Cruisin’ in Santa Cruz

Leida's courtyard

Leida’s courtyard

We were walking through the Judería, a warren of narrow alleyways that made up the ancient Jewish Quarter in Sevilla in the centuries before the Inquisition. Not surprisingly, it’s located in the oldest neighborhood of Sevilla, the Barrio de Santa Cruz. We were quietly talking as we walked, just minding our own business, when a young woman passed us, turned and looked at us, and asked “Where are you from?” We could tell by her accent that she was Spanish, yet her English was perfect.

Surprised, I replied, “Los Estados Unidos (the United States).”

“Would you like to see a typical Sevillano home? I live just up the street. It’s quite beautiful.”

Marcus and I looked at each other and replied in unison. “Yes, that would be very nice.”

She continued walking, and we hurried to keep up. About 30 feet ahead, she stopped in front of a large wooden door in a stucco wall, inserted a key, and stepped through the doorway. We followed. We were standing in a covered entryway. In front of us was an iron grillwork gate. Beyond it, a mass of vegetation. She unlocked the gate and motioned us inside. The courtyard was full of flowering plants and fruit trees – oranges, grapefruit, figs…so many that it was difficult to see to the far end. In the center was a trickling fountain surrounded by white metal benches. Very Moorish; the Moors loved fountains, not only for their cooling effect on scorching summer days, but also for the calming visual and aural aspects.

She paused. “My name is Leida,” she said.

“Cindy.” “Marcus.” We extended our hands, and then continued to admire the garden around us.

In true Andalucían style there were several residences facing inward toward the courtyard. Three floors on the left; three floors on the right. We asked Leida if all the residences were occupied by her family. “No. Three different families live on the left side of the courtyard, one on each floor. And three families live on the right side. My family lives on the second floor on the right side.”

“Has your family lived here for many years?” I asked.

“Yes, so many years that I don’t remember how long.” She smiled. “But come with me. There’s something I want to show you.” She led us through the courtyard. On the back wall was something completely unexpected – an old arched niche flanked by peeling murals. “It was part of a house built for one of the queens,” she explained. I could believe this. This old residence was practically next door to the Alcázar, the ancient royal palace.

built for a queen

built for a queen

Marcus asked Leida what she did for a living. “I’m a lawyer,” she answered. Only 24 years old and most likely freshly out of law school, she is an intern in the field of criminal law. We thanked her profusely for sharing her family’s treasure with us. She saw us back out to the street, said goodbye, and disappeared back into her private oasis. All told: 20 minutes.

Marcus and I looked at each other. Until that moment, we hadn’t had a chance to talk about this unexpected opportunity; it had all happened so quickly. We both laughed. Words failed me. “Well, that was interesting!” was all I could manage, and we continued on our way.

I wonder what the rest of the day holds for us.

Cristóbol Colón

Columbus's remains in Sevilla's cathedral

Columbus’s remains in Sevilla’s cathedral

Cristóbol Colón is the Spanish name of the Italian merchant and explorer Cristoforo Colombo, the guy we Americans know as Christopher Columbus. Technically he was not Italian, as Italy as a country did not exist when Columbus was born in 1451 (or thereabouts). He was Genoese, born in the kingdom of Genoa, which is now part of Italy. He went to sea sometime after 1473, settled in Portugal for awhile, and by 1485 was living in Castilla, a kingdom in what is now Spain.

I am intrigued with Columbus’s story, which is incomplete at best. There are so many gaps and contradictions in his life history and so many theories of what really happened; we can only go by a consensus of what historians have unravelled. One thing seems clear: He is not the hero we were taught he was in school.

