Our June 2002 holiday
Introduction Ronda & Jerez Seville Córdoba Granada Conclusion
"Oh, fertile plain, oh soaring hills. Favoured by the sky and gilded by the day".
Luis de Góngora, writing in 1627
Ever since he read "The Spanish Lover" by Joanna Trollope [for review click here] - which features locations in Seville and Granada - Roger has wanted to visit these cities and, after eight years, we finally made it. While the rest of Britain celebrated the Queen's Golden Jubilee and watched the opening matches of the World Cup, Roger & Vee got away from it all with the "Classical Spain Tour", a "Guardian" and "Observer" Group reader holiday run by Riviera Travel [the company does not advertise directly and therefore has no web site]. It was our third visit to Spain, following earlier holidays in Barcelona (September 1994) and Madrid (October 1995).
The most southern of Spain's provinces and the location for the whole of our tour is Andalucía. The modern day word Andalucía comes from the name given to the Muslim territories of the Iberian Peninsula Al-Andalus. This, in turn, was probably an Arabisation of the Visigothic name for their kingdom landa-hlauts. It is the land of "El Cid" as featured in the moving Charlton Heston film [for review click here].
The Muslims (often refered to as the Moors) were the dominant force on the peninsula for nearly four centuries. Muslim political power and culture centred first on Córdoba (756-1031), then Seville (c.1040-1248), and finally Granada (1248-1492). Consequently the whole area today still has many splendid examples of the style of architecture known as mudéjar which is a derivative of Muslim architecture developed by Muslims living in Christian areas.
RONDA & JEREZ
Our group flew out from London Heathrow late one Monday and, thanks to a delay which was never properly explained, our Iberian Airways Airbus actually took off some three hours after the scheduled departure time. The flight itself was only two and a half hours and, at our landing point of Málaga, we soon connected with our coach for the short journey to our first hotel, the Club Puerta del Sol in the village of Mijas [click here].
It was 1 am before we arrived at the hotel which was literally just an over-night stop before we set off on the tour. However, it was really pleasant to have breakfast on the open patio by the swimming pool watching the local housemartins darting around the tables.
Shortly after 10 am on Tuesday, we pulled out of Mijas on the coach and with the group with which we were to become so familiar. Our guide was the ever-cheerful and very competent Vanessa (Ness) Challis, our driver was the good-looking José (a lookalike for Joey in the television sitcom "Friends"), and the group comprised a total of 49 decent-minded and liberal-thinking "Guardian " & "Observer" readers. Ness immediately launched into a history of the region "from the year dot", while we spotted Gibraltar on the horizon and familarised ourselves with the biscuit-coloured terrain that is so characteristic of Andalucía.
First stop on our tour was the town of Ronda which is located due west of Málaga, but inland and 725 metres above sea level. Driving carefully, this is only a one and a half hour journey from Mijas, but the road there winds very sharply, with on one side small goats clinging to steep hills and on the other side sheer drops down into the valleys below. Once there, the vertigo is worth it because it is a charming place best known for the 18th century stone bridge, the Puente Nuevo, which breaches the 100-metre steep El Tajo gorge with the old La Ciudad to the south of the gorge and the newer El Mercadillo to the north. It is only a small town of some 35,000, but it is well-known in Spain as the home of bull-fighting on foot.
In truth, our visit to Ronda was something of a wash out. We were there less than three hours, from the beginning it was spitting, and for most of the time it was raining quite heavily. At first, Roger & Vee braved the wet and explored La Ciudad which still has the character of an old Muslim town, but quite soon we had to give up and take shelter in "Casa Luciano" for an omelette lunch.
The last half hour was dry, so Vee went looking at shops in El Mercadillo, but - however scarse the time - Roger was determined to find a place in La Ciudad that he had read about in one of his guide books. The 18th century Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King) provides access to La Mina, a 14th century Muslim-era stairway cut inside the rock all the way to the river 60 metres down at the bottom of the gorge. The 200 steps are dark, wet and very tough on the knees, especially if one is rushing down and back up to be on time for the coach, but the effort is really worth it because there are magical views of the still water and reflections away from all the bustle of the town.
