panoramic view of Málaga harbor from the Gibralfaro castle
Plaza de la Constitución
Plaza de Toros
Cordula and Gernot
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I didn’t want my first flamenco experience to be a tourist experience. There are plenty of places that will charge tourists 50€ to attend a prepared show. I wanted to see everyday flamenco in a local bar with locals who go there to enjoy the good food and local talent. Thanks to our friends Cordula and Gernot, we found that place at Rincón de Chinitas in Málaga. And we had the additional pleasure of getting to see Gernot show his talent! Fun evening with a great couple!
I was just lamenting that it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced serendipity on this trip. Segovia. León. Santiago. They were weeks ago. And then it happened again. Málaga. It was as simple as lending a pen to someone in a café. I didn’t even notice the couple had sat down two tables away until Marcus was handing over his pen. Kismet.
Gernot returned the pen, and we began talking. This and that. We are retired Americans traveling in Spain for three months. They are Austrians, just a bit older than our children, in Málaga for a weekend away from jobs and children. We so enjoyed talking with them. We discussed Austria and the EU. We discussed American politics and next year’s presidential election. We discussed immigration – an important topic for both countries. We talked and we talked.
Cordula told us about a flamenco performance they chanced upon earlier in the day at a nondescript bar. She said the woman would perform again at 8:00 or so. We should join them. They couldn’t remember the name of bar. It was next to Casa Diego. Calle Santa María, Gernot said. We continued to talk. We missed the Picasso Museum. We didn’t care.
We met them later at flamenco bar Rincón de Chinitas, a hole-in-the-wall that took three inquiries in the neighboring shops to find. My kind of place – discreet and not for the easily discouraged!
We had a wonderful evening – worth a blog in itself.
Cordula emailed me today, something that brought tears to my eyes. “In Austria we say ‘Man sieht sich immer zwei Mal im Leben’ – which means that people always meet twice. So let’s hope that this saying comes true and we meet again one day.” What a beautiful thought. What a beautiful couple. I also hope it comes true.
I couldn’t decide whether to make the trip to Madinat al-Zahra, the 10th-century summer palace of the caliph of Córdoba. Once a spectacular city of 25,000 built by Abd ar-Rahman III for his favorite concubine, now it is not much more than a footprint of stone. I turned to TripAdvisor to help me decide.
A popular destination in TripAdvisor may have hundreds of reviews. It’s not possible to read them all, nor is it worth it. Many contribute nothing. Most of the “Excellent” reviews are uninformative and repetitive, so I start with the “Terrible” reviews.
Review: The video presentation at the Visitor Center is very well done, but then you go to the archaeological site and don’t see anything resembling what you saw in the video.
Reaction: Either the archaeological site is a pile of rubble, or this person has no imagination.
Review: They have reconstructed the buildings at the site; you can’t tell what is original and what was created.
Reaction: Okay, so there’s more than a pile of rubble, but it’s either all fake or this person can’t tell the difference.
Review: We refused to pay 2,10€ to ride the bus to the archaeological site because they wouldn’t let us drive our own car.
Reaction: Cheap bastards with an axe to grind!
By now, I was hopelessly confused, so I turned to Marcus. “Let’s just go,” he said. Quite right. Why am I wasting all this time with people I don’t know when I can just ask the one I know best?
We went; we loved it! The video presentation at the Visitor Center was amazing – the best I have ever seen at an historic sight. They not only used computer animation to show what the 1100-year-old ruins most likely looked like in their magnificence, but they also used animated people to show how they most likely lived. The most remarkable example of this showed ambassadors from foreign countries visiting the city. The entire entourage (maybe twenty people) would ride their horses through the fabulous entrance arches into a maze of ramps up to the Caliph’s reception area. The path twisted and turned, designed to give the impression that the reception must be just around the corner. Corner after corner was negotiated only to reveal another ramp. Visiting dignitaries could only imagine the enormity of the palace. Then, when they finally arrived at the reception room, they had to wait for hours to be received – all designed to impress upon them the Caliph’s importance.
After the video, we were thrilled to go to the actual site to see these same arches and ramps. If I hadn’t seen the film, I wouldn’t have had any idea what I was looking at. And, yes, it was obvious what was original construction and what was not. They intentionally used concrete alongside the original stone to show how it had been reconstructed. One of my favorite exhibits showed the reconstruction of an arch from the few original pieces they had found. Made me want to run right out and become an archaeologist!
One of the Terribles commented that the archaeological site at Madinat al-Zahra was a travesty, like reconstructing the Colosseum. Nonsense! They have created the perfect balance between displaying the ruins as they were unearthed, and allowing us to imagine what this phenomenon was like at its pinnacle. Don’t bother with the Terribles; just go and enjoy!
Granada’s Alhambra and Córdoba’s Mezquita were leading contenders for my most anticipated experience in Spain. The Alhambra, the fortress and palace of the last Moorish emirate in Spain, is the Numero Uno tourist attraction in España. La Mezquita, a cathedral built over a mosque, is a close second.
You know about my experience with the crowds at the Alhambra (Tales of the Alhambra). I was a tired and cranky person by the time we descended the hill. So I entered La Mezquita warily. I have to say the minaret at the entrance to the outer courtyard was not very promising. It had been enclosed in a chunky cathedral bell tower. Then we entered the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Oranges). Okay, a bunch of orange trees with a fountain in the center. It was only through the self-guided audio tour that I was reminded that what appears as an ordinary fountain in a cathedral courtyard was originally the requisite means of ablution for those about to enter the mosque for prayers.