Columbus monument with Isabel's and Fernando's names prominently featured

Columbus monument with Isabel’s and Fernando’s names prominently featured

I was never sure why Europeans were so determined to find a sea route to Asia for spices. Turns out when the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 and the Eastern Roman Empire crumbled, the land route to Asia (Silk Road) was no longer viable. Columbus may not have been the first to theorize that it was possible to sail west to Asia, but he was one of the most passionate. (And, no, the world did not believe the earth was flat at that time. The Greeks had proved it long before the Christian era.) It took him seven years of pitching his plan to five different European governments before Spain reluctantly agreed to fund him. Portugal had just discovered a southeastern sea route around the tip of Africa, and Spain was desperate to get in on the action. Despite their financial risk, Isabel and Fernando didn’t believe he would be successful, but they were willing to let him die trying. In return for their investment, they became the wealthiest country in the world. Columbus didn’t bring back spices, but the lands he claimed for Spain yielded untold riches in silver and gold.

Funny thing, but Columbus never conceded that the lands he discovered and claimed for Spain were not in Asia. Several years after Columbus’s first voyage (he made four round-trip voyages), explorer Amerigo Vespucci landed in the Americas. When he returned to Florence, he was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he had landed on a continent previously unknown to Europe and Asia. And we all know who got the new continents named after him!

And whose head is this way down at the bottom? Oh, that would be Columbus.

And whose head is this way down at the bottom? Oh, that would be Columbus.

That Columbus survived his first mid-Atlantic voyage during hurricane season and made landfall on an island in what is now the Bahamas in just five weeks was plain luck. That he was released from his contract with Fernando and Isabel after eight years for tyranny and incompetence was poor judgment. Historians believe that Columbus and his two brothers practically eradicated the native population of Hispaniola, where they set up operations, through slave labor and cruelty. And they are credited with starting the trans-Atlantic slave trade, bringing captives from the Americas to Europe with each return voyage.

Columbus died in Spain at the age of 54, stripped of his titles and fortunes and riddled with disease, but I have to give him credit for being the first European to take on the open Atlantic. He may not have been correct in his assumptions of where he would land or what he would find, but he was adamant in his convictions.

Sevilla is all about Columbus. There is a monument to him here in Sevilla, so I guess Spain changed its mind about his place in history – although I noticed Isabel and Fernando are featured more prominently on the monument than Columbus is. His first voyage was planned in the Alcázar Palace, where Fernando and Isabel were living after they conquered Al-Andalus (Andalucía), the land of the Moors. And his remains eventually ended up in the cathedral here. He may not be a hero, but what a helluva an accident!

What is this?

sky bridge1

What the heck? This thing is attached to the seventh floor of our apartment building, and to the seventh floors of the other five buildings in this apartment complex. Since we’re staying on the seventh floor, we went in search of it. Turns out we have a key to the access door, so of course we went out to explore.

I couldn’t bring myself to step out onto the part of the platform that extends beyond the building. Yes, there is a panel at the end, but it’s vertigo-inducing glass and looks very low – maybe only a few feet high. I’m thinkin’ that’s not going to stop anyone. And there is some sort of seam where the platform attaches to the building. They tried to hide it with indoor-outdoor carpeting, but I could see it.

“Step out onto the platform,” Marcus said, “so I can take a photo of you.” No way, buddy, and I’m not letting you step out on it either.

What the heck is it for? The only thing we could come up with is a terrace for residents of the building. Unlike most apartment buildings in Spain, there are no balconies on these because the windows have these funky louvers on them you can adjust to control the amount of sunlight in the apartment. Maybe people bring their chairs and sit out on these platforms. Spaniards do love to be outdoors. Yet we never saw anyone out on one, and the weather was very warm while we were in Sevilla.

Whatever they are, you won’t find me out on one!

view of the next apartment building from our apartment

view of the next apartment building from our apartment

Now this is a Plaza de España!

Plaza de España

Plaza de España in Sevilla

We dropped our luggage at our new digs in Sevilla and drove to the train station to return rental car #2. The walk back to the apartment was around 30 minutes, so I thought we’d take in a sight or two on the way back to break up the walk. The only thing in our path was the Plaza de España.

Almost every city in Spain has a Plaza de España. Typically it’s just another square in a city full of squares, although often a good-sized one, and if you’re lucky it has some good cafés. So I wasn’t expecting much from this Plaza de España. One difference I noticed on the map, however, was its unusual shape. Unlike most plazas in Spain, which are square or rectangular, this one is semi-circular.

towerAs we got closer I saw a brick tower rising high above the trees and other buildings in the neighborhood. “What is that?” I wondered out loud. I hadn’t seen this tower on the map. As we came round it, we saw its twin on the far side of a phenomenal D-shaped plaza. A straight line connecting the towers forms the vertical line of the D. The curved part is a beautiful brick colonnade running from one tower around to the other.