Our coach took us next through more apricot-coloured countryside on to the town of Jerez de la Frontera due west. The Muslims called this place Scheris from which 'Jerez' and 'sherry' are derived. The sweet dessert wine sherry is popular in Britain and we spent all our time in the town (only about an hour and a half) visiting Harvey's, the makers of the famous Bristol Cream sherry. We were conducted through huge, dark sheds containing rows and rows of barrels full of fermenting sherry, led by a young staff member with a very difficult English accent. The outsides of the buildings were covered in beautiful bourganvillia and jasmin and the grounds contained peacocks and even (enclosed, of course) a small Mississippi alligator.
At the end of the tour, in a smart courtyard, we were invited to sample the sherries. Interestingly in Spain sherry is served with ice and a slice of lemon and we had no trouble downing a couple of glasses - very welcome, but very sleep-inducing.
It was a one and a half drive north from Jerez de la Frontera to our first major stop, the magnificent city of Seville (population 700,000). Our hotel here - where we stayed three nights - was the Don Paco [click here], centrally located in the old town. That first evening, all Roger & Vee did was go out for a stroll locally and find a cheap and cheerful place for a light meal. It could have turned into a very expensive evening, if it were not for the honesty of the café staff, since Vee tried to pay in pesatas rather than Euros, a factor of about 150!
Next morning (Wednesday), the weather was excellent - sunny, but not too hot - for our introductory bus tour to this city which is famous for everything from the opera "Carmen" to the breakfast marmalade. Seville is divided north-south by the Guadalquivir river with most places of interest on the east bank. We passed one of the few places of note on the west bank, the Isla de la Cartuja, the site of Expo '92 but now shabby and decayed. At various points in the city, we could see security preparations for another European event, the forthcoming European Union summit to be held under Spain's six-month Presidency of the EU.
We stopped at the Parque de María Luisa on the south side of the city, a tranquil area of paths, flowers, fountains and 3,500 trees developed for the Spanish American Exposition of 1929. This would always have been a delightful place for a stroll and photographs but, to a movie buff like Roger, it held a special fascination. The Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares appeared as an Arab palace in the film "Lawrence Of Arabia" [for review click here]. Also the magnificent Plaza de España - whose bridges were undergoing repair on our visit - has a small role in "Star Wars II: Attack Of The Clones" [for review click here].
The final part of our group introduction to Seville was one-hour boat ride on the river, leaving from the Torre del Oro, a 13th century watchtower, so-called because supposedly it was once covered in golden tiles. In truth, there is little to see on the river, but it was a relaxing interlude. After the ride, we all went our separate ways and Roger & Vee started by having lunch in a small square of the former Jewish quarter, the Barrio de Santa Cruz.
The afternoon was when the holiday really took off as we spent just over three hours visiting the Real Alcázar. This was founded as a fort in 913 and there then followed 11 centuries of expansion and reconstruction. What we see today is mainly the work of Pedro I and a simply magnificent example of mudéjar architecture. The Real Alcázar is said to be the oldest and richest palace complex in the history of Europe.
We marvelled at the delightful courtyards, the multi-coloured tilework, and the wonderfully-shaped archways. The stupendous heart of the Alcázar is the Palacio de Don Pedro built from 1364-1366 - it contains the Patio de las Doncellas (Court of the Damsels) and the Patio de las Muñecas (Court of the Dolls) as well as the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) with its fabulous wooden dome, any one of which would be worth a visit to southern Spain.
The senses need time to absorb work of this elegance and beauty, so we stopped for a coffee and a custard & almond cake, before strolling around some of the extensive garden complex.
