Now appearing on our stage is my brother who joined us for two weeks after his sold out performances in Ajijic, Mexico. So, put your hands together for our special guest blogger, Gary Anderson.
When I received an email from Steve and Rolynn this past July suggesting that I join them in October or November for part of their vacation in France and Spain, my immediate reaction was, “Well, why not?” After all, I had never been to either of those places. I spent a few days considering the matter, wondering which of the two places I would rather see, or perhaps a little of both, but I’ve lived in Mexico for the past several years and have developed an interest in Spanish history and culture so decided that Spain it would be, and that two weeks there would be about right – enough time to get a reasonably good taste of the country, not so long that two of my favorite people in the world would get sick of the sight of me. So after checking with them about their itinerary and making sure that the timeframe I had in mind would work for them, I made my travel arrangements and began counting the days until my October 27th departure. Their base of operations would be Seville in the Andalusia region of Southern Spain, so the journey would entail both air travel from Guadalajara, the nearest airport to where I live in Ajijic, to Madrid and train travel from there to Seville (Sevilla, pronounced Say-BEE-yah en Español). Departure day eventually rolled around and it was wheels up at 2:30 p.m. from GDL, on the ground at 12:30 p.m. the next afternoon in Madrid, seven time zones to the east of Guadalajara, with a two-hour layover in Mexico City. From Madrid it was 2 ½ hours by bullet train to Sevilla and I was at the door of Steve’s and Rolynn’s apartment by 5:30 local time (7-hour time difference, remember) Wednesday. These trains are called bullet trains for a reason – the average speed from Madrid to Sevilla was about 160 miles per hour, with an extremely smooth ride all the way.
This is probably as good a place as any in this narrative to mention that Spain and its history, and especially that of Adalusia, is full of Moorish influences. The Moors were Muslims from the Mediterranean coastal areas of northern Africa who by the year 710 AD had taken control of all of that region as far west as Tangier in present-day Morocco on the southern side of the Straits of Gibraltar. In August of that year a
Moorish warrior named Tarif ibn Talib al-Mu’afire crossed the straits with a fleet of ships, thus beginning a spread of Islam in Spain that took over most of the Iberian Peninsula and lasted nearly 800 years, until 1492 AD. Before the arrival of the Moors, what is now Spain was populated mostly by Visigoths and, like just about everywhere else in those times, was not a nation as we think of them today, but a collection of kingdoms with feudal economies that revolved around fighting territorial wars against neighboring kingdoms, thus increasing their tax base, and taking slaves. The arrival and spread of the Moors began a slow change away from this toward a somewhat less chaotic society. Their influence can be seen everywhere in Spain, in its architecture, its language, its music and dance, and throughout its entire culture. Sevilla is an excellent example of this which Steve has explored already in his blog and will further, so I’ll keep my remarks regarding that city to a minimum. Our apartment is on Calle Viejos, which translates to “Old Street,” in a neighborhood of narrow, twisting and turning alleyways and streets, a maze that I still haven’t figured out. Thank the powers that be for Steve’s mastery of the navigation app on his smartphone. Sevilla is a beautiful old city full of old world charm, as you have seen from the photos that Steve and Rolynn have taken throughout the city. But I have been asked by Steve to write about the hill towns of Andalusia and about Granada, so without further ado. . . .
Andalusia Hill Towns
About halfway between Sevilla and Málaga is a mountain range where some gorgeous villages can be found pasted onto the mountainsides. Their sparkling whitewashed, tile-roofed buildings cause them to be known collectively as los Pueblos Blancos, (the White Villages). On October 31st we rented a car in Sevilla and headed east to explore three of them, Zahara, Ronda, and Grazalema. Our first stop was Zahara.
Zahara is a small town of about 1500 population that during Moorish times was a fortress stronghold protecting Granada to the east. The remains of the fortress can still be seen today. It sits above a man-made lake and is accessed by driving across the dam that forms the lake. It is about as picturesque a place as I’ve ever seen. Its history is rather obscure, so I’ll let the photos below speak for themselves as to why we chose to visit this extraordinary little place.
