MADRID, Spain - It was while peering through the window of the train as it snaked its way through the dry and dusty mountains of Andalusia that I saw him.

Dressed in a thick blue sweater and pants, and holding what looked like a staff, the elderly shepherd driving a flock of white sheep looked as though he'd stepped out of a 17th-century Velázquez painting.

Don't get me wrong. My excitement at glimpsing this seemingly ancient inhabitant of Spain didn't mean I had found something lacking in Madrid's bustling energy or its sophisticated, sun-kissed people. Since I'd stepped off the plane two days earlier, I'd been dazzled by the modern-meets-antique sensibilities of the capital.

I'd enjoyed the first afternoon's stroll around the baroque environs of the old city: sprawling parks sprinkled with weathered monuments and sunbathing locals, Euro-chic shopping districts packed with teenagers, couples holding hands.

There were the smoky but aromatic tapas bars with their window displays of oil-slicked shrimp and plump Iberian hams. There was the royal grandeur of the Palacio Real, built by King Philip V on the splinters of a Moorish fortress.

But the fleeting image of the shepherd reminded me that there is much more to Spain than the bustling metropolis I'd just left behind.

Ahead of us were the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains with their olive orchards and crumbling castles. Beyond that lay Granada, the ancient Moorish city possibly named after the pomegranate. Finally, there was Salobreña, a Mediterranean village by the sea.

This trip was different than any traveling I'd done - I was traveling with my mother and aunt.

A born organizer, my aunt had arranged all our hotels and transportation before I'd even booked my plane ticket. She kept a fanny pack full of train schedules, confirmation numbers and driving directions. My mother acted as our translator (my Spanish is nowhere near as fluent as hers) and wore the biggest smile throughout our trip.

I spent 24 hours a day with these women, save for a few hours when I wandered through Madrid's art museums. And I couldn't have chosen better companions.

Standing on the shiny cobblestones of Madrid's central Plaza Mayor, it was hard to imagine that the sunny square, thick with people lunching on black-eyed shrimp and fluffy potato omelets, was once the site of bullfights, Inquisition trials and royal pageants.

The next day, we took a guided bus tour to Ávila, a melancholy city an hour northwest of Madrid. Ávila is famous for its tall medieval walls, which once protected its 11th-century inhabitants from invading armies. You can walk the lonely cobblestone streets toward the Convent of St. Teresa and see the relic of the mystic saint's finger resting in a tiny, flower-filled vitrine.

The nearby city of Segovia, part of the daylong Pullman tour, dazzles with its immense aqueducts and imposing fairy-tale castle. During our visit in mid-September, the city was celebrating its Roman heritage with Romana Segovia, an arts-and-crafts festival and living-history demonstration.

It was while leaving Segovia, my eyes drinking in the parched-brown countryside - thick patches of cactus dotting the rocky terrain - that I started to think about

duende

, the Spanish concept of longing, sorrow and hardiness that permeates everything from dancing to literature to song.

If any landscape could inspire

duende

, this was it.

What a surprise to descend the Sierra Nevadas in our rental car the following day and drive into a tropical paradise.

A lush greenery of sugar cane, custard apple and banana trees lies at the foot of Salobreña, the Mediterranean village and main destination of our trip. My aunt's friends were already there in rented villas, ready to celebrate the wedding of their son and his fiancee.

The California couple, David and Maria Hendrickson, had spotted the whitewashed coastal hamlet on the Internet and chose it for their nuptials. They'd picked the intimate (by early Spanish Catholicism's baroque standards) 16th-century church of

Nuestra Senora del Rosario

(Our Lady of the Rosary), a former mosque in the shadow of a windswept Moorish castle, for the ceremony.

Not only did I have the bride and groom to thank for inviting me to their simple, elegant and deeply romantic ceremony, but I was also grateful for the pre-wedding-day trip to the Alhambra, the architectural marvel and "jewel of Granada," which they organized for the 17-person wedding party and guests.

Walking down the red-dirt pathway from the main entrance gives little indication of the splendors that lie deep within the Alhambra - a palatial ninth-century fortress perched on a mountaintop. There are crenellated ceilings, and woodwork as thick and ornate as wedding cakes. Myrtle- and jasmine-ringed reflecting pools mirror the lines and angles of patios and arches.

Walking the grounds and making your way into the Nasrid and Comares palaces, you start to wonder whether there's an end to the madness. Apparently not. Burdened by the beauty of their meeting rooms and gleaming palaces, the Alhambra's princely builders created an adjacent summer retreat known as Generalife, complete with vegetable patches and breathtaking landscaped gardens.

Throughout the Alhambra, the sound of water trickles in fountains and cisterns, flowing down the rails of a stairway known as the

escalera de agua

.

Even the Moorish baths - chambers once filled with fragrant steam and the sultan's favorite royal bathers - retain vestiges of their beauty. Shafts of light float down eerily from the stars cut into the vaulted stone ceilings.

It wasn't only the views that enthralled me, but the whole experience - the sublime melding of sight, sound and smell. I had stepped back in time and gotten a taste of ancient Spain.

I'd found the land of the elderly shepherd.

Getting a Taste of Spain

US Airways flies nonstop to

Madrid

from

Philadelphia International Airport

. The lowest recent roundtrip fare was about $1,056.

Things to do

Museo del Prado,

Madrid. This is one of three museums that make up Spain's "Golden Triangle of Art." The others are the

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

, which houses Picasso's antiwar masterpiece

Guernica

;

and

El Museo de Arte Thyssen-Bornemisza

. All are within walking distance of one another. Entry is $9;

.

Tablao Torres Bermejas,

Madrid. Flamenco legends Paco de Lucia and Cameron de Las Islas got their starts here. Today, the venerable club hosts nightly shows with passionate dancers, emotive

cantaores

and skilled

guitaristas

in its Moorish-tiled dining room. Order paella from the dinner menu, but remember that this generous dish (like most Spanish cuisine) is meant to be shared. Reservations recommended. Open

9:30 p.m.-2 a.m.

Cathedral, Capilla Real, and Alcaiceria,

Granada. Take a day to explore Granada's immense Cathedral; the Royal Chapel, where the remains of Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand, daughter Joanna and son-in-law Felipe lie beneath marble mausoleums in lead coffins; and the twisting alleys of the Alcaiceria, once the Moorish silk bazaar, now a treasure trove of North African imports and tourist shops.

Capilla Real: $4;

.

Centro de Interpretacion de Sacromonte,

Granada. These hillside caves housed Muslims, Jews and gypsies from the 16th century till the 1960s. No longer inhabited, the whitewashed dwellings have become an outdoor museum, with visitors wandering through a bedroom, kitchen, art studio and weaving room, all surrounded by an herb garden. Entry, $6;

.

Places to stay

For affordability and comfort, the family-owned

Hotel Carlos V

in Madrid can't be beat. It offers clean, cozy rooms and a delicious breakfast buffet in the heart of Old Madrid. Rates start at $109 per room.

.

The sumptuous

Westin Palace Madrid

faces the Museo del Prado and boasts a grand dining room with an Art Nouveau glass cupola. Rates start at $430 per room;

.

Best Western Hotel Dauro II

, in Granada, is a simple but elegant three-star hotel within walking distance of the Cathedral, Capilla Real and the Alhambra/Generalife. Rates start at $95 per room;

.

- Jennifer Modenessi