Mauve taupe mountain vistas blend hazy gray sky
Trees of olives roam valleys grander than the eye
Clinging distant hillside, a sparkling white village
Moorish fortress reigns topmost, remnant of pillage
Beneath lies the church, salvation reclaiming
Strung all together, rough cobbled streets framing
Conquest of Al-Andalus down through the ages
A collision of cultures embossed in its pages
Tyler and I headed off to roam the countryside of Southern Spain, the area known as Andalucia.
It is important to understand a little of the history of this area as it has a very broad mix of cultures. Romans were the first to control this area during the second to fourth centuries. After this time the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, ruled until the seventh century. The Visigoths were a barbaric people and the Spaniards wanted them removed from power, so they made a deal with the Moors (Muslim Arabs from the Middle East and Northern Africa). The Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula and ruled for 800 years until they were overthrown by Catholic kings from the north of Spain in the 1500s. This precipitated the Spanish Inquisition.
This varied cultural history creates a truly beautiful landscape as elements of all these foreign conquerors can be seen in the layout of the cities and its architecture. Andalucia hosts Roman ruins of theaters and aqueducts. Every town is topped by an Alcazar (Moorish fortress) on its uppermost point. Ancient bridges, roads and walls have all been incorporated into homes and walkways of the modern Spanish citizen. It is history on a scale unparalleled with anything we could experience in the US.
Four flights and 21 hours of travel time is all it took for us to land in the south of Spain. We flew into Malaga on the Mediterranean coast on a sunny Sunday morning. It was the last sunny day we would see for the next 9 days. Our rental car was a Rover (say ro-bare) and it is the nicest rental car I have ever had. Standard transmission is the norm over there. It had been about 15 years since Tyler had driven a stick, so his mantra became "remember the clutch, remember the clutch." Good thing too as it would have been a long drop over some of the cliffs where we parked.
We drove along the Mediterranean coast for a couple hours and then headed up to Granada. We did not have a hotel reserved for the first night, so we had to hunt around a bit. Found a room at the Alhambra Palace, right outside La Alhambra, which is where we wanted to be the next morning. It was not a bad room, but certainly the least room, and most expensive, we had for the entire trip.
The guidebooks all warn you about parking. Make sure you park in a designated spot because you do not want to get towed. How do you know what a designated spot is? Those people park on the sidewalks and anywhere else you can imagine. When we would finally see an empty space, we would decide it probably wasnít a spot and pass it up. Our first parking experience in Granada we were directed by a local (self-appointed?) parking director to park up on the sidewalk. He assured us there was nothing to worry about. Streets are all very narrow and the towns are all built up the side of mountains. The major highways were great with great signs, but in town it was a little stressful.
First thing Monday we visited La Alhambra, which is a Moorish palace, and Generalife, the surrounding gardens. It is said that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received Christopher Columbus here before his trip to the New World. Of course, every palace in Spain makes this very same claim. But it was a very interesting palace. Very large and lots of detailed artwork. A must see.
On the way in there were a number of women offering bunches of rosemary to passersby. I was curious about what they were doing, but wasnít planning on getting too close to find out. When we were leaving La Alhambra, however, one of the more aggressive women approached us and shoved sprigs of rosemary into our hands. Curiosity got the best of me and I stood still a little too long to listen to her. They were gypsy women doing palm readings. After I got this all figured out it was a little late to back out, so I thought fine, Iíll just pay her for her palm reading. When she was finished reading both our palms she held out her hand for money. I asked her how much and she said 1000 pesetas (about $5). I found a 1000 pta note and handed it to her. She said, no, it was 1000 each. I did not have another 1000 pta note, so I pulled out a 2000 pta note and asked her for 1000 back. Quick as a flash she had grabbed that 2000 and had it wadded up in her hand. I couldnít think fast enough to argue with her in Spanish so I just gave up before she got any more. Didnít make me happy, though.
Every night except for the first one in Granada, we stayed in a Parador. These are government owned inns, many times in historic buildings. They were really above average rooms for a great price. And if you buy a "Five Nights Card" you can get a discount on some of the rooms.
That evening we drove up to Jaen to stay in a Parador that was a 13th century Arabic fortress high on a mountain above the city. We could see it well enough, but figuring out how to get up there was another story. It took us at least 45 minutes of driving around in Jaen before we made it up to the Parador. There are great signs in most of the cities directing you to the Parador, problem was the signs in Jaen were pointing the wrong way down a one way street. The room at this Parador was the best bargain on the trip. Huge suite with canopy bed, sweeping views of the valley and very large bathroomóall for about $50.
