Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Granada redux


We had a short drive through the olive fields and hills, back to towards the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and Granada. We drove right into the Alhambra and into the Parador de Granada. It was a little early to check in, so we visited the Alhambra museum. Although this was my tenth visit to the Alhambra, this was the first time that I'd found the museum open, due to its bizarre hours and frequent closures. There were a few interesting artefacts in the small musem. Then we checked in to the excellent hotel, in the building of the Convent of San Francisco, built after the reconquista in the early 15th century. The room was excellent, and the staff provided a free bottle of cava. We ate lunch in the Parador restaurant, then went down into the city to sort out a few chores and then visit a couple of our favourite tapas bars from the last visit.  We saw some friendly waiters from last time, although Javier and friends in Meson de al Abuela were a bit busy being threatened by gypsies, so it was difficult to chat with them.

The Parador was the perfect end to the holiday, a bit of luxury in the middle of a beautiful palace.


We drove to the airport, dropped off the hire car, where they gave us back the deposit without inspecting the vehicle, then boarded the flight to Madrid. A quick turnaround there and we were en route to Heathrow. The UK was completely covered in cloud, cold and damp, and we saw our first traffic jam for three weeks as soon as we reached the M25 on the bus. Welcome home!

Jaén and Baeza

We drove to Jaén and checked in to the spectacular Parador in the castle on top of the hill dominating the city. The castle was built by Ibn Al-Ahmar in the 13th century, and modified by Fernando III, who named it the Castillo de Santa Catalina (St. Catherine). The hotel is excellent, although we were disappointed to find the outdoor swimming pool closed.

Suckling pig in the Parador restaurant
Jaén was settled by the Romans and expanded by the Moors as a convenient stopover for caravan routes. It does not normally appear on tourist itineraries. The renaissance cathedral, by Andrés de Vandelvira, was started in 1492. The Baños Arabes are the largest Arab baths remaining in Spain. They fell into disuse after the reconquista, but were excavated and restored and reopened in 1984, and now are part of the museum complex of the Centro Cultural Palacio de Villardompardo, but closed Sunday afternoon and Monday, so we decided not to go out of our way to visit them. The plan in Jaén is to rest after running around and seeing lots of sights in the big cities.

We ate dinner in the castle banqueting room, after it had been vacated by the veterinarians of Jaén out for their annual lunch, and a significant portion of a suckling pig was eaten.


A day of rest. We enjoyed lazing around our castle, and took some photos. We popped into town by taxi in the evening to try out the local tapas, but we were a bit early in the evening, and many bars were either still closed, or had opened early for the Barca-Real Madrid match. We played cards in the Gastrobar,  with excellent tapas, with half an eye on the match. Jaén seems a bit drab after the remarkable cities which we've visited so far.


We went on a short day trip to one of the beautiful renaissance towns of Jaen province, Baeza. Along with Ubeda, Baeza grew rich on the textile industry in the 16th century, and brought in some of the finest Italian architects of the day to build palaces, churches and civic buildings. Baeza is the smallest and possibly brightest gem of the Renaissance triangle. We had an excellent lunch in a pleasant square - a tapa of angulas (elvers) on toast, then a spinach and chickpea stew, with tomato and avocado salad, all drenched in the excellent local olive oil. It is an astonishing fact that Jaén province produces 20% of the world's olive oil, and has a population of only six-hundred and fifty thousand. There are forests of neatly planted olive trees everywhere.

Penelope Chetwode had more down-to-earth memories of the town:

"I returned to the posada to the familiar sound of pigs being weighed in the narthex" [Two Middle-aged Ladies in Andalusia]
We ate again in the excellent Parador restaurant..


Back south to Granada!

Monday, 8 October 2012



Córdoba was the capital of Baetia under the Romans, and capital of Western Islam in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Maimonides statue seen from our room
Our hotel is in the heart of the old quarter, the most intact medieval Arabic city layout in Europe, and known, confusingly, as the Judería, or Jewish quarter, although it has been in fact home to a mixture of Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries, and is little altered since the 13th century. We are right next to the old synagogue, one of the very few traces of Spanish Jewry to survive after their forced expulsion and conversion in 1492, and subsequent hounding by the Inquisition.

