Iberian sclerophyllous and semi-deciduous forests include holm oak forests mostly transformed into an agricultural landscape of olive and almond groves. In wilder spots, a dense shrubland called maquis is found. There are wild olive and carob woodlands. A number of endangered animals are hanging on in the ecoregion, including the Iberian lynx, the Spanish imperial eagle, and the great bustard. Wolves are also present. An endemic shrub, Securineia tinctora, is found in the Guadiana and Tajo river basins.
World Heritage Sites
Alhambra, Generalife, and Albayzin World Heritage Site (N37o11’ W3o35’) recognizes the remains of Arabic Spain from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The Alhambra (red castle) has been called Spain’s most beautiful monument and one of the best examples of Islamic art and architecture in the world.
The Alhambra was built in 1333 as a fortified castle and was used as a royal palace. It was modified by Christians in 16th century. The structure reflects the last centuries of Muslim rule in Spain. It is the only completely preserved complex from the Islamic period. After the Christian conquest in 1527, Charles V built a Renaissance palace within the Alhambra which sharply contrasts with the rest of the complex, and the mosque was replaced by a church. In 1829 the American writer Washington Irving stayed at the Alhambra and was instrumental in publicizing it to the world.
The Generalife was the vegetable garden and rural residence of the emirs, known for intelligent use of water from an aqueduct.
The Alhambra and Albayzin are on two adjacent hills, separated by the Darro River. The Albayzin has been continuously occupied since the Arabic period. A residential district that retains its Moorish vernacular architecture, it is a medieval town with narrow streets and small squares, the best illustration of Moorish town planning. It was enhanced by Christian contributions of Spanish Renaissance and Baroque elements.
Historic Center of Évora World Heritage Site (N38o34’ W7o54’) protects the medieval walled city that was undamaged during the 1755 earthquake that devastated other cities. Within the city are 20 centuries of history, but Évora’s golden age was the 15th century, when it was the residence of Portuguese kings. It is the finest example of the architecture of the golden age of Portugal and was the model for the architecture of much of Brazil. Ruins of the royal palace of Évora are in the public gardens. Still visible today are the Roman temple and the Roman aqueduct, the 13th century Cathedral of Évora, and the 15th century Santa Clara convent, São Francisco convent and church (including the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones), and São João Evangelista church and Os Lóios Convent. At the Capela dos Ossos, the walls are covered with skulls and bones. The center of town is Giraldo Square. Along the streets are whitewashed houses decorated with tiles (azuelos) and wrought-iron balconies from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema is an International Biosphere Reserve with limestone caverns, high peaks, and rare plants and animals including the endemic Spanish fir and Egyptian vultures. Cork oak and holm oak groves are present. Rainfall in the park is noted as the highest in Spain. White villages within the park include:
- Zahara de la Sierra (N36o50’ W5o24’), a high elevation town with a view of a reservoir and a castle built in the 13th century by the Moors.
- Grazalema (N36o46’ W5o22’), a high elevation village built in the Moslem era. It is famous for textiles made from wool. The main square has a church, bars, and restaurants.
Convento do Espinheiro Hotel, Évora, Portugal (N38o36’5” W7o53’20”) dates to 1458 on the site where an apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen above a thorn bush (espinheiro). The facility was visited frequently by Portuguese royalty.
Monsaraz (N38o26’36” W7o22’51”) is a medieval walled town on an isolated mountaintop in eastern Portugal. Dramatic views are possible from the town and the fort. Medieval fortifications enclose a castle and the town and were built in the 12th to 14th centuries. Additional fortifications were added in the 17th century after the restoration of Portuguese independence. The new fortifications were responsive to the invention of firearms. In the former town hall of the municipality of Monsaraz is the Museu do Fresco. The frescoe was discovered in 1958 during renovations to the structure and was located behind a wall. It is believed to date to the 14th century and depicts good and bad government similar to a 1340 painting in Siena, Italy. Also in town is the House of the Inquisition, which contains a museum about Jewish residents prior to the Reconquest.
Olivenza, Extremadura Autonomous Region, Spain (N38o41’ W7o6’) is administered as part of Extremadura but is claimed by Portugal based on treaties dating back to 1297. Although the Guadiana River is the de facto boundary between the two countries, the border is not shown on a Portuguese highway map purchased in Lisbon (Turinta Mapas, Portugal, 1:600.000), suggesting the boundary is in dispute. The town contains Manueline (Portuguese) architecture, and the Church of Santa Maria Magdalena exemplifies this architectural style.
A city since Roman times, Ronda (N36o45’ W5o10’) is the largest of Andalucia’s white villages, with a population of was conquered first by the Berbers in 713 and then by the Christians in 1485. A railroad was completed to the mountain town (elevation 2,460 feet) from Algeciras in 1892 to provide relief from the heat of Gibraltar in the summer. Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles spent time in the city.
Arab baths at the entrance to city in the river gorge at Ronda (El Tajo) are the best preserved in Spain. The baths are at the confluence of the Culebras Creek with the Guadelevín River, which ensured a reliable water supply. The Arab baths were used as steam baths. It was obligatory for all outsiders visiting the city to use them. The baths were in an area of small shops including potters and tanners.
The Puente Nuevo (New bridge) was completed over the Rio Guadelevín in 1793. It is 390 feet above El Tajo canyon floor. The former town hall is now a hotel adjacent to the bridge.
Plaza de Toros de Ronda is the oldest bull ring in Spain, dating to 1572. The current complex contains a horse-training facility and a museum of bullfighting in addition to the bull ring.
The Museum of Ronda is in Mondragon Palace, which was the palace of Moorish kings after 1314. It exhibits three architectural styles, including a Mudehar-style patio, Castillian-style patio, and Noble Hall, with a flat alfarje ceiling. Exhibits track the archaeological history of the area from caves in the mountains dating to 500,000 years before present through the Late Antiquity period after the Romans.
Hotel Catalonia Reina Victoria, Ronda (N36o44’48” W5o10’10”) was built in 1906 on a cliff overlooking the mountains. It was the residence of the poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born in Prague and wrote in the German language on existential themes.