The Paradores all had wonderful gourmet restaurants. They were not inexpensive, but they focused on regional cuisine so it was a good place to try some new things. Menus (set 3 course meals) are offered at nearly all restaurants. If you want to look at a regular menu, be sure to ask for a "carta." Every meal comes with french fries and everything is absolutely swimming in olive oil (yummy). They eat lots of meat and eggs. Scrambled eggs are a very common starter. Tortilla Espanola is the national dish (egg and potato omelete) and they serve it warm or cold. For breakfast they offer pots of larded meat for you to spread on your bread. Desserts are very, very rich with lots of cream and eggs, but usually no chocolate. Flan (caramel custard) is their national dessert.
I will eat about anything, but I met my match at this Parador. There was no way I could stomach the huge, bleeding piece of veal they brought me. I avoided beef after that. Tyler had a nice sampler menu that included morcillo (black pudding), red pudding, partridge salad, squid in its own ink topped with tiny poached partridge eggsóif you want the full list then ask him. I think he wrote down everything we had to eat at each meal.
The second night in Jaen we ate at Horno de Salvador. One of the top three restaurants I have ever eaten at. I ordered mixed vegetables that were just fabulous. What makes veggies so great you ask? They were just swimming in olive oil and garlic and it was really decadent. I rate that dish right up there with the clam chowder at the Tickled Trout in San Diego and the Indian lamb stew at Cafť Mozart in San Francisco. Now you know how to get your family to eat more vegetables.
Nearly every "carta" in Spain is translated into English (British), so you donít really have to read Spanish in order to know what to order. Translations, however, are a little dodgy no matter how nice the restaurant. It is probably a good idea to have an English/Spanish dictionary with you just in case. Here a few examples of food translations we saw. See if you can guess what they meantÖ
ANSWERS: 1) Fried fish, that oneís easy. 2) Grilled fish, that oneís a little tougher. 3) No idea. Since they eat about every part of the animal, Iíd be careful with that one. 4) Again, no clue. 5) Coffee with cream, SUGAR and liqueur. 6) The Spanish name is Tortina del cielo which means a heavenly little dessert. I took a chance on it and it was flan on a thin sugar cookie. Much more appetizing than the English description. 7) This one had us laughing all night. I wasnít up to testing out what a little spick might be. I looked up the Spanish words though and Iím pretty sure itís a small Moroccan kebab.
Tuesday morning we headed to the "Renaissance villages" of Ubeda and Baeza. We had somehow forgotten our bottle of contact cleaning solution in the hotel in Granada, so spent some time in Ubeda trying to find some more. They donít just have a Target on every corner. Pharmacies are very small and generally only have infant formula and prescriptions. I wasnít exactly sure how to translate this into Spanish either. We finally found an optical store that had some solution. When they take a siesta in these towns, they really take siesta. At 2:00 absolutely everything closed down. Iím not sure if anything ever did open up in Baeza. It was about 4:00 p.m. and we hadnít had lunch yet and were very hungry. We stopped in one little bar and I asked the man if they were serving food. He shrugged his shoulders and hollers back into the kitchen something like, "Mama, do you wanna cook?" She said sheíd cook, but we didnít feel right about it so we went down the street to a tiny little mom and pop bar. She had cooked Tortilla Espanola and Menudo that day so that was great for us.
Thereís basically only one beer in SpainóCruzCampo. It certainly makes ordering beer a cinch. Itís nothing special at all and itís really cheap. Cheaper than ordering Coke. And you always get olives to eat with your beer. Sherry is the regional specialty of Andalucia. Most of it is not like the strong, sweet, syrupy stuff you get in the states. Fino is young and light. Thereís also almontillado, manzanilla and oloroso. Each gets a little darker and a little stronger. The name for sherry in Spanish is Jerez and that is also the name of the town where much of it is produced.
Speaking of Spanish words, ayuntamiento is a word you will see a lot as you are visiting Spain. It means either city council or sexual intercourse. We saw it posted in a lot of places so maybe they have a very active city government.
Wednesday we drove to Cordoba. The Mezquita is a Muslim temple turned Christian after the conquest (just like everything else). It is really very ornate and incorporates architectural influences from the Moors, Visigoths, Egyptians, Greeks and Renaissance. It is worth a visit. Inside the city walls in Cordoba it is a real tourist trap. If you have souvenirs to buy it might be a good place to get some as we did not see lots of shopping opportunities.
