Southern Spain - it goes to your head

Published in Royal Auto, April 2013
Spain’s great southern region of Andalucia combines tradition, culture and excitement in a way that can be highly intoxicating.  Story: Melanie Ball 


Wearing white shirts and pants with rolled-up hems, white socks and sneakers, the young men downing beers at the bar could be Iberian Morris dancers who have swapped hankies for towel headdresses, but their thirsts are the product of a different tradition. Strolling back to our hotel after dinner and rosado (rose), our progress along old Seville’s cobbled lanes is blocked by a religious procession; several dozen people, including a brass band belting out up-beat tunes, trail a silver paso (float), atop which sits the Virgin Mary glittering in the street lights. The procession moves slowly, the music stopping when the float does, and in that near-silence, refreshed, rested white-clad costaleros (bearers) replace exhausted ones in need of ale emerging from beneath the float’s voluminous skirt. With a trumpet blast, everyone moves on, past restaurants and a flamenco theatre and the studded door of the 16th century Convento de San Jose del Carmen, to which the procession will return after its peregrination. We’ve just had a taste of Seville’s famous Semana Santa (Holy Week), preceding Easter, during which up to 100 floats, some weighing more than two tonnes, parade the streets.

I am on my honeymoon in Spain, yet here is Seville, administrative capital of Andalucia, stealing my heart. With architecture testifying to its rich history and a spirit belying the country’s financial woes, Seville is a sangria of sorts, i.e. it’s highly intoxicating. Granted, there are more souvenir spotted flamenco aprons than one could clack a castanet at, but there are also hand-painted fans and embroidered silk mantillas (shawls) worth every cent of their multi-hundred Euro price tags.

And for every slightly touristy tapas bar, there are half a dozen others where elderly Spanish men (mostly) sip sherry beneath jamons hanging from the ceiling. There is no greater treat than a few slices of dark, almost caramelised jamon from black-footed pigs fed on acorns (allow at least 110 Euros a kilo). But the Spanish also know what to do with seafood, and the thick Basque-style seafood soup at Restaurante La Albahaca, in a 1920s Seville mansion, is centuries of fishing and cooking traditions in a bowl.

Seville is best experienced – and the food worked off – on foot. Stroll narrow old-town streets, looking into tiled porches and leafy courtyards and up at wrought-iron balconies.  And contrast the old with the new, such as the amazing Parasol Metropol, a waffle-like structure of six parasols in the form of giant mushrooms that houses, among other things, Seville’s Central Market.

On your meanderings, you may find yourself at the city’s 16th century cathedral and La Giralda, the near-perfect minaret (now bell tower) of the 12th century brick mosque which it replaced. It’s a relatively easy climb to the top, on ramps built for guards to ride horses up. Founded as a Moorish fort in 913, the Alcazar is now a much-expanded complex of gardens, courtyards and patios decorated with mudejar plasterwork and tiles. It was here that the “Catholic Monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabella planned the conquest and final eight-month siege, which ended early in 1492, of Granada, the last bastion of the once-powerful Al-Andalus Islamic empire and our next destination, three hours east by train.

Spain has an excellent rail system built in the boom. A Eurail Pass is convenient, however if travelling only in Spain compare pass prices with single tickets because the pre-booking fee for Eurail seats on premium Spanish trains is dramatically higher than in other countries.

If Spanish history were made into a Hollywood blockbuster, Granada would headline the cast, for it was one of medieval Europe’s richest cities under the Nasrid emirate (13th-15th centuries) and their World Heritage-listed palace-city is Spain’s crown jewel of Moorish architecture, aesthetics and symbolism. The shapes and textures of the Alhambra and its adjoining country estate, Generalife, the monumental gates and the intricate plasterwork make up for the pre-booking, queuing and crowds. After Seville, however, Granada seems almost one-dimensional, with little appeal other than the Alhambra. And the cathedral ceiling. And the Munira leather art shop (two handbags). And buses to white towns for walks through the Alpujarras, foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains that rise behind Granada (to snowy ridgelines for our visit). And another procession.

Another train sweeps us north to Cordoba, one-time Islamic capital of the Iberian Peninsula and European Capital of Culture 2016, where our first destination is the Mezquita, the architectural honeypot around which visitors to the third of Andalucia’s great cities swarm.People speaking a dozen languages admire the decorative outer walls of the mosque, founded in the 8th century and much extended, and stroll the orange-tree courtyard where Moslems washed for generations. And the multi-lingual buzz continues inside the vast prayer hall, in the shadows of row upon row of two-tiered red-and-white striped brick arches, and in the sun-lit 16th century Catholic cathedral plonked in the middle. 

You exit the Mezquita into a kaleidoscope of kitsch souvenirs and frilly postcards yet a block back are quiet, narrow white-walled streets between homes and refuges of craftsmanship such as the Artesania Zoco shop/studios in Cordoba’s medieval Jewish quarter. It’s a joy to stow your map and wander here, down cobbled lanes and into sunny squares, from Cordoba’s tiny 14th century synagogue (one of three surviving in Spain) to Bodega Guzman, with its yellowing bull fighting posters, photographs of matadors and glass-eyed bulls’ heads, where mostly men and tourists drink manzanilla (dry sherry) served from wooden casks.

South of the Mezquita, a much-restored Roman bridge reaches across the Rio Guadalquivir to Torre de la Calahorra. This 14th century tower houses a museum celebrating the religious and cultural tolerance of Moorish Cordoba, before the brutal Inquisition established after the Reconquest to test the conversion of Moslems and Jews to Catholicism. Other displays illustrate the Moorish talent for irrigation using underground canals and water mills.

Medieval Cordobans were also consummate bathers and on our last afternoon in Cordoba we immerse ourselves in the restored Hammam Al Andalus (Arab baths), a short walk east of the Mezquita. After two days exploring the city, I nearly fall asleep on a heated slab as a young woman massages me. But I reach bliss having dripped between small hot and cold tubs and subsided into the warm communal pool (these are mixed-sex baths).  Laying back beneath the star-punched ceiling, I feel like a concubine in a sultan’s harem. 

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Get all the travel information you need at www.spain.info.
Melanie Ball visited Andalucia with assistance from Spain Tourism.
RACV shops stock all sorts of products for a holiday, including maps, travel guides, first aid kits and more.  Visit any RACV shop or buy online at racv.com.au/shop. Don’t forget member discounts on RACV Travel Insurance – call 13 13 29 or go to racv.com.au/travel. And members can save on European rail passes and roaming SIM cards for your phone – go to racv.com.au/travel. If you plan to drive in Spain, you’ll need an International Driving Permit, which is an official translation of your Australian licence.  Get details at racv.com.au/travel.

This text is copyright and cannot be used in any way without the written permission of Melanie Ball.
 
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