But when I stepped into the mosque/cathedral and took in the rows upon rows upon rows of Moorish arches, I was blown away. My source of awe at stepping into La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona (Holy Cathedral!) was the uncharacteristic (for a cathedral) Modernisme architecture. The source at La Mezquita was the achingly gorgeous ancient Moorish architecture. Two artistic styles, lightyears apart, and both made me swoon. In one geometrically perfect spot I could see an infinity of arches extending into the darkness in front of me, and an infinity of columns disappearing to my right. I didn’t want to move.
But I had to explore this incredible space. I wandered for a half hour, and all I saw was mosque – endless rows of columns and arches like the olive trees planted on the hillsides of Andalucía. At one time this mosque held 9500 worshippers.
As I spiraled my way in toward the center of this open space, I was shocked to come across a solid marble wall – the cathedral, built smack-dab in the middle of the mosque. After the Reyes Católicos (Catholic monarchy) kicked the Moors out of Spain, the mosque was converted into a cathedral. To their credit, they didn’t tear down the mosque and rebuild on its foundation, but this obstruction in the center of that seemingly endless space is an architectural travesty! It left me deeply unsettled.
I remembered James Michener had written about his visit to La Mezquita in his book Iberia, which was so instrumental to my trip to Spain. Seeking consolation, I turned to his words. He had more knowledge of and appreciation for art and architecture than I will ever have. Like me he was totally blown away by the vastness of the mosque and the beauty of the architecture and was completely surprised by “running into” a full-sized cathedral in the middle of it all. As he pointed out, building a cathedral over – or even inside – a mosque was commonplace back in the day. The Visigoths built over Roman temples, the Moors built over Visigoth churches and the Christians built over mosques. It’s the natural progression of history. That the Christian monarchs left so much of the mosque intact indicated their appreciation for what they inherited.
I love Michener’s interpretation of the juxtaposition of the cathedral within the mosque:
…[Spain] is a Christian country but one with suppressed Muslim influences that crop out of unforeseen points; it is a victorious country that expelled the defeated Muslims from all places except the human heart; it is a land which tried to extirpate all memory of the Muslims but which lived on to mourn their passing; and it is a civilization which believed that it triumphed when it won the last battle but which knows that it lost in fields like poetry, dancing, philosophy, architecture and agriculture. To me Córdoba’s mosque was the most mournful building in Spain…
Thank you, James.
Every good-sized city in Spain has a Judería, or ancient Jewish ghetto. Sephardic Jews lived in Spain from early Roman times, before the Christian era, until the late 15th century. The term Sephardic or Sephardi means Spanish or Hispanic and typically refers to Jews whose origin is the Iberian peninsula – Spain and Portugal. For centuries they co-existed peacefully with both Muslims and Christians. In fact many Jews immigrated to Spain during the years of Moorish rule because of the thriving intellectual life and the religious tolerance of the Muslims.
But in the late 13th century the Catholic monarchs in northern Spain began a reconquest of the Iberian peninsula for Christianity. Only the emirate at Granada (with the Alhambra as its base) was allowed to remain in an otherwise Christian Spain. The Christians were not as tolerant of the Jews as the Moors were, and there were open and brutal persecutions. Many Jews converted to Christianity to avoid persecution, which satisfied the Christians for a couple of centuries, until the Christian monarchs began to doubt the sincerity of the newly converted and suspected them of encouraging other new converts to join them in practicing Judaism in private.
In 1487 Fernando and Isabel decided to get to the bottom of the issue by “inquiring” into the sincerity of the converts’ dedication to Christianity; hence, the Spanish Inquisition. Tragically these interviews, left in the hands of some decidedly anti-Semitic inquisitors, degenerated into torture and death.
Those who still openly practiced Judaism were given a choice: 1) convert to Catholicism, 2) leave Spain, or 3) face execution. Without a doubt, an appalling era in Spanish history that continued for almost four centuries.
In 2014, the Spanish government passed a law granting dual citizenship to Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Sephardic roots in Spain to “compensate for shameful events in the country’s past.” Just a few weeks ago, 4302 Jews were granted Spanish citizenship under this new law. It is expected that 90,000 Jews will apply for citizenship.
No, it doesn’t erase the past, but it’s a start at healing an open wound.
Today these Juderías are a fascinating maze of narrow, whitewashed alleyways and gorgeous, miniature plazas. So far, Córdoba’s is our favorite. We loved getting lost among the shops, restaurants, and artisan studios. Some of the space has also been converted into residences with beautiful flowered courtyards in the Andalucían style.
We love olives! Drove through the heart of olive country on our way from Granada to our new home (for the next five days, anyway) in Córdoba. Stopped in two quaint little villages: Baeza and Úbeda. I don’t think they see many English-speaking tourists here! It’s pretty remote – not on the usual path from Granada to Córdoba.
Look at the olives we were served as our free snack with our beverage order. I’ve never seen an olive so oblong before. Even the pits are long. The meat was very dense, and they were a little less brined than most. Different, but yummy!
Our last day in Granada we decided to drive down to the Costa Tropical (about an hour’s drive) to see what this part of the Mediterranean coast is like. Like most parts of the southern Spanish coast, it’s an expat’s haven. Lots of British pensioners living here.
When King Alfonso XII came to the town of Nerja in the 1800s to inspect damage from an earthquake, he thought the views of the sea to be so beautiful that he dubbed the location “the balcony of Europe.” The Nerjanos loved the tag so much that they created a marble balcony extending over the beach so everyone could take in the view.
After lunch in Nerja, we drove up into the hills to experience our first pueblo blanco, Frigiliana. These white villages that hang off the southern hills overlooking the Mediterranean are spectacular. You’ll see more of them in the future; I promise.
Last stop on our way back to Granada was Almuñécar, another coastal town. We love that this rock splits the town in two. On the eastern side of the rock you have the more modern town. On the west side is the cute little village of La Herradura – much more our speed. Had a coffee at a café on the beach, then hopped in the car and headed back “home.”