Saturday, February 11, 2017

Más España! – Andalucía’s Greatest Hits, Part 1 – October 25–31, 2016

Looking for the Spain of popular culture: flamenco, bull fighting, Moorish architecture, Spanish spoken with a lisp – Olé!? You want Andalucía (English: Andalusia; Spanish pron: Ahn-dah-loo-THEE-ah).

Andalucía is the second largest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, is composed of eight provinces and covers the country’s southern coast. This is where the Moors made their last stand in 1492; Columbus launched for The New World in 1492; and about a third of Britain spends each winter holiday.

We spent almost three weeks on a “greatest hits” tour of Andalucía. Not. Enough. Time.

Sevilla Steet Scene

Sevilla (English: Seville) – October 25 – 28

We traveled from Almería to the capital of Andalucía -- Sevilla (Spanish pron: Seh-vee-yah) – on one of Spain’s discount short-haul airlines, Vueling; worked fine, didn’t cost much. We stayed in the Petite Palace Marqués Santa Ana; worked fine, not wildly expensive (except breakfast) and in a great location.

"Our" Neighborhood
The Yellow Color On Many Buildings in Sevilla 
Was Originally Achieved Using The Local Soil

          First, An Overview:

With only two full days scheduled in Sevilla we knew we would have to take a more aggressive tourist posture than is our norm. We launched with a guided walking tour and though we are not good at taking in rapid-fire information, we did come away with a good overview of the city’s Moorish section and the following (to us anyway) entertaining bits of information:
  • There are a lot of charming narrow streets and beautiful buildings in Sevilla and one can enjoy just wandering for hours.
More Sevilla

  • The city’s cathedral was built on top of a destroyed mosque and the bell tower was once a minaret; the wind vane on the bell tower, which is in the figure of a woman (La Giralda, from girar for “turn”) was the subject of a joke in Don Quixote (something about a fickle woman subject to changing with the wind). Neither of us has read Don Quixote, so we took this bit of information on faith.
La Giralda

  • The tomb of Christopher Columbus is the tomb of Christopher Columbus or someone closely enough related to share DNA with The Navigator’s known direct descendants.
  • The city is home to two different soccer teams and allegiances are determined at birth.
  • The narrow streets of the city’s Moorish section cannot accommodate large garbage collection trucks, so the city has installed an interesting garbage transportation system. Place discards in a futuristic street-side bin and --- whoosh -- it ends up at a collection point underneath a plaza large enough to be accessed by a  garbage truck. Good clean fun. (Sorry)
High Tech Garbage

          Stage Two – Three Highlights:

The Internet and tour books offer a lot of information and some great pictures of the following Sevilla highlights so we will limit ourselves to some general impressions and (hopefully) only enough pictures to entice you to look further. 

               Cathedral / Bell Tower: The tomb of Christopher Columbus (moved from Havana in 1899 as the Spanish empire was contracting) is really spectacular.

The Kings of Castille, Aragon, León and Navarra, 
Pallbearers For The Navigator

The bell tower ascent is easier than most because a relatively wide, gently sloping ramp was built to allow the muezzin (who gives the Islamic calls to prayer) to ride to the top of the minaret on horse or mule. We couldn’t help but think of all those priests and friars who had to climb narrow stairs or even wooden ladders to ring bells at other cathedrals. Those guys should have organized for better working conditions. 
Top of the Cathedral From The Bell Tower

Bull Ring - From the Bell Tower

Another Favorite Cathedral Thing is to view the Cathedral at night. Part of the appeal may be that one of the great places to enjoy a night view is an upstairs bar across the street from the Cathedral. Just FYI, the drinks there are startlingly expensive.

Night View

               El Real Alcázar (The Royal Alcazar):  The Alcázar (fort / palace) is a spectacular example of Mudéjar architecture, a Spanish architectural style with Moorish elements (or perhaps more accurately, Moorish architecture and design used after the Moors got booted).

A Side Note For Context: Spanish history revolves a lot around the territorial battles between the Christians and the Moors and the ultimate “Re-Conquest” by the “Catholic Monarchs” (Ferdinand V and Isabella) in 1492. But there wasn’t just one re-conquest. Sevilla was re-conquered in 1248, at which time the city had been ruled by Moors for more than 500 years (since 712). An important reminder that history is written by the most recent winners and that their take on history may last only until the next conquest. 