Ronda is one of the larger of los Pueblos Blancos with a population estimated at about 35,000. Its history goes back to ancient times; around the city are remains of prehistoric encampments dating to the Neolithic age. It was first settled by the early Celts around 600 BCE. The current Ronda is however of Roman origins, and received the title of city at the time of Julius Caesar. It later came under Visigoth rule and remained so until the year 713 when it fell to the Moors. Their domination lasted until 1485 when it was captured by the Marquis of Cadiz during the period known as the reconquista, or reconquest, when the Moors were either assimilated into Catholicism, killed, or thrown out of the country. Ronda is the home of modern bullfighting, which was pioneered by the Romero family of Ronda in the 1700s, and is home to the oldest bullring in the country. Ernest Hemingway lived there for a time during the Spanish Civil War and Ronda is said to be the basis of the fictional village in “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” Orson Welles and Giorgio Armani also lived in Ronda off and on.
The town is located in a steeply mountainous area. The Guadalevin river runs through it, dividing the town in two and carving out the El Tajo canyon, which is several hundred feet deep and on the cliffs of which Ronda is perched.
The bridge across the canyon, called the “new” bridge was built over a 52-year period from 1741 to 1793. We stayed overnight in an elegant old hotel called the Hotel San Gabriel in the old part of the city near the bridge and enjoyed our stay very much. We would recommend it to all those who find themselves in Ronda, and the town itself is a fascinating place with lots to see and do.
The New Bridge: 50 workers died during its construction. Inside the central pillar is a prison cell. During the Spanish Cival War both sides used it to hold and torture prisoners. The less forthcoming were tossed out the window to the rocks far below.
The Roman villa of Lacidulia or Lacidulerium, situated in an estate near to the present village, has been traditionally considered the ancestor of Grazalema. During Muslim rule in the 8th century, this area was populated by people of Moorish origin, and from them the area acquired the name of Raisa lami Suli, “town of the Banu al-Salim”, place which passed to Ben-salama, “Son of Zulema and later Grand Zulema.” During this period, its economy was organized around forestry, agriculture, farming and textile manufacture. With the Christian conquest in 1485, Zagrazalema, as it was called at the time, became part of the lands of the Rodrigo Ponce de León y Núñez. It became economically important as of the 17th century thanks to the drapery industry which produced the famous shawls of Grazalema. In the first years of the 19th century, during the War of Independence, Grazalema suffered attacks and sieges from the Napoleonic troops who partially destroyed the village. The economy in present times has come to depend largely on tourism due to its being one of the increasingly well-known Pueblos Blancos.
On Tuesday, November 3rd, we hopped a train for a 3-day stay in Granada, returning the following Friday. Granada is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the confluence of four rivers, the Beiro, the Darro, the Genil and the Monachil. It sits at an average elevation of about 2500 feet above sea level, yet is only one hour by car from the Mediterranean coast. With an estimated urban area population about 473,000, it is the 13th-largest urban area of Spain. “Granada” in Spanish means “pomeganate,” but may have come originally from an Arabic word meaning “hill of strangers.” Archeological evidence indicates that the region around Granada has been populated since at least 5500 BCE and later experienced Roman and Visigothic influences as well. Elibyrge was used as the name for what is now Granada by the 7th century B.C. and, by the 1st century A.D. it had become a Roman municipalilty known as lliberri. With the arrival in Hispania of the Moors in the early 8th century, their influence spread to Granada by the early 11th century and they remained in control there until 1492 with the completion of the reconquista by Ferdinand and Isabella. Soon afterward, of course, these two contracted with Christopher Columbus to finance his voyage of discovery to what he thought would be India and its spices but ended up being the Caribbean island now known as Domenica. Columbus, being a not particularly nice person and finding in Domenica none of the spices he sought, modified his business plan to become the first of the transoceanic slave traders.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) This Italian wool-weaver ran off to sea, was shipwrecked in Portugal, married a captain’s daughter, learned Portuguese and Spanish, and convinced Spain’s monarchs to finance his bold scheme to trade with the East by sailing west. On February 29th, 1492, he met three women in a bar in Granada. He promised to name his ships after them if they would all go to bed with him. (Mary resisted but gave in when he promoted her ship to “Santa Maria”.) On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Palos, 60 miles west of Sevilla, with 3 ships and 90 men, hoping to land in Asia, which Columbus estimated was 3,000 miles away. (This was in a time when latitude, north/south position, could be determined but not longitude, east/west position. The later required the invention of accurate non-pendulum clocks usable aboard rolling ships.) Ten weeks—and yes, 3,000 miles—later, with a superstitious crew ready to mutiny after they’d seen evil omens (including a falling meteor and a jittery compass), Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas, convinced he’d reached Asia. He and his crew traded with the passive natives (They had no weapons or word for war.) and returned home to Palos harbor, with captured “Indians”, where they were received as heroes.
