Chapter 18: Spain – Reminiscences of Cordoba, Seville, Granada and Barcelona

1960: Andalusia – A rapid tour through Cordoba Seville and Granada – then, last stop Barcelona

(written in June 2017)

I had hoped to include this story as part of  My letters from Europe, but unfortunately there’s no such letter to be found – either lost years ago in the post or never written, and what remains after 66 years to draw on are warm though somewhat patchy memories and a gathering of photos.

Luckily, it didn’t take much research to bring enough of the memories back to make it worthwhile recording snatches of the experience, both because of the pleasure I get from wandering down memory lane, and the satisfaction of coming closer to completing the whole two and a half year saga.

On winding up  my stay in Madrid, there was only a week left to explore Andalusia before preparing to return to Australia,  but the impact of that brief experience has left its mark on me right up to the present day, so I feel it also deserves to be included with all the other European adventures from late ’58 to 1961 that feature  in my letters home.

What had still been missing from my trip through Spain so far was what had drawn me to go there in the first place – the chance to experience first hand more of the vitality, colour and beauty and warmth that is more on offer in southern Spain, together with the exquisite Moorish art and architecture which I had already glimpsed in Toledo, and to hear and see more of the wild, passionate Flamenco performances for which Andalusia is renowned.

Even though the time there was brief it had been so worthwhile. Luckily, I’d chosen well in the three cities I visited briefly – Cordova, Seville and Granada and each of these three places provide threads of commonality that allowed me to build on the experience of getting to know Andalusia as a whole.

The long period during which the Arabs and Christians and Jews had co-existed peacefully together in southern Spain in particular had produced  a unique culture and architecture that was a joy to experience.

The hot climate certainly had a strong influence in creating the charming homes, particularly in the built-up areas where the houses had shared walls to maintain coolness as well as interior patios and courtyards and water features, and the external walls were painted with lime to minimize the effect of the suns rays.

Both Roman and North African influence played a part especially in Cordova. The Romans were around for eight centuries, between 3 BC and 5 AD, governing from Cordova.  Believe it or not, both Trajan and Hadrian came from Andalusia!

I like the way that the decorative black wrought-iron gratings and balcony railings contrast with white walls, and beautifully coloured mosaic tiles frame the little gardens of traditional plants and flowers, with fountains, pools and water streams doing their bit as well to create simple dwellings of beauty and tranquillity.

A blend of Christian and Moorish culture is shared throughout Andalusia. and one way this is evident is in their great love of colourful, noisy festivals. I wasn’t lucky enough to be there for one – seeing the pageantry of Easter week with up to 100 floats carrying religious statues would have been the time. They love to come out in traditional costumes, lacy mantillas and long swirling skirts. I loved seeing the men in their black velvety sombreros and handsome boots.

They are a very friendly, fun-loving, vivacious and family-oriented people. The cities come alive in the evenings as people emerge from their siestas. Everyone tends to dine late and cafes, tapis bars, often with free tapas! and night-clubs are open till all hours.

The food is healthy and delicious. lots of tomatoes, oil and garlic and chunky breads as in Italy. The traditional vegetable soup of Spain called gazpacho can have a great variety of ingredients and is eaten hot or cold,

Paella is found everywhere, with regional variations. It is a delicious dish based on saffron flavoured rice and lots of fish – usually shell-fish, and peas onions etc.  cooked in a special pan with two handles and served directly at the table.  In the south frying food is often preferred to stewing, and tortillas – Spanish omelettes – are popular.

The Romans taught the people to grow wheat and vines and make good use of fish, and the Arabs introduced irrigation systems for producing bountiful supplies of fruit and vegetables as well as olive trees

Honey and almonds also came from the Moors and it was the nuns in  enclosed convents who preserved their traditions, making  delicious  pastries and other sweets such as nougat, marzipan and meringues.

Sub-tropical fruits were in abundance, especially in Granada but as for the orange trees in Seville it was another matter all together. It was forbidden to pick them for economic reasons in order to allow them to fill the contract with England to supply the amount needed to keep that country in marmalade!