Córdoba was the greatest centre of learning in Europe in the medieval period. The philosophers Averroës and Moses Maimonides lived and worked here. The statue of Maimonides is right outside the window of our hotel room. We were also interested to read that Córdoba boasted the first automatic street lighting in Europe, around 1000 AD.

The drive through the Judería was interesting, through extremely narrow lanes full of pedestrian tourists. A Volvo estate tried to follow us and left a lot of paint and some bodywork behind.


We visit one of the wonders of the world, the Mezquita-Catedral, which isn't bad.
"Despite the presence within it of a 16th-century Christian cathedral and an older chapel, the Mezquita remains the most substantial and most impressive relic of the Islamic presence in Spain."  [Roger Collins, Spain: an Oxford Archaeological Guide]
Christian vaulting above the Moorish arches
Imposing from the outside due to its size (130 by 180m), inside it is an oasis and forest of red and white Moorish arches. When it was a mosque, it could hold 40,000 worshippers. There are many layers. A Roman temple stood here, over which was built a church by the Visigoths, and then in the 8th century the construction of a mosque began.

Each rebuilding used stones, columns and capitals from the previous stages, and it was enlarged until it was the second largest in the Muslim world, the third largest ever built, the greatest in the West. When Córdoba was conquered by the Christians in 1236, the mosque was converted to a Cathedral, but they were at first respectful. A small Mudéjar chapel to complement the Mezquita was added in 1371. In 1523 Charles V permitted the construction of the Capilla Real and Catedral in the centre of the mosque, although even he was said to be horrified by the results of this "desecration", as the Blue Guide describes it.. The qibla, or South Wall, incorporating the mihrab, was bricked up following the reconquest, and not uncovered until the nineteenth century, and so has survived well, and is very impressive.

Qibla in the Mezquita-Cathedral

The Rio Guadalquivir was once navigable from the sea to here, and the Puente Romano dates back to the time of Julius Caesar. Apart from all of the stones having been replaced over the years, it is a real, original Roman bridge.

We considered the advice of the guide books in respect of the the Museum of the Life of Al-Andalus in the Torre de la Calahorra  - "should be every first-time visitor's initial stop in Córdoba" [Thomas Cook],  "gimmicky" [both Cadogan and Rough Guide], and decided to skip it.

We paid a quick evening visit to the Alcázar, the fortress built after the conquest of Córdoba in 1238, constructed on the site of Moorish fortifications. Boabdil was held prisoner here, and Ferdinand and Isabel received Columbus before his historic journey. It was the home to the Inquisition thereafter, and a prison in the Franco years. It has some nice gardens and an excellent Roman mosaic, still underwater at the bottom of a pool in the gardens, as it was presumably originally intended.


On leaving Córdoba, we tried to pay a visit to Medina Azahara, the ruins of a vast, fortified Arab Muslim medieval palace and city, former capital of Al-Andalus. Unfortunately, the star attraction, the restored palace, wasn't  open. There is a new museum, and a bus running up to the archaeological site, but after a quick look at the museum, we decided to cut our losses and leave. Bewilderingly, the place claims to have won an award as European museum of the year 2012, a claim backed up here. All it has is a few copies of the artefacts found there, in glass cases (the originals are spread around in proper archaeological museums), and some display boards with very poor English translations. The judges of that competition had clearly never been to a real museum, or there is something dodgy going on.

Friday, 5 October 2012



We drive to Seville, through rolling hills, avoiding the odd blazing car-crash, and pausing to view the hill-top fort and white town of Teba, where in 1330, Sir James Douglas, en route to Jerusalem carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce, died fighting the Moors, presumably in what was supposed to be some sort of warm-up or pre-season friendly.