In the center of the D is a half-moon island, with the requisite plaza fountain embedded in cobblestones, surrounded by a D-shaped canal. The canal separates the plaza from the colonnade, and is wide and long enough for people to row boats in it. Crossing the canal at four different locations are tiled bridges connecting the plaza-island to the walkway in front of the colonnade. Later I learned that these bridges represent the four medieval kingdoms of Spain: Castilla, León, Aragón, and Navarra. I stood, open-mouthed, taking it all in. I felt like I had stumbled across a little bit of Venice!

a bridge representing one of the four Medieval kingdoms of Spain

a bridge representing one of the four medieval kingdoms of Spain

Then I remembered reading about this plaza in the guidebook. It was built for the 1929 World’s Fair. King Alfonso XIII, the last king of Spain before the civil war and Franco’s 40-year dictatorship, wanted to demonstrate his country’s magnificence. I’d say he accomplished the task.

As I strolled along the walkway below the colonnade, I noticed azulejo (painted tile) benches, 50 in all, and each one representing a province of Spain. Behind each bench is an azulejo mural illustrating a provincial legend. And on the ground in front of each bench is a map of the province. What a glorious display! This is truly a Plaza de España; the only one we have seen that actually lives up to its name.

a tribute to Zaragoza, one of 50 Spanish provinces

a tribute to Zaragoza, one of 50 Spanish provinces

I took my time examining each province. We haven’t been to them all in our nine-week journey, but we’ve been to most. It was like seeing an azulejo slideshow of our journey. How fitting that we should stumble across this beautiful tribute as our adventure draws to a close.

sunset view from our apartment of one of the two towers

sunset view of one of the two towers from our apartment

The Rock

Recognize the profile of the Rock just behind the wind turbines? The mountains behind it are in Morocco.

Recognize the profile of the Rock just behind the wind turbines? The mountains behind it are in Morocco.

I missed Gibraltar. We originally planned to make it a day trip from Casares, but the weather eliminated a couple of travel days and we were having such a great time exploring the pueblos blancos (white villages) in the mountains that we elected not to drive down to the coast. But I was still hopeful that we could get at least close enough for photos on our way to our next destination, Jeréz. Not so.

We were anxious to get down the mountain from Finca Mosca before the forecasted thunderstorms hit the area. As we drove along the coast, we reached a point where we had to make the decision: Gibraltar to the south or Jeréz to the northwest? The clouds grew increasingly dense and dark as they roiled in from the Atlantic. We have some pretty intense storms in Florida, but nothing like the one brewing to our south. They say this type of weather comes into the Mediterranean from the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa. I can believe it. This is the type of wild weather I’d expect from the open Atlantic. We chose to bypass Gibraltar. I know it was the right decision. The rain hit Jeréz about the time we arrived, and hovered over the city the entire week we were there.

So I didn’t get to touch the Rock, and I didn’t even get to see it up close. This is difficult for someone who loves geographical extremes and historical oddities. The Rock of Gibraltar, that crazy profile we know from the Prudential Insurance Company logo, is one of the mythical Pillars of Hercules. The other is Monte Hacho in Ceuta, across the Strait of Gibraltar in northern Africa. (Ceuta is actually a territory of Spain.) The “pillars” are only nine miles apart but stand on two different continents. Together they form the gateway from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea, or, from the perspective of ancient Mediterranean civilizations, they define the end of the earth as they knew it.

Gibraltar is only 2.6 square miles in area, but due to its unique location it is prized politically. Whoever owns Gibraltar controls the passage of shipping traffic through the portal. It is a major vantage point, strategically and financially. It’s been conquered by many countries over the centuries; it’s been a British territory since 1713. Some say Britain’s possession of Gibraltar kept Spain from joining the Axis forces at the beginning of World War II. Having just emerged from a devastating civil war, Spain was not about to antagonize the British and jeopardize shipments of much need supplies through the strait.

