CórdobaA high speed AVE train whisked me comfortably and efficiently to Southern Spain, where at once I was immersed in the overpowering scent of citrus blossoms. Along an avenue of tangerine trees through a long park I breathed in the uplifting aromas as I headed into the medieval quarter of Córdoba. City workers were raking up the hundreds of fallen fruit, and tossing them into bins containing green waste.
Exiting the park I followed a crowd and found myself at a fortress. This was the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos built by Alfonso XI in 1328. It was my introduction to Mudejar architecture, a style combining Islamic and Christian elements. Apart from the Hall of Mosaics, and the marble courtyard the building underwhelmed. But stepping outside, I was captivated by the gardens. Linear and geometric arrangements of flowers, shrubs and trees were unlike anything I'd seen before. A deliberate attempt to delight all senses was evident. Inviting pathways rewarded with textures, colors, sounds and scents emanating from fountains, shallow pools, artistic topiary (hedges shaped into Greek vases), and spring blooms.
Heading into Córdoba's medieval quarter, I hiked across the ancient Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir River to admire the cluster of monuments near the Mezquita-Catedral, the city's main attraction.
The Triunfo de San Rafael commanded close-up inspection, as did the mosaic design around the fountain in the square around it. The need for lunch propelled me into the utterly charming town center. Marching up and down narrow, cobbled lanes, I finally found a restaurant with an actual vegetarian dish from its menu of blended Italian and Spanish cuisine. The regional risotto I sampled would have been delicious had it not been over salted! Anyway, it restored my energy, and I was ready to be wowed by the famous 8th century mosque that became a cathedral in the 12th century.
The Mezquita- Catedral de Córdoba combines eras and cultures. With the original structure mostly preserved, unlike in other cities, it's a rare example of Islamic architecture in Spain.
SevilleEvery once in a while I arrive in a new city and instantly envision it as a potential future home. Sevilla felt that way. Despite an unusual April chill I felt a summer vibe when I arrived on Saturday early evening. Tapas bars served drinks al fresco; the many squares were alive with clusters of people of all ages; shoppers clogged the pedestrianized avenues; and flocks of tourists hovered around monuments. There was no doubt that I was going to love my time here.
On Sunday morning, under a deep blue sky, I stood in line for two hours to see the city's most famous monument, the Réal Alcazar. The least boring 2 hours of waiting to buy tickets I'd ever experienced! I was surrounded by breathtaking architecture. The air smelled of orange blossoms. A religious parade carrying floats and accompanied by a brass band created a bit of atmosphere. After they went off, the young couple behind me in the queue struck up a conversation with me. They were from Washington D.C., a lawyer and a Georgetown University employee, so of course there was no shortage of interesting topics to cover until we reached the gates of the palace.
The Réal Alcazar was built by Moorish workers from Granada in the 14th century for a Christian ruler. What a perfect setting for a movie, I thought, when I entered this stupendous former palace.
|Réal Alcazar, Seville|
Going from room to room, through arched hallways and across marble patios, I gaped and gasped and exclaimed. Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance and Mudejar architectural styles were employed to create this marvel. Even more impressive than the building were the sprawling gardens. A scaled up, more elaborate version of the one I'd seen in Córdoba. Again, geometry and symmetry produced arresting artistic designs.
|Giralda Tower, Seville|
Wandering around the city is an absolute joy due to its thoughtful layout. There are wide pedestrian sidewalks and separate bicycle lanes. Heading toward the Guadalquivir River I past colorful flower beds around fountains on road islands and avenues of blossoming citrus trees. A detour into the Maria Luisa Park led me to Plaza de España. On this mild spring day street musicians and chirpy tourists livened up the square. The half circle neo Mudejar building was quite a dazzler. Especially with a moat in front of it. I crossed one of the cute bridges, entered the building, and trotted down the covered hallway. Back on the street I headed to the river and strolled along the bank. The Habanera from Bizet's Carmen rang in mind. Probably because I was seeing signs for a bullfighting ring. Nevertheless the tune mirrored my joy.
I didn't go out of my way to explore the food scene in this city. But I'd read about the Barranco Food Market overlooking the Guadalquivir River and knew I had to check it out. In this glass and iron structure (designed by Gustave Eiffel) I devoured my best tortilla (the Spanish grated potato dish) which was layered with ratatouille. A freshly made spinach empanada followed. Another winner! This market, smaller and less crowded than the one in Madrid, focused on upscale artisanal cuisine. Plus it had inviting indoor and outdoor seating with river views. Yup, I could live in Seville!