The make-up of Spanish people as a whole is the result of being occupied over endless centuries  by a long list of different races at different times.  However  much of the culture that’s characteristic of Andalusia in particular has come across from the Mediterranean  and along the southern coast, and accounts for differences in temperament and its expression.  These include Moorish art and architecture, bullfighting and Flamenco.

Flamenco at the Tableo el Arenal by the river in Seville

Flamenco seemed to me to express the very soul of Andalusia. I was captivated by it the first time I watched a performance in Madrid   – such a heady and deep stirring of emotions conveyed through the improvised combining of song, dance and Spanish guitar  into wild rhythmic sound, – and not forgetting the spiraling hands and clapping, the sound of the castanets and the beat of the high heeled shoes.

Its history is vague, seemingly brought across for India through Europe by the Romany gypsy tribes and gradually absorbing much of the spirit of the Moors, as  well as Andalusian folklore, both Christian and Jewish.

Historically the three cities had much in common when it came to the Reconquista, the Holy war when Christian kingdoms from the north began  pushing south in the 11th century to regain land from the Moors in Andalusia.  Toledo had already fallen as early as 1058.

The Caliphate of Cordova gradually broke up into independent Moorish kingdoms as Muslim power in Andalusia gradually shrunk over the next few centuries.  Cordova  was the first to fall in1236, then Seville in 1248.  Ferdinand and Isabella finally brought down the fiercely independent Emirate of Granada while based in Cordoba.  It was there in the same year that they were approached by Cristofer Colombo for support in his plans to open up the New World but the King insisted that he see to the conquest of Granada first. It was Isabella who pushed fot the conquest of the Americas.

The last of the Moors were finally expelled in 1609 including the Moriscos – Christians  who had been living under Islamic rule who were forced to leave unless they reconverted to Christianity, which many did, often under pressure from the Inquisition!  some of the Moors  were allowed to stay as long as they passed on their agricultural skills in terracing and irrigation!  Tragically much of their beautiful art and architecture that I found so attractive was destroyed during the long struggle.

 

CORDOVA

The Roman Bridge spanning the Guadalquiver river which had been rebuilt and repaired many times over. – the famous Mesquita and mountains in the background.    Source: Artur Bagacki.

I set out from Madrid by train to complete my Spanish adventure in just a week, passing Toledo on the way, heading first for that great city of Cordova on the great Guadalquivir River.  What a fascinating name for a river – turns out that it comes from the Arabic –  Wadi al- Kabir, which means Great River!  It is the main water-course of southern Spain and flows from east to west to the Atlantic Ocean, as do five other major rivers because of the general slope of the Spanish plateau.

15th century Castle/fortress of Coca near Seville built in the Mudejar style by the Kings and nobles of the time.

The countryside on the way south was a mix of rugged mountainous areas and dry treeless plateaus, with  small villages  and the occasional castle/fortress that appear on the hillsides.

My excitement grew as we began to see more evidence of cultivation as we approached the higher parts of the Guardalquiver river valley where cereals crops – rice , cotton and maize, and citrus orchards began to appear. There were cultivated fields of flowers, and almond trees supported by irrigation alongside the great river.

Finally we reached Cordova, a beautiful city and capital of what was once known as the Moorish Caliphate of Cordova which had once covered most of Spain and  having an economic influence well beyond its borders a thousand years earlier.

My visit to Toledo while in Madrid had already provided me with the historical background I needed to understand how the long years during which the Arabs , Christians and Jews had lived in relative harmony together, particularly in southern  Spain, had created a culture and an architectural expression that best expressed the very soul of Andalusia, and Cordova proved just the place to find it.

The highlight was the Great  Mosque – the Mesquita which is in the Old Town. It was built in 784 AD,  a rectangular complex with  mighty walls and a tall tower built on one corner which was its original Minaret and which was later converted to a Christian bell-tower. It is set in the tranquil courtyard with beautiful surrounding gardens where orange trees grow and small lakes, and  fountains  where the faithful would bathe before entering the mosque to pray.

