Author Topic: Three Accidents in Andalucía  (Read 5568 times)


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Three Accidents in Andalucía
« on: March 26, 2023, 01:44:52 PM »
Three Accidents in Andalucía
By rbuxton

My brother arrived in Spain in January 2020 and, with one thing and another, it was three years before I managed to visit him. By then he was living in Madrid and I used that as a start point for a three week tour of Andalucía, the southernmost of mainland Spain’s “autonomous communities” (they are very autonomous, by the way). I was partly drawn to this region by its mild winter weather, but mainly by its promise of history, culture and mountains. The title of this article is not entirely honest: my first two stops, and my first “accident”, were actually in the central province of Castilla-La Mancha.

Humans were living permanently in caves in Andalucía from at least 25 000 years ago. The area was then colonised by Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors (Arabs and Berbers) and the Christian Kingdoms which would become modern Spain. In the 1st century AD a Jewish community – the Sephardim – settled in the area and experienced varying degrees of persecution until they were violently expelled in about the 14th century. Although they contain art and architecture from many of these different eras, the cities of the region do not feel like monuments to racial and religious harmony. The dominance of one group would come abruptly to an end and the conquerors would make their own mark on top of the old – quite literally, in places like Granada. Geographically Andalucía is fairly mountainous with several national parks and its dramatic coastline includes the Costa del Sol. There are some fertile river valleys to the west but to the east it borders a desert – the only one in Europe.

Many of Andalucía’s cities have an “old city” area which is clearly defined: on a hill in Toledo, an island in Cádiz. In Cordoba, however, it goes on forever, and the buildings there were noticeably lower and the narrow streets less gloomy as a result. Getting lost in these areas is part of the sightseeing experience, and the main buildings of interest sometimes spring out at you without warning. I saw a number of open-topped tour buses and wondered about their efficacy: a big bus in these places is about as useful as in, say, Venice. “There’s the roof of the cathedral… about a mile away, and the palace next to it… you’ll have to walk that bit.”


On my first day in Spain’s capital I saw the cathedral and palace then took the metro to the Buen Retiro Park. I walked through it, past the lake and monument to King Alfonso XII, to the Reina Sofia art gallery. This is home to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a vast black and white painting depicting the 1937 Nazi bombing of the eponymous town. Next I went to the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple gifted to Spain in 1968. It was moved piece by piece to a hilltop in the city centre, where it has a commanding view over parks and the distant mountains. My brother took me into those mountains the following day, to Navacerrada, where a ski resort looks down over a reservoir. We followed a river valley up to the remnants of the snowline, where the path got slippery underfoot. Huge vultures wheeled around us, riding the air currents with hardly a beat of their wings.

In between the days out, tapas and live music I tried to plan my next stop. I was dismayed to see that a train journey to Seville would be expensive and take up most of a day. Much better to take a bus for €5 to a city just south of Madrid.


Perched on a rock and surrounded on three sides by the Tagus river gorge, Toledo is spectacular. The city is famous – as anyone who’s seen the film Highlander will know – for its steel making, and the souvenir shops are packed with swords. I dragged myself up the slope alongside its 16th century walls towards a hostel with a sunny roof terrace. I visited the complex of the Santa Fe convent, a series of buildings which was variously used as a Moorish palace, Castillian castle, base for a knightly order, nunnery, girls’ school and now eclectic modern art gallery. The following day I took a bus to a viewpoint on the far side of the gorge, walked back across a Roman bridge and took in the synagogue, alcázar (castle) and cathedral. The latter was one of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever been in; a highlight was its three metre high gold and silver monstrance.

Now to my first “accident”: sitting down to a meal of pasta and tomato soup (I’d misread the tin) at the hostel I heard drumming. I was aware that February was carnival month in much of Andalucía and thought my arrival might have coincided with a rehearsal. I was wrong: the main parade was that evening and it wound through the city streets and down, down, down to the river. I felt like the happiest tourist alive as I followed the dancers, musicians, fishermen and weeping clowns/kings/queens. The noise was sometimes deafening and the sense of community contagious. Only the pigeons, startled off distant balconies, seemed perturbed.

Accident the First- being swept up in Toledo's carnival. Great for your correspondent, less so for the local columbidae.


A dramatic bus ride through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada took me to Granada, medieval seat of the Nasrid dynasty. I had come to see the Alhambra: essentially a city on a hill of its own consisting of palaces, castles and gardens with some of the best preserved buildings of their kind in the world. I spent a lot of time gazing at views of and from it, and had booked a four hour guided tour well in advance. Wandering the labyrinth of beautifully plastered rooms and courtyards was very special. My guide pointed to some interesting features of Islamic architecture: fountains, for example, are always small to provide a peaceful murmur of water, unlike the thundering status symbols of European aristocracy. Islamic buildings are usually plain and unadorned on the exterior so, when the Christians conquered the Alhambra, they slapped their own richly decorated palace in the middle of it. When Sultan Boabdil, weakened by infighting in his own court, surrendered Granada the centuries of Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula were over. This was in 1492, the same year Columbus set sail on his fateful voyage across the Atlantic.


