March 20, 2011
We’re back in Barcelona after a fabulous 10-day safari to the region of Andalusia (pronounced AndaLOOTH-EEE-a) in the southwest corner of Spain. This mountainous coast was conquered by the Moors—North African Islamic people—around 700 AD. A most advanced civilization, versed in astronomy, mathematics, engineering and the arts, the Moors constructed extraordinary mosques, palaces, forts, citadels and hill towns, before the Christians finally succeeded, after hundreds of years of trying, in kicking them out in 1492.
We flew to Sevilla (arriving six hours late because our plane was cancelled) and, around 11, picked up a huge 9-passenger minibus. Though there were just six of us, and really small suitcases after—honest---our most minimalist packing, we chose this one because everything else on the European rental car market looked sardine-small on our 17” Internet computer screens.)
In person, the size of this van became an alarming and immediate concern. It might be comfortable for traveling between cities, but it just didn’t fit into the tiny streets of the old cities we were slated to visit. That first night we got caught in one alley with but a 1/16 inch clearance. EuropCar was apparently on to something. Maybe there’s a reason European train passes sell out so fast.
We also couldn’t reach our oh-so-charming Alley Hotel, chosen from among our arsenal of guidebooks. Around midnight, in near desperation, we actually hired a taxi driver to lead us to a hotel out of town, one that would have an outdoor parking lot we could fit into.
First thing in the morning, we’d turn in the van.
At least that was the plan.
Alas, there were no other vans to be had. No matter how much screaming.
Like every other weekend in Spain, this one turned out to be a Holiday Weekend. This one apparently a Biggie—Andalusian National Farting Day. Or somesuch. Our linguistic skills weren’t up to figuring it out.
Besides, our Citroen Jumper was paid for. Totally. Meant there was no turning the French Fucker in. Just have to live with him.
Navigating was further complicated by instructions from our Australian GPS Lady (AKA, The Incubus) who insisted on our taking shortcuts in the teeniest of streets. Or if not teeny, then one-way lanes. All street names delivered in Spanish-inflected Maori. Or was it Aborigine?
Nonetheless, we lived and laughed with this international cast of characters. Ate and drank local wine. Recalculating….
Van safely parked, well-slept and happily buffet-breakfasted we decided to stay put in our charm-challenged, but oh-so-convenience-filled Sevilla businessman’s hotel. We took off by city bus to gawk at the sights.
First, the first of Your Basic Spanish City Cathedrals. Every Spanish city’s got one. Just like Italy it turns out. Even the most modest is breathtakingly vaulted, intricately carved, elaborately pillared, fantastically buttressed and bathed in oceans of gilt. Takes hundreds of years to build, bent the backs, broke the bones (not to mention fingernails) of thousands upon thousands.
Next the Alcázar, a gigantic Moorish palace surrounded by orange trees and set inside the old walled city. Seems every Moorish king also had an alcázar to keep himself and his stuff—wives, horses, harem, riches—organized properly. And his slaves busy and idle hands off said property.
Then we drove the 160 miles to Granada to tour the Alhambra, essentially a walled Moorish royal city. Started out as just a fort, but those Moors knew how to live. Eventually that mere fort turned into palaces, gardens, mosques, churches, fountains and water aqueducts, all big enough for about 2,000 royal hangers-on to live royally inside the walls. We were blown away by the detail, decorations, size and beauty. Elaborate mosaics everywhere, walls, floors, intricately carved ceilings and doors. Marble, alabaster, wood and mysterious other molded materials that have pretty decently withstood the ravages of time, ferocious weather and an assortment of vicious marauders. On all the many arches were intricate interlocking details and Arabic writing. Some were prayers and some, we are certain, were recipes for hummus and chickpea mush.
One of the best meals of this trip was the lunch inside the Alhambra’s walls at the upscale Umeda Parador Restaurant. The hotel itself was fully booked and we couldn’t afford it anyway (350 euros a night, WITH the senior citizen discount, and in any event, no parking for the van.)
(Paradors are some 86 unique inns in architecturally interesting Spanish buildings throughout the country—frequently converted castles, monasteries and palaces filled with art, antiques or notable reproductions—run by the government.)
We also toured the poor non-royal sections of Granada, eating at a selection of tapas-erias and dipping our shriveled, winter-dry cuticles into the olive-oiliest of fried specialties—calamaris, eggplants, artichokes, shrimps, anchovies, potatoes…YUM. During these forays one of us often slipped off into Arab and early Moor quarters in search of hamburguesas and shawarmas. Granada’s Basic City Cathedral was especially frilly, airy, very white, sparkly and almost impossibly gilded and glittery.
We then climbed way, way up to a special place on top of a hill to watch the sunset over the Alhambra. Our guide billed it as Bill Clinton’s Best-Ever-In-the-Whole-World-Sunset. It not being summer, (or there being no blue dress involved) it was kind of a non-event for us. It reminded us of Shirley Heights, Antigua, but without the BBQ ribs, the Halcyon Pan Band, the water view and the beer. It was crowded with young people. There being no BBQ ribs, steel bands and beer, and there being a long wait for sunset, these young people busied themselves by stuffing mucho tongue very deep down into each other’s faces.
