Andalucia in February 2016

From the terrace of the cottage we can see the highest peak of the Iberian peninsular at over 3000 meters to the north and the waves of the Mediterranean breaking across the beaches of Salobrena to the south. The view covers over 3000 years of history too: from the Phoenician traders and the Romans to the Moors and the Catholics; from the harbour installations and the fishing boats at the mouth of the Rio Guadalféo to the orchards and plastic tunnels from which fruit and vegetables are exported northwards in an endless stream of refrigerated trucks; from the goat herder in the nearby village to sun-seekers in coastal resorts. At the centre of this panorama is a row of windmills on the distant horizon, framed by the autovias criss-crossing the plain and the Castillo Arabe (castle) in Salobrena, beautifully lit up at night.

I could gaze for hours at the scene. From my perch I think about the defeated king of the Nasrids in Granada, who stopped on a hill to look back at his palace, the Alhambra, after being forced into exile by the conquerors, Ferdinand and Isabella, los reyes catolicos, in 1492. The Genovese explorer Columbus was soon to leave Spain on his quest for the Indies. The Moors had ruled Al-Andalus since the beginning of the 8th century so it was no wonder that Boabdil was gloomy when he gazed for the last time on the city and heaved a last sigh…[1]

We drove to Granada and joined the throngs of tourists threading their way through the courtyards, towers and gardens of the Alhambra. It was my second visit to this magical location; on the previous trip over 20 years ago we had dragged our small children round the vast site… This time I realised that much of the attraction derives from the use of the slopes above the city as the basis for a soaring cascade of buildings, ornamental patterns of vegetation and channels for water. It seems that an eight-kilometre aqueduct was constructed in the 13th century, diverting the Rio Darro in order to ensure regular water supply.

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Water is the big issue in Andalucia. Even in February the land is brown and burnt dry. Dust clouds the air. We travelled by train from Málaga to Córdoba, passing millions of olive trees doing battle with the harsh environment. But there is some rain falling as snow on the heights of the Sierra Nevada, so the view from our cottage is topped by white on the mountains.

Beyond the beaches, out in the Mediterranean, fishermen are in action. We enjoyed the fruits of their labours at several restaurants where we guzzled an assortment of maritime goodies: from the Marisqueria Los Delfines in Málaga to the Cerveceria Lute y Jésus in Almunécar. The highlight was undoubtedly El Tintero II on the coastal strip to the east of Málaga, where the delights of different dishes are proclaimed loudly by a team of men circulating between the tables and shoving plates of fried fish and salads into the faces of the babbling diners.

Also in Málaga we contrasted the creative genius of Pablo Picasso and some of the contemporary painters and sculptors from Germany in the 20th century with the courtyards, fountains and crumbling towers of the Alcazaba (fortress) built on a hill overlooking the harbour from the 8th century. In Córdoba we explored the Mezquita (mosque), an extraordinary, massive construction of arches, ceilings and alcoves dedicated to prayer and gradually extended by successive Moorish rulers between the 8th and 13th centuries only to be converted to a church on the arrival of the re-conquistadores in 1236. After a couple of hundred years the Catholics decided to assert their dominance by erecting a massive cathedral in the middle of the mosque. By this time the inquisition was hard at work ensuring that all the Moors abandoned their beliefs or were forced into exile.

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A special feature of Andalucia is the music and we were lucky to stumble across two fantastic opportunities to appreciate flamenco in all its strange glory. First we went to a club where a female singer and male guitarist wailed, howled and strummed some tortuous ballads, greatly appreciated by a connoisseur audience. Then we got tickets for performances of two ballets at the Gran Teatro in Córdoba, called Alento and Zaguan. While the clubbers focused on the extracting the extreme sounds of the guitar and the human voice, at the theatre the emphasis was on the multiple colours of the flamenco costumes and the swirling, stamping movements of the dancers. We were blown away!

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The past is powerfully present in Andalucia. The artistic skills of the Moors and the musical wildness of flamenco, together with the dramatic landscapes along the coast, combine in an exotic whirl of sights and sounds. I think of other monuments I’ve seen in Timbuktu, Istanbul and Bukhara, the gardens of the merchant’s houses in Marrakech with the Atlas mountains in the distance and the surging rhythms of West African music. But these manifestations of creativity are increasingly submerged by waves of fear, hatred and intolerance. Sometimes it seems that the enlightenment was only a parenthesis…

[1] The spot where Boabdil looked back at the city as he went south in 1492 is known as ”el suspiro del Moro” (the Moor’s sigh). Salman Rushdie took up this image in his story of madness in the spice trading families on the west coast of India, entitled: ”the Moor’s last sigh” (Pantheon, 1996).

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