In Andalucia, you can exercise both mind and body

Only half an hour from the Alhambra lie Europe's most southerly ski slopes. Nick West on the joys of mixing skiing with more cerebral pleasures
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The Independent Travel

There won't be many wild tales of great après-ski that feature Granada's remarkable Alhambra Palace. Thousands come every year to this most famous of southern Spanish cities, drawn by its extraordinary medieval monument - but very few will be skiers. And one has to wonder why, because 30 minutes up the hill from the apex of Moorish Spain's architectural and artistic achievement lies Europe's most southerly ski resort, the Sierra Nevada.

There won't be many wild tales of great après-ski that feature Granada's remarkable Alhambra Palace. Thousands come every year to this most famous of southern Spanish cities, drawn by its extraordinary medieval monument - but very few will be skiers. And one has to wonder why, because 30 minutes up the hill from the apex of Moorish Spain's architectural and artistic achievement lies Europe's most southerly ski resort, the Sierra Nevada.

With independent travel becoming increasingly popular among winter sports fans, many will already be monitoring the snow reports at Chamonix, Andorra or Aspen but very few will be awaiting the first snows of the Sierra Nevada on the mountains of Veleta or Mulhacen. And exclusive is how the Spanish like it, although maybe it will not be so for long, because Ryanair starts flying to the newly expanded Granada airport, at Santa Fe, from February.

The slopes of Solynieve ("sun and snow"), which is what the resort of Pradollano has been christened, have good snow from late November to late May and are of sufficient quality to have contested, although never won, the bid for the Winter Olympics. So while we cram ourselves on to those ever popular Alpine slopes, Andalucians delight in piste-side tapas and the relative calm of the sunniest ski resort in Europe.

A mere half-hour drive up the hill from historic Granada, with 45 runs across 40 miles of slopes, the Sierra Nevada represent one of the best-kept secrets in winter sports. Despite being the most southerly ski area in Europe, the pistes face mainly north-east, so conditions remain good all season. The resort has all the facilities of a modern complex, with snow-making machines, ski and snowboarding schools, rental facilities and good accommodation. And with skiing up to a height of 3,282 metres, five black runs, 18 red, 18 blue, and four green, there is something for everyone.

The key to understanding the appeal of skiing the Sierra Nevada is the proximity of the city of Granada. For seasoned skiers, one resort can easily merge into another. Having the tapas bars, restaurants, and the enchanting winding streets of historic Granada a mere half hour from the slopes brings a whole new dimension to a skiing holiday. With no need to stay on the mountain, you can experience the charms of Andalucia's last Moorish city, with its many layers of history, by staying in the Albaicin, the old Moorish quarter, which has been designated a World Heritage site by Unesco. This famous district, beloved of the great Granadan poet Lorca, is a warren of tiny, intricate streets rising steeply up a hill opposite the Alhambra. The view from the top is one of the world's most famous, as you look out over the palace and the gardens of the Generalife towards the towering, snow-capped mountains.

The Albaicin is a treasure trove of secret plazas, labyrinthine passageways, private gardens and surprisingly spectacular views of the surrounding vega (the countryside). It's worth taking the time to wander its narrow streets and climb the hill. The view on one side looks down on the Alhambra; on the other there is an exquisite little plaza with bars and restaurants, where even in mid-winter you can sit outside, soaking up the sunshine and the centuries of history.

Entered by what looks like a side door, the sumptuous Hotel Palacio de Santa Ines is sited just up from the Plaza Nuevo (where the Christians, on taking the city in 1492, burnt all the Muslim books). Known as the Holy Father's House because of its beautiful Renaissance mosaics, it has double rooms that offer very reasonable prices of €90 (£62) a night. An upper room with views of the Alhambra costs around €175 (£120) a night. Closer to the centre of the Albaicin, there is its equally beguiling sister hotel, the Carmen de Santa Ines. It has only nine rooms, views of the Alhambra and a beautiful Moorish garden.

Finally, in the same Moorish Andalucian style of dark-wood balustrades surrounding an atrium, the Hotel Casa Del Capitel Nazari, also on the Albaicin, offers spectacular views of the Alhambra from its roof terrace (double rooms €79, or £54, per night).

All three hotels feature the architecture of the ancient quarter and have the atmosphere that goes with it. But they all offer the comforts of a modern hotel. The location allows easy access to the Alhambra, the restaurants of the Plaza Nuevo, the winding streets of the Albaicin and the delights of the bustling Moroccan quarter, as the current Muslim population seek to regain a footing in a city built by their ancestors.

Another option is the Hotel America, the only privately owned hotel within the grounds of the Alhambra itself. With only 14 rooms, this quaint little hotel is a tranquil haven high above the city. If you're pushing the boat out try the spectacular Parador San Francisco (Spain's most popular parador), which is actually a part of the Alhambra Palace. It's a converted monastery and can't be beaten for atmosphere and style. But you'll be paying for it - €245 (£168) for a double room - and you need to book well ahead.

One tip: don't try to drive into the Albaicin. It's impossible unless you know its topography intimately. People have been lost for hours in its tiny streets. You should valet-park your car with the hotel to enable easy access, in and out. (Signs going up to the mountain are many, and clearly marked "Sierra Nevada").

Andalucians love their skiing almost as much as the abundant sunshine that graces their land, the wonderful tapas they serve in their bars and the rich and exotic history of their forbears.

So if the Alpine après-ski has become all too predictable, maybe it's time to broaden your horizons.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) will fly from London Stansted to Granada from 7 February. Prices start at £65 return. Airlines that fly to Malaga include British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com), bmi (0870-607 0555; www.flybmi.co.uk), Iberia (0845-601 2854; www.iberia.com) bmiBaby (0870-264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), EasyJet (0870-600 0000; www.easyjet.com) and FlyBe (0871-700 0535; www.flybe.com).

Where to stay

Hotel El Palacio de Santa Ines & Hotel Carmen de Santa Ines, (00 34 958 22 23 62; www.palaciosantaines.com) offers double rooms from €112 (£80) per night. Breakfast costs €10 (£7.15) per person.

Further information

Go to www.andalucia.co.uk for details of skiing in the Sierra Nevada. The Spanish Ski School (00 34 958 480 168) offers ski hire from €21 (£15) a day and can arrange tuition. Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.es).

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