The evening had its own excitement as the whole group went out to "Palacio Andaluz" for a three-course meal with wine and coffee plus nearly two hours of flamenco dancing by both men and women, both singly and in groups. Seville is one of the birthplaces of flamenco and one cannot imagine a visit to the city without savouring a sample of this exuberant art form.
We had all day Thursday in Seville left to our own devices. Roger & Vee walked into the centre of town, through Sierpes, the pedestrianised street of art nouveau-fronted shops. Here we spent the morning at the Cathedral. Originally the site was a mosque but, in 1401, the Christian authorites decided to replace the mosque with an immense cathedral. Legend has it that they said: "Let us create such a building that future generations will take us for lunatics".
Consequently they built one of the largest cathedrals in the world, measuring 126 metres long and 83 metres wide. It took until 1507 and it is built in the Gothic style. The altarpiece is reckoned to be the biggest in the world and features over 1,000 wooden carved biblical figures. Another notable element of the cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus (or Cristóbal Colón, as he is called in Spanish) which Spaniards believe contains the remains of the explorer brought from Cuba in 1899.
The 90 metre belfry or tower of the cathedral is called the Giralda, named after the bronze weather vane on the top (giraldillo). It is the surviving 12th century minaret of the original mosque, heightened in 1565 by the addition of the bell tower and weather vane. Roger & Vee climbed the 34 ramps and 17 final steps for some wonderful views of the Alcázar and the city. Back on the ground, our exploration of the cathedral conluded with a wander round the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of Orange Trees).
After a tapas lunch in a different place back in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, Roger & Vee made their way to a place not mentioned to us but spotted in a guide book and unquestionably a must-see for any visitor to Seville. This is the Casa de Pilatos, so-called because it is allegedly based on the building where Pilate lived in Palestine. It is the finest of Seville's noble mansions and still occupied by the ducal Medinaceli family. The building is a mixture of Mudéjar, Gothic and Renaisssance architecture and decoration with beautiful tilework (especially on the staircase to the upper floor) and artesonado ceilings (interlaced beams). Roger & Vee were able to go on a short conducted tour of some of the upper living rooms before circular tables were set up in the Patio Principal for a private concert.
Roger & Vee returned to the Cathedral area for their evening meal, eaten at "Bar Gonzalo" at the foot of the Giralda. It was wonderful to watch the darkness gather around the cathedral and people-watch as citizens and tourists strolled around the historic centre.
Sevilla Online click here
Sevilla Cultural click here
Giralda click here
Another day (Friday) heralded another city (Córdoba) as the group left Seville at 9.30 am and drove up the valley of the Guadalquiver river through more of the sun-bleached terrain of Andalicí. At our relief & refreshment stop, there was a fascinating sight: storks making their nests on the top of electricity pylons. It was hot and sunny when we reached Córdoba (population 310,000) just before noon. We had only three hours to spend in this magnificent city, the ancient capital of the Moors, and there was one place above all others that Roger & Vee had to see.
La Mezquita was founded in 785 and expanded and embellished over the next 800 years. It is regarded as the grandest and most beautiful mosque ever constructed in the Moorish world. Once out of the brilliant sunlight of the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of Orange Trees), one enters the darkened and magical world of the mosque, built in four sections and dominated by wave after wave of columns in Graeco-Roman, Egyptian and Visigothic styles supporting elegant horseshoe arches made of contrasting white stone and red brick. Originally there were as many as 1,300 and even today there are around 850.
Along the wall furthest from the courtyard is the architectural pinnacle of the mosque, the mihrab, the prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca. One cannot enter the dome itself but only marvel at the beautifully-ornate arches and Arabic inscriptions.
In the 16th century, the centre of La Mezquita was ripped out and replaced by a cathedral. The "Lonely Planet" guide to Andalucía suggests: "If you think of the whole building as a cathedral, the forests of Islamic arches and pillars provide a superb setting for the central structures. If you see it as a mosque, the Christian additions wreck its whole conception". Legend has it that, when he saw what he had authorised, King Carlos I proclaimed: "You have destroyed something that was unique in the world" - and we could only agree.