The warm weather of coastal Málaga was a relief after the time spent in the mountains, and helped me get over a cold. The city’s reputation as a mere party destination for British sunseekers is undeserved – though there’s certainly a large amount of Sangria available. I explored its waterfront and Roman and medieval buildings, many of which are clustered around a steep, pine-covered hill which affords brilliant panoramas of the city. The cathedral (affectionately known as the “One-armed Lady” since the second of its two towers was never finished) was lit up beautifully every evening by the setting sun. From Málaga I did a day trip to the Nerja caves, a huge network of chambers with artwork dating back 42 000 years. Tourists cannot visit these light-sensitive paintings but it’s still worth seeing the extraordinary speleothems (the general term for cave mineral formations) which include a 32-metre high column. There was plenty of information about the area on a “nature walk” above the caves, which I extended towards a beach for a freezing cold 30-second swim.

Andalucía Day was fast approaching and I asked Pedro, the receptionist, if this would affect long distance public transport. “I don’t know,” he said, like everybody else, “But you know you should go to my home town. You will see something very folk, it’s not for the tourists. Do the pilgrimage to Santa Fe, it’s maybe one hour. There will be music. I have to work”. Unsure of what I was letting myself in for I took a train into the Sierra del Gibralmora. Santa Fe turned out to be a sharp rocky outcrop above the town of Pizarra and the four-hour round trip had great views back to the coast. I returned to find the streets of the town had been closed to vehicles and there were horses everywhere. People drinking beer on horseback, chatting on horseback, watching the musicians and Flamenco dancers on horseback. I, meanwhile, was making an ass of myself trying to order street food in my faltering Spanish – it was clear there weren’t many tourists around. I returned to the hostel, grinning at my accidental good fortune, and showed Pedro my videos. “Hey,” he cried, “That’s my house!”

Accident the Second - an unexpected trip to Santa Fe where your correspondent found himself lacking the apparently obligatory horse.


I only had a day in the fourth largest city in Spain so I spent most of it exploring on foot. It was nice to stand by the river and imagine Columbus setting sail all those years ago. The city is home to the third-largest cathedral in Christendom which, unfortunately, seemed to have the third-largest queue as well, and it was the same with the alcázar. I don’t feel I did Sevilla justice, but I did have some very nice empanadas. It was time to chill for a few days in a laid-back coastal town.


Cádiz is situated on an island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus just on the Atlantic side of the Strait of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians were the first people to spot its potential as a trade post in the 7th Century BC and they walled off the isthmus to create a fortress. The 16th Century Puertas de Tierra still divide the old city from the new; another notable feature is the large number of sea-facing merchant watchtowers dotted around. I climbed a tower, went to the cathedral and had a great time in the extensive fish market, where I bought a big bag of prawns for €4 (they were no longer wriggling, unlike the crabs). Cádiz’s place in history was further cemented when it became the de facto capital of Spain during the Peninsula War. It was here that the liberal constitution of 1812 was proclaimed, and this left-wing attitude has been proudly maintained ever since. It is most evident today, I’m told, in its riotous annual carnival, which I had just missed.

Or so I thought.

I began to suspect something was up when I saw a group of middle-aged men in silly costumes waving inflatable guitars at each other on the Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, crowds had started to gather at the steps of various buildings around town, which served as stages. These were filled up apparently at random by groups of performers in even sillier costumes – the group of large rubber ducks was a personal favourite. The acts divided roughly into two types. The first I would describe as “street pantomime”: two people – friends or a husband-and-wife team – would regale passers by with stories, jokes and songs with the help of kazoos and wooden sticks. Afterwards they would give out badges in exchange for coins and spend the coins on beer and sherry (“Please fund our alcoholism,” read one sign, in English). The second type would be a group of ten or more singers with guitars, drums, cymbals and seriously good four-part harmonies. The words were entirely lost on me which was a shame as the crowd were laughing and joining in with everything, especially the drinking. I’m pretty sure, however, that the nun was inviting the fireman in through her window for some distinctly un-nunnish activities.

Accident the Third - because why have one accidental carnival stop when you could have three?


My last stop was another former Moorish stronghold with remains of walls dotted around. My first view of the cathedral and alcázar was from the far side of the Guadalquivir river, where there are historical bridges and watermills. The alcázar here was actually built by Christian kings after they conquered the city in 1236. More recently some exquisite Roman mosaics were moved here, but the gardens with their rows of fountains were the highlight for me. I went to the Museum of the Sephardic Jews in an old town house, which was very moving. Many converts to Christianity continued to practise Judaism in secret – an activity the 15th century Inquisition sought to stamp out. Just across the road was a synagogue, forgotten after its conversion to a church but now restored. The city’s famous Mezquita is another example of a religious building changing over time: it’s a cathedral built to completely cover and encapsulate an earlier mosque. The first thing you see on entering is some of the 800 or so columns supporting arches stretching away into the gloom. I finished up with a tour of the churches to the east of the old city, then it was time for a bus back to Madrid and a flight home.

I’m not sure how to wrap this up. It was a brilliant three weeks and I’d recommend it to anyone. The bigger cities could easily be done as a weekend getaway or, for a longer tour, Andalucía could be combined with Portugal, Valencia and Barcelona or even Morocco (an hour away by boat). There may be a few errors in the dates and facts in my account so please let me know if you spot any. Regarding my three accidents, I suppose I was simply in the right place at the right time. If that doesn’t encourage you to put a bag on your back and go somewhere new I don’t know what will. Thanks for reading.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this article and want to read more travel writing by Exilian members, please check out the forum's Travel Writing Index, which includes a range of members' travels and thoughts on places from Tunis to Tbilisi and more besides!
« Last Edit: March 26, 2023, 01:54:52 PM by Jubal »