The Spanish want Gibraltar back, badly. And why not? If they acquire Gibraltar, they’ll have both pillars – a matched set. But we know the desire to reclaim it is more than esthetic. And Britain is somewhat attached to her rock. As recently as 2002, the British residents of Gibraltar voted to reject Spanish sovereignty.

So sorry to miss this intriguing corner of the world, but so fortunate we had these views from the hilltop of Casares. It wasn’t the same as being there, but even from a distance I could sense the power of this majestic rock.

Memories are made of this

We were enjoying ourselves so much, we forgot to take a photo of Mouche and Christian, but here is a photo of Mouche's niece in Andalucían dress with Pela, the free-range horse.

We were enjoying ourselves so much at lunch, we forgot to take a photo of Mouche and Christian, but here is a photo of Mouche’s niece in Andalucían dress with Pela, the free-range neighborhood horse.

While I welcomed an excuse to stay home after a harrowing drive up the mountainside in the pitch-black the night before (In the dark), I also looked at a day off from sightseeing as an opportunity to invite our hosts at Finca Mosca down to our (their) cottage for a glass of wine. But if we were going to be home the entire day and we had groceries to use before we packed everything up and moved on, why not invite them to lunch?

We liked Mouche and Christian immediately when they welcomed us to Finca Mosca. Unlike many of our hosts who are invisible during our stays in their apartments, they were eager to engage with their guests. They seemed genuinely interested in the social benefits of renting out their cottage, not just the financial gain. They bought the property sixteen years ago, living on it part-time in the beginning. They worked diligently, when they could get away from work and other obligations in Belgium, hauling materials up the mountainside to remodel the cottage. They have lived on the property full-time now for two years. They possess that magical combination of being both industrious, but also laid-back. Most importantly, they understand how to enjoy life. I marvel at the way they embrace living in a foreign country: learning the language, taking advantage of the bounty of their natural surroundings, and accepting their neighbors as their new family.

Lunch was nothing fancy; we used what we had on hand. It was a bit too cool to sit on the terrace, so Mouche and Christian brought two more stools down from their house and nestled in with us at the kitchen counter. They brought a delicious French rosé, a nice Spanish red, and some beer, and we talked through the afternoon.

This, my friends, is what this trip is all about. It’s not about the sights, the weather, the food, or the exchange rate – although all of those things may add to our adventure. We travel to interact with people – people who live outside our little box and who add so much to our lives with their perspectives. We get no greater satisfaction than spending an afternoon like this.

When we lived in Germany, we loved the concept of die erfahrung as it applies to travel. Literally the words mean “the experience,” but the concept goes deeper than that. Travel is not about how many sights on your itinerary you accomplish; it’s about what you experience while accomplishing them. Some people never learn the distinction; we feel fortunate that we did. It keeps the compass spinning.

In the dark

The sun was setting, and we still had to get to our cottage on the other side of this mountain.

The sun was setting, and we still had to get to our cottage on the other side of this mountain.

I love being in the mountains. We don’t get to see many of them in Florida. But we had a pretty hairy drive home from Ronda. My worst fear was realized: We had to drive the treacherous road up the mountain to the cottage in the dark!

The drive from the provincial road up the mountain to Finca Mosca is incredibly steep in some places, and after awhile the road narrows into a single-track, unpaved “path.” If you meet an oncoming car, one of you has to back into a part of the road that is slightly wider so the other car can pass. This is all well and good in the daylight, but after dark it’s an entirely different ball game.

In the dark we did have the headlight advantage: We could see cars coming on the road ahead of us from a short distance (lots of twists and turns on this road), so we could pull over as much as possible before they arrived to let them pass. Every muscle in my body tensed as we rounded each bend. Would we be blinded by headlights in front of us? Would we have time to react? They don’t utilize guard rails much here in Spain, especially on these country roads. My imagination did its worst.

