Hemingway conjured up an enduring image of Spain that still lingers in the mind's eye. "Climbing all the time we crossed the top of a col, the road winding back and forward on itself, and then it was really Spain ... the driver had to honk and slow down to avoid running into two donkeys that were sleeping in the road," he wrote in The Sun Also Rises.

His words lingered alongside my view of how it is now. There were no sleeping donkeys as we drove along the silk-smooth motorways but, equally, not much modern traffic either. Eastern Andaluca is at a half-way stage of development.

The movement away from living on the land by the Spanish of all classes in Andaluca has accelerated, so that even farmhouses and farm buildings are now oddly rare, although many have been converted into villas for foreign residents and holidaymakers.

Almera, the local capital, is a stately city, at least in its ancient centre. The Moors' fortress, the 10th-century Alcazaba, remains as a massive reminder of those warriors, builders and scholars whose centuries of occupation are still so apparent in these parts.

"Don't miss the bar," said a helpful Yorkshireman descending from the top as we puffed up the last 100 steps of the old fortress, which now defends only markets and an attendant cafe. This promise was a stimulus to progress, but no good. The dreaded Spanish hour of 2pm had arrived, and the bar was being locked up for the day. It was worth pressing on to the top, though. The views across the city and sea are spectacular, and the highest section of the fortress is a bulky Christian addition that contrasts with the Moorish style of the rest.

If anything, the cathedral at Almera looks more like a fortress than the Alcazaba. The church replaced a mosque on the same site. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1522 and sturdily rebuilt a couple of years later. As you walk through the doorway in its massive walls, the inside comes as a big surprise, with soaring columns rising to an almost Chartres-like Gothic ceiling.

The centre of Almera has a pleasing, metropolitan feel. The town has been significantly moved into the modern world by a recent filling-in of one of those depressing dry river beds so common in southern Spain. This ran right down the centre of the main boulevard, the Rambla de Belen.

On the way out of Almera the buildings are new and the townscape, to put it mildly, lacks neatness. The scrub becomes a desert 18 miles to the north, where the small town of Tabernas is the centre of Andaluca's famous Spaghetti Western country. Today, a village is curiously called Mini Hollywood, but the film-makers have long gone and only their Western town sets remain as a kind of half-hearted theme park.

Many small Spanish towns in the area are, of course, fantastic enough to be seen almost as wholehearted theme parks: the hanging village of Sorbas, built on a long high cliff, or, at the coast, Mojcar, where the buildings are stacked up into a huge, crazy pyramid.

Some towns here still have cave dwellers, Cuevas de Almanzora, 60 miles north of Almera city, is a case in point. The town also has its own well restored Moorish alcazaba, which houses an attractive art gallery. In spite of this prettification, Cuevas retains the feel of a traditional Spanish small community, with gypsy market traders still wearing black suits and wide-brimmed black Crdoba hats like the silhouetted man in the old Sandeman poster.

Andaluca seems to prefer to keep one foot in the past in many ways. In this year's national election, it remained loyal to a local boy, the former socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez from Seville, at the moment when many regions switched allegiance to Jose Maria Aznar's conservative PP party. Expatriates are not allowed to vote in national elections, although they can in local elections after seven years' residence. In some communes one imagines there may be enough of them to affect the results. From any highish point in Cortijo Grande, an Eighties development near the small town of Turre, west of Mojacar, scores of villas can be seen dotted about, and all of them are occupied by expatriates, mostly British.

In Turre, Rickie of Rickie's Bar is not a Bogart lookalike but another English entrepreneur. In the mountaintop village of Sierra Cabrera the proprietor of the Pub Los Pastores is also English. From a distance, the village looks as old as time, but in fact every building has been put up since 1985. An Englishman wearing a Harlequins rugby shirt sat at the bar as we ate lunch. We might have been in Surrey, except for those amazing views outside of mountain, valley and the blue sea stretching away towards Cartagena.

The odd thing is that the mood of change seems to suit both the incoming Brits and the indigenous Spanish. The British like the countryside while the Spanish have always preferred to live in towns. Today Spanish property owners are rebuilding early-19th-century town houses in exact and exquisite detail.

Will this process of change keep going? Judging by the happy party of people who gathered at the home of our expat friend Douglas, the British love-affair with Spain is far from over. The only threat to it may be global warming. If the climate of Granada shifts up as far as Guildford, the Brits may return to their own part of the world - as the Moors did five centuries ago. And I think Papa Hemingway would approve of that.