We have an excellent apartment, with living room, kitchen, washing machine and terrace, and are taking the opportunity to relax and unwind, as well as appreciating the sights, and a visit to the Flamenco show at el Tablao Arenal.
"Seville is a pleasant city, famous for oranges and women." Lord Byron
Seville is also the capital of Andalucia, and, for some, heart and soul of Spain. Jan Morris locates the heart  in the Escorial Palace near Madrid, but maybe there is more than one.  But wherever it lies, it's currently being kept going by the European Central Bank, and maybe about to lose a major organ or two in the shape of Catalonia.
Giralda tower in Seville
Seville cathedral was completed in 1507 on the site of the great Almohad mosque, of which the minaret remains, now the Giralda tower, topped with a sixteenth century bell tower. The gothic retable may be the largest in the world, with more than a thousand polychrome carved wood figures, but it's covered up for restoration at the moment, but there are paintings Murillo, Goya and Zurburán on view.

More interesting for us was Real Alcázar, which was something of a surprise. It is a royal residence, based on an original fort built by the Moors in the 10th century, and expanded up until the reconquista in 1248, when a palace was constructed. Pedro I mustered an army of architects and craftsmen, including those who had worked on the Nasrid Palaces in Granada, plus others from Toledo and Seville, including Jewish artisans, to a Christian palace synthesising 400 years of Iberian Muslim architectural tradition.

We also appreciated the early twentieth-century architecture around the commercial centre, much of it blending art nouveau with revival mudejar style.


Detail of the Neptune mosaic at Italica
We left Seville in the morning, and drove to the outskirts, to the remains of the Roman city of Italica. Italica was founded in 206 BC by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus in order to settle Roman soldiers wounded in the Battle of Ilipa, where the Carthaginian army was defeated during the Second Punic War. The emperor Trajan was born here, and the city was massively expanded in his honour, with a huge amphitheatre and temple dedicated to him. There is also a mosaic featuring a heron poking a pygmy up the bum.

A 3D recreation of the city is viewable on YouTube:

Monday, 1 October 2012



The sun is out again, and after a quick swim in the pool at the Parador de Nerja, we set off for Ronda, a two hour drive starting along the coast to Málaga, then inland westwards through attractive rolling hills dotted with whitewashed towns with Moorish forts.
"Pliny the Elder called Ronda 'the Glorious' two thousand years ago, and the description still holds."
[Thomas Cook Driving Guide to Andalucia and the Costa del Sol]
The El Tajo gorge in Ronda

The white city sits on a limestone shelf cleft by the El Tajo gorge, which separates la Ciudad from el Mercadillo, old from new, Moorish from Spanish, commerce from heritage, tourists from working people. Three bridges span the Rio Guadalevin - the low Puente Arabe, seventeenth century Puente Viejo, and eighteenth century Puente Nuevo, 120m above the river. We are staying at the Parador, the former town hall situated right at the top of the gorge next to the Puente Nuevo and the bull ring. Pedro Romero reinvited the corrida here in the late eighteenth century, and killed more than 5000 bulls in his career. Each year the Corrida Goyesca recreates the original Ronda bullfight in period costume, although that's in September, so we had to be content with just a look round the empty corrida.

We have a luxurious suite, with possibly the best views from any hotel in Europe, but we venture out and explore the Ciudad and try out a few tapas bars. Tagas Tapas is an excellent haute cuisine example, just across the road from the hotel, with exquisite amuse-bouches such as pig cheek with potato spume.

The downstairs living area of our "Junior Duplex Suite"


We take advantage of our luxurious suite to take it easy today, and pop out for a gentle walk to take some photos of the spectacular setting. We spend some time watching birds of prey sailing on the updrafts above the hotel, which were probably vultures and hawks, but maybe kites and eagles - they were a long way up.

A bird of prey viewed from our balcony at the Parador de Ronda 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Sun, sea and rain


Severe weather warnings, so we set off early back down the mountain, through thunderstorms, streams on the road and minor landslides. The intention was for a few days on the beach on the coast in Nerja, but it's too wet for most of the planned activities. It could be worse though - BBC news on floods in Spain.

We are staying at the modern Parador de Nerja. The Paradores are a chain of state-run luxury hotels, usually in restored historic buildings. We'll be trying out more of them in Ronda, Jaén and on our return to Granada.


Plans for sun-bathing, kayaking and swimming are being rewritten here on the Costa del Soggy. We're taking the opportunity to catch up on reading and postcard-writing.