The Alcázar is also the oldest European royal palace still in use, a crammed tourist attraction and, at times, a set for The Game of Thrones. Not being Thrones fans we mostly appreciated this palace / fortress for its Mudéjar architecture.   

And yes, there are better pictures elsewhere, but we really liked some of these, so bear with us!

  Another favorite at the Alcazar were some tapestries of naval battles. 

The gardens are a good place to escape the crowds.

Maintenance - A Never Ending Project
When The Palace Was "Re-Built" in the 14th Century

               Flamenco: There are hundreds of places to see flamenco dancing and/or hear flamenco guitar in Spain, but since Sevilla is famous for flamenco we went to a performance at a venerable old location: La Casa de la Memoria (The House of Memory). If Molly’s memory is to be trusted we accidentally stumbled into the same venue she and her mother went to on their long-ago trip to Spain – House of Memory, indeed! Someday we will excavate her travel diaries from our storage locker and see if this can be confirmed.

This Woman Was Probably Not Performing There In 1985(ish)

Stage Three – Wandering Around:

We were able to fit in a bit of our favorite tourist activity – wandering aimlessly and looking at stuff:

               A Spanish School: We stopped by a Spanish language school, spoke to the charming young woman at the front desk and took away a brochure. Yikes - the school’s European prices reminded us what a bargain studying and living in Mexico is! Though Sevilla would be a great place to live and study Spanish for a couple of months. . . .

               The Mushroom Building: This huge wooden structure is officially known as the Metropol Parasol (City Umbrella) but in Sevilla it’s best known as The Mushrooms or The Mushroom Building. The reason for this nickname becomes obvious as you approach: 

Umbrella or Mushroom? Whichever, It's
Reported To Be The Largest Wooden Structure In The World

There’s a market here during the day, it's lighted in the evening and there are good views of the city from the top. The price of the elevator ride (3 euros) to the touristy viewing area on top includes a plastic cup of wine or a "tapa". Go for the view, not the wine or the food.

A View From The Top Of The Mushroom

Another Mushroom View

But what no one told us was that underneath all of this modern strangeness is a nice little museum displaying the Roman ruins uncovered in 1990 during the building’s construction (it’s always the parking structure . . . ). If you’re a Roman ruin fan this is worth the 6 euro fee.

Foundation Remains

Floor Detail

               Breakfast Entertainment: The Petite Palace breakfast buffet was expensive and we had finally acknowledged that eating a huge breakfast does not mean that we will eat a small lunch. So we sought out a pretty little café near the hotel for a relatively inexpensive European breakfast and a seat that offered a view of the neighborhood going about its morning. On our last morning in Sevilla we watched a traveling knife sharpener at work. We have often seen knife sharpeners in Mexico use bicycle power to sharpen knives for home cooks and local restaurants. But in Europe they rely on updated technology.

Advanced Technology Knife Sharpening

After breakfast we rented a little SUV and drove to our next destination. . . .

Ronda -- October 28 – 31

We didn’t think of going to Ronda until our friends Wendy and Larry told us they would be there after completing a bicycle trip through some of Spain’s famous White Villages (picturesque small hill towns with whitewashed buildings – thus the name). Wendy said that she had wanted to visit Ronda for a long time

Hmmm. What would we miss if we bypassed Ronda? So, after some research we decided we too wanted to see Ronda and arranged to meet our friends there.

Look At That! 

The primary reason people visit Ronda is its location. The town is perched on top of a plateau and straddles a breathtaking gorge.

Ronda Perched Atop

The "New" Bridge - Completed 1793

We stayed in the Hotel Don Miguel just across the New Bridge from the Moorish town. We had a nice view from our room.

A Room With A View -
The "New" Bridge To The Left

And spectacular views from the hotel’s breakfast room.

Coffee With An Even Better View

During the day Ronda is jammed with day trippers on bus tours of the White Villages, but by night the town hosts a much smaller number of “resident tourists”. Wandering through the Moorish town is pleasant in the evening and the restaurants are busy but reservations are not difficult to arrange.

Hanging With Bikers: 

Wendy and Larry offered up the White Villages expertise they had acquired during their bicycle trip and we offered a rental vehicle with motor. A great deal for everyone. Hearing them say “Geez, look – we rode up that!” as we climbed the hills of Andalucía re-enforced our choice in mode of transportation. The scenery is gorgeous but riding a bicycle in those hills would be brutal!

