldest bar, while nearby at Plaza de los Terceros 9, you can enjoy vegetarian tapas in the shade of the orange trees at La Huerta (00 34 655 270 079).

For a more unusual take on the tapa, visit Entre Cárceles (00 34 639 402 116) at Calle Faisanes 1. Its tiny, tiled interior has hardly changed since the 19th century, even if its elaborate tapas have a evolved to include contemporary touches. You pay a premium (€7.90 per helping) for specialities such as millefeuille of aubergine layered with salmon, cod and langoustine mousse.

If all this choice is too bewildering, why not leave it to an expert? A three-hour tapas tour with Azahar Sevilla (00 34 608 636 290; azahar-sevilla.com) costs from €35, including wine and tapas. MW

The city that houses Spain's most revered historical monument has some powerful literary associations. In fact, it was the American writer Washington Irving who brought the existence of the Moorish fortified palace to the attention of people beyond Spain in his Tales of the Alhambra, first published in 1832. The series of essays, sketches and short stories was inspired by the magical surroundings; a plaque commemorates his work in the rooms where Irving was lucky (and well connected) enough to be able to stay.

One hundred years later, another literary wanderer, the young Englishman Gerald Brenan, arrived in Granada and was delighted by the city with its backdrop of high mountains. He continued his journey south, and after a demanding 80km walk arrived in the Alpujarras, where he settled down in the remote village of Ojén. Brenan's book South from Granada tells of his daily life there amid a community of poor but welcoming peasant farmers, punctuated by visits from Virginia Woolf and other friends from the Bloomsbury circle. Nowadays, the Alpujarras are known for pretty villages, holiday homes and fine walks, all within easy reach of Granada and the Alhambra, and are celebrated in the best-seller Driving over Lemons, by Chris Stewart.

Granada's own son and one of Spain's finest writers, was Federico García Lorca. Born in Fuente Vaqueros in 1898, he had by the age of 30 established a reputation as a gifted poet and playwright. He was also a political republican, and gay. He was murdered in 1937, the second year of the Spanish Civil War, by a gang of thugs from Franco's Falangist party.

His work was rooted in Andalucía, in the Moorish villages with their bright, scented flowers, in the passions of flamenco and the suffocating social customs. The family's summer house in Huerta de San Vicente, a short walk from Granada's city centre, has been converted into a museum. The Casa Museo de Federico García Lorca (00 34 958 258 466; www.huertade sanvicente.com) displays the desk where he wrote many of his works and is open from 10am-12 30pm and 4pm-6 30pm; closed Mondays. Entry is €3.         MW

The city of Cádiz likes to describe itself as the oldest in Europe. Local legend insists it was founded by Hercules. But while both these claims could be disputed, one aspect of its history cannot be challenged: Cádiz was the birthplace of modern Spain.

In the early part of the 19th century, when Napoleon sent his troops into Spain and installed his brother Joseph as king, this elegant seafaring city, with its ramparts and merchants' houses, became a centre of resistance. It was here, in 1812, that a new constitution was written, an event that was to have lasting importance for both Spain and Latin America.

The events of the period are depicted in detail in the elaborate monument to the constitution that was erected in the Plaza de España, a leafy square popular with local inhabitants. The constitution is known as La Pepa, and various cultural events will take place in 2012 to commemorate the bicentenary, including a tall ships grand regatta on 26 July, and the 22nd Summit of the Latin American Heads of State and Government.

The old centre of Cádiz spreads out to the north, a well-fortified enclave enclosed within solid walls. The castle of Santa Catalina was added later, and the bastions of La Candelaria and El Bonete, which stand guard at the northern and eastern corners of the city, were built in the 17th century. Walking along the seafront, beside the city walls, remains a popular evening pastime to this day.

Much of this part of the city would have been familiar to the politicians and resistance fighters who came to Cádiz to debate the new constitution and found lodgings with local merchant families.

The Duke of Wellington, who commanded the Spanish and English troops at this time, lived in a fine 18th-century house on Calle Veedor which, like many houses around it, was built with its own watchtowers. These were designed so that the merchants could see their ships coming in and out of the harbour, and they are still a striking feature of modern Cádiz.

The modern constitution was drafted, debated and signed in the baroque oratory church of San Felipe Neri, chosen because its oval shape made it a suitable space for discussion. A plaque on the main façade commemorates the events that changed Spain forever. CP

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