That night we drove to Antequera to stay in another Parador. This one was a modern facility. When we were shown to our room there was a smell a fresh paint from some renovations they were doing. I knew this was going to be a problem for Tyler who can not stand strong smells, especially things like paint and chemicals. He wanted me to ask the front desk for another air freshener (they already had 2 aromatic diffusers in the room). I didnít know how to translate air freshener, so I told him he needed to take care of it himself. We went to the front desk and he told them the room smelled bad and he wanted an air freshener. This lead to a lot of conversation in Spanish that was to the effect of, "What the heck is he talking about?" Finally the woman turned to Tyler and said, "Okay, weíll chaink that for you." Tyler is very literal and he was already in sensory overload with the smells so I knew this was going to be a problem. I quickly jumped in with, "Oh great, sheíll CHANGE the room for us." He wasnít listening to me. He asked her again what she said and again she said sheíd chaink it for us. I was ready to get out of there, but took one more shot, "Letís change rooms." He agreed with me, thankfully. They gave us the key to another room down the hall stacked with furniture from the renovations. This room smelled like smoke so I told Tyler Iíd rather have the first room. He went back the desk and got the key back for the first room but I think I heard them say something about the Americans with the big, sensitive noses.
I would not recommend a trip to Antequera. We walked around down town for close to an hour looking for restaurant and there just werenít any. We ended up eating at the Parador. The reason for going to Antequera was some Dolman caves and El Torcal which is a natural park. It was pouring rain the next day so we didnít end up doing either. We drove to Ronda in a roundabout, cross-country manner.
Ronda was my favorite city we visited. It is set on a huge gorge (tajo) with fantastic hiking down into the valley, great views, lots of nice shopping and hundreds of restaurants. There are arabic baths and lots of old walls and arches. There is a Roman aqueduct outside of town that I really wanted to see. The directions in the guidebook said to take the street by the market straight up out of town. After you have walked for an hour you will be in the middle of an olive grove. There will be a path that takes you to the aqueduct. Since we couldnít tell exactly what street went "straight up out of town" we didnít attempt this.
See part of the building on the top left? That was the parador we stayed in.
After Ronda we went back down toward the Mediterranean and followed the coast over to the Rock of Gibralter. It was raining again and we had read that sometimes the immigration people hassle you when coming back from the rock (itís owned by the British), so we just drove by. Stopped at a bar in Tarifa for lunch. There was some sort of cooking demonstration going on in the back of this tiny little place. They were making lasagna. One of the regulars grabbed some of the cheese and smeared it on our pizza. It was actually better that way.
We stayed in Cadiz that night. It is on the Atlantic coast. We went to a good museum that was free for any European Union citizen, but they let us in for nothing too.
Sunday we drove to Carmona, which is outside of Sevilla. On the way Tyler happened to see something about some Roman ruins near Sevilla. It was the best thing we saw on the trip. The place is called Italica and is part of the small town of Santiponce. Italica was the third largest city in the Roman empire. There was a nearly complete amphitheater that seated 25,000 people. It was in good enough shape that we were able to walk around under the seating, just like in a modern day coliseum. There was also a nearly complete Roman theater there. They were in the process of excavating the town and it was amazing. There were fountains and walls and mosaics that were almost completely undisturbed. The mosaics were my favorite. They were very detailed and really beautiful. Definitely worth a stop and it was free too!
The Parador in Carmona is another Arabic fortress, but the view wasnít nearly as good. We visited a tapas bar that night. Tapas are small individual dishes of things like meatballs, salads, meats and cheeses. It's like an extensive appetizer menu. Very good food and we watched the soccer game with the locals. (No idea who was playing.) On the way back to the Parador dogs from all over town were howling at each other and in unison. It was just like in 101 Dalmations. Iíd never heard anything like it and it was very funny to us after we had been in the bar all night.
Monday we visited Sevilla. It has the largest cathedral (cubic footage) in the world. It was very beautiful. It houses the remains of Christopher Columbus, or one of his sons. They aren't sure because the remains have gotten mixed up over the years. Outside the cathedral we found an Irish pub with real Irishmen so stopped in for a change of pace.
Cathedral in Sevilla
It was a really nice trip. No major mishaps and no huge disappointments. Tyler's assessment of Spain is that there is too much dog poop and the people arenít terribly friendly. That is accurate, especially the part about the dog poop. Be careful where you step.