Sunday, May 18, 2014

Real Alcázar

In the morning we went out early to get to see the alcazar before we had to leave Seville. It opened at 9:30, so we arrived there promptly, along with a bunch of other tourists who had exactly the same idea. The alcazar is the palace of the muslim caliph of old, and is decorated mostly in the muslim style. There are also exhibits of tiles and a history of tile-making in Spain. The walled gardens are extensive and maintained in the same style as they were originally.

After checking out of the hotel, we decided to drive to Ronda, a small town which is on the way (-ish) to Málaga. We walked down the main street towards the old town and bridge, for which the town is famed.

The old town is very picturesque, but we didn’t have much time for a full historical tour, so satisfied ourselves with a quick wander around, a spot of lunch, and then walked back up to the car with every intention of heading on our way to Málaga.

Sattie, however, had other ideas. She was confused by roadworks and diversions, as there appears to be some major road remodelling going on in Ronda. Eventually, after being sent the wrong way too many times, we stopped at a petrol station and bought an old-fashioned map. Sattie, I am disappoint.

Eventually heading out of Ronda on the right road to Málaga, through spectacular mountain scenery,  we made good time as far as Marbella, when Sattie again led us astray. She was trying to take us the toll-free route, and was getting into an awful muddle. I believe her software is somewhat out of date, and the new roads didn’t appear on her map. We therefore decided to take the toll road as this was clearly marked “Málaga: over here”. The motorway took us past the airport and again Sattie had trouble finding our hotel – a Holiday Inn on a main road, so shouldn’t have been a problem – so we decided to take the car back to the rental place at the airport and get to the hotel under our own steam. “You have failed me for the last time, Sattie” I said in a Darth Vader voice as we left.

The hotel is one bus stop away from the airport on a windswept industrial park. It was an unappealing place, but it did for the night as we had to check in by 6:00am for a 7:00am flight back to the UK.


In the evening, we assembled once again in our designated meeting place. Ordinarily, this would have been no problem, but tonight the place was absolutely packed out: FC Sevilla had won the UEFA Cup the previous evening, and tonight was the victorious team’s tour through the city. Everyone was dressed in red and white – improvised in many cases, and many flags were being waved.

We managed to find our tour guides and set off away from the crowds to a hotel rooftop bar, where Lola (again) gave us the low-down on flamenco – how it was invented, then brought into the public arena, in the 18th and 19th centuries; and the Spanish population’s relationship to flamenco. All this over a refreshing glass of chilled manzanilla – the drink which is traditionally associated with flamenco. Flamenco was first sung by “gypsies”, in fact people of Indian descent who had travelled to Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was for a very long time a private affair, only being performed in the homes of the poor people of the Triana. Eventually it was taught to a young boy of non-gypsy heritage, Silverio Franconetti Aguilar, who learned it at the forge of an old gypsy man. He then went to America to make his fortune, and on his return to Cadiz set up a “café cante” – a café with singing. This was so successful that he soon opened more in other cities, and others copied him. The flamenco style was brought to the public in this way.

Following the Peninsular War and independence from France, the Spanish people wanted an artform that was uniquely theirs, and so flamenco filled this role.  However under the dictatorship of Franco, who tried to co-opt flamenco as a representation of his regime, it fell out of favour with the ordinary people as it was identified with the dictatorship. It wasn’t until the 70s, after the death of Franco, that a revival began, and now it is again widely performed.

We then went downstairs and round a corner to Casa de la Guitarra, to see and hear an authentically authentic flamenco, with added authenticity. We were left in no doubt that this was authentic – no castanets or any of that malarkey. First up was a guitarist, then singer with guitarist, and finally singer, dancer and guitar. Then more singing and guitar, before the dancer returned in a change of costume for the grand finale. It is a very emotional performance – we were exhausted just watching it!

It was about 10:15 by the time this finished, so we turned a corner to find ourselves actually on the street of our hotel. We walked along to the little taberna opposite our hotel for a quick bite to eat before turning in for the night.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

More Seville

A company called Feel The City offer free guided walking tours of Seville. We decided to take this in the morning, starting at 10am at out hotel. There we were met by Lola, who took us firstly on a tour of other hotels in the area, to pick up more passengers. We then assembled in the Plaza Puerto de Jerez, where more guides had brought their groups, and we were split up into English, Spanish and French-speaking parties. Lola led the English-speaking contingent, and after a quick count, we were off.

Lola gave us a bit of background about herself –she was a native Sevillian, with a degree in History, and very proud of her city. This is the ethos of Feel The City – they want you to know the place like a native. She therefore skipped over the boring bits and gave us a personal tour of the city.

We started off in the Plaza de la Trionfe, where we were enlightened as to the roles of the Muslims, the Christian Kings, and later the discovery of America; documents and similar being archived in the Indian House.

At the cathedral, she pointed out some graffiti on the walls. These date back to the 17th century, but were only recently discovered when the cathedral was cleaned and restored from its previous pollution-encrusted black. The “vittores” spell “victor” in Latin and are declarations of graduation from university by the nobility of the time.