Thursday, 27 September 2012



We reluctantly checked out of our excellent hotel, picked up our hire car and headed for the hills, driving south from Granada and up to the highest village of Trevélez, home to many of Spain's most well-known producers hams dried in the dry mountain air. We picked up our hire car from Granada airport and set off towards our destination - the Hotel La Fragua II, which is also reputed to have the finest restaurant in the village. The drive was spectacular, a little scary at times, as we climbed more than a kilometre in altitude. When we reached the village itself, the sat nav tried to take us straight up along the slippery mule path, and the route soon became impossible. We rolled back to somewhere safe to park and walked up to the hotel. It being lunchtime, the staff were in the restaurant. Once we'd explained our plight, the barman volunteered to drive the car up for us, which he did with ease via a slightly less precipitous track. Then we were straight in for a lunch of gazpacho, stewed kid and stuffed aubergines.
View from the balcony, with the weather closing in

A rather short time later, we were back for dinner, which was a ham and pork fest.   ¡Jamón, jamón! The food was excellent, if a little plentiful for us. All of the other guests were clearly serious walkers who'd spent the day in the clouds and had stronger appetites.


The rain and cloud closed in on the village, so we didn't venture far. We walked around the village, which has a difference in altitude of 200 meters from one end to the other, so it was still good exercise. Many of the buildings are secadores, great warehouses where the hams are dried for between one and two years. The smell of ham was everywhere, and we visited several of the shops attached to the secadores, sometimes to escape the torrential rain, sometimes to buy some of the excellent ham. After apologising to one of the butchers for bringing the English weather, he told us that it was the first rain that they had seen since May. Tomorrow we head back down the mountains and to Nerja on the coast, where we're hoping to see the sun again!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Alhambra - our tour notes

The Alhambra is the only Muslim palace from the Middle Ages to have survived. In 711 Berber and Arab armies from North Africa arrived in Iberia. In 758 Abn al-Rahmad, of the Umayyad clan, escaped imprisonment in Baghdad and fled to Spain, where he established leadership. The Umayyad dynasty ruled Granada until the mid-C13th. The Umayyad Caliphate in Spain started to fall apart in the early C11, and the reconquest of Muslim Spain by the Catholic Kings started around this time, a little earlier than the Crusades to the Holy Land. The Nasrids took power in Granada in 1238. One by one the small, fragmented principalities which resulted fell to the Reconquista, which ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada. The last Sultan, Abn Abdullah Muhammad XII, usually known as Boabdil in Spain, surrendered the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, who had united the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and completed the Reconquista. Christopher Columbus witnessed the surrender, and later that year was sent on his journey West, sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabel, who then ordered the conversion and then expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Plate from The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones
The most substantial and interesting parts of the Alhambra Palace were built in the mid to late C14, when the Nasrids established it as the royal residence and seat of government, but it was a time when the muslim empire in Spain was already in serious decline. The materials are cheap, and the style mostly conservative and backward-looking. The Partal Palace is from the early C14, Cuarto Dorado, Patio de los Arrayanes, Patio de los Leones from the mid-14th century. The Mexuar started then but developed over many centuries.

The hill on which the Alhambra is situated was the site of not only the Alhambra palace, but a fortress, numerous palaces and gardens, a large mosque, and a town with as many as 40,000 people, rivalling the city of Granada below. The Sierra Nevada was a royal hunting ground. It is likely that much of the time spent in the palace by the Muslim princes would have been at night. The palace would have been lit by giant candles, and many of the rooms may have been designed to look at their best in candlelight and moonlight. The design would also have been aligned to bring in winter light, and to protect inhabitants from summer sun.

The palace would have been full of carpets, drapes and cushions, with people sitting on the floor. The movement and rearrangement of textiles could have quickly and frequently changed the use and purpose of rooms. The palace is on an intimate scale, "to give pleasure to the inhabitants rather than to overawe the ruler's subjects" [Robert Irwin, The Alhambra]

"The Alhambra studiously manipulates contrasts of light and dark, with bent entrances, shafts of sunlight angled into shadowy interiors, dim passageways suddenly opening into a courtyard open to the blazing sun, and light reflected from placid ponds or walls clad in glistening tiles."
[Robert Hillenbrand, quoted in Irwin]

The architecture and decoration would have been intended to allow and accentuate contemplation and reflection, " a machine for thinking" [Irwin]. The following explores some of the key rooms.


