History in Andalusia

 

Besides tapas and wandering and churros and wandering, we also enjoyed some historical sites during our stay in Spain. It's interesting to me how some of those really spoke to me, to all of us, and some were interesting but did not move us at all. I have some ideas about that, but no firm conclusions. So I'm still sitting with it. What makes a place flicker and catch fire within us? What leads to a visit that lives on in our hearts long after we walk away?

Castillo San Jorge

Located below the Triana market, this place is a marvel—a free museum in the castle that was the seat of the Spanish Inquisition. Walkways take you through the remains of the barracks, the kitchens, the home of the inquisitors, and the signage is excellent (and in English as well as Spanish, which was a pleasant surprise). There was a movie that told the story of a fictional woman who was a victim of the Inquisition, and it was both artistic and informative—chilling enough to generate questions from our children, but not so scary that they balked. The Spanish Inquisistion is a period of time I hadn't ever thought much about, and this visit spurred reflection on my part. I hadn't realized that it was begun because the newly-placed Catholic monarchs believed that a united Spain could only be viable if all people were of the same religion. Which made me think...Moorish Andalusia was a vibrant center of philosophy, mathematics, science, and art. The architecture of medieval Andalusia is lighter and airier than medieval architecture anywhere else in Europe. And the Moors welcomed people of all faiths. When there rose a movement to unite Spain under one religion, that's when Spain was plunged into decline. A parable for our times? Maybe. Maybe attempting to obliterate media that doesn't agree with our views, marginalizing people who are not like us, and punishing dissenting opinions will only serve to halt our collective progress. If past is prologue, than I think we can still learn a lot from the Spanish Inquisition.

Real Alcàzar

The Alcazar—the royal palace of Seville—taught us that Moorish architecture is really, really astonishing. Arches of incredible lightness, surfaces intricately worked, and a focus on bringing the natural world into living spaces. We were in incredible awe. But not just awe. Bliss. The colors, the textures, the use of water and light and air and plants transported us. We floated through the rooms and gardens of this former Moorish palace (with continual additions into Neoclassical times, and the palace is still in use by the current King of Spain when) with a giddiness that the children equated with their time in the alps. The history was fascinating, and we enjoyed seeing the painting of Columbus praying for fair winds, knowing that this was the place that the conquest of the New World was planned. But really it was the space, rather than the history, that resonated with us. The children discovered the irrigation system of connecting channels, the orange trees made the very air sweet, the tile work created a blur of contrast. It was glorious.

It was at the Alcazar that we came up with a new family rule: No soccer, tag, or parkour in UNESCO world heritage sites. Soccer with oranges can wait until we are in the plaza. As can all the rest. Given how many UNESCO world heritage sites are in Europe, this is a useful admonition. Even flamenco has a UNESCO label, though I don't really have to worry about the kids playing freeze tag during a flamenco show. Or while eating French food, which also as a UNESCO designation. I have a joke about what else has a UNESCO label, given how ubiquitous these designations are found, but it's not for mixed company.

Cathedral and Giralda

The cathedral, like so many Andalusian churches, is built upon a former mosque. My novice eye caught no traces of Moorish influence in this cathedral that is considered that largest gothic building in Europe. It was certainly big. What else can I say about it? Well, we enjoyed seeing Columbus's tomb, and contemplating being on the other side of the ocean from American history. I guess that's it. Grand as it was, it felt sort of empty. Gabe, in his newfound love of praying in churches, announced that he wanted to pray as soon as we entered. But there was no place to pray, nowhere that felt like one could tap into the divine. That's an awful lot of church with no place to pray. The treasure room was fun, though.

I found the Giralda more interesting. It was once the minaret where a man on horseback would climb the ramp to the top five times a day to blow the trumpet for prayer. Now it's a belltower, but climbing the cobblestone turns within the tower hasten images of the Moors called to worship. And that was lovely. Also the view, down into the orange tree-filled courtyard (with those same Moorish water channels we saw at the Alcazar), across the city, past the bullfighting ring, was beautiful.

Metropol at Plaza Encarnacion

This was fascinating. In the middle of this grand square, flanked by beautiful old Sevillan buildings, is this structure that looks like mushrooms on steroids. In fact, it's rarely referred to with it's official name of "Metropol" but rather called, "Las Setas" (the wild mushrooms). It took us quite a bit of time to find the elevator (tucked below the market, in the museum; it's a little over a euro to ride up), but it was worth the search. At the top of the structure, railed pathways swoop and circle like the tracks of a roller coaster. In fact, the children ran around and around it like they were the cars of said roller coaster. The view was spectacular, and seeing the modern grill pattern of the Metropol veer into the skyline was fabulous.