Next we zoomed to Córdoba to see the old town and a huge stunning mosque with a stunning cathedral actually built right into the center of it. Hard not to belabor the word but it was truly stunning. Breathtaking. Not another building in the world quite like it. Not even St Peter’s in Rome quite compares. Also has a unique name we’d never heard. The Mezquita. Sounds a bit too much like Mosquito to our Caribbean-honed ears , but let’s not quibble with otherwise perfection. Twelve-centuries old, the detail of the 8th century mosque was mostly not disturbed by the construction of a gigantic cathedral inside it, started the 16th century. The contrast in decoration is jaw dropping.
The Mosque, built over an earlier 6th Christian church, has some 850 painted double-arched columns that appear to recede around you into infinity. The supports are ancient recycled Roman columns of marble, jasper, alabaster and granite, from throughout the vast conquered empire.
Further in, you come upon the 10th century Mihrab, the religious center of the mosque, aglow in 3,000 pounds of Byzantine glass mosaic; there as many as 20,000 of the faithful could prostrate themselves on prayer rugs, salaaming and Inshallahing as the imam led them in verses from a gilt Koran. Absolutely no people paintings or images, as is decreed by Islam.
Conversely, in the cathedral, as is typically Catholic, we find sobbing virgins and the tortured, dead, and bleeding Christ all over the place. With not one, but two, count-‘em, two ceiling-height organs (and we’re talking hundred-foot ceilings here.) With sculpted wooden choir seats that took 40 people 200 years to carve. With golden ornaments and angels and tortured saints and vignettes portraying endless religious symbolism, just in case you should forget some basic instructive Bible fable.
An interesting detail…most often you see Christ with his feet crossed with only one nail used; here, for some reason his feet are not crossed and two nails were used to do the job. No explanation offered.
We stayed in the Lola Hotel, an adorable, atmospheric 8-bedroom dump run by the adorable whatshername in the adorable, atmospheric Old City, where our room was substantially smaller than our cabin on LULU. The only place for Gary’s suitcase was in the bidet. The only place for our sky-blue minibus was outside the city walls about a mile away. Closest place it would fit. Near the amazing Roman theater unearthed when some ambitious Cordoban gave up his shoe business (we surmise) to open a KFC.
Then on to Málaga to see the Picasso Museum, where Picasso donated his private collection. Then a decent Chinese buffet lunch (anything to avoid the continuously disappointing Spanish cuisine), then on to Marbella, cathedral-less, jet-set beach resort, largely empty of people because off-season. We stayed in a super fancy spa hotel with great water views and great pillows. Splurge. Had a garage that would fit you know what.
We decided to zip to Gibraltar, a British town , to see that big rock on our insurance policies and have a fish and chips lunch with mushie peas, apparently a Brit spESHalty.
Next day we took the fast ferry across the Straits to Tangier in Morocco, North Africa. Never expected to be there, ever—in the real, actual Kasbah! Us!
Another amazing place, Tangier is. Named after Cleopatra’s daughter, Tangie, the first inhabitant. Are all the current inhabitants therefore, Tangerines? Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, 27 mosques, 10 Catholic churches and even a synagogue, all apparently living in peace. At least we heard no gunfire. The Muslims are all Sunni, our guide, Abdul, was happy to tell us. No Shia here. Great way to avoid fighting: jus don’t mix Sunni and Shia. Wonderful local Moroccan lunch, but no wine allowed. (Naturally, we asked.) Hard, but we managed. Found out that the word Kasbah refers to the fortress part of a walled city, and not a naked women’s mud wrestling emporium. That was definitely a surprise.
The most amazing contrasts everywhere…rich and poor, squalid and clean, old and new, religious and profane…all the clichés come to life. Streets and alleys even smaller than in the cities we’d just been visiting. No running water in most homes. No ovens either. The ladies make the bread, then sends the kids with loaves out to a local baker, who then bakes them. Each tiny, twisting, steep steppy street or neighborhood has a baker, a mosque, a madrassa (we’ve all been reading about those, right?—a Koran (Quran) school); a public bath and a water fountain…and lots of children.
People buying, selling, trading, hawking and even manufacturing their wares everywhere along narrow streets and in tiny child-size crevices. An old man amid a pile of well worn Keds reading his Koran. Women everywhere wearing the veil—except here it’s at their option.
We walked through a giant daily market in a vaulted old, really old, stone building—winding our way through an endless warren of colorful stalls—mountains of marinating olives and fresh fruits and huge vegetables; hanging chickens; piles of meats; hooks dripping animal stomachs and entrails. Berber women on their haunches winding leaves around fresh cheeses move delicately aside for a wheelbarrow piled with cow heads and sheep bodies. A huge separate fish market.
We zoom back to Sevilla and fly back to LULU, to rest. 700miles, 1700 photos.
Lots of love to all
Lulu and Gary
PS. A lingering thought…
1400 years ago the Islamic people designed, engineered and constructed these sensational, enormous forts, palaces and cities, with incredibly intricate artistic detailing. They kept control of the entire area for at least 700 years. Huge achievements in astronomy, mathematics, engineering, medicine and science.
Then in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain, sending them back to North Africa.
In the 500 years since, the Islamic religion now boasts 1.5 billion followers. That’s 25% of the earth’s population. In these 500 years, not one Einstein, not one Newton or Galileo, not one Pasteur, not one Henry Ford, Ringo Starr or Elvis.
25% of the earth’s population and in over 500 years not one Nobel prize in engineering, medicine or science. From brilliance to what? Why?