As you enter its beautiful columned prayer hall, the rows of immense  dignified arches and columns made from granite, marble and Jasper lead you deeper and deeper into the silence of its interior till you come at the end to the  traditional prayer niche,  the Mihrab.  It is a  beautifully ornamented, semi-circular alcove, originally placed so as to allow one to face the Kaaba at Mecca when at prayer, and it was once said to have held a rare gilt copy of the Koran.

The Mezquita was taken over by the church in 1236 and a Christian chapel ornamented by the Mudejar craftsmen was installed in 1370.  The Episcopal Palace,  once the original old hospital, is just opposite.

 

The beautiful courtyard and gardens of the Alcazar Palace/fortress.  Cordova

Nearby, looking towards the river and the rows of cafes along its bank,  is the famous Alcazar, the Cordova  palace/fortress which is surrounded by magnificent gardens and courtyards and beautiful lofty interiors ornamentally decorated in the Mudejar style, using plaster, brick and ceramics.

It was the original Palace of the Moslem Caliphate until the Christians took over Cordova during the Reconquest in1328, when it was then renamed the  Palace de los Reyes Cristiani – the Palaces of the Christian Kings. They resided in its palaces for the next 7 centuries. Even the Office of the Inquisition held court there for a couple of centuries.

It was a delightful short walk from there through a network of lanes that led me into the very pretty area of the old Jewish Quarter – the Cordova Juderia – with its white washed walled houses, brightly coloured flower boxes and cool tiled patios.

Its history goes way back to Roman times, through the Visigoth era up to the 10th century, maintaining its own city, even when the Arabs ruled in Spain and life and art blended and flourished for both cultures.

Statue of Maimonides a great Sephardic Jewish Philosopher, near the Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Cordoba.

The medieval Synagogue was built by  Mudejar craftsmen but it too became a Christian church when the Jewish people who refused to convert were expelled, and, just imagine!, was later occupied by the Guild of Shoemakers.  It has since returned to its original purpose.

There are still small pockets of Jewish people remaining in Andalusia but there are only three Synagogues left in Spain, and happily I also got to see the beautiful one in Toledo which had also become the Church of Santa Maria la Blanca.

From there it was joy to keep wandering along through the narrow streets heading towards the city centre.

 

Central to the city of Cordova is the grand Plaza de la Corredara, originally a Roman Circus, ringed by a rectangle of apartments with balconies from which the people could view all manner of spectacles.

Plaza de la Corredara in Cordova

It was large enough for horse racing and bullfighting, and even inquisition burnings were carried out there.

Today it is a place to meet friends for a coffee or browse through the Mercardo de la Corredera – the morning markets, enjoy the colourful atmosphere and marvel at the array of interesting produce.

As decades passed, Cordova’s wealth had grown as a result of the gold pouring in from  the conquest of central and south America and the city had flourished.  A fine city centre grew. with  a fine Town Hall, beautiful boutiques and a variety of shops, many stocking the work of skilled artisans such as weaving and basketry, ceramic tiles and wood work – much of it part of the Muslim heritage.

SEVILLE

Time was flying by and I knew I had to be strong and keep moving and that meant reluctantly leaving Cordova, and heading for Seville, following along the course of the Guadalquiver river again.

As well as passing through the crops and orchards  we saw when coming into Cordova there  were many vineyards along the way – and Seville is certainly famous for its variety of delicious wines, especially sherry and muscatel.

From Seville, this massive river continues its journey west till it finally reaches the Gulf of Cadiz in the Atlantic  ocean.

The El Arenal quarter – the Old Town near the river proved to be a great area to start exploring. There, in the neighbourhood between the river and the great Cathedral I came across just what I was looking for, somewhere to watch an authentic Flamenco performance, knowing already that Seville is where the very heart of traditional Flamenco resides.

A few blocks away is the huge world famous Maestranza bullring, and although I had no desire to see any bull-fighting, it was certainly  worth a visit, a very impressive sight both inside and out.  It has a dazzling white facade with classic baroque orange ornamentation, and a beautifully designed circular arcaded arena within. The tiers of seating were capped with elegant arches reminding me a bit of the stalls in European Opera houses.

