The most southern part of Spain–Andalucia–is so rich in history that it can be spellbinding, and that was certainly our reaction to much of what we experienced there. This is largely the result of Moorish influence that is still prevalent and felt nearly everywhere. After all, the Moors, Muslims coming out of North Africa and first landing here in 714, ruled this part of Spain for well over seven hundred years. That is more than enough time to embed a culture in a conquered people.
Perhaps most spectacular is Granada, home to the Alhambra, one of the great buildings of the world, straddling a steep hill as seen at the top of this posting. Both of us had visited it in the 1970’s and both came away feeling as though we had seen a level of detail in its architecture that was unmatched to anything we had seen before. The still quiet of its patios,
often with the quiet flowing of water to cover intimate conversation from being overheard,
to the immense complexity of its interior wall decoration,
and most overwhelming, the almost unimaginable complexity of the plaster carving which climbs walls and then arches overhead. It is beyond anything we had ever seen before, and it is everywhere in the Alhambra.
We found Granada to be a lovely city as well, with the walk along the narrow stream which splits two of the city’s hills a particular delight.
And the conviviality and easy social atmosphere of the city was attractive, particularly around Christmas which we celebrated with a lovely lunch looking across to the Alhambra.
We made one more stop before we turned from facing the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and that was in the lovely white hill town of Ronda.
It crouches on the edge of high cliffs over a deep valley, and because of its fame and proximity to the coast, draws enormous crowds even in the stillness of the week between Christmas and the New Year.
As we continued southwest it was not long before that familiar rock began to appear ahead on the horizon.
If you have seen our blogs on our years of sailing the Mediterranean you might recall that we spent half a year in Sheppards Marina in Gibraltar in 1998. It was small and family run since 1832, full of a community of sailors working on their boats, and a maintenance staff that was fascinating in itself. From Dan, the electronics expert who was a former British SEAL with over 2000 parachute jumps, to Benny, covered with tattoos and missing a piece of his left hamstring muscle from a shark bite, it was quite a crew! We loved the time we had there turning Icarus, our thirty-nine foot catamaran, into a polished home from the rather derelict state he was in when we purchased him.
Today Sheppards Marina is gone, replaced by an enormous development called Ocean Village which has completely overwritten the entire landscape. All that remains is the original chandlery (sailor’s hardware store) buried amid the bars and T shirt and souvenir shops and almost impossible to even find. It was a sad return for both of us. Expecting to stay at least a day to see friends again at Sheppards, we drove away that same afternoon.
After the long drive from Germany, and our experience of Gibraltar, we were in need of a break. We went as far as Cape Trafalgar–off of which the famous naval battle was fought and Admiral Nelson killed–and found a wonderful campground a short bicycle ride from the cape itself. It was covered with beautiful umbrella pine trees, a type we had never seen but thought graceful and stately.
We had nearly two weeks there relaxing, bicycling and exploring the region, and enjoying the endless music provided by a group of perhaps fifteen British musicians, all camped there for the winter. Every day brought a jam or a concert and the chance for lots of fun conversation.
We loved wandering its narrow streets as they climbed the hillside
and settled around lovely fountains and plazas.
Ronda is often described as the prettiest hill town in Spain, but our pick would be Vejer de la Frontera without question.
But when we got to Seville it was love! We stayed in an ‘aire,’ a parking area usually with security and a small daily charge, but little in the way of facilities. It was only a fifteen minute walk to the heart of the old city with its wonderful historic buildings, narrow streets and open inviting plazas often filled with locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine, the fountains and the ambiance.
It was also the first place we encountered those orange trees which seem to be everywhere, but whose fruit is bitter and good only to be sent off to England to be made into marmalade. Yet to see those bright orange spheres hanging everywhere was like having streets and courtyards lined with Christmas trees!
What is unique about Seville’s history is its role in the discovery of the New World and the exploitation of its resources. For Seville was the seat of the Spanish court which sponsored those explorations and conquests and as a result, reaped the rewards. When ships returned from the Americas, they made for Seville and it was here that their riches were unloaded and distributed. From 1492 onward it was the treasury of Spain!