After the riches of La Mezquita, Roger & Vee grabbed a quick lunch at a local bar and set off to explore Juderia, the old Jewish quarter of the city. This is a magnificent maze of narrow streets and hidden courtyards with flowers decorating every balcony. Just by chance and very close to the end of our scheduled time in the city, we came across Casa Andalusi, a beautiful 12th century house on Calle Judios. It is partially a miniature museum with exhibits relating to the medieval Muslim culture and a Roman mosaic in the cellar. It is partially a shop selling delightful goods and momentoes. The whole effect is simply exquisite.
The place is owned and run by a charming English & French-speaking Arab woman called Salma Al Farouki who had to leave Palestine in 1948. She gave Roger a card with an inspiring quote from Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240) that he used as his next Thought For The Week:
"There was a time I used to reject those who were not of my faith. Now my heart has grown capable of taking on many forms: a pasture for gazelles, a convent for Christians, a temple for idols, a Kaaba* for the pilgrim, a table for the Torah, a book of the Koran. My religion is love - whichever the route love's caravan shall take, that path shall be the path of my faith".*The most sacred Muslim shrine, to be found in Mecca
Our departure as a group from Córdoba did not go according to plan. As we all turned up at the scheduled pick-up point for our coach, one of the women had her handbag snatched by two youths who made a rapid get-away down some steps and along the river bank. Roger and others accompanied our guide Vanessa in searching the area to see if the bag could be recovered, but the thieves had obviously taken it well away from the area before riffling its contents. Since the handbag contained aircraft ticket and passport, we had to report it immediately to the local police, a process that took around an hour.
Roger used the time to befriend some Spanish teenage girls who were following the World Cup with great passion and knew all the star players. He convinced them that he was the father of England team captain David Beckham and had a photograph of them all happy together.
When we were finally able to leave Córdoba, our journey took us past swathes and swathes of green olive groves set among the ochre landscape, until we could see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the south-east. At 7.45 pm, we rolled into Granada (population 240,000) and to our hotel. Our accommodation - where we stayed two nights - was the Hotel Condor [click here]. That evening, Roger & Vee walked around the corner to have dinner at an Argentinean restaurant called "La Tranquera". The meal was delicious - a special Argentinean menu of mixed salad, mixed grill, and mixed desserts (each course, somehow, involving cheese). Since earlier in the day, England had knocked Argentina out of the World Cup, we made sure to say nothing about football (actually, not difficult for us non-sporting types).
If Seville has the Real Alcázar and Córdoba has La Mezquita, then Granada has La Alhambra and Saturday morning saw the group visiting this most famous of Moorish sites. The name is a corruption of the Arabic Al Qal'a al-Hamrá or red castle, a reference to the ruby-red sandstone walls of the Alcazaba, the fortress built on the Sabika hill in the 11th century. Although there was a fortress on the site as early as the 9th century, today's La Alhambra dates mainly from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The 14th century Arab poet Ibn Zamrak wrote:
"La Sabika is a crown upon the brow of Granada
In which the stars yearn to be stunned.
And the Alhambra - God watch over it!
Is a ruby at the crest of that crown".
Unlike at Real Alcázar or La Mezquita, at La Alhambra we had the benefit of local guides, in the case of our sub group a very lively and amusing woman called Lordes. Also unlike the other two visits, early morning on the hill-top was a distinctly chilly experience. However, nothing could cool one's rapture at the sight of such magnificence and beauty: intricately ornate arches and ceilings, multi-patterned tiles and Arabic inscriptions, all set off by pools of water with gently trickling fountains and the smells of roses, wisteria and honeysuckle.