The most outstanding landmark on the river bank was El Torre de Oro – a tall dodecagonal military watch house built by the Almohed Caliphate of Cordova to control access to Seville via the river in the 13th century. It was called the golden tower because it projected a golden shine on the water, and this was attributed to the material that was used to create it – a mix of mortar, lime and pressed hay!

I was curious to know more about the Almoheds. It turns out they were a Moorish berber religious and cultural group from Morocco, emerging from the Atlas mountains about 1100, spreading over Nth. Africa then across the waters to ‘Al-Andalus,’ where they made Seville their capital.

Their influence in Seville only lasted about 100 years but they certainly made their mark architecturally, adding tall towers to their fortifications, and the Great Mosque in Seville became a model for constructing other mosques, using  brickwork then mortar, and basing it on a rectangular plan divided into naves by rows of pillars featuring those elegant horseshoe shaped arches.

When the Church took it over after the Reconquista the mosque’s base was used to create Seville’s greatest architectural highlight – the massive Gothic Catedrale de Santa Maria de la Sede, one of Christianity’s largest and most majestic churches.  It took the place of the 12th century  Almohed Mosque, and the mosque’s superb Minaret known as the Giralda was converted into a bell-tower.

It was interesting to learn that this was where the Romans had built a Basilica in Julius Caesar’s day  in the 1st century BC.  Later the Visigoths built their church on the same spot. The Muslims came next with their mosque but only its base and the converted minaret and a courtyard of orange trees remained.

There are many instances of a succession of places of worship being built one on the site of another, and it usually indicates a natural sacred energy site in the landscape, often on a major ley-line, even an intersection of energy lines of the Earth’s grid.

The interior of the cathedral is vast and very impressive with its huge gilt altar-piece and a rich display of some of Spain’s best known painters – Murillo, Zuberan and Goya among them. Velasquez, the famous Royal Court Painter was actually born in Seville.  I was happy to see them there because I lacked the time to properly explore Seville’s superb Art Gallery, but it was a very peaceful place to sit and contemplate for a while.

Fortunately the beautifully ornate and coloured Giralda tower attached to the cathedral is still well preserved and has been judged by some as “the most perfect Islamic building in Spain” and certainly creates much attention. Its facades are finely decorated with carved brickwork and arched double windows

Nearby is the Royal Palace – the Reales Alcazares de Seville, consisting of several palaces, in fact, and built in the intricate Mudejar architectural style that I have come to appreciate the more I see of it.

It was created over a period from the l1th to the 16th century – originally one of the three capitals of the Almohed Empire;  a fortress was added in the 1300s. It later became the palace of the Christian Castilian monarchy and has continued as a Royal House in modern times. The upper rooms still remain as the current Royal family’s residence.

The whole splendid complex covering several acres has been continuously reconstructed and expanded with beautiful patios and connecting halls and is surrounded by vast gardens.  It deserves a day or two to take it all in.  It too is in the older part of the city.

Seville’s history goes back into the mists of time. The Greek god Hercules is said to be its founder – some connection with the Pillars of Hercules between Africa and Spain over the Strait of Gibraltar! – but these days devotion to Mother Mary prevails and Andalusia is known as “la tierra de Maria Santissima’.

 

GRANADA

From Seville I travelled across to my next destination, Granada, through wild mountainous country to what was the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe, and known as ‘the Land of a 1000 castles’.

It lies below the Sierra Nevada mountains where four rivers meet not far from the Mediterranean coast. In the city of Granada  it is the famous Alhambra with its citadel and Palaces that everyone comes to see. It proved to be a wonderful way of winding up my visit to Andalusia.

I followed what had been known as the ‘Caliphate route, described in a precious little copy I have of Tales of the Alhambra, written in the 1800s

by the American author Washington Irving  (once an Ambassador to Spain) and republished in Granada in 1969. In it he recounts his journey from Seville to Granada in 1829 and the few months he spent actually living at his in the Governor’s apartments in the Alhambra itself at his invitation.

