Chug-Chugging in Luxury Through Andalusia Via the Al Andalus Express
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Do not speak to me about the court of Baghdad and its glittering magnificence; do not praise the splendour of Persia and China – for there is no land on earth more magnificent or richer than Al-Andalus.”
So rhapsodized a 10th century Arab poet living in medieval Arab Spain when describing his country, today’s modern Andalusia – once a land of affluence and learning. In the last decade, visitors to southern Spain have been, to some extent, able to relive these days of Moorish glory, travelling in comfort via the Al Andalus Express – a luxury cruise ship on wheels. For most passengers, the splendour of Spain’s Arab/Muslim remains is an unexpected revelation.
The best way to see these Moorish and other Andalusian historic sites is by taking the Al Andalus Express tour. A privileged vantage point from which to admire the countryside, then visit its historic cities, the train offers a unique opportunity to explore the region and enjoy its many delightful attributes.
Al Andalus, one of the most luxurious trains on earth, was the brainchild of Julian Garcia Valverde. To promote Spanish tourism, he came up with the idea of taking forgotten old railway carriages and meticulously restoring them to their original character. These were then fitted with various innovations required by the demands of modern comfort, transporting passengers through time to the European Belle Epoque.
The train consists of 14 renovated carriages: 5 passenger luxury cars, 1 kitchen car, 1 bar car, 1 recreation car, 2 dining cars, 2 shower cars, a generator wagon and a locomotive. Originating in the United Kingdom, France and Spain, the carriages carry exotic Arabic/Spanish names like Alhambra, Giralda, Gibralfaro and Madina Zahara. All the cars were built in the 1920s and renovated in 1985, before becoming part of the Al-Andalus Express.
Even though this luxury train was conceived as a replica of the well-known `Orient Express’, it is much different. Its principal feature is taking the passengers for tours of the cities and towns in which Al Andalus stops as well as to the top restaurants in these historic centres. The train is in service from April to June in the spring and September and October in the autumn. During the remaining months, there are golf tours and the train can be chartered and the leasers can specify their own itinerary in any part of Spain or Portugal.
Al Andalus Express went into service in 1989, touring Andalusia, Spain’s largest state and one of the richest in historical terms – parts of it having been part of the Muslim world for some eight centuries. Besides the province’s enormous stretches of olive groves, picturesque sparkling-white villages, magnificent cathedrals and countless Moorish remains, the region is the cradle of bullfighting, flamenco and tapas (Spanish appetizers). Hence, there is much to see and do. For almost all who travel on this fabulous train, it is an unforgettable experience, full of romantic memories of the Al Andalus’s elegance and of the most interesting province in Spain.
My first trip on the Al Andalus Express began its journey from Seville along the Guadalquiver, from the Arabic wadi al-kabir (large river), through fields of grains, olive groves and orchards, dotted with whitewashed towns – a land made rich after the Arabs introduced a superb irrigation system to Spain. At its first stop, Cordoba, the train’s usually 60 to 80 passengers are taken for a tour of the Juderia, the old town, and the Mequita-Catedral: the crowning jewel of the city- once an urban centre of 1 million which today has dwindled down to 325,000. The Mezquita’s 800 varied columns, impressive double Moorish arches of red brick and white limestone and a splendid mihrab over 1,000 years old, awe most visitors.
In the evening passengers are again brought back to the Judería to El Churrasco Restaurant, a converted traditional Cordoban home full of atmosphere for a fine Andalusian dinner. Without fail, it is a delightful meal in this restaurant-museum in the city of the caliphs.
Overnight, the train travels to Granada – the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. After breakfast, the travelers are bussed to its fabulous Alhambra Palace, the luxury abode of the Moorish Kings. The last great handiwork of the Arabs in Spain, it is a fairy tale palace diffusing the genius of Spanish Islam . Along with its attached marvelous Generalife Gardens, the summer playground of its Muslim Nasrid kings, it is truly an astounding example of Moorish handiwork.
After a stroll through the Albaicín Quarter, the only remains of an inhabited Moorish city, located on the opposite hill across from Alhambra, the passengers lunch at Mirador de Morayma Restaurant. After relishing course after course of tasty tapas they enjoy a breath-taking view of the Alhambra, glimmering across the valley – one of the top spots in Granada to view this epitome of Moorish structures. |It is the opposite in the evening, as train travellers feast on a gourmet meal in the Moorish atmosphere of the Alhambra Palace Hotel, edging the Alhambra. From here there is a fantastic view of the city.
The next morning the hotel-train, after moving through the fertile vega which in the Muslim centuries had made Granada one of the richest cities in the world, it stops at Finca La Bobadilla – a sparkling-white fairy tale country estate set in the midst of an ocean of greenery. Here, passengers spend pleasant hours, romping in its gigantic swimming pool, then dining on a gourmet meal before returning to our cruise ship on wheels.
The remainder of the day is spent in nearby Antequera – a bustling agricultural centre. A tour is made of the town’s historic churches museum and fortress, then later the train travellers enjoy a superb meal with folklore in the luxurious Parador de Antequera.
The next day, after a few hour’s ride, the train stops in Ronda, the fourth most visited city in Andalusia. After a tour of the Moorish and Christian sites of the town which is perched like an eagle atop the Tajo – a chasm some 400 m (1312 ft) deep – the train travellers enjoy an elegant lunch at the Parador Tourismo. The top hotel in town, it offered a fantastic view of the Tajo and the countryside below.
That evening the train is back in Seville – the capital of Andalusia and a city full of character – much of it due to its impressive Moorish remains. Its Santa Cruz Quarter, Giralda and Alcázar are world-renowned, and it flamenco entertainment establishments, inherited to a great extent from the Moors, are the best in Spain. In the evening, the passengers are taken to dine while they watch this great spectacle of colour and excitement.
The following day the cruise ship on wheels rests in its home base Seville and the passengers are taken by bus for Jerez del la Frontera, the original home of sherry wine. The first stop is at Domecq, one of the 40 bodegas (wine cellars), for a generous taste of the wine and brandy, then onto the Royal Spanish Riding School. Here is staged one of the most famous horse shows in the world, featuring Andalusian horses – descendants of pure-bred Arabians. This puts visitors in the mood to enjoy the mouth-watering lunch at El Bosque Restaurant, one of the top eating places in Jerez.
Back in Seville that evening, Al Andalus Express hosts a gala dinner in the Alhambra Restaurant car. After a five-day tour, most of the train travellers have developed a close camaraderie and we eat, joke, then dance the night away. Always, it is a fitting feast to crown the Andalusian journey.
The sixth and final day, after breakfast on the luxurious hotel on wheels, the passengers tour a number of historic sites in Seville before reluctantly bidding our Al Andalus Express adieu. In this train-hotel many find romantic recollections, refinements and excellent service – set in the aura of a bygone era which transported them through a time-tunnel to the elegance and glamour of the early 20th century.
Even more fulfilling as we chugged our way unhurriedly across the Andalusian countryside were our visits to the renowned Moorish cities of Cordoba, Granada, Ronda and Seville without constantly having to pack and unpack our bags.
Even more fulfilling as the Al Andalus chugs its way unhurriedly across the Andalusian countryside are the visits to the renowned Moorish cities of Corboba, Granada, Ronda and Seville without constantly having to pack and unpack our bags. No less delightful were the friendly and helpful staff and the gourmet meals on the train or in the Moorish aura of superb city restaurants. The tour is the epitome of luxury travel while, at the same time, enjoying the countryside, folklore, gastronomy, monuments, and people of Andalusia – Spain’s Moorish wonderland.
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