On my third and last evening I felt this sentiment again. I was at the tapas bar next door to my hotel, sipping a glass of red wine out on the heated terrace. Two male Dutch teachers were finishing up their meal at the table near mine. "Ik wil graag betalen," one of them said to the waiter. The waiter nodded and went off. I smiled at them. "He understood Dutch," I said.
They smiled back at me and one of them said, "You did too. Are you from Holland?"
And this question launched us into a lengthy and hearty conversation covering topics from Apartheid South Africa to the European Union to Nationalism to the state of American politics. They were high school history teachers on a field trip in Spain with their students. And they spoke perfect English as did most people from the Netherlands. An entertaining hour flew by. How could you not love a city that draws interesting visitors?
|El Tajo Gorge, Ronda|
In the morning I was pleased to see a mostly blue sky. At the hotel dining room an extravagant buffet breakfast greeted me. And so a wonderful day was foreshadowed. I stuffed myself with grated tomato on toast, banana, yogurt, freshly squeezed orange juice, and strong coffee. I needed mucho calories for all the walking on my agenda for the day.
With the sun shining and the air completely calm, when I arrived at the exact same spot as the previous evening, the bridge and gorge looked utterly different. I gazed at the impressive cliff walls, vibrantly lit up by the sun. Bus loads of tourists swarmed around the Puente Nuevo Bridge snapping photos with their smartphones. I crossed the bridge and wandered through the cobbled lanes of the Old Town. Then I hiked down a trail to the bottom of the gorge and looked up to astounding views. Back up I found a trail along the balcony from where I could better appreciate the sheer cliff walls and see the gurgling river.
Ronda had a lot more to offer. Plaza del Socorro, with its Hercules fountain and attractive buildings, was another highlight here. It gave me an opportunity for a beautiful Ronda photo that had nothing to do with the gorge!
Granada is all about the Alhambra. When you aren't in the palace gawking at medieval moorish splendor, you are hiking to various viewpoints to admire it from afar. A highlight for me was the view from the Mirador de San Nicolas. Framed by the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains, this commanding fortress/palace stands proudly on a hill above the city. I imagined historical characters within those walls carrying out their lives of intrigue.
Since everyone who had been to the Alhambra had nothing but glowing superlatives to describe it, I had super high expectations on my visit. Nevertheless, as I walked through the Nasrid Palaces I found myself constantly gasping. Painstakingly intricate carvings and designs, and breathtaking integration of outdoor spaces featuring courtyards, fountains and gardens demonstrated how immensely creative and sophisticated the Moors had been.
My visit started in the adjacent sprawling Generalife gardens. The style, after the palace gardens I'd seen in Cordoba and Sevilla, no longer felt novel. Despite this, and despite persistent rain and wintry temperatures, the beauty, and the fastidious attention to symmetry and design, were most rewarding.
I enjoyed my non-Alhambra activities in Granada too. Strolling along the cobbled, pedestrianized Carrera del Darro beside the skinny river, I past interesting architectural sights and cute souvenir shops. I whiled away a couple of pleasant hours checking out the colossal cathedral, followed by a visit to the Alcaicería. This Great Bazaar, a bit like a Moroccan souk, was originally a silk and spice market. It felt quite exotic to weave through the narrow shopping lanes, though each vendor seemed to carry the same scarves, leather, jewelry, and other mass produced souvenirs. Granada, it has to be said, unabashedly capitalized on its tourist traffic. Paella, Flamenco dancing, and whatever else a tourist expected to find in Spain could be found here effortlessly.
My Spain trip was almost over. Back in Madrid I took a train to ...
ToledoI spent the better part of a day in this town made famous by El Greco. Strolling through its pedestrianized heart I took in its well preserved architecture.
Its history included Roman, Jewish, Moorish and Christian occupations, and they all contributed to the city's physical appearance. I enjoyed stepping outside the city walls and down to the river for city views. It was a mild spring day and I clocked close to 15 miles in and around the city.
I averaged close to ten miles a day in my 11 days in Spain. Every city I visited was pedestrian friendly. Walking through interesting areas was rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable. And spring time is the best time.