At the level of the elevator is also a museum that houses the ancient ruins that were discovered during construction in the plaza. Pepe told us this happens all the time, the only question is ever, what kind of ruins? Phoenician? Roman? Moorish? These were Roman. You can see quite a bit of the ruins through the glass walls of the museum, and they were fabulous, but we decided we get enough ancient Rome in Umbria, so we'd move on to something else. But if you step back, the levels are compelling—a modern, whimsical structure atop a bustling market atop Roman ruins. Levels of architecture, but also levels of use and levels of thought.

Plaza España

I'm not sure this counts as historical, since it was built in 1929 for an expo, but it sure looks historic, doesn't it? It's a beautiful plaza. It's got it all—water, tile work, arches, horses, boats, and lots of British tourists.

Living History

I find the best history to be living history. The kind you stumble upon and recognize how the past is fundamentally tied with the present. During our walk with Pepe, he showed us a garage where men were working on a paso for Settimana Santa (Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter). Pasos are translated as floats, but given how heavy the pasos are—about two tons—and that they are carried rather than pulled, I think float is the wrong word. When we were at breakfast with Pepe and his family, we saw men practicing carrying the paso, and no one who has watched men carry a two-ton structure on the back of their necks could have the word "float" occur to them.

At my Italian lesson today, Angelo and I talked about the pasos. We talked about local variations of religious icons being carried for celebrations (in Gubbio for example), and he told me that this tradition precedes Christianity. In fact, pagans carried marble statues of Pan and Bacchus through the streets long ago. Fascinating.

Language has become living history the longer we have been here. Hearing similarities and differences between languages gives us a sense of their common roots, their base. And allows us to really feel how local life shifts common language use.

Granada and the Alhambra

I was prepared to be blown away with the Alhambra. Which was probably the problem—preconceived notions destroy bliss for me. Well, that was probably only part of the problem. If you will indulge me, let me walk you through it.

The Alhambra, the most important and well preserved Arabian palace of its time, is located above the city of Granada. A city we didn't really feel led to visit. Why? No idea, we just didn't. We flirted with tacking Cordoba onto our itinerary, but never really felt pulled to add in Granada. Finally, we elected to stay put in Sevilla—we enjoy a place more when we get find a flow after several days—and decided to visit the Alhambra at the end of our trip. So we left Sevilla, with much sadness, on Monday evening, picked up our rental car, and drove to Granada. We had tickets to visit the Alhambra first thing Tuesday morning, and then we would drive back to Sevilla to catch our evening plane home.

The drive was beautiful; the countryside between Sevilla and Granada is very special. We saw more olive trees than I've ever seen in one place—lining hills way out to the horizon, sometimes with purple flowers growing wild between the rows. And swaths of vivid green and yellow fields, dotted with white villages. Spectacular.

And then we entered Granada. We knew parking to be a challenge in Granada, so we decided to take our car and drive straight up to the Alhambra, then catch a taxi back down the hill to our overnight apartment in Granada. Only we didn't reckon on a devastating failure on the part of Google maps, which tried to lead us through parts of Granada that are restricted to non-residents. By the time we reached the Alhambra it was past 9:00, and we were exhausted. Siena was doped up on Dramamine and positively loopy. We were tense from trying to find our way, and all we wanted to do was eat and crash. The thought of calling a taxi, getting back to Granada, finding the apartment (which would necessitate walking from the taxi through the pedestrian-only parts—not long, but enough to get lost without strict attention), checking in and getting shown the apartment, and then finding a place to eat dinner…well, it was daunting.

So we did something we've never done before and I still have conflicting feelings about—we cancelled. We walked into a hotel to ask them to call us a taxi, and then asked how much their rooms were. Perhaps because we were coming so late and there was no chance of them renting a suite to anyone else that night, the cost of the room plus the cost of the cancellation fee for the apartment was the same as the price of the night's lodging in the apartment. But, we wouldn't have to get a taxi to Granada and back to the Alhambra in the morning. Plus, we'd run into a problem in Sevilla of taxis being too small—all the cars were sedans. On the way to Sevilla from the airport, we lucked into a taxi driver that was willing to take us even though we didn't strictly and legally fit, but on the way back this proved impossible, and we had to take two taxis to the airport to get our rental car. I had no energy to deal with the hassle of working out the taxi situation.

So we cancelled. Cancelled the taxi that the hotel manager had called for us before we decided to stay. And worse, cancelled the apartment. Nicolas and I felt terrible, and were only comforted by the cancellation fee—at least the woman waiting to greet us got something for her time. Finally I came to a fragile peace by realizing that people cancel all the time, that's why they have cancellation policies. This was the first time we became the kind of irresponsible traveler who necessitates these policies. It was our turn. And that's okay. But every time Nicolas and I thought of the woman telling Keith when he cancelled, "Okay…I go home now" (she'd had to get herself to the apartment, which was not close to where she lives), that peace was fractured. Just writing about it, I feel terrible all over again.

