Tag Archives: Andalucia

Andalucian Interlude.

20 Feb

I’ve just been on a city break.  I much prefer them to beach breaks or lying by a pool breaks, as readers of my earlier blogs may have gathered. This time I’ve enjoyed a few days in Seville, Spain. It’s the main city of Spain’s most southerly territory: Andalucia, and the fourth largest city in the country. As with most city breaks, Seville served up a rich diet of: culture, history, architecture, religion and art, not to mention food and drink. A city break is a brief change of scene, a stimulating contrast to the norm. Seville and its neighbour, Cordoba, did the trick. It was an enticing taster for  possible longer visits to this exciting part of Europe in the future.

What did I expect to see and experience?  First up is :oranges. The most common response I got when I mentioned Seville to people was “oranges.” Yes, I certainly expected to see orange trees, even in the middle of the city. I wasn’t disappointed. Numerous squares, courtyards and streets were lined with them. Apparently, they were planted by the Arabs when they ruled this part of Spain. Supposedly, local “Sevillanos” love to joke about watching tourists picking oranges from the trees, only to spit out their first mouthfuls in disgust. These oranges are very bitter to taste. A popular legend has it that the cheeky Sevillians sold a boatload of this unpalatable fruit to the British. The trusting British sailors tucked- in, thinking the oranges were sweet. They were disappointed of course, but one unexpectant consequence was that all the seamen suffering from the disease of scurvy were cured. Thus the idea of marmalade was born. For many years huge quantities of Seville’s street oranges were sold to British marmalade factories, although changing tastes  and the effects of traffic pollution on the fruit have led to a drop in demand in recent years.

Reading about all this reminded me of another city break I made to Dundee, in Scotland.  Dundee was for a long time, famous for its jam and marmalade. A local story from the 19th century tells of a Spanish ship with a cargo of Seville oranges that got trapped by storms in the harbour. The perishable cargo was in danger of going rotten, so an enterprising young lad, James Keiller, the son of a grocery store owner, bought the oranges at a bargain price. His mother, using a secret family recipe, then converted them into marmalade and started a profitable industry for the city. A friend of mine has told me another story about Mary Queen of Scots being cured of her “malady” by the orange conconction that now graces our breakfast tables. The true origin of marmalade may be a combination of all these tales. Who knows?

So I saw the orange trees that I had expected. What I didn’t expect however, was that many of them would be surrounded by pretty patterns of ornamental cabbages, cream, pink and purple. I also saw a monumental Gothic cathedral, numerous tapas bars, a large bull ring, buildings with graceful wrought iron balconies and window grilles, lovely little courtyards or patios decorated with attractive tiles, plants and little fountains and some very special Moorish-style buildings from medieval times. Seville has a rich selection of things to see and do.

One big reason why I was attracted to this part of Spain is its close proximity to Africa, and in particular: Morocco. The Moors (Arab muslims from North Africa and the Middle East) had conquered Spain in the middle ages and ruled it for several centuries. They were masters of the Iberian peninsula from the early 8th to the early 13th centuries.  They were relatively tolerant rulers allowing the Christians and the Jews to continue with their own religious practices if they wished to, although non- muslims had to pay higher taxes. Spain, which had previously experienced the sophisticated lifestyle of the Romans, now benefited from many aspects of Arab civilisation. Education, scholarship, philosophy, architecture and craftmanship all flourished under Moorish rule. Today, tourists flock to see the beautiful architecture and exquisite decorative art left behind by the Moors in Andalusian cities such as Granada, Malaga ( yes, it’s more than just an airport), Cordoba and Seville. The Alhambra palace in Granada, which I’ve visited in a previous trip, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. The Alcazar fortress-palaces of Seville and Malaga also contain striking moorish architecture, tilework, stucco and calligraphy as well as lovely gardens, and, last but not least, the stunning mosque-cathedral in Cordoba, known as the Mesquito, is one of the most extraordinary buildings you are likely to see. In this trip, my wife, Chris, and I visited the sensational Moorish monuments in both Seville and Cordoba which is about an hour up the train line. At times, we had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were still in Europe and not somewhere across the Straits of Gibralter.

