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