He described the Alhambra better than I can  “as an ancient fortress or castellated palace of the Moorish kings of Granada, where they held dominion over this their boasted paradise and made their last stand for empire in Spain.  The palace occupies but a portion of the fortress, the walls of which, studded with towers, stretch irregularly round the whole crest of the lofty hill that overlooks the city and forms a spur of the Sierra Nevada or Snowy Mountain.”

You can spend hours wandering through beautifully decorated halls and galleries, through arcades and brightly tiled courtyards, and stroll along the flower gardens amongst pools and fountains.

The Court of the Lions, the main court in the very heart of the Palace, deserves special mention as a masterpiece of Nasrid art.  It is rectangular and surrounded by a number of small galleries with filigree-decorated walls supported by a series of delicate marble columns, which have survived periods of neglect over the centuries and even earthquakes.

A beautiful Islamic fountain with alabaster basins sits in the centre encircled by 24 white marble lions symbolizing Strength, Power and Sovereignty, spouting jets of water.

Its Moorish citadel – the Alcazaba – sits planted  on the very crown of the hill, the reddish colour of the massive ramparts and fortifications contrasting with the green of the surrounding 400 acres of parkland, with the snow-capped mountains in the background.

Amongst the other palaces the Palaciode Generalife  stands out. It is a beautiful Nasrid  summer country estate – a royal pleasure palace with very romantic gardens often dominated by heady perfume of rose-bushes, with an abundance of fountains and baths and a rich variety of rare flowers and plants.

The water needed to maintain all the pools, fountains and baths and gardens of these palaces, as well the city’s requirements, was guaranteed by the Moors building a series of aqueducts that could carry a constant supply down from the mountains.

Down in the old city below there was time to wander through the narrow winding cobbled lanes, though not many of the medieval buildings remain. The most interesting is the Corral de Carbon – the House of Charcoal, and the adjacent Church of Nuestra Senora del Carmen.        It is a rare example of a caravanserai, a very old Moorish roadside inn where the merchants occupied the top level and the animals sheltered below, and the courtyard later served as a theatre.

There’s the Alcaiceria  which was once a great bazaar where the Romans had given permission for silk to be made and sold.  The Piazza de Bibarrambla leading off the main street packed with little shops had been the site of many spectacles and market activity.

The Corral del Carbon – the House of Charcoal and the Church of  la Nuestra Senora del Carmen.

By contrast there was the Albaayzin district – the old Arabic quarter where you could glimpse the intimate gardens enclosed with vines that surrounded the white villas called Carmens , protecting them brom the outside world,  – and also the Banos arabes de Granada – the lovely bath houses decorated with tiles, mosaics and lattices.

The last port of call had to be the Sacramonte cave in the gypsy quarter where they claimed that you could find authentic gypsy flamenco, then sadly , it was time to head north at high speed to Barcelona – the final stop of my Spanish adventure.

 

 

BARCELONA – the capital of Catalonia on the east coast of Spain

It was good to finally arrive in Barcelona after the very long train trip up from Granada. I remember feeling welcome and comfortable in this city during the couple of days of days  I was able to spend there, in spite of the disappointment of not receiving mail.  Everything I had time to explore was central and very accessible.

Las Ramblas, – the wonderful, long avenue threading through the very heart of Barcelona.

I loved strolling the length of Las Ramblas , a wonderful kilometre- long tree shaded avenue with great palaces and public buildings lining it on either side. There were lots of out-door cafes and Basque-style tapas bars and very little traffic, passing first through the Gothic Quarter – the Old city on either side and passing by the Castilan Museum of Art

At the the bottom end it widened out into a fine plaza with an imposing monument to Cristofer Colombo in the centre The avenue ended near the waterfront and the Marina from which the local fishermen set out to supply to the delicious seafood taverns nearby.

The seafront beaches were just a little way along as well and luckily there was balmy autumn weather over the whole trip, so a beach stroll and even a quick dip was tempting.