We encountered four oncoming cars in the dark, more than we usually encounter in the daylight, but at least we saw each one coming in time to find a place to pull over.

I announced, after we arrived safely home, that we were taking a day off the next day. No driving anywhere. I needed time to let my nerves settle before we descended the mountain one last time, but it was also our last day to enjoy the sunshine and views from this amazing cottage in the mountains.

Bonus: We invited our hosts, who live in the house above our cottage, to come down the hill for lunch. Now that’s my idea of a perfect day!


view from the new city

view from the new city

Ronda, one of the oldest cities in Spain, is also one of the most dramatic mountain towns. Nestled deep into the mountains, it has this crazy gorge – a dizzying 380 feet deep – that separates the old Moorish city of La Ciudad (dating from the 8th century) from the new city of El Mercadillo (15th century). [Interesting to think that “new” for Spain is before Cristóbol Colón set sail from Spain to discover the Americas.] The gorge features so prominently in the topography of the city that they gave it a name: El Tajo, or The Pit. Uh-huh….

Moorish minaret/Christian belltower in the old city

Moorish minaret/Christian belltower in the old city

Ronda was a headquarters for bandeleros from the 18th to early 20th centuries, bandits who would prey upon travelers passing through Andalucía. I remember Washington Irving mentioning the notorious bandeleros as he traveled to Granada in his Tales of the Alhambra. I wonder if he was passing through the mountains of Ronda.

We loved the views of this verdant valley from our vantage point in the new city, but crossing the narrow gorge into the old city was spectacular. We crossed on the Puente Nuevo, the New Bridge, built in the 18th century. Its design really accentuates the depth of the gorge as the supports extend to the bottom. Prior to its completion, the citizens of Ronda had a choice of the older Puente Viejo (not surprisingly, the Old Bridge) or the even older Puente Árabe (Arabic Bridge). After viewing El Tajo from the Puente Nuevo, I can’t imagine crossing it from an older bridge. My knees were weak enough as I looked through an opening in the wall to the Guadalevín River below!

Puente Nuevo

Puente Nuevo

Ronda has one of the oldest and most prominent bullrings in Spain, thanks to the Romero family, local matadors who were instrumental in defining the modern style of bullfighting. Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, both bullfighting aficionados, spent quite a bit of time in Ronda. In fact, Orson Welles’s remains were buried on bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez’s property in Ronda.

at the bullring

at the bullring

The city was a haven for other artists as well, and not just for the bullring. Many poets and writers, or viajeros románticos (romantic travelers) as they were known to the locals, spent time in Ronda inspired by the beauty around them. I am in complete agreement, as long as I have firm ground underneath my feet.

Puente Viejo

Puente Viejo


fireplace at Casa Emilio

fireplace at Casa Emilio

I love a fireplace on a cool autumn evening. We don’t have either in Florida (a fireplace or a cool autumn evening!), so this is a real departure for us. Makes us miss our days in Connecticut with the wood stove.

Marcus is back in his element. After Christian checked him out on the intricacies of this airtight fireplace insert, we were toasty right up to the sleeping loft. The only thing missing is the apple crisp – a family tradition on the first night we lit the wood stove.


Casares, a pueblo blanco in Andalucía

Casares, a pueblo blanco in Andalucía

The cottage we’re renting this week is outside the town of Casares, a beautiful pueblo blanco (white town) in the Sierra Bermeja mountains. The magic of these villages is their sudden appearance on the hillside in front of you as you drive ‘round a bend on a mountainside road. Looming before you is a brilliant-white cluster of buildings literally hanging off the dusky green hills. They are so characteristic of sunny Andalucía, and they take my breath away every time one appears before us.

love these winding passages in the town

love these winding passages in the town

There is a prevalent theory that the pueblos blancos inspired Pablo Picasso cubism style. He was born and raised in Andalucía amongst these little villages stacked up like so many sugar cubes on the hillside, so it just might be true.

climbing up to the Moorish castle ruins

climbing up to the Moorish castle ruins

We had lunch in a little bar on the main square of Casares, then climbed the hill for the views. We are in love with this little town!

mosaic in the town center

mosaic in the town center