Southern Spain in November can be great relief from the cold and wet in England. A cultural tour from Madrid to Toledo, to Cordoba, to Seville and to Granada enlightens the soul. My guide book put it perfectly: the “great, lost civilisation is a separate reality that shines through centuries of Spanish veneer”.
Mosques in the South
We saw the many mosques and palaces which were remnants of Moorish Spain, when the Muslims invaded southern Spain and settled there between the 700s and 1200s.
These buildings looked like something out of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. It felt like being in the Middle East, not Europe.
There is a great Mosque in Cordoba which the Christians spared but then they built a huge cathedral in the middle of it. It is so strange to walk through a continuous line of subtle stone arches and then happen upon a large cathedral, built of marble with high ceilings and ostentatious gold decorations. But it was surprisingly beautiful to see the monuments of two religions side by side. Apparently the Christians and Muslims used to share the use of the church on the site prior to the Mosque being built. We went to a museum which told the history of the town, once the capital of Islamic Spain. It emphasised how the Muslims and Christians used to live peacefully together in Cordoba. It is such an important message to get across particularly when cultural and religious differences are increasingly being associated with the conflicts and war in the Middle East.
During our trip we ate paella, lots of tapas and drank lots of sangria and red wine. The Spanish do indeed have siestas and close their shops/businesses for several hours in the afternoon. It is slightly inconvenient when you are pressed for time but otherwise you will hardly notice. Some shops do stay open.
On our second day we went to Toledo on a day trip out of Madrid. Unfortunately it was a Sunday in November and most of the museums were closed but it was a lovely town all the same.
They used to build the towns on hill tops as a security measure. So the town itself is perched on a very steep hill which of course meant climbing lots of steep stairs. We visited two cathedrals while there. One of the cathedrals had old chains attached to its exterior wall. They were used to restrain Christians being held prisoner by the Moors.
Glories of Moorish Spain in Cordoba and a run through Seville
We took the high-speed train to Cordoba, going at about 250km (or thereabouts) per hour and the trip only took 90 minutes. Cordoba, the former capital of Al Andalus (Moorish Spain), is a lovely city. We stayed in the old section of the city with narrow winding stone-paved streets. We went to a flamenco performance, where the singers sang in hauntingly beautiful voices and the lead male dancer was fabulous on his feet.
To get relief from the heat the Spanish used to build their houses with courtyards in the centre and with the rooms overlooking it. There was usually a fountain or water feature in the center. These courtyards, or patios as they call them, have walls with decorative tiles.
If you plan to renovate I would recommend that you go for some of these tiles. We went to an old palace which had patio after patio. But if you were sneaky you could look through the open doors of homes in the old section of the town and see wonderfully decorated patios.
Cordoba was particularly beautiful because we had 25 degree centigrade weather and many of the streets were lined with orange trees which were bearing fruit at the time.
After Cordoba, we took a bus to Seville when unfortunately it started to rain. We didn’t see a lot of Seville as we were keen to get to Granada. We saw the Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral (built in 1401) which is the third largest in the world after St Peters in Rome and St Pauls in London. We also went to a tour of a bull ring. By this time, the bull fighting season was over. I am not sure if I would have liked to have seen a bloody bull fight. Even so, the building was interesting. It gave me the impression of a mini colosseum. In the past, if a bull was successful and killed the matador, they used to kill the bull and then kill its mother to ensure that she didn’t breed another killer bull. Totally unfair, if you ask me.
After Seville we caught a bus to Granada passing through scenic mountains. The farms and most of the older houses in Spain are whitewashed and look just as you would imagine them to be. Granada is a very special place. Built on adjoining hills, it has small cobblestone streets and gorgeous white homes. We stayed in a backpackers hostel recommended by some fellow travellers from Adelaide whom we happened upon at a bus stop. The hostel had a fabulous view of the Alhambra. The Alhambra was a Moorish palace and fortress. The architecture is breathtaking with walls decorated with intricate patterns in plaster. The Muslims discourage the use of the human form in art, so wall and ceiling decorations are made of geometric and floral patterns as well as Quranic inscriptions which decorate the walls and ceilings.
Car Rental (mis)adventures in the narrow streets
After walking down from the Alhambra we happened upon an advert for a car for hire deal and decided to drive to Madrid rather than take the train. My travelling companion did not drive so I took the wheel. We had a six-cylinder Peugeot 406, a very attractive car but very wide. Now, wide does not bother me in Australia, where the streets are spacious but in streets built for donkeys a wide car is not a wise choice. Firstly, I went the wrong way, (there weren’t any signs and we didn’t have a detailed map).
It seemed like we were going the right way until we hit a dirt road and had to turn around and backup. Fortunately we didn’t get bogged down. Still unsure of where to go, I decided to follow some cars which obviously knew where they were going. Bad move. They ended up at a deserted church on the top of a hill, where they promptly abandoned one of the cars. I think something shady was going on but we had no choice but to ask them for directions. We were lost!! They weren’t too pleased to help us, but help us they did anyhow.
Especially when, upon exiting the church grounds, I had trouble getting through an archway. I don’t know if I should admit to bad driving so publicly but I am proud to say I’ve never had an accident in 14 years of driving! Don’t worry I didn’t have one this time either but let’s just say we are glad we paid the extra 10 euros to fully insure the car. Otherwise I would have been paying for a new paint job for the door and rear guard of the Peugeot!!
There was literally less than 5cm on either side of the car and I had approached it from the wrong angle. The rude Spaniard did stop, put up his arms in frustration and ordered me out of the car so he could drive it through! All of this was in Spanish. They did not understand English and we did not speak Spanish. It’s amazing how effective sign language is. The carload of young men who pulled up behind us gave me sympathetic looks. I just laughed, what else could I do?
Continental Europe not built for cars?
Finally we made it out of that tricky situation only to get ourselves into another. Trying to find the main roads out of Granada, we got lost in the maze of narrow one way streets. They had signs to say that it was less than 1.5 metres wide in places. But once you are down one of those streets there is no going back and no space to do a three point or 50 point turn, come to that!! At one particular point we were up on the curb and the ladies walking behind us were frustrated because they could not squeeze through past our car.
I now fully understand why Europeans drive such small cars. European streets were not built for the car – they were built for the donkey. I can laugh when I tell this story now!! Once we finally hit a wide street I am glad to say driving on the right hand side of the road isn’t too difficult. But it takes a while to stop reaching for the gears with your left hand and I put the wipers on a few times more than was necessary (I was looking for the blinkers).
After driving for a couple of hours, we spent the night in a run down hotel in Bailen, a town which hasn’t got much going for it, except for the low cost of living. We bought a bottle of gin for $8 Australian dollars!!! How good is that! The hotel cost us $16 each a night, while hostels usually cost about $32 a night. When we returned to Madrid we went on an open bus tour of the city. We hadn’t seen much of it at all and thought we’d do the quick tourist option. It was lovely at sunset but then the temperature got down to 3 degrees celsius!! When we returned to England it was a barmy six degrees celsius. Yes, I know all of you in Australia have been experiencing 38 and 33 degree weather — please don’t remind me!!
Returning to Oxford from Luton Airport by bus took three hours, longer than it took to fly from Madrid to London!! I was glad to be home and in my own bed but sorry to leave Spain.