Along with feeling guilty (just Nicolas and I—Keith felt no compunctions because of the cancellation fee and the fact that it wasn't a Pepe-renting-his-apartment-type-situation but practically a hotel; Gabe is too young to feel guilt for putting people out; and Siena was too drugged to notice anything except the joy that she didn't have to move again), we were thrilled. The suite was modern and spacious, our window looked out to the Alhambra, and the hotel restaurant was two doors down the hall from our room. Given that the nearby restaurants were closed, we were grateful to find such easy dining. The food was better than expected, and we were punchy from tiredness and a sudden change of plans. We were in paroxysms of giggles, pretty much constantly, at how the restaurant could be in Anywhere, U.S.A—from the generic wallpaper to the smooth jazz to the hotel chairs.

Next morning found us bleary and exhausted, but grateful that all we had to do was stroll to the restaurant for breakfast before checking out and heading to the Alhambra, rather than figuring out how to catch a taxi and find a place to eat. What was less charming, though, was the rain—which persisted, despite signs of it lightening and fading out, all day long, making for a grey and cheerless entrance into this Moorish palace of surpassing beauty.

Now I have set the stage for our emotional state when we entered. And perhaps it explains why, while we were blown away by the architectural elements of the Alhambra and the design of the Generalife gardens, we weren't blissed out, like we were at the Alcazar. Maybe the difficulty getting there, the fact that we were going just to that destination rather than having the destination be enfolded into a larger experience, the gloomy weather, and the fact that little was in bloom all contributed to making our visit nice, and worthwhile. But not soaring. Despite how truly impressive the Alhambra is.

And maybe there is something more. Maybe we cut our Moorish teeth on the Alcazar, and so the Alhambra was more of the same, not something revolutionary. I could see that empirically the Alhambra is "better"—bigger, with walls that were so tactile they seemed embroidered, and more water all about. But it was a more stylized, grander example of what I already had an image of in my brain, rather than something new.

Also, I think the lack of beautiful weather probably impacted our visit more than it might at a place like Versailles or the Coliseum. Moorish architecture makes use of light in a way that few other forms do. Without light, I think something definitive is lost. I also have realized that bliss breeds bliss in our family—when one person is swept up in the moment, it creates a wave that carries us all. Our sense of adventure was high at the Alcazar; I have photos of everyone pointing in different directions with their eyes alight and their mouths open in wonder. But even just one person feeling so much moves us as a unit. It creates a frenzy of ebullience. For perhaps all the above reasons, none of us felt strongly enough to pave a path to the joy of being in a fabulous place.

So maybe it would have been different if we hadn't seen the Alcazar first, if we'd been staying in Granada so the visit wasn't so separate from a feeling of place (which makes the experience feel flat), if the weather had been lovely and the flowers were in bloom, if we hadn't been worn out, if we didn't have to keep sighing and waiting for tour groups to pass. But all those things were true, so while I didn't regret going to the Alhambra, in retrospect I would have been happy to skip it. And I think that visiting a place just for a single grand tourist destination is not high on my list of travel desires anymore. Great Pyramids of Giza, I think I'll have to give you a miss.

Our drive back from Alhambra (once I'd switched out wet socks for dry ones) was pleasant. There was less back-seat-fighting amongst the children than usual, probably because Siena kept asking questions that stimulated conversation rather than them getting bored and yelling at each other for taking up too much space (sigh). And as it was day, we could see more of the countryside, which was glorious. Lunch was a colossal failure. A restaurant on the side of the road, as we needed to eat quickly and head to the airport. My soup was so inedible I couldn't even fake it when the waitress asked if it was okay, Siena's fish (an utter mistake to order fish, I realize that now) wasn't bad but it wasn't good either, and Nicolas's paella tasted more like fishy rice. My steak and Keith's pork were quite nice, but we spent more energy trying to create a patchwork meal for all out of what was good rather than enjoying the meal. How we longed for Sevilla.

The Present

After all, the present will be history someday, right? So now, it's your turn. If you feel lead, please share what travel experiences felt transporting— that have lingered, even now? Like more than interesting architecture or well laid gardens, more than a feeling of "Wow!" but also a feeling of actual impact? Or which fell flat. And any ideas about what makes an experience one or the other. Because I really feel that travel is about more than what we see, it's about what we bring to the table.

And I'd like to reflect more about what I'm bringing to the table. Past, present, and future.