It’s ironic that buildings, art and craftmanship left behind by their former conquerors, now make up some of Spain’s top tourist attractions. Even though the Moors were defeated and expelled from Spain over 800 years ago, their legacy lives on in a powerful way. We were really looking forward to visiting them. But it wasn’t that simple. One problem is that in this age of relatively cheap travel and mass tourism, such beautiful, historical buildings are now frequently overwhelmed by visitors. A friend of mine travelled to Granada from the Costa del Sol especially to visit the Alhambra but could not get in because entrance was by timed ticket only and all the slots had been taken for that day! It was totally booked out. When I went, I only got in because I had paid extra to go on a guided tour. Once a place gets famous, especially if designated as a World Heritage Site, it gets put on the “bucket lists” of tens of thousands of world tourists, from China to the United States and all places inbetween. Chris and I thought Seville might be fairly quiet in early February, so we were shocked to see that there were permanent, long queues for both the Cathedral and the Alcazar. The only way to by-pass the main, slowly shuffling queue was to book on a guided tour or to book ahead on the internet. This we had failed to do for the cathedral, our first port of call, so we queued.

Seville’s is a huge cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.  After the reconquest of Spain by the Christians ( the “Reconquista”), finally completed in 1492, the Christian monarchs wanted to make a big statement to show that they were now back in control. So sadly, many mosques were demolished and replaced by churches. Synagogues were also destroyed and the Jews were expelled from the peninsula as well as the Arabs. It was not a great example of Christian tolerance, as Jesus would have preached. It was just the opposite in fact. Intolerance was the order of the day, intolerance that led to the infamous tortures and cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition. This started in the 1480s and as well as being a gift for Monty Python, it brought misery and death to countless people in its mission to purify the Catholic faith by stamping out heresy. In 15th century Spain bigotry and religious intolerance were regarded as pretty “cool” by the Christian majority. As in most countries in most eras, fear , distrust and hatred of the foreigner or the outsider was never far from the surface. This was reflected in Seville by the destruction of the impressive mosque and the building of an enormous Gothic cathedral in its place. But even the triumphant Christians baulked at the idea of knocking down the mosque’s beautiful minaret La Giralda. It was adapted into the cathedral’s bell tower and is now regarded as one of the most important pieces of Islamic architecture on the planet. Built in the late 12th century, it was the prototype for similarly impressive minarets in the Imperial capitals of Rabat and Marrakesh. La Giralda is a top tourist attraction of Seville and dominates the centre of the city, especially at night when it is spectacularly floodlit. You can go up it to see stupendous views over the old city, but we didn’t go because, in our old age, we have become very nervous of heights!

Going back to the cathedral queue, we shuffled patiently forward for about 15 to 20 minutes, surrounded by Americans, French, Germans, fellow Brits and seemingly half of China. Most of them passed the time by playing with their smart-phones. It wasn’t too bad. The weather was about 18 to 20 degrees, cloudy with sunny periods. I shudder to think what the queue experience would be like in the torrid heat of mid summer. Seville is one of the hottest cities in Spain. Once in, we were easily swallowed up by the vast nave, with its enormous wood carved organ, spectacular vaulted ceilings, a string of finely decorated side chapels and several richly decorated altars, including one huge gilded one, carved by a Flemish master in the late 15th century. The building’s sheer size is somewhat overwhelming and we found it difficult to make sense of. I prefer the spiritual atmosphere of a small, simple church.  Commentators have noted, that Seville Cathedral’s sheer mass crudely expresses the Christian message of conquest and domination. As I noted in my facebook photo album , this seems a very far cry from Jesus Christ being born in a humble stable! The huge, magnificent main altar is protected by a fancy, wrought iron grille or latticed screen. It was in shadow and was only illuminated by subtle floodlights every now and then. Signs had warned “no photos” but the endless tide of tourists simply ignored this and the attendants didn’t even try to stop them. As soon as the altar was lit up there was a mini stampede up the steps to photograph it through the gaps in the grille. I’m ashamed to say that I too got momentarily caught up in this madness. I tried to get to the screen to take my photo but was blocked by other tourists who hogged the best spots. One young woman stayed at the top of the steps for an inordinately long time. When I looked over her shoulder to see what she was up to, I found she was scrolling and reading her emails and texts. She wasn’t even looking at the wondrous altar! I only managed to get my precious shot when the light went off!

