Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Granada & Cordoba

We left the sea and headed inland to Granada, a beautiful city that rises out of the plains and has the Sierra Nevada's as a backdrop.  We visited the Alhambra, a sprawling palace-fortress whose name means Red Citadel in Arabic.  Supposedly, it is Spain's top attraction with over 2 millions visitors per year. 

The beauty of the Alhambra comes from several sources.  First, the Moorish architecture with hundreds of columns and arches, intricate carved ceilings and walls and courtyards with reflecting pools.  While we had seen all of these things in Sevilla, the Alhambra was of a higher quality and a much grander scale.  Second, the location provides a commanding view of the valley and of the mountains in the background.  Much of the Alhambra was built in the 14th century -- it must have been very imposing for visitors approaching Granada to see this huge fortress on top of a hill.  Finally, the gardens softened the effect of all that stone to provide a quiet place to walk. 

Our hotel in Granada was a restored 15th century building

The snow capped Sierra Nevada's

View of the city from the Alhambra

Some of the wall carvings at the Alhambra.  Note the Arabic poetry near the bottom.

Intricate ceiling at the Alhambra

More Alhambra detail


More Alhambra detail

In the gardens of the Alhambra

Some of the Alhambra fortress walls

Alhambra reflecting pool

The Alhambra at night as viewed from the city. 

Alhambra Gardens

Granada is also where Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand are buried.  The "Catholic Monarchs" led the recapture of Granada from the Moor's in 1492, creating a unified Spain.  Unfortunately, it also created an environment where Muslims and Jews were expelled to provide religous harmony.  Among other notable (and more positive) accomplisments, Isabella and Ferdinand commissioned Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World.  The two monarchs are buried in the Royal Chapel along with their daughter, Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad) and her husband, Felipe el Hermoso (Philip the Handsome).  Philip must have been quite handsome.  He died young and his wife, Juana, had his lead casket carried with her so that she could lift the lid and kiss him each night.  Her name appears to suit her well. 

The Cathedral as viewed from Alhambra

Stained glass in the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

Columbus requesting support from Queen Isabella

Many of the balconies in Spain had Santa's climbing up the railing.  This is the only balcony I saw that had the three Wise Men making their delivery. 

The drive from Granda to Cordoba went through a beautiful range of small mountains whose slopes were covered with olive trees.  In some places it seemed like there were olive trees as far as you could see, and we could see pretty far.  I had planned to write all about olive ranching, but fate intervened.  We stopped in the small town of Baena intending to visit the Museo del Olivar y el Aceite (Olive Oil Museum).  Recognizing that they would close for siesta from 2 - 4:00, we timed our visit to arrive precisely at 4:00.  Unfortunately, during the hoilday week they adjusted their hours to only be OPEN from 2 - 4:00 each day.  So your lesson on olives will have to wait until we visit Italy. 

Note the olive groves in the background.  We saw groves like this for two hours of our drive. 

The town of Zuheros built into the side of the mountain.  We ate lunch at a the set of white buildings in the foreground. 

An abandoned fortress/cathedral that we saw on the drive to Cordoba

Cats are the same around the world...they can't resist a warm car hood in the sun.

Kate and Grant in front of an olive tree.  Lori picked one to eat, but it was super sour. 

Our last stop on the trip was Cordoba.  No we didn't see Ricardo Montalban advertising Chrysler cars.  But we did see the Mezquita, or Mosque.  Built between the 8th and 10th centuries, it's one of the earliest examples of Spanish Muslim architecture.  After the reconquest in the 1200's, it served as a Cathedral so as you tour it today you see a building with a blend of Muslim and Catholic religions.   You will note in the photo's that by this point in the trip, some members of our group had contracted a severe case of "audio-guide-itis".  Their brains were simply unable to absorb any more historical facts or listen to readings of one-thousand year-old Arabic poetry.  So they just walked around the Mesquita and enjoyed its beauty; something that was quite an easy thing to do. 

In the category of learning more about the Spanish culture, we noticed that on the evening of January 5th, there were many elaborate parades in Cordoba and the surrounding towns.  When we asked about their purpose, we learned that the Spanish large holiday celebration occurs on Epiphany, or January 6th.   The parades were for the Wise Men coming and giving gifts (actually they were throwing out candy).  The bakeries were selling King Cakes, which were circular similar in shape to a New Orleans King Cake, but they had some type of whipped cream filling.  Supposedly, there were also a few presents in the cake.  The next day, the town was empty as families stayed home and opened their presents. 

The Cathedral Choir within the Mesquita. 

The Mesquita includes over 850 columns topped by ornate capitals and arches.

The ceiling in one section of the Mesquita

Another section of ceiling. 

An example of the detail within the Mesquita. 

I'm sure that he was a famous Cardinal in Cordoba, but he looks rather like Yoda. 

The outside of the Mesquita (on the right).

I love the practicality of this.  Install huge doors because they look nice, but cut a small door within the larger one for everyday use. 

In the Alcazar, Mosaics from the 2nd or 3rd century when the Romans ruled the Cordoba.

A single tree that grows both oranges and lemons. 

A frequent site on the trip.  We'd get lost and Lori would whip out the guidebook and save us. 