Once a Muslim council chamber, then later a Catholic chapel, adorned with the emblem of Charles V - the Pillars of Hercules and the motto 'plus ultra'.

Cuarto Dorado

This was probably where the throne was and the King gave audience. When the Alhambra fell on hard times in the nineteenth century, this room was used as an animal pen.

Patio de los Arrayanes (Myrtle Court)

Built first half C14;  originally had sunken myrtle bushes and orange trees (the bitter Seville orange was introduced from the Far East by the Portuguese, and was used to add acidity in cooking).

Sala de la Barca

Restored after a fire in 1890. It may have been a Dining Room. The restoration mistook a mihrab for a doorway and knocked through to the Hall of the Ambassadors. The niches were for jars - some ten have survived, one in the museum here.

Cuarto de los Embajadores (Ambassadors' Room)

A throne room and audience chamber, with the throne in the alcove opposite the entrance. The marquetry ceiling is of cedarwood, with repeated inscriptions from the Koran. The ceiling would have been polychromatic, and there would have been stained glass in the windows. This was destroyed in an explosion in 1590, when gunpowder was being stored in the palace.

Sala de los Mocárabes

The ornate stalactite ceiling was destroyed in a fire centuries ago. Despite what some  guides say, it is not possible that this was a harem!

Patio de los Leones (Lion Court)

The recently restored lion statues now take pride of place again around the fountain, on a new marble floor. The Court of the Lions was probably a madrasa, or Koranic school,  according to Irwin

Cuarto de los Abencerrages

This would probably have been a prayer room, since there is no secular poetry among the complex wall decorations and inscriptions, although there is no mihrab


This belvedere with the twin window representing the eye of the ruler, originally with a view of the Albaicín, now blocked by Charles V apartments built around the now-diminshed Lindaraxa gardens and cemetary. The palace of the Conde de Tendilla with a pavilion aorund a central patio, was destroyed in 1717.

Cuarto de los dos Hermanas (Room of the Two Sisters)

The modern name refers to the two slabs of marble in the floor. The ornate door is now in the museum. The great domed muqarna ceiling contains 5000 peices, in seven basic prism shapes. This may also have had an acoustic function, for recitals and concerts here.

Palacio del Partal &Torre de la Dama

Built 1302-9 and partially surviving, with numerous changes and restorations. The tower was sold and converted to a house in the late C19, with the ceiling sold to a Berlin museum.

The Alhambra after 1492

Until 1868, it was a royal palace, the residence of the Spanish kings in Granada. Ferdinand and Isabel built apartments here and employed Muslim craftsmen to do restorations, and again after the earthquake of 1522. One palace was allocated to the Franciscans for a convent, and the buildings and mosque were destroyed to make place for a new convent and church in the 1560s.
Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabel, became King of Spain in 1516 and Emperor in 1519,   ruling the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, as well as the German (Holy Roman) Empire. Charles came to Granada in 1526 on his honeymoon, and ordered the Inquisition to hunt down crypto-Muslims. Presumably he did some romantic stuff as well. Despite admiring Moorish architecture and decoration, he felt it was cold in winter and lacked a great banquet hall, so he commisioned Pedro Machuca to build a modern palace. Many architects continued the work after Machuco's death in 1550, for more than a hundred years, until it was abandoned unfinished. The roof was never completed, and was used for storing gunpowder. The French troops, billeted in the convent, burned the wood they found in the palace. Work was finally completed in the twentieth century.
The basic design was a round peristyled courtyard, probably intended to contain a garden, in a square building. The rusticated masonry facade echoes the palazzios of Rome and Venice. It is a "fine building in the wrong place" [Irwin]
While the Renaissance palace is decorated and designed to look impressive on the outside, and inward-looking on the inside, the Muslim palace is undecorated and austere outside, with an interior which is ornate and outward-looking.
From the seventeenth century onwards, the Alhambra fell on hard times, with fires, earthquakes, and the palaces used as a prison, a gypsy camp and an animal pen. The French blew up eight of the ten towers in the wall, and further damage was done in the Carlist War in 1812. Visitors carved their names and stole decorations.