Among other sites that we visited were the first bakery in Europe; the cigarette factory, which is the scene of the opera Carmen and is now part of the university; and the Golden Tower, where Lola told us a story of King Pedro I, "The Cruel" and his pursuit of Dona Maria Fernandez Coronel, who wanted nothing to do with him. The king ordered her husband to war, where he was invetably killed. After hiding out in a convent for some months, she was eventually discovered again by the king, who pursued her through the nunnery – in a style reminiscent of a Benny Hill skit, according to Lola – a chase which ended in the kitchens, where there was a vat of boiling oil. She poured the boiling oil over herself and challenged the king “do you want me now?” (in between screams, I imagine). The king, fickle as ever, changed his mind, and she spent the rest of her life in a convent. On the anniversary of her death, Sevillians go to the convent to see her mummified body. A cheery tale.

 After that we saw the bullring, the second oldest in Spain (the oldest is in Ronda, which is nowhere near Wales). Like many of the younger generation, Lola is not in favour of bullfighting, but told us that it is unlikely to die out soon as it still enjoys royal patronage. We also looked out over the other side of the river, as Lola explained about Triana and the history of the poorer area outside the city walls, and how it became the birthplace of Flamenco, about which more later. We ended up in the Plaza De Espagna, a beautiful building which is now used as government offices. The whole tour lasted around three hours, and we were feeling a little footsore by then (indeed, one of our number had excused himself about halfway). As we were taking pictures, we were importuned by some American ladies who, on discovering that we did indeed speak English and came from New Zealand, said ”oh, I know someone in New Zealand, his name’s Bob, do you know him?” I kid you not. Anyway, they took our photo.

At the end, Lola asked us politely to review the tour on, as they rely on good ratings there. She also invited us to sign up for further excursions – this time with a price tag – but with no pressure. We decided that the flamenco evening would suit us fine, so we coughed up for that.

In the afternoon we grabbed a quick lunch of assorted jamon Iberico and salad at the first semi-respectable establishment we came across; then headed back to our hotel for a cooling swim in the rooftop pool.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Driving away from Medina Azaharah, we got into another argument with Sattie. "In 200 metres, turn left", so we did. There was a big sign ahead, which gave the impression, in no uncertain terms, Seville: this way. Cool, we thought. "In 200 metres, do a u-turn", said Sattie. "No!" I shouted. "It's this way!" "In 60 metres, do a u-turn" as we passed yet another sign saying Seville: straight ahead. "Do a u-turn!" "Oh shut up, Sattie, you don't know what you're talking about."

Sattie then sulked in silence for 131km. We approached Seville.

Now this is the scary part: you don't want to upset your satellite navigation system when you're in a strange city. It was "turn left this", "turn right that" as we drove up and down increasingly narrow streets trying to find our hotel. At one point (we were looking for our hotel in the centre of the Jewish Quarter (again) which is a series of narrow alleyways), the road was so narrow and the turn so tight that we had to drive the wrong way up a (wider) one-way street in order to execute a multi-point turn, then drive up the street. Eventually, with the help of a very nice man at The British Institute, we got directions from a more reliable witness, and reached the Hotel rey Alfonso X.

So yes, our hotel is smack in the middle of the Jewish Quarter. This is handy, as this is where all the bars and restaurants are (our last hotel in Cordoba was a massive 5 minutes' walk outside the Jewish Quarter, with horrendous consequences). Once we'd checked in, we went for a walk to grab a well-deserved cerveza and some tapas, as we'd not had anything since breakfast. Then after a short siesta, we set out to explore the local area and to get our bearings. On the back of our map was a list of restaurants, so we headed desultorily down towards one of these, Restaurant Robles, for some dinner.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Medina Azahara

About 6 km outside Cordoba is the ruins of the ancient palace-city of Medina Azahara, built by Abd-ar-Rahman III, who was caliph of Cordoba at the time, and basically God's most important person on Earth, if you believe that sort of thing. It was an extensive undertaking, 10 years to build and involving the usual thousands of slave labourers.

We'd driven out of Cordoba in search of this palace and got into a bit of an argument with Sattie, our satnav in the car, as she kept insisting we turn left unnecessarily. We found the place eventually (it wasn't that hard) and parked, to find that the place didn't open until 10am. There were various other early birds milling around, but fortunately they opened on time, and ushered us all into an auditorium to watch a short film about the palace. We then took a tour around the museum, which culminated in an account of the destruction of the place. It only lasted 70 years. Most of it was then carted off for buildings elsewhere in the region. Early in the 20th century, an archaeological dig was begun to see what was left, and more recently it has been the subject of more methodical archaeology, which has resulted in the museum and tour available today. A lot of the ruins have been reconstructed.

Finally, we went to the site itself, this is located about 2km from the museum - there is a bus every 20 minutes. There were a lot of people waiting for the bus - mainly - mainly Spanish, listening to the voices - so when it came to boarding time, any semblance of a queue descended into a typical Mediterranean scrum, involving a lot of shouting and waving, to get on. As we weren't on a tour, we had to pay the driver.

When we arrived at the top, we found plenty of car parking. There had been no indication that we could drive up there. Ah well.