The only Jewish Synagogue in Andalusia to survive the inquisition in 1492 and one of only 3 in all of Spain. 

Carol enjoyed the local cuisine....oxtail stew. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ronda, Costa de Sol & Gibraltar

We rented cars in Sevilla and headed south to Costa de Sol...The Sunshine Coast.  On the way we stopped at Ronda, said to be one of the oldest towns in Spain.  Its location at the top of a rock provides scenic views of the Rio Guadalevin.  The location also made it a great place for Andalusian bandits in 18th and 19th centuries.  There is a 360 ft deep gorge that divides the old town from the new town, with an impressive bridge built in the 1700's that spans the gap.

The town of Ronda overlooking the Rio Guadalevin

Move views

Ronda's most famous bullfighter, Pedro Romero, is said to have killed 5,600 bulls.  Sorry, I can't resist saying it....that's a lot of bull. 

The gorge between the old and new city.  It's pretty clear why building a bridge was important for future development. 

One of the narrow streets of the old city

More views

For the non-Spanish reading readers, this is the Ham & Cheese Boutique

And this is what you will find in the Ham & Cheese Boutique.  Andalusia is famous for their ham.  They feed the pigs acorns to give the meat a unique flavor. 

Leaving Ronda, we took a short, but challenging drive to visit the Pileta Cave.  The drive presented one of those situations where the road signs say "go right" but the GPS says "go left".  Unfortunately we went left.  Our route took us through the narrow, winding streets of a small, hillside town.  The streets kept getting narrower and narrower.  I knew I was getting into trouble when I noticed that a) every car parked along the street was a tiny, sub-compact (I was driving an Audi Station Wagon) and b) every car parked along the street had numerous scrapes on the bumpers and side panels.  Finally the street became what seemed like a wide sidewalk and we had to call a halt to the adventure.  Turning around was out of the question, so Kate and Lori got out of the car and guided me while I backed out of town.

We finally reached the Cave and it was worth it.  Discovered by a local farmer (aren't they all), the cave contains drawings of fish, horses and other animals that are thought to be 15,000 years old.  But the best part was the tour itself.  There were only 10 people in the group.  There was no electricity so we carried small butane lanterns.   And even though the guide had probably given the tour thousands of times, he was very enthusiastic about the subject.   It was easily the best cave tour we've ever taken.

The spelunkers waiting to enter the cave.  

Kate sitting outside the cave entrance.  Note the homemade weather wane behind her.

For the next two nights we stayed at a hotel on the beach at Marbella.  Our guidebook described Marbella as "playground of the rich and home of movie stars, rock musicians and dispossessed royal families".  We didn't fit into any of those categories, but they still let us in.  We didn't really spend much time in Marbella other than to hold a cut-throat ping pong championship tournament at the hotel.  After some close matches, Mark Sechler emerged as the victor. 

The first annual Holiday Ping Pong Classic

Sunset on the beach at Marbella

We took a side trip from Marbella to Great Britain.  Actually, to one of the British Colonies, Gibraltar.  After a series of tussles and wars, the British finally claimed Gibraltar in the early 1700's.  Although Spain has tried to reclaim it several times since then, Gibraltar remains a crown colony today.  In fact, the border that we drove across to get to Gibraltar was closed from '67 until '85 because the Spaniards were upset with the situation.  Even today, there are very few road signs or advertisements for Gibraltar in Spain (luckily our GPS did not lead us astray on our journey there).    As a sidenote, in 1969 John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided at the last minute to get married.  Their first choice was Paris, but being non-French that was going to take some time.  So they rented a jet, flew to Gibraltar and were married in a civil ceremony (a beneift of John's British citizenship).  Then they left for their honeymoon in the Amsterdam Hilton.  

Here is proof that Gibraltar is a British Colony.....a classic red phone booth

Entering Gibraltar is interesting --- you walk across the airport runway!  There are only a limited number of flights, so you don't have to worry about dodging a 747.   As you can imagine, there isn't a lot of flat land around, so having a road, sidewalk and airport runway share the same space is one of the inconveniences that Gibraltarians put up with.   

It takes a long time to walk across an airport runway

We had clear, sunny skies which provided good viewing from "The Rock".  Morocco is only 14 miles away and was easily visible.  We were told that the lighthouse at the southern point of the island is visible to sailors 27 miles away.  Gibraltar remains a busy port, so there were many ships anchored in the harbor.  On the island itself, there were a few sights to see.  St. Michaels Cave is large enough to for the locals to hold concerts.  There are miles of tunnels that were carved out of the rock to provide cannon sites during the Great Siege of 1779-82.  You can see how difficult it would have been for Spain to capture the island.

On the right is the Atlantic Ocean.  On the left is the Mediterranean Sea.

The concert hall inside St. Michael's Cave

The island is blessed (or cursed) to be home to 200 or so tailless Barbary Apes, the only non-human primates in all of Europe. 

Some of those Marbella movie stars?

Cannons used to defend Gibraltar in the 1700's

You can see Morocco in the distance

Straight out of the Prudential commercial
 One final note:  Many of the photo's of Spain were taken by Carol and Caroline Sechler.  In addition to being very good photographers, Santa had brought them a new super-duper lens.  Their photo's turned out great and they were kind enough to share them.