If there is one spot in Seville which demonstrates this most dramatically it is the grandeur of the cathedral, built between 1402 and 1506 upon an earlier mosque. It is the largest church by volume in the entire world. And its central alter piece is the largest and richest in the world as well, containing forty-five carved scenes from the life of Christ. It is entirely the work of one woodcarver, Pieter Dancart, and is covered with an unspeakable amount of New World gold.
The other focus of the cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Originally interred in Spain, then Dominica, then Havana, in 1902 his body was shipped back to Seville where it rests today.
We spent days in Seville absorbing everything we could about it, down to the entryways into homes lined with beautiful tile,
to the courtyards embedded in a hidden hotel made up of countless 18th century homes linked together,
to lunching in our favorite tapas bar, a former Moorish bath, here just as it opened for the day.
We spent hours bicycling the enormous park that was the site of the 1929 Spanish Americas Fair. All the countries of Spanish Latin America participated and built structures, but the scale is most dramatically displayed in the sweeping curve and canals of the Plaza de Espana, only half of which is visible in this photo. It was also the site of some of the filming of Lawrence of Arabia and the second Star Wars episode.
Beneath the white pillars are smaller enclosures with stone benches and beautiful ceramic tiles depicting scenes from every region of Spain. They seem to be useful for lots of things!
And then there is flamenco, even in the streets in the afternoon!
The other major structure in Seville is the Alcazar, the site of a complex of palaces occupied by rulers since the time of the Romans but built principally by the Moors and then their Christian conquerors who expanded it and lived there for four hundred years. It is an immense area, at one time stretching all the way to the river and surrounded by walls. Even today the enclosed gardens seem to continue endlessly and even include a maze.
Much of the architecture is in a style called Mudejar, developed by Moorish craftsmen working under Christian rule, and is typified by decorative ornamentation. These include quiet courtyards filled with the soft sound of water running,
the profusion of tiles and sculptured plaster in interior spaces,
and bursts of riotous color and decoration in, for instance, the Salon de Embajadores.
We also encountered several exuberant groups out celebrating one thing or another, this one being more than willing to have their picture taken. Can you find the twin brothers?
We left Seville with a good deal of regret. We truly loved our time in this marvelous city. We keep a secret list of towns and cities we would like to return to and live in for awhile. Seville is very high on that list!
From there it was a quick drive northeast to Cordoba, the third great city of Andalucia. Unlike Seville, which reached its apex in the Christian era with the discoveries in the New World, Cordoba was the great Moorish capital and rivaled Damascus as a religious and political center. By 800AD, Cordoba ruled much of the Moslem world. And by the year 1000 it was the largest and richest city in all of Europe and was a far greater city than either Baghdad or Byzantium (today Istanbul), the other two great Muslim centers.
It was also here that the Moors built La Mezquita, certainly the largest and most beautiful of the mosques in Spain. It is truly a magnificent structure and was expanded and enlarged over the centuries. Entrance is through any of a number of doors, each beautifully embellished.
Inside, one is overcome by its immensity, the chandeliers, the multitude of columns.
What is visible in this photograph is perhaps one twentieth–even one fiftieth– of the entire mosque and only begins to convey its enormity.
In the middle of the mosque is something which seems so unlikely and so inappropriate that it is even hard to discuss. It is a cathedral, built in 1523 by the Christian community with the reluctant approval of the monarch Carlos V after long controversy and conflict. Even he regretted what he had commissioned: “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique to the world.” There is nothing graceful or elegant about it, and your only view of it from us is the gilt visible at the far end of this long and magnificent corridor of pillars.
Close by La Mezquita where it fronts the river lies the Roman Bridge, a reconstruction of the bridge built there when Cordoba was the largest city in all of Roman Iberia. Gracefully arched across its span, it is now exclusively a pedestrian bridge since it was big enough for horses and chariots, but a little narrow for modern automobiles.
As in Roman times, it leads into the city of Cordoba through a pillared gate which dates from the last years of Roman rule.
From Cordoba we looked westward again, this time toward Portugal. You will have to wait for our future blog and love song to that marvelous and enchanting country.
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