The ruins were pretty well what we expected to see, having seen the film. We wandered around a bit, reading the informative placards, and had our photo taken by an Italian couple.

Córdoba Day 2

We'd planned to arise early and get to the cathedral to avoid the crowds; apparently, groups weren't admitted before 10am. Like the best-laid plans of my fellow mammals and most intelligent species on Earth (mice, if you don't know your Hitchhiker's), this went aglay as I'd failed to set an alarm on my phone, and it turned out that the Hotel Córdoba Center has really effective blackout curtains in its rooms.

Undaunted, by 9:30am we had availed ourselves of a good breakfast and were ready to set out, and reached the Cathedral Mezquita in good time. There was a queue for about 5 minutes, which didn't really bother us, as we admired the courtyard.

The cathedral is built on an old site which dates back to the 7th century. It was then taken over by the Moors and converted to a mosque, and extensively remodelled in several stages. At one point, the person ordering the changes had a clear eye for economy, and decided that the distinctive red and beige pattern could be effected through the medium of paint, rather than the more expensive different-coloured bricks. This can be clearly seen in the later additions.

The building is now in use as the main cathedral for the diocese of Córdoba. As well as the display of its architectural and religious significance, there is a museum section, and there are the usual accoutrements of a working church - many of which detract from the building, such as modern light fittings.

After touring the cathedral, we went to the Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos. The interior had some mosaics, but was otherwise fairly humdrum; the gardens were what we'd come to see. There was a set of casacading pools as the centrepiece, surrounded by gardenery of various descriptions. Peons were at work in them.

After admiring the gardens we walked up past the Roman Bridge to the Plaza de la Corredera for a quick tapas lunch of patatas bravas, boquerones and salad; washed down with the inevitable cervezas - it's thirsty work doing all this wandering around.

After a siesta and a swim in the hotel rooftop pool, we felt refreshed to go out in the evening. We walked down into the Jewish Quarter again, this time with the intention of going to more "authentic" places for dinner. Whilst this may seem unlikely in the middle of a self-confessed tourist area, we managed to find a little place that served excellent jamón Iberico, so we shared a plate with some cheese - this time wisely avoiding any bread - before moving on to another small tapas bar - 101 tapas. I say wisely as, the previous evening, the meal was very heavy on bread and potatoes - even those dishes which didn't specifically mention either seemed to be served with one or both. We made a selection and enjoyed them - we managed to finish 6 small plates, which had defeated us the previous evening. We stopped off for a glass of jerez in the hotel bar before calling it a night. Tomorrow, we head to Seville.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Córdoba Day 1

We're on holiday. OK, this has been true for the last week or so, and I've not written anything about it so far. This is largely due to the fact that our first bit of holiday was in the UK visiting friends and family, and whilst it was interesting to us, may have been less so to everyone else. "No different to the rest of your blog", I hear you cry. OK then - we landed on Monday and went to Marlow to stay with Nicola's sister, Lisa, for one night, before heading over country to Bath, there to meet with Sacha and son, who studies there. We had lunch in the Pump Room.

We then stayed two nights with Sacha in Guildford, before picking up a rental car and driving down to Sandwich to see my folks. Another short visit - one night only - before driving to Tunbridge Wells and staying for lunch with a schoolfriend of Nicola's, Judith; continuing down to Poole to stay the weekend with Gus and the others from the Edelweiss Society of Pembroke College, Oxford. We partied at Jason's on the first night, then all went out to Poole's premier Italian gastronomic delight, Al Gatto Nero, on Saturday night. Saturday daytime and Sunday were spent on Poole beach, in a hut rented especially for the purpose.

With me so far? On Sunday, we drove back to Sacha's for tea and to drop off our heavy luggage, as we were on our way to Spain with hand luggage only. We overnighted at Gatwick Airport before catching a Norwegian Airlines flight to Malaga on Monday morning. I had booked a medium-sized automatic car in advance, and we were somewhat taken aback when they told us we had a Citroen Picasso. As I was sitting in it to try and figure out how it worked, in particular the satnav, we were hustled out of our space by someone wanting to return their car in the same place. So we drove out and tried fruitlessly to work it out on the fly (there weren't any instructions or anything like that), before parking and sorting it out. It didn't help that my phone had decided it didn't want to connect to the internet, and we therefore couldn't find the street address of our hotel in Córdoba.

We did eventually sort it all out, and were directed onto the motorway to Córdoba, and to our hotel, with ease. We checked in, checked out the rooftop pool, then walked into the Jewish Quarter, which is the main tourist area of the city, made of a series of small streets and alleyways with a lot of historical-looking buildings and architecture. We stopped for a quick bite (beer and tapas) early on to refresh ourselves, and then selected, more or less at random, what appeared to be a nice place for dinner, called Bodegas Mezquitas. This turned out to be quite a popular place! Luckily we had beaten the rush, and ordered the tapas menu, which comprised six dishes including speciality of the region, salmorejo - a cold soup made with bread and tomatoes, similar to gazpacho. We treated it more like a dip than a soup. 

That was the end of our first day in Córdoba. We walked back to the hotel and collapsed.