Such is the dazzle of Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Málaga that few visitors to Spain’s south-west pause to explore the space between them. Part of it, La Campiña, a region of Seville province, appears largely empty. But over ploughed fields and olive groves there are towers and ramparts, the hazy outlines of towns founded in antiquity. Over the centuries, these have been built up by Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Arabs – who created the Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus – medieval knights, religious orders, and a who’s who of Spanish nobility granted land and cash in reward for helping kings.
The compact ancient cities of Carmona, Écija and Osuna – sitting in a triangle that starts just 30 minutes east of Seville city – are the islands in La Campiña’s sea of farmland where the rich history is easily accessible, thanks to a plethora of museums, monuments, annotated maps, helpful hoteliers and tourist offices. Although, with the past woven into the fabric of the present, just to be here is to time travel. Those with more time should also explore Marchena and Estepa further south.
Some 35km east of Seville, you’ll be zig-zagging up wooded hills in search of Carmona and – whoa! – driving under a vast gate in the city walls and along narrow cobbled streets and emerging around the Plaza San Fernando, edging past the bar spill of chairs and tables, and reversing down one-way streets while looking for somewhere to park. All to the deafening accompaniment of bells tolling on all sides.
Carmona has an ancient Carthaginian/Roman defensive gate, the Puerta de Sevilla (built around 220BC and incorporated centuries later into an Arab alcázar or fortress), and beyond it, a necropolis and excavated urns and statues displayed onsite. Who came next and built what is depicted, in order, in the Museo de la Ciudad, a 16th-century palace.
But Carmona’s beauty derives from the high white walls of churches, convents and palaces, the bell towers (espadañas) and normal life – vendors in the colonnaded Plaza de Abastos, children chasing each other through the alleys, the congregation fanning themselves in the muted light of the Iglesia de Santa Maria. Few towns are better suited to aimless wandering.
Stay at the Casa-Palacio de Carmona (doubles from €98 B&B, Calle Miraflores de Santa Maria 1), a 17th-century renaissance palace built by a conquistador returned from Peru, with loggia and patios, grand staircase and galleries, and heavy wooden doors with knockers so high you need to be sat on a horse to reach them. Lounging in this spectacular, eccentric place – propped against monographed pillows – feels a little like being locked in a National Trust property.
Exquisite local dishes include alboronía (an Andalucían ratatouille, with Arabic roots), arroz de señorito andaluz (seafood and rice) and mushrooms topped with Pajarete mousse – all of which can be sampled at Molino de la Romera (tapas €3, Sor Angela de la Cruz 8), a 10-minute walk from Porta de Sevilla along Cala San Felipe to the eastern edge of town. It’s in a former olive mill and is enchantingly rustic, with whitewashed walls and courtyard. Once you reach here, the town is done; below the bluff there is nothing at night but the lights of small towns in the far distance.
Around 55km east of Carmona along the via Augusta, or A-4, the longest and busiest Roman road in ancient Hispania, lies bustling Écija. In the 18th century, it was home to 40 noble families and their money and love of all things baroque precipitated a building boom and golden age and it became known as “city of towers” and “city of palaces” – there are 11 church towers and 17 palaces within five minutes of the Plaza de España. Due to its extreme summer temperatures it has also been dubbed “the frying pan of Spain” – an evocative epithet which has done much to protect it from mass tourism.
The churches are magnificent outside (see Iglesia de Santa Cruz, half-ruined by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake) and in – the baroque altarpiece at the Iglesia de los Descalzos is a match for Seville Cathedral’s. There’s plenty of respectful gasping at glory to be had in the palaces too: peek inside the Palace of Justice (a micro Alhambra not open to the public), then visit three that are. The Palacio de los Palma, where the original furniture and paraphernalia – toys, fan collection, sepia photographs – left in the shuttered salons is like a period film set. The Palacio de Peñaflor, by contrast, is light, cool, airy and joyful. Then there’s the formidable Palacio de Benamejí, which houses the tourist office, a courtyard restaurant and the Museo Histórica.