The Boqueria Market, the most amazing food markets I think I’ve seen, were nearby – huge and colourful and full of life – a great variety of stalls both outdoors and within a vast hall. As well as an extraordinary range of produce, there were other diversions, entertaining musicians, even tarot readings.

The Gothic Quarter – the old Town, with its Cathedral Tower at the end of the narrow stone-paved street.

Here in Barcelona was yet another magnificent Gothic Cathedral to impress me, not far off Las Ramblas. It was a strange mix of architecture. Most of the church backed onto the Gothic quarter, with its cobble-stone lanes branching out from its base and appropriately, was very medieval and ancient in appearance, being built around the 13th and 14th centuries, and with a strange array of Gargoyles decorating its roofline and tower.

By contrast its deceptive front entrance had a fine Romanesque façade which was built in 1870. It  had a beautiful spacious interior and a lovely Capella de Santa Lucia and adjoining cloisters.

Thankfully it was one of the few churches in Spain not damaged by the anarchists during the Civil War.  Franco was  still in power at the time I visited Spain, so I didn’t learn till later that during that period the Catalonians were forbidden to speak Catalan though they are normally bi-lingual.  – and of course, Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia.

So much for the Gothic churches. The other great church whose spires were already dominating the sky-line when I was there in 1960 in spite of only being partially erected, was the now famous Basilica de La Sagrada Familia  – the Church of the Holy Family. It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, an extraordinary and wonderfully quirky architectural genius.

Gaudi is still  a household name in the art world today, his influence being largely  responsible for western Modernism because of his revolutionary engineering skills and a whole range of brilliantly imaginative and original buildings. Also, I expect,  because the immense work of bringing his unique Cathedral to completion after many stops an starts and challenges including fires is still proceeding today, its funding coming from the visits of some millions of people!

I have become accustomed in my travels to explore medieval  Gothic cathedrals that took up to two hundred years to construct, but it intrigued  me to discover that 130 years have already passes since its inception.  Gaudi was born in 1852 and was already recognised for his innovative creations in Barcelona in his twenties, and was entrusted with designing the church in 1884. He made it his full-time work from 1910 till his death in1926.

During those years he built what was called the Nativity façade with its four tall spires and a porch full of his sculptures, as well as an unusual crypt, and he also left behind a model of the complete church with partial models of the doors, windows, columns and another details and this was what I was able to see back in 1960.

But believe it or not, the sight I best recall to this day was coming across the weaving and oh so inviting rows of garden seats decorated with colourful mosaics that he himself had created  in the Parc Guell – such a sense of child-like  fun

He also revolutionized the design of apartment buildings. The most famous is the Casa Milla or La pedera,   with its undulating lines of its façade curving continuously around much of the building  and a terrace on top decorated with   sculptures

The influence on me from my Spanish experience stayed with me long after I returned to Australia. I was always on the lookout for an opportunity  to attend Flamenco and classical guitar performances when visiting the city, and luckily, as the years went on they became  more popular, those of Paco Pena  and Manuel de Plato are two names that come to mind, and my most recent opportunity to hear some great Flamenco music being a fantastic recital by Lulo Reinhardt, one or the world’s current best known Gypsy guitarists.

Soon after I returned home I made myself a Spanish gypsy style evening dress for attending local balls to be worn when the opportunity arose, and, believe it or not, it had its final airing (after some alterations –  by this time childbearing had broadened my figure a little!)  – during the celebration of my 50th birthday.

I had come to love the simple classic style  of women’s’ fashions current in Italy and Spain which inspired me to  design my own wedding dress when I married in 1963, and I asked my friend Mercedes in Madrid to send me a beautiful white lace mantilla to go with it..

My journey through Spain now completed, the last of the Letters from Europe follow on as I board a plane for Rome, have one last look around that great city  and  prepare to set sail for Australia.

Recording the saga is nearly complete two and a half years after I began to set down in print one or the mosr rewarding periods of my life to date!

It’s been a great ride with plenty of ups and downs and well worth it in so many ways. I recommend to anyone feeling tempted to toss out all the memorabilia that it may prove worth holding on to it.  You just never know!