There were many impressive and interesting things in the Cathedral, but to tell you the truth, it was a relief to get out into the orange- tree shaded exit courtyard. Time for a cup of coffee in a quiet cafe. I must go back to the cathedral however, because I almost forgot to mention the Mausoleum of Christopher Columbus which is situated to one side of the main nave. The famous explorer’s remains are supposed to be in a coffin carried aloft by 4  larger- than- life, symbolic knights, representing the 4 kingdoms of the united Spain — Leon, Castille, Aragon and Navarra. The mausoleum was sculpted in the late 19th century and was originally intended to be located in the Cuban capital of Havana, a Spanish colony ever since Columbus’s discovery of the New World.( although he always thought he had reached India.) However following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish- American War and the loss of Cuba in 1898, the remains ended up in Seville. This seems very strange to me as Columbus actually came from Genoa in Italy, but who am I to argue? The probable explanation is because Seville was the main recipient of the enormous treasures from the New World, later named America. These treasures financed many of Seville’s great buildings and monuments. There is some controversy about whether Columbus’s bones are actually in that Seville coffin. At one stage the bones of his son and also of his grandson were kept in other lead coffins  next to his. This was in Hispaniola, near the site of Columbus’s first landfall. However, during repairs to the cathedral there, the 3 coffins were opened, the bones mixed up and the labels lost! To complicate matters further, the Dominican Republic now claims that it still has the real remains of Columbus and has refused to let scientists do DNA testing. The tests on the bones in Spain proved inconclusive. Whatever the truth, tourists still flock around the Columbus mausoleum in Seville. It was another rugby scrum to get a picture. When the cathedral clock struck the quarter hour, a swarm of tourists would rush towards the coffin-monument. Apparently something special was to happen at that moment, but we never figured out what it was, so I cannot tell you. Life’s too short!

When we went to the Alcazar, we were on an interesting guided tour, so we jumped most of the queue. It is a fortress-palace built on the site of a Roman fort and founded in the 8th century. The various Moor rulers rebuilt or added to it over the centuries. When the Christians reconquered the area the palace was once again remodelled and extended. What can be seen today is a Christian reworking from the mid 14th century, under the orders of King Pedro the Cruel. Some of the architecture is “mudejar”, i.e. – created by Muslim architects working under Christian control.  Fragments of earlier Muslim buildings from Seville, Cordoba and Valencia were incorporated. Today , after passing through the gateway in the Arab-style fortified walls, you enter a big, open courtyard and are faced with 3 palaces. Straight in front is a wonderful muslim palace which is like a mini Alhambra, while to the left and right are more conventional, western style Royal palaces from the 15th and 16th centuries. The latter have royal portraits and renaissance furniture and decorations but it is the more exotic Islamic-style palace that takes up most people’s attention. Gracefully arched windows and doors, beautiful patterned tiles, stylised Arab calligraphy, pools and fountains in inner courtyards, and cool verandahs. Best of are the spectacularly stuccoed ceilings which have to be seen to be believed. It is very like the Alhambra and has the crowds to match.

However despite all these wonders, the most amazing building of our trip was in Cordoba, a fast, smooth train ride away to the north-east. The old town here is full of quiet narrow streets lined with white painted houses. Many have lovely patios with flowers, tiles and a fountain. In summer, some of these streets are festooned with colourful flowers. In the centre of old Cordoba, just north of the river with its old Roman bridge, stands the enormous Mosque-Cathedral known as the Mesquito. We took another guided tour to beat the crowds although it was quieter here than in Seville. The Mesquito consists of a beautiful mosque with multiple rows of double semi-circular arches made from alternating bands of creamy stone and red brick. These arches are mounted on classical pillars salvaged from Ancient Roman and Visigoth temples and churches. The effect is mesmerising. The mihrab, which is the focal point of the mosque is particularly beautiful with exquisite Arab decoration and topped by a lovely Byzantine- style ceiling made by builders imported from Constantinople. What is mind-boggling however is that right in the middle of this huge medieval mosque, the Christians built a large Gothic style Catholic cathedral. They didn’t have the heart to destroy the beautiful mosque but had to show which religion was now back in control. The experience is totally incongruous and disorientating. I think the guide deserves a medal for explaining it all especially as both the mosque and the cathedral were extended several times. In the large shady courtyard are pools, fountains, palm trees and another minaret transformed into a bell tower. It’s certainly one of the most memorable buildings I have visited .

The historical buildings of Seville and Cordoba took up a lot of our time but the highlight of our trip has to be the flamenco show we attended. Dramatic wailing singing, throbbing guitars and strutting, moody dancing punctuated by staccato bursts of blurred footwork like machine gun fire. Then there was the colourful gypsy costumes, the castanets, the rhythmic clapping and finger clicking. The dancers and singers somehow clicked 3 fingers in rapid succession. The dances were full on and uncompromising. At times it was almost like the movement of a matador but without the bull. ( thank goodness.) I know it was a show for tourists like ourselves, but it still made for a thrilling evening.

So we had our Andalucian city break, our short break from the norm. It was a packed few days of sights, sounds and experiences. Obviously it would be too boring to list them all. I haven’t even mentioned : Bizet’s Carmen , sherry or the large array of fans we saw on display. I hope this blog has given you at least a flavour of the trip. Seville and Cordoba — a lot more more than a load of oranges!

 

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