Écija is built on, and partly out of, the Roman city of Astigi; Roman pillars of Egyptian granite are used on every corner to protect churches and palaces from knocks from horses and carriages. Construction of the car park beneath the Plaza in 2002 unearthed priceless detritus from a temple and one of the world’s most perfectly preserved classical statues, the 2,000-year-old Amazona Herida, now exhibited in the museum alongside mosaic floors found elsewhere, one depicting a very visceral encounter between Leda and the Swan.
Stay at Domus Astigi (doubles from €60 B&B, Calle Cava 22), a casa-palacio that encapsulates everything wonderful about Écija in its architecture and design: Moorish patio with fountain and palms; Roman pillars and archeological finds, from a chunk of mosaic floor to surgical instruments; fabulous chest-high antique wall tiles throughout (Don Quijote is depicted across four walls); and old Sevillana grandeur in the dark wood, opaque mirrors, chandeliers and vitrinas of library and salons. Then there’s the hospitality provided by owner Antonio Cascales and manager Juan Díaz. There are only four rooms – but I can’t recommend this place highly enough.
Eat at Casa Machin (Calle Galindo 4), an elegant restaurant with tables in the bar. If you ask for three tapas tipicas you’ll probably get salmorejo (plenty of egg, crispy chorizo, olive oil), scoops of creamy espinacas labradas (spinach, fried bread, cumin, garlic), and salty crispy fish on a slice of fresh tomato – one of the best lunches I can remember, for €14 including wine.
Osuna is 35km south of Écija down the A-351, past castles and ruins, isolated cortijos, olives groves and open space. Smaller and more rural, but Osuna also has its streets of palaces – Calle San Pedro has been called one of the most beautiful in Europe, although as many people come to visit the bullring which appears in Game of Thrones (The Great Pit of Daznak in series five). And there is plenty more for fans of the otherworldly and fantastical on the town’s windy hilltop.
The stark old university is quite empty. The Ducal Pantheon (entry €3) beside it, however, contains the remains of several Dukes of Osuna (responsible for building almost everything around) and the guided tour is an unmissable, giddying creepy trip through underground crypts of ornate splendour.
Opposite, at the Monastery de la Encarnación (€3.50), ring the bell and you’ll eventually be collected by a nun for a private tour of golden chapels, sacred art and treasures, culminating in a room of baby Jesuses, their collections of outfits and solid silver shoes – and then sold lottery tickets before being ushered out. Also up here is Las Canteras, the sandstone quarry dug for millennia, whose carvings and giant chambers have a distinctly Star Wars look, and an abandoned Roman necropolis, the empty graves (you can get in them if you are short) overlooked by a farmyard.
One of the best places to stay is La Casona de Calderón (doubles from €70 B&B, Plaza Cervantes 16), an award-winning 17th-century hotel-museo. Operating as an inn when many writers of the romantic movement, most notably Washington Irving, were passing through, it was later a farmhouse where cheese was made, produce sold, and living space split between people and animals. Elena Calderón inherited and lovingly restored it. Leading off a coral patio, 17 unique rooms are furnished with art and antiques (many Elena’s grandmother’s), with old farming artefacts exhibited throughout and named for their previous uses: La Cuadra (where cows lived), La Pajareta (the hay loft), the Cocinilla (a high-ceilinged kitchen used for pig slaughter – surprisingly romantic). Fascinating, elegant, full of warmth and charm.
For tapas (average €3) try Casa Curro (Plaza Salitre 5) where about 200 options are scrawled on blackboards in the old-school bar, from quails eggs and jamón, to pork cheek in Pedro Ximenez sherry, clams, and wild boar and the soft throat of tuna with mermelada de limón (a lemon marmalade). Fabulous food whipped up fresh and slapped down without fanfare. And, as you’ll see from the photos on the wall, it was popular with the cast and crew of Game of Thrones too.
Carmona is a 40-minute bus ride from Seville (€5 each way); Écija is an hour by bus from Cordoba or Seville (€7); Osuna has a railway station (10-15 minutes’ walk from the centre) and has regular services from Seville Santa Justa station that take just over an hour (€11.50 each way). Buses to Osuna take a little longer and cost from about €5. Buses to all three towns leave from Seville’s Prado de San Sebastian bus station.
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