We booked a biking vacation to Spain based partly on the romantic sounding name, Under the Andalusian Sky. The itinerary included Seville, Cordoba and Granada and the catalogue hinted at their exotic and diverse history. We did some research and learned Hispania – today’s Spain – was ruled by Romans then Vandals and finally Visigoths, who ruled so chaotically that in 711 A.D. Muslims from North Africa were able to invade and seize control over the southwest corner of Spain, which they called al-Andalus
We landed in Seville with no arrangements to get to our hotel. We caught a shuttle to downtown where a friendly non-English speaker helped we, less-than-grade-school Spanish speakers, get on the right city bus for our hotel. It was too late to do more than enjoy our first Tapas and drinks at a riverside restaurant.
We had hotel reservations for the next night in Arcos de la Frontera, one of the White Villages, so named because all buildings are painted a brilliant white. de la Frontera in the name indicates this was one of the towns tasked with guarding the frontier against invasion. Again, we had not made arrangements to get to Arcos and no one could tell us how to get there. We paid €20 each for a one hour train ride to Jerez, the station closest to Arcos. There, we were confounded by the fact it was Sunday which, in very Catholic Spain, meant everything was closed. Using Spang-lish and sign language we caught a local bus that, for 1 Euro each, delivered us to the bottom of the hill on which sits the town of Arcos; several hundred feet above us.
Too cheap to take a cab, we began trudging up that very steep hill, pulling luggage and carrying backpacks over cobble stone streets or narrow sidewalks. After several rest stops we arrived, sweating and tired at the top of the hill, by dumb luck one block from our hotel, the El Convento. Rick Steves stayed here while filming an episode on Andalusia which includes scenes taken from our patio! The town was spectacular: narrow one lane cobblestone roads, flower pots on stark white walls and unbelievable views of the countryside far below us. Arcos residents boast that they “look down on the back of eagles”.
We returned to Seville by local bus for only 5 euro each yet which took only a little longer than the train. In Seville we toured the Alcazar – the Muslim’s Royal Palace, and the worlds’ largest Gothic-style cathedral built over a destroyed Muslim mosque. Christopher Columbus is interred here and the Minaret of the mosque was converted into the bell tower. We climbed to the top on a circular ramp instead of stairs built that way so horses could carry the crier or bell ringer to the top.
Our hotel in Seville was the Las Casas de la Juderia, (Houses of the Jews) a conglomeration of houses in the old Jewish ghetto interconnected by such a labyrinth of hallways, courtyards, stairs and tunnels that it is an adventure finding your room or your way back to the lobby.
We transfer to Palmas del Rio to begin biking. We stay at the Monastario de San Francisco, formerly a Franciscan monastery that hosted both Columbus and monks bound for North America to work with Father Junipero Serra. Around 10:00 p.m. on our second night a very loud marching band appeared outside our rooms along with hundreds of marchers. They were there to move the Virgin Mary statue from our chapel to another church. Eight men, led by a priest, carried her on their shoulders, all accompanied by much music and the cheering, prayerful marchers.
Next on to Cordoba where, In 755 A.D., Abd Al-Rahman, the sole survivor of the massacred Umayyad clan, established a Caliphate independent of the one ruled by the Abbasids in Damascus and Baghdad. Al-Rahman began an expansion of Muslim-controlled territory and the beginning of a Golden Age that lasted hundreds of years. The Arabic language, both vibrant and eloquent, became the unifying means of communicating. The intellectual, the literary and the arts were revered. Cordoba eventually had over 70 libraries including translations of entire libraries from the Romans and Greeks. Jews and Christians became Arabized; called Mozarabs they lived mostly harmoniously and unmolested under Muslim rule.
In Cordoba we stayed in another Casas de la Juderia, less confusing but just as unique and beautiful. We toured the incredible Mezquita or Grand Mosque, continuously enlarged until it could accommodate thousands of worshipers under hundreds of identical arches. During the reconquista – the taking back of territories by Christian armies – King Charles the Fifth authorized building a Cathedral in the center of this Mosque. On seeing it for the first time he expressed regret over the consecration of such a beautiful and unique building.
The Caliphate ruled in relative peace until 1019 when began the Fitna or Period of Strife; struggles between factions of Muslims which in 1031 resulted in the Caliphate dissolving into mini-states or kingdoms called “Tafias”. Christian kingdoms grew stronger and began the Reconquista pushing south reclaiming territory. This is the time of the Christian Crusader, El Cid. Cordoba fell in 1236 and Muslim rule was ultimately shrunk to the Tafia of Granada. In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered this last Muslim stronghold and ordered all Muslims expelled. Jews too were soon expelled but either could stay if they converted to Christianity. One way these new converts could “prove” their conversion was to eat pork, forbidden by their former religion. This is why eating ham is a near-ceremonious part of today’s Spanish culinary culture.
After biking through more olive orchards than anywhere in the world, visiting a local winery, lunching with local farm families and touring another White Village we are bused to Granada for our last day in Spain. We toured the Alhambra, or “Red Palace” where the last Muslim king surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella and Christopher Columbus solicited their sponsorship of his voyages to the Americas. Washington Irving wrote “Tales From the Alhambra” inspired by living in the palace, essentially as a squatter, in 1828.
For our remaining time, we wandered through the back streets and plazas of Grenada and enjoyed our last Tapas and drinks. We regretted that we had not included a few days at the end of our trip to explore this beautiful city. We hope to one day return to complete our visit because, like so many of our vacations, this experience only made us acutely aware of how much we missed.