The most stunning of the rooms are the Sala de los Abencerrajes (named after the murders of the noble Abencerraj family) with a stalactite vaulted ceiling and the Salón de Ambajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) with a dome that is a masterpiece of Moslem carpentry, while the most beautiful of the courtyards are the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles) with its long pool mirroring the surrounding buildings and the Patio de Los Leones (Court of the Lions) with its 12 stone lions around the central fountain. However, every room, every court, every window, every arch, every set of tiling has its own special attraction and the whole place is almost a surfeit of riches that threatens to overpower the senses.
Finally there is the Generalife (Garden of the Architect) with its cypress, poplar and chestnut trees overlooking trimmed hedges along quiet pools with a plentiful display of different coloured flowers and the odd feral cat. If there is a heaven, it must look a little like this.
At the end of the guided tour, Roger & Vee walked down the hill to the city centre and stopped at a place called "Via Dauro" for a refreshing open-air lunch of mozzerella & tomato salad and pineapple & icecream pancake. Meanwhile, in the church on the other side of the road, a stylish wedding was taking place. It was formal enough for the bride's mother to be wearing the traditional mantilla head-dress, but informal enough for guests to wander over to our restaurant for a smoke and a black coffee.
In much of southern Spain, things come to a halt in the afternoon and the place we wanted to visit was closed, so we returned to our hotel and adopted the local custom of a siesta. Suitably refreshed, we were out again about 5 pm and by now the Cathedral was open again. The building was started in 1521 but was not completed until the 18th century. The cavenous interior with its hugh columns is unusually well-lit, but - as the whole tour had repeatedly demonstrated - cathedrals are always so much more forbidding than mosques.
Adjoining the cathedral is Granada's outstanding Christian building, the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) which was built between 1506 and 1521. It houses the coffins of Fernando and Isabella, said to be "one of the most terrifying double acts in history". In 1481 they launched the Spanish Inquisition and in 1492 they expelled the Jews from Christian Spain.
For our final evening in Andalucía, the whole group went for a meal in the old Moorish quarter called the Albayzin. This is a delightful area of narrow, cobbled streets. From the Mirador de San Nicolás, there are terrific views of La Alhambra and therefore it is not surprising that the location is buzzing with traders and tourists. It is obviously the position for a classic wedding shot because we saw a bride and groom having official photographs taken with La Alhambra in the background. Vee decided to help the bride stretch out her wedding veil along the low wall, while Roger looked over the photographer's shoulder and took his own shot.
Our group dinner was at a place chosen by Vanessa called "Jardines Zoraya" and, after a glass of sangria, we had a mixture of three starters, a delicious almond cream soup, a main course, and crême caramel.
Guía de Granada click here
Granada en la Red click here
Sunday morning and we were on our way home. The coach journey from Granada to Málaga, through more mustard-coloured terrain, was broken by a short stop at a place called Loja - time for Roger to snap some last photographs (he took 200 in all) and purchase some traditional Spanish guitar music. Landing in London in late afternoon, what did we find? You guessed it - crashing rain!
This was our fourth conducted holiday and we know how much difference the guide makes to the trip. Vanessa had spent five years at Riviera Travel and was a very experienced and helpful guide who first learned Spanish at the University of Wolverhampton. Six weeks after our holiday, Ness married Nathan and - keeping to a Christian theme - went from the surname Challis to Priest. She is about to switch careers to teaching and we wish her well.
Since there were 47 others in the group, we could not get to know everyone in the group - a surprising number of whom were teachers - but we all ribbed along really well. Roger was tickled to find that there were two other Rogers in the group: Roger Simmonds, a music teacher from Oxfordshire, and Roger Garside, a computer lecturer at Lancaster University, and of course we had to have a photograph of the three Rogers.
The theme of the three cities that we visited was the inspiring mudéjar architecture of the Medieval Moors. These days Islam is associated with opposition to modernity and one has to remember that this architectural brilliance was created while northern Europe lanquished in the Dark Ages. It was an excellent break that will live long in the memory.
Link: Islamic art & architecture click here