ME GUSTA ANDALUTHIA

When I close my eyes and picture Andalusia, it is always dark inside and light outside.

Our hotel rooms in former city palaces were sumptuous, hip — and very atmospheric. But how to see my face under a 40-watt lamp in a black marble bathroom? Our hotel in the countryside was a wow as well; an open glass stairway led to a charming loft area above our bed — but once I got there, I could not stand up. I had to crouch my way over to the sofa in the dimness. It was too dark to read. It was not just the hotels — most interior spaces are shadowy, protected from the heat with small windows, facing narrow streets that block the sun.

But outside — morning, noon and night are brilliant. Night feels like day because street lamps, far brighter than anything we have here, illuminate the widest boulevards and tiniest alleys. The streets are teeming with people. It made it so much easier to stay up late and not even think about dinner until 9:00; it made us feel completely safe; it made us feel joyful. Our last night in Seville, we walked over a mile from the hopping “in” restaurant, Isla, back to our hotel and felt as if we were invited to a party that lasted the distance. The spirit was so intoxicating it didn’t matter that we knew no one. The city felt even more beautiful by night than by day.

Making a huge leap of analogy, the dark/light contrast reflects my feelings about Andalusia. I learned about a history that is predominately very, very dark; but in contrast, everyone we met was lighthearted, smiling, outgoing and anxious to please. The Andalusians behaved this way to one another, not only to us. Here is a country with over 20% unemployment, but one would think they had not a care in the world. ’Twas ever thus? Here is Washington Irving’s observation in 1851:

Indeed, all this part of Andalusia abounds with …game-looking characters. They loiter about the towns and villages, seem to have plenty of time and plenty of money: “horse to ride and weapon to wear.” …Throughout all Spain the men, however poor, have a gentleman-like abundance of leisure, seeming to consider it the attribute of a true cavaliero never to be in a hurry; but the Andalusians are gay as well as leisurely, and have none of the squalid accompaniments of idleness. The adventurous contraband trade…is doubtless at the bottom of the galliard character.

Perhaps — as we were told in confidence — finding work in the “cash economy” is today’s version of the contraband trade.

Our Andalusia itinerary was quite typical: 3 nights in Seville, a daytrip to Cordoba, 2 nights in Vejer, a white village, and 3 nights in Grenada.

Our state-licensed guides to the sites were, alas, fairly standard — not much that they said sunk in. I do remember though that there was a church on every street corner in Seville, and our guide pointed out, “Look around you — for every church there is a bar across the street.” Today, although Spain is culturally Catholic (lots of processions and holidays) only 10% of Andalusians attend church, and they are mostly old. Everyone “attends” the bars.

Of the sites, the Alcazar (Moorish palace) in Seville, the Mezquita (Moorish mosque) in Cordoba, and the Alhambra (the grandest of all Moorish palaces) in Granada will stay with me. The exquisite architecture of these buildings express a delicacy of craftsmanship and a genius of proportion and grace comparable in my mind to the Taj Mahal and Ste. Chapelle. These dazzling architectural wonders date from the period between 705 and 1492 when the Moors were ascendant in Andalusia: a period of great learning and culture, and when Jews and Christians, although not equal citizens, were tolerated, and even somewhat respected. These buildings exude romance, mystery and exoticism, but these defining sensations were untouched by our guides. As we moved from the shining bright courtyards to the cool and dark interior rooms, I longed to hear stories of conquerors, hidden treasure, and unrequited love.

Interestingly I am learning about it now, from the previously quoted, Washington Irving. I have always thought of his Tales of the Alhambra as fuddy-duddy Victorian writing…”so dated.” But he got it. He tells of an imprisoned Moorish queen lowering her beloved baby son from her parapet in the dead of night on the scarves of her ladies in waiting; of a young lovesick prince; of bloody murder and betrayal.

After the adventures and intrigues of the Moors, he sets this scene:

Here was performed, in presence of Ferdinand and Isabella, and their triumphant court, the pompous ceremonial of high mass, on taking possession of the Alhambra…I picture to myself the scene when this place was filled with the conquering host, that mixture of mitred prelate and shaven monk, and steel-clad knight and silken courtier; when crosses and crosiers and religious standards were mingled with proud armorial ensigns and the banners of haughty chiefs of Spain, and flaunted in triumph through these Moslem halls. I picture to myself Columbus, the future discoverer of a world, taking his modest stand in a remote corner, the humble and neglected spectator of the pageant. I see in imagination the Catholic sovereigns prostrating themselves before the altar, and pouring forth thanks for their victory; while the vaults resound with sacred minstrelsy, and the deep-toned TeDeum.

The transient illusion is over — the pageant melts from the fancy — monarch, priest, and warrior, return into oblivion, with the Moslems over whom they exulted….The bat flits about its twilight vault…

That’s more like it.

Unlike our official guides, our extracurricular guides were terrific. In Seville, Fiona (expat Brit married to a Spaniard) brought us to the home/studio of two young art restorers, Pablo and Jesus. Seville, being the center of the Spanish art world, they seemed the quintessence of this city’s life. They restored paintings, frames, and sculpture. They appraised estates and art works belonging to the city and its churches. Modest, but open, they explained what they did, their education (5 years to be accredited) and their passion for their art. They let us each have a go at cleaning a painting with a bit of solvent and Q-tips. We then had tea and cakes (baked by their elderly next door neighbor who fussed over them) in their eccentric living room, furnished with beautiful burnished antiques and painted wooden stage props. I wondered aloud if they were related to Gabriel Allon, Daniel Silva’s Israeli hero, who uses his profession as an art restorer to cover his Mossad missions of derring-do. They claimed not to know about him, but they blushed.