Columbus made three more voyages to the New World and became rich. But, Columbus was a brutal man even by the standards of a brutal time – which included the Inquisition. Eye witness accounts describe how he supervised the selling of native girls into sexual slavery; young girls of 9 or 10 were the most desired by his men. He derived most of his wealth not from spices or gold but from slavery. In fact, Columbus literally invented the Atlantic slave trade. If a native resisted slavery, he would cut off a nose or an ear. If slaves tried to escape, he had them burned alive. Other times, he sent attack dogs to hunt them down. The dogs tore off the arms and legs of the screaming natives while they were still alive. If the Spaniards ran short of meat to feed the dogs, babies were killed for dog food. As the native slaves died off, they were replaced with African slaves. In 1505, Columbus’ son became the first African slave trader.
He gained such a bad reputation that he was arrested and returned to Spain in chains along with his brothers. Though pardoned, Columbus fell out of favor with the court. He died in 1506. His son said he was felled by “gout and by grief at seeing himself fallen from his high estate,” but historians speculate that diabetes or syphilis probably contributed. Columbus died thinking he’d visited Asia, unaware he’d opened up Europe to a New World.
The pre-Columbian native population of North America was probably around 18 million although some estimates reach as high as 100 million. At a minimum, 90% died of disease and genocide following the arrival of the Europeans.
Granada is a fascinatingly beautiful city with much more to see than is possible in only a few days, but we gave it our best efforts. Topping the list of must-see sites there is the Alhambra (from the Arabic for “red castle”) a palace and fortress complex that was originally constructed as a small fortress in 889 and then largely ignored until its ruins were renovated and rebuilt in the mid-13th century by the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, who built its current palace and walls. It was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. After long neglect an even some willful vandalism, the Alhambra underwent several restorations and additions over the centuries and became a world heritage site in 1984.
I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately describe this amazing place, so photos will have to suffice and even they leave something lacking. You just have to be there to see it firsthand to fully appreciate its incredible artistry and the labor that went into its construction. It made me wonder about how such a culture that could build something like the Alhambra could have regressed in the part of the world where it originated to the degree it seems to have in recent times.
It was at the Alhamba that Columbus, with his pie charts and Power Point presentation, sold Queen Issy on his business plan. He was guaranteed one-eighth of the proceeds and the governorship of any new lands he discovered.
Like most cities, especially old cities, Granada is a city of neighborhoods. Our apartment was located only a couple of blocks from the Alhambra on the outskirts of a neighborhood known as el Albayzin, which is the old Arab area.
The streets there wind steeply uphill with narrow alleys going every which-way, up stairways and into dead ends, a good place to get thoroughly lost. We had two advantages, however: Steve the Navigator with his trusty smartphone app, and the fact that the only way into el Albayzin goes uphill, so the way out is to go downhill. It is an extremely interesting area in which one hears languages from everywhere.
We trudged all the way to the top of the hill where there is a mirador (viewpoint) called Plaza San Nicholas from which there is a spectacular view of the Alhambra, and a little tapas bar where we refreshed ourselves with a vino blanco for Rolynn and cervezas for Steve and me.
In Granda, they deliver a nice tapa to your table when you order a wine or beer – a practice that seems to be dying out in the rest of Spain. So, the trick is to first order your drinks then your food later.
Granada is also a center of education. The university there has five campuses and a total enrollment of an estimated 80,000 students. We loved the city and left it feeling that it would be a great place to spend much more time.
Impressions of Spain:
- Just about everything in Spain is really old. This realization hits one with some force upon consideration that many buildings there had been standing for a thousand years when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It therefore has a long, complex history.
- They grow olives in Spain. Lots of olives. Between Sevilla and oGranada there are olive groves that stretch to the horizon.
- There are a great many very good guitarists in Spain, as one might imagine in the country where the guitar and the classical style of playing were invented. Even the guys you see sitting on the street playing for tips with an open instrument case in front of them can really play.
- Sevilla and Granada are both great cities, and we loved the hill towns.
- They make very good beer in Spain. My favorite was Cruz Campo. Tastes a little like Sam Adams Boston Lager.
This is Steve, again. We are off to Madrid on Monday followed by five nights in London beginning Thursday. Our next and probably last blog post will be from London.