The Gorgeous Scenery Part Of The Route

One destination was the ruins of a Roman theater (can’t pass up anything those Romans left behind). It is not a world class archaeological site but it was a nice outing.

Wendy, Bryce and Larry
Admiring The Romans' Handiwork

The Amphitheater

Travel Tip: Don’t panic if you run a little late returning to the front gate after touring the site and find the gate has been locked. It doesn’t mean you are doomed to spend the night camped on the hillside with the sheep and Roman ghosts. The gate keeper is just out sweeping up the last few stragglers. And you can climb the fence. We did. 

We shared a couple of excellent dinners with Wendy and Larry thanks to advice from their hotel’s concierge. And one evening we attended a performance at the House of Guitars where we heard one set on a classical guitar and another on a flamenco guitar. The guitarist, Paco Seco, explained the differences in the instruments and musical styles. It was a very pleasant and interesting evening.

Bull Fighting:

After Wendy and Larry departed for The States we toured Ronda’s famous bull ring and bull fighting museum.

We learned (as everyone who visits Ronda learns) that it is the home of “modern bull-fighting” (early 1700’s). Before Francisco Romero established the “Rules of Ronda”,  bull fighting was either:

(a) peasant bull fighting during which random men would jump into a ring and run around alternatively antagonizing and then running from a bull (sounds like alcohol must have been involved, no?); or

(b) aristocratic bull fighting during which knights on horseback would enter a ring and fight a bull as a military training exercise.

The Rules of Ronda established the hybrid bull fight that is still popular today.

The bull fighting museum (located underneath the stands in the bull ring) has interesting exhibits but is hampered by the most confusing audio guide we have encountered in a very long time (and, based on the number of other confused looking people wandering around we don’t think we are alone in this assessment). This may be a good place to take an English language tour.

Cueva de la Pileta:

The highlight of our time in Ronda was a visit to see the Paleolithic and Neolithic era paintings in the Cave of the Pool outside the village of Benaoján. This ancient art is truly breathtaking. To protect the cave and the art visitors aren’t permitted to take pictures so the following are some pictures from the Internet:

At one point our guide prompted us to turn out our lanterns. We stood in the pitch-est dark we have ever experienced and the phrase “belly of the whale” came to mind. We were overwhelmed with respect for those ancients who traveled into that darkness guided only by torchlight to seek protection from predators and then left such striking images for us to see.

You have to want to see this cave to see it. Access is by guided tour and groups are limited to 25 people. Groups of at least 15 can pre-arrange a tour but independent travelers can only purchase tickets at the cave. No Internet orders; no phone reservations -- just show up and practice the virtue of patience. Even tickets don’t guarantee entry at a time specific; they seem to represent the right to join a tour when enough ticket holders are present and no pre-arranged tour has priority.    

Our first attempt to get tickets was made on a Sunday at about 11:30 a.m.. Bad plan. Lots of weekenders had the same plan and by the time we arrived all the day’s tickets had been sold.

On our second attempt we arrived on Monday morning just in time to purchase tickets (16 euros each) and join the 10 a.m. tour. It was a Spanish language tour but the guide pitched much of his talk to the children in the group so Molly could follow a lot of what was said. Bryce and a kind lady from Los Angeles translated the rest for her.

Note that in the slower tourist seasons one might purchase a ticket and have to wait for enough people to arrive to form a tour. Waiting is done on wooden benches. No snack bar. We’re also unclear on how often the English-speaking guides lead tours. All of this can be amusing if you have enough time to be amused. If not, it might be best to make arrangements through a tour company.

And then it was time to leave Ronda for Córdoba.


We stopped for lunch in the little village of Osuna because Molly has a friend in California whose last name is Osuna.

Yep, We Were There Hildelisa y Pedro!

Serendipity worked again. We had a just fine lunch and a short walk about town. Not much was open – and then we realized that the next day was the national holiday for All Saints.

We did see a couple of the charming metal benches Wendy had pointed out to Molly one day as being "all over" Andalucía. And once she pointed one out - we did see them everywhere! Lovely little ironwork benches - we wonder who got the contract for a region-wide distribution of park benches? 

The Bench of Andalucía

And that was our lunchtime in Osuna.

Basta! [English: Enough!]

Time to move on. Our next post: Córdoba and Granada.

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