More Horrible Histories

"[The Alhambra] is a monument to murder, slavery, poverty and fear." [Irwin]
Christian captives were used as slave labour in its construction, probably billeted in the dungeon of the Alcazaba fortress. The Nasrid rulers were poor, peripheral, and their civilization in decline. The designs were magnificent, but the materials modest - stucco, wood and tiles, with no marble and little stone. The designs also looked to former and distant glories, feeble compared to Madinat al-Zahara near Cordoba and the palaces of Seville, let alone Baghdad and Samarra. Madinat boasted 140 marble columns from Byzantium (a gift from the Christian Emperor), and a pool of mercury.
"The Alhambra was an attempt to replicate the glories of previous palaces of vanished dynasties but with only limited resources." [Irwin]
Seven of the first nine sultans were assasinated, what the Muslims called "Red Death". The Black Death struck from 1348.
Despite the ongoing reconquest, there was a close alliance between Catholic Seville and Muslim Granada in the fourteenth century, and Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, imported Muslim workman from Granada to build the Alcazar of Seville.
The decline of Muslim Granada ended when Muhammad XII ("Boabdil") surrendered the keys of the Alhambra in the Hall of the Ambassadors on the 2nd February 1492.
Not everyone loved the Alhambra. Ruskin detested it, along with all things Muslim, preferring to celebrate the Gothic. However, it was hugely influential on his contemporary Owen Jones, whose Grammar of Ornament (1856) influenced in turn British and international commercial and industrial design.



We said goodbye to the cats and flew from Heathrow with Iberia, changing at the smart new terminal in Madrid, with time for beer and tapas, to the short internal flight to Granada. Checked in to Hotel Casa 1800, near to the Plaza Nueva in Granada,  a recently renovated old Arab house with a beautiful courtyard. It is located with the slope up to the Alhambra on one side, and the ancient Albaicín district behind, and also just a very short walk to the Cathedral, city centre and sixteenth centrury Realejo district. It turned out to be a haven of peace in one of the noisiest countries in Europe!
We started off our holiday in style with the free tapas in city centre bars, and a night-time visit to the Alhambra.


We went for a walk in the Albaicín, visited the new Mosque, and teashop Alfaguara for North African-style tea and pastries, then more we intended to go for quick drinks and tapas in Calle Navas, but were diverted when the people on the table next to us started playing and singing rather wonderful Flamenco, so we stayed there all day, bought them a round of drinks and made lots of new friends!


We spent the afternoon up at the Alhambra, walking around the Generalife garadens, including a picnic, visiting the ancient Moorish fortress of the Alcazaba, and a second visit to the Nasrid palaces.
We were pleased to see the recently restored statues of the Patio de los Leones (Lion Court) back in place, and wrote down what we needed to know for our tour in a separate post.

"For my part, I gave myself up, during my sojourn in the Alhambra, to all the romantic and fabulous traditions connected with the pile. I lived in the midst of an Arabian tale, and shut my eyes, as much as possible, to every thing that called me back to every-day life; and if there is any country in Europe where one can do so, it is in poor, wild, legendary, proud-spirited, romantic Spain; where the old magnificent barbaric spirit still contends against the utilitarianism of modern civilization."
[Washington Irving, Recollections of the Alhambra]


We visited the Capilla Real, home to the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholics monarchs who reconquered Granada and Spain, and also home to an excellent collection of mainly early Flemish art. We had sashimi lunch in honour of an earlier plan to honeymoon in Kyoto, and a siesta, as we start to adjust better to Spanish daily timetable. After siesta and afternoon tea in the hotel patio, we visited the Cathedral, a baroque horror, and walked around the pretty squares of the city centre.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Coming soon

We will report briefly on our travels on our honeymoon, and post photographs here, starting on September 22nd. We're on our way now - here is the first photo, from Heathrow:

You can still find everything relating to the wedding via our own web address, including links to some photos on Flickr at, and the reading from the ceremony at

If you're wondering about the title of the blog, it refers to the classic tale of life in the Alpujarras in the 1920s by Gerard Brenan, South of Granada.