Granada is dominated by its mighty Moorish fortress, the Alhambra. Book ahead and visit early, at its least-crowded, and then spend the afternoon meandering the narrow streets and plazas of the old town – the Albaicín. Stay in this area at the 16th-century Santa Isabel La Real, with its Alhambra views, (doubles from €95 B&B, parking available).
On day two, take in the Alhambra’s Nasrid palaces, Generalife and the Alcazaba before driving north-west through rolling olive country to picturesque Priego de Córdoba (N-432 & A-339, 76km). The town is a restful place to be, and feels like the essence of Andalucía; its Barrio de la Villa is a labyrinth of fountains, churches, geraniums, with castle and panoramic views. Take all that in while staying at quaint Hotel Zahorí (double from €55 B&B).
Day three and it’s time to head north-east to the twin world heritage cities of Baeza and Úbeda, both miniature gems (and renovated in the Renaissance period) designed to keep Moors, then Christians, then Moors at bay, and only 9km apart. (A-333 and Autovía del Olivar A-316, 126km). Break the journey in Jaén to tour Castilla de Santa Catalina and visit the well-preserved Arab Baths.
In Baeza, be sure to walk the Calle de San Pablo, take in the sweeping views from Paseo de las Murallas, and eat around the Plaza de la Constitución. Úbeda is famous for ceramics: visit Alfararía Tito on Calle Valencia, a street also blessed with several delis selling fine olive oils. Both cities are full of architectural treasures, so allow two nights. Stay in Baeza at Hotel Puerta de la Luna (doubles from €73, room-only) or drive onto Úbeda and Palacio de la Rambla with its fine patio and intricately carved masonry (doubles from €132 B&B) or Santa María de Úbeda (doubles from €85 B&B).
The short drive to Cazorla marks the start of day five. It’s the southern gateway to the Sierras of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas, the largest reserve in Spain (south-east on A315 and A319, 45km, 45mins). Stay a night at Casa Rural Plaza de Santa Maria (doubles from €50 B&B), beside the tourism office by a ruined church and cafes, and the start of multiple well-marked walking trails (from 3km to 20km long) – with magnificent views of Castillo de la Yedra.
On day six drive the spectacular route (A-319, 17km) up and over mountains into the dappled valley of the Guadalquivir River, passing La Iruela (with its castle on a crag), and down into a tranquil enclosed world, thick with birds, smelling of pine, dominated by the wide, clear, burbling river. Allow four days here as there’s so much to explore.
The valley is just under 60km long. Most trails, campsites, hotels, and adventure tour operators are concentrated in the southern third. Be sure to visit Restaurante El Taxidermista (in open woodland setting, 3km south of Torre del Vinagre) and the Museo Etnográfico de Artes y Costumbres Populares del Parque Natural. Adventure tour companies in Arroyo Frío offer riding, hiking and off-road 4×4 excursions, and trips to the swimming holes around Coto Ríos. Stay at Hotel Coto del Valle de Cazorla (doubles from €95, room-only), where wild boar often forage at dusk.
Head north to kayak on the reservoir at El Tranco and for the best views in the park from the peak of Yelmo (1,809 metres). Stay at the lovely Camping Rural El Robledo (pitches €6 including car, or double cabins from €50-€60), set in pines, 10 minutes south of arguably the park’s most spectacular village, Segura de la Sierra.
Day 10 offers the chance to explore the villages at the very south of the park: Roman ruins at Bruñel, the Santuario de Tiscar and the La Cueva del Agua nearby, cave paintings near Quesada. There are various routes (scenic or faster), so ask at a tourist office. Afterwards go via the A-315 (95km) or A-401 (130km) to Guadix
On day 11 see Guadix on the Altiplano de Granada, which has been home to cave-dwellers for 1,000 years. Make time to explore the Barrio de las Cuevas and the museum Museo de Alfarería Cueva La Alcazaba and stay in a well-appointed modern one, such as Casas Cueva del Tío Tobas in Alcudia de Guadix (doubles from €76 B&B).
Day 12: The drive from Guadix to Almería (A-92, 113km, around 1 hour) passes through the pink and orange peaks and ravines of spaghetti western country, the Tabernas Desert, and several theme parks recalling the glory days of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Almería itself is topped by the Alcazaba; Hotel Catedral Almería is not far below it (doubles from €80 B&B).
Total distance 503km (plus whatever driving required is in the Guadalquivir valley, 60km long).
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