The white villages of Andalusia are as picturesque as we had been told. These white cubist houses clinging to and tumbling down the side of hills were supposedly inspiration for Picasso who was born in nearby Malaga. We stayed in Vejer, where we met our cooking guide Annie. A Scot who was a successful caterer in London, Annie joined the large expat British community of these villages 15 years ago. But she is quite unique; having settled in Vejer, she does not just buzz in and out for hols. To walk down the street with her is to be with a local celebrity…”Ola, Annie!” cried every passerby. She had recently been made an honorary citizen of Vejer for introducing Andalusian cuisine to the world.

After stops at a delicacy shop, the greengrocer and a tasting visit to the butcher (yummy fat from Iberian pigs raised only on acorns so their fat is good for you..haha), we began our class at Annie’s house…a narrow 4-story building with a tiny pool in the courtyard, a big kitchen and a glorious roof terrace. Now, teaching me to cook, as most of you know, can be a challenge, but she was very patient, and taught us all a lot about sherry, which comes ONLY from this area, Iberian ham, local anchovies, local tuna, and much, much more — even how to chop herbs efficiently. As we listened, we chopped and diced and — delicioso! We had prepared a feast of melon gazpacho, several salads, meatballs with fresh tomato sauce (you have to tell the greengrocer what you are using the tomatoes for, and then she picks the appropriate ones for your use), and gluten-free cake….each course served with a different appropriate sherry on Annie’s roof terrace. Sated with food and mellowed with sherry, we gazed at the view of the village and the countryside all the way to the sea. Sun shining, soft breeze blowing… no wonder Annie does not miss Scotland.

Needless to say, a very long siesta followed. And I am horrified at the idea of drinking multiple glasses of sherry again…

A bit more about life in Vejer. This is a prosperous tourist town, with an English language bookstore, but it is very, very small. When we parked our car upon arrival in a lot near the town wall, the hotel sent a (the?) taxi to pick us up. He tooted his horn as we rounded each curve, and proudly tooted loudest to an older man on the street. “My papa,” he explained as he pointed at him. “Today…last day of feria…papa relax…I work.” Two days later, we called the same taxi to take us back to our car, and this time we got the papa. This ride was twice as long, as he tooted and waved at every person on the street, and every person waved back to him. Occasionally, we had to stop to actually say hello. The point is, everyone knows everyone…there is not a lot of privacy, but there is a lot of security. As it was explained to me by another expat, “Family is everything here, for better or for worse. If your uncle is in the hospital, you are expected to visit him, and in big trouble if you do not. With us (meaning Americans and British), we feel obligation first to immediate family, second to friends and third to extended family. Not here. If I were invited to a second cousin’s wedding and at the same time a friend called with tickets to a Chelsea match, I would not think twice about going to the game. You could never do that here. But young people in Spain are just beginning to rebel….”

Our final extracurricular activities were walking/hiking with the aforementioned expat, another Scot, Jonathan Adam Lord. As a London lawyer he found life uninspiring, so he took a year off to study Spanish history and culture at the university in Grenada and never left. He introduced us to the Albaicin neighborhood (the small cobblestoned old city) and the mountainside neighborhood that was settled by gypsies, and where many still reside. And here’s a fact: Although we think of Flamenco as the embodiment of Spanish culture, the Romani (gypsies) brought it to Andalusia. Many of the Flamenco dancers, even today, are gypsy descendants. And although Flamenco music and dancing as we know it originated here, there are actually are more Flamenco academies in Japan today than in Spain (according to Wikipedia)!

As we ambled down the street with the sun setting, I peeked into an appealing tapas bar and silently wished we could go inside…and as Jonathan turned the corner, in we went! There we met another expat who we will not forget. Imagine your 20-year old waitress, amply proportioned, wearing a black t-shirt proclaiming, “Your bad dream is me.” She had jet black, boy-cut hair, multiple piercings and pure white skin. Jonathan ordered tapas for us in Spanish. She explained them to us in English; she spoke French to the next table; she told us she also knew a bit of Italian and German, and by the way, she was from Bulgaria. As we left, she asked Allen if he could do her a favor. “Sure, I’d be happy to,” replied Allen, smitten, but wary. “Would you mind writing a review of us on Trip Advisor?” He did it the next day.

Whereas the city of Seville is beautiful and vibrant, especially because of its handsome architecture and wide boulevards, it is the setting of Grenada that is breathtaking. It is a university town nestled against the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which are ever present. On our last day, we drove out to the mountains with Jonathan and hiked between typecast picturesque villages. We expected the kitschy souvenir shops, but not the best chocolate we have ever eaten, nor a weaver’s shop with beautiful handmade blankets and shawls. Interestingly, the weaver was another expat, French this time, who had bought her ancient looms from the local artisans and settled in 20 years ago to pursue her craft.

As we hiked past small gardens with views of dramatic valleys and hillside farms, we passed a sun-browned older man sitting among his flowers who smiled and waved hello. Ahh, we thought, another friendly Andalusian. But no, he was obviously, after his initial, “Ola,” English. How could we have missed it? He was sitting in a rusted lawn chair, wearing a frayed straw hat and a sarong…like a character out of a book by my favorite English author, Jane Gardam. Except, as an Englishman, he would never have said hello to strangers — he had become Andalusian.

And we could understand why there are so many expats here…life is sweet, unhurried and filled with small pleasures. The weather is fine. It is easy to be seduced by the beauty and lifestyle of Andalusia.

Credits due: to Susie and Jay for being the best travel companions — Susie for her inveterate curiosity and kindness; Jay for his facility in Spanish and GPS navigation; and of course to Allen for his suave driving, and with Jay, for always making Susie and me laugh.

April 2015

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