So there’s a bit of an oxymoron, because culturally and agriculturally speaking, Andalucia was created by the Moors. Although they were kicked out over 500 years ago, their architectural stamp remains outstanding – and unmissable. I’ve reveled in it ever since I first visited the Alhambra in Granada nearly 30 years ago. At the time my boyfriend was a typical Parisian artist-in-a-garret, a status I eventually tired of despite his inspiring personality and Gauloise-smoking allure, but he was the one to introduce me to the spirit of Andalucia. From the beauty of its architecture to the village butcher who once made us a goat’s head soup – thank you J-C.!
A few weeks ago I snapped a repeat photo of one of many we had taken in what was then a far emptier Alhambra. Here it is above, a zelij-faced wall and Spanish chairs in the Patio de los Arrayanes (named after the myrtle hedges). This time round it was Christmas Eve therefore probably one of the least busy days of the year – though you wouldn’t have believed it. Hundreds of people milled around. Since my previous visit – 5 years or so ago – they’ve introduced an annoyingly regimented visiting system, not only to enter the Nazrid Palace (the star of the show) but also everywhere else. The beautiful gardens of the Generalife for example are on a one-way ticket: once visited, that’s it, you can’t return. But who can complain? The carved plasterwork as fine and intricate as lace, the soaring ceilings edged by muqarnas, endless perspectives, slender columns ending in intricate capitals, light and shade, trickling fountains, enclosed spaces opening onto patios…it’s another world.
My partner in the present, never having been there before, loved it, despite the wintry vegetation and chill in the air. The snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the background and gentle sun gave the whole afternoon a magical edge, lessened when we realised we had only minutes to scour the shops down below for the final elements of our Christmas lunch. All done, as doors clanked shut behind us, we sped back through the inky night to our little casita in the Alpujarras, just an hour away. Next day, it was Christmas lunch in the sunshine beneath orange trees heavy with fruit. That too is a Moorish legacy, brought to Andalucia along with rice and the pomegranates that gave their name to Granada.
The big three cities of Andalucia – Granada, Cordoba and Seville – all proudly bear the stamp of centuries of Moorish occupation (Granada resisted the Catholic reconquista longest, for 800 years) and of course it’s much vaunted by the tourist industry. As Obama now extends a much belated hand to the Muslim world, so they too are becoming more aware of what their culture bequeathed to the West. A year ago I met a dynamic Malay tour-operator who specialises in tours through the Islamic world; not surprisingly, Andalucia came high on his hit-list.
Granada’s Albaicin, above, (the old Moorish quarter which sprawls over the hillside opposite the Alhambra) may be a classic case of over-priced restaurants with views, but it is also full of atmospheric carmen (patio houses with leafy gardens), Moroccan tea-houses and even a spiffy new mosque looking across at the Alhambra. It’s good to see that as the Moroccan population grows (both legal and illegal – leading to endless tragic stories of ‘boat-people’ exploited &/or drowned as they cross the Strait of Gibraltar), the Spanish government is at last waking up to their needs. Just a few years ago, the welcome was far from warm, even xenophobic. Yet look at a typical Andalucian and you could be looking at a Moroccan, or vice versa.
Last weekend I was back down that way again, this time closer to Cordoba. I had been dying to return there ever since visiting Damascus last autumn, as the Syrian capital was where the great Ummayad dynasty originated, before it headed through Arabia and across North Africa to finally invade the Iberian Peninsula. Cordoba became their first capital, reaching its zenith well before Granada. So there it is, the mezquita (mosque) of Cordoba which locals insist on calling the catedral ever since a Baroque carbuncle was plonked in its centre. But you can forget that heavy-handed symbol of Christianity as you meander beneath the double height horseshoe arches, their rhythmical bands of red brick and limestone echoing the black and white of Damascus and you breathe in this exotic soul.
Again, I managed to grab a relatively quite moment. It was a rainy Sunday and the mezquita-catedral was just about to close for Mass, so most people were leaving. What a place, what a civilisation it reflects. Then for nostalgia’s sake I slipped down a side-street to Bodegas Campos, an illustrious tapas-haunt where I sipped a glass of crisp Manzanilla while indulging in a quite divine salmorejo. Que viva Andalucia!