February 24, 2010

Andalusia: A Spanish Region With Plenty of Sun … and Culture

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The weather in southern Spain in the dead of winter is comparable to that in upstate New York in late spring; I had to visit, therefore, if only for that reason. One afternoon, bored in Madrid, I got on the next bullet train to Sevilla and found a land filled with sun, as well as some unique history and culture. Old Spanish towns are always proud of their cathedrals and Sevilla is no different — it hosts the largest cathedral in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The cathedral is also supposed to be the burial site of Christopher Columbus’ body, located in a prominent side-chapel; now historians say his body is really on some Caribbean island, but I think it would be happy in either place. From the top of the cathedral tower, I could see the entire city of Sevilla as it lay, grey and drenched with winter rain — okay, it’s not always sunny there. Despite the cathedral’s grandeur, I found the Alcazar, or castle, much more impressive.

Its architecture was particularly interesting — after centuries of Muslim occupation (it was originally built in 913 A.D. as a Muslim fortress), the castle was a bizarre and therefore fascinating mix of Mudejar and later Spanish elements that can only be found in Andalusia. It also had a large and sunny orange garden. I visited during orange harvest season, and I was surprised to find that no one was collecting the oranges — hundreds of them lay on the ground — until I tried one myself. Apparently not all species of oranges are edible — I learn something new every day.

A quick bus ride and a few pages of the guidebook later, I was in Cordoba, which is often unjustly labeled a dull town. True, it is quiet and the rooms are cheap, but riding in from the hills at sunset and seeing the town lying in a valley, along the Guadalquivir, and then getting out of the bus and smelling the freshest city air I’ve ever encountered (good ol’ orange trees), I couldn’t help but think this would be one of the best places on the trip. Most people come here for one site — the Mezquita — and I doubt if anyone leaves disappointed. It was orignially built as a mosque in the eighth century, but converted into a cathedral 800 years later. The current ministry is careful to point to some pre-Muslim Christian foundations as justification. But in the end, no one seems to mind in this most Catholic of countries.

Bus ride, flipping pages … presto, I find myself in Granada. In my opinion, it’s the most interesting — and the most fun — of the cities in Andalusia. It has a very cosmopolitan feel for a city less populous than Córdoba, not only because it acts as the center of so many study abroad programs for students from around the world — including future spies and intelligence workers who study intensive Arabic here, or so I’m told — but also because the history of the city itself is so mixed.

For eight centuries, Granada was the capital of the wealthy and powerful Muslim empire which ruled Andalusia until Isabel and Fernando kicked them out in 1492. Because of this, there are many parts of Granada that reminded me more of the bazaars and back streets of Istanbul than of anywhere else in Spain.

The greatest monument from this long rule is the Alhambra, an impressive fortress and garden complex perched on a spur of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which remain snow-capped even while the weather is warm and sunny in the city below. Getting tickets to the Alhambra is a challenge, since it’s understandably a popular place — it was crowded even in January, and the one-hour time limit in the Palacio Nazaries is strictly enforced.

Granada is also the city where you can get a free platter of appetizers with every drink at any bar and then walk around until you find a small bar with a spontaneously gathered set of musicians playing the most authentic flamenco in the world. Granada may no longer be a major capital city but it, like all of Andalusia, still pulses with a very vibrant life all its own.

Original Author: Oleksander Bilyk