Spain – Is this heaven?

As we left Malta I turned to Jeff and said, ‘Well, not every place can have gypsies, hammams, and exciting cheese. That’s okay.‘ Enumerating the three tenants of Jaynie-topia, little did I know that in a mere one-hour we’d be in a country rich in not one, not two, but ALL of these elements. Oh boy, Spain is great. Much like I felt when we got to Sri Lanka, I’m embarrassed that we’ve overlooked this country for so long. What’s wrong with us?

If you visit only one country in Europe it should be Spain. The country has a fascinating history that spans the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths (they’re always fun), the Arab moors, the Umayyad dynasty (from Damascus!), and eventually the northern ‘re-conquistadors’. Most countries in the European Mediterranean have similar histories but in Spain these layers seem more architecturally visible, with conquerors using the structures of the conquered rather than completely destroying them. When the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492, they actually made the fantastical Islamic palaces in the Alhambra their home. They kept much of the architecture unchanged and ruled from a room decorated with Islamic motifs and passages from the Koran. We’ve seen far too few instances of cross-cultural reuse in our travels, and I really loved this about Spain. (I’m still mad at Sicily for destroying all the hammams after the Norman Invasion in 1061. Why?)

Our travels in Spain were limited to the southern part of the country: we began in Valencia, drove to the palm forest at Elche, curved inland to Granada, took a train to Seville, and finally bid farewell in Algeciras.

Valencia

After some travel burnout Valencia was the breath of fresh air we needed. The city is like Berlin on the Mediterranean. Sunny and lovely, investments have been made in public transportation, bike-ability, and great public spaces.

The gem of Valencia is the Mercado Central, a huge covered marketplace built in 1928 and housing over 300 small shops selling all kinds of food and drink. The goodies sold here are my cat nip and Jeff had to rein me in – Spanish jamon, salty cheeses, fancy olive oil, and dried fruit are everywhere. Valencia is famous for its unique variety of horchata and we drank gallons of it at the market and the nearby Horchateria Santa Catalina. Valencian horchata uses an unusual African legume called tiger nuts and it is thicker and less sweet than the Mexican-style horchata at home.

Historically silk production and processing was a huge industry in Valencia, and it was fun to learn about the city’s connections to the Silk Road. After spending what felt like eternity exploring Silk Road hubs in Uzbekistan, both Jeff and I are pretty intrigued with all of the threads (obnoxious pun here) of the silk industry around the world. Originally Arab traders brought silk to Valencia as a terminus at the western end of the original Silk Road, but they found that the notoriously finicky mulberry tree (i.e. silk worm food) could be grown in Valencia. Valencia’s silk trade peaked during the 15th century, and there was even a scheme to start a ‘new Silk Road’ from Valencia to the new world. Jeff very politely suffered through the silk museum in the Velvet Weaver’s Guildhouse and a visit to the Lonja Silk Exchange building, which was built as the seat of ‘silk power’ in the roaring 1400s.

Elche

From Valencia we rented a car and drove down to Elche, the only palm grove in Europe and one of the biggest palm forests in the world. The palms were most likely planted by Carthaginian settlers in the 5th century BC, but an irrigation system built by the Moors in the 800s allowed the grove to flourish. Jeff and fam visited Elche when he was a little kid, and it was fun for him to revisit his childhood adventures.

Granada

After Elche the Arab quotient increased steadily until we reached Granada. Much of Granada’s Arab district, Albayzin, was build by craftsmen from Damascus and the wandering the district was a highlight. I love a good ‘Arab-flair’, and Granada is Arab-flair minus the headscarves and plus ham. Truly, this is heaven.

The Alhambra

Annoyingly, visiting the Alhambra necessitates one to plan in advance (pfffff). There are daily limits on the number of visitors allowed inside and a ‘strong recommendation’ that tickets are purchased 2 – 6 months in advance. After some frantic scrambling and a bit of luck (a.k.a. a lot of money) we were able to find a tour of the Alhambra with two spots left. Phew.

The Alhambra, or the ‘Red One’, was initially built in the 800s as a relatively small fortress on the remains of a Roman settlement. The Alhambra of today, however, is best known for the beautiful Generalife Gardens and several glorious Islamic Palaces, which were built by the Islamic rulers of the Emirate of Granada between 1230 to 1492. These gardens are so serene and the palaces were truly beyond compare. Really, it’s one of the prettiest places we’ve seen during this year of travel.

Gypsies + Flamenco

Once again, a free walking tour resulted in the discovery of a nearby gypsy neighborhood – Granada’s Sacromonte. Did you know that gypsies invented flamenco? Neither did I. Located just outside the city walls, the Sacromonte neighborhood is comprised of a series of cave dwellings, troglodyte homes is the technical term. The origin of the Granada gypsies (and why they live in caves) is unclear, but it is likely that Christian gypsies saw a business opportunity in Granada after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews during the inquisition. Unlike any gypsy community I’ve seen, Granada gypsies are welcoming to tourists and run a profusion of eateries out of their caves. Jeff and I spent a pretty memorable evening in Sacromonte listening to flamenco music, drinking sangria, and watching the sunset on the Alhambra.

289-barrio-de-sacromonte
The view of Sacromente from an upper street.

But wait… there’s more. Granada has several hammams, including the exquisite Hammam al-Andalus housed in an impressive 13th century building. It’s not a true hammam (painful naked scrub downs, etc.) but it’s a beautiful atmosphere and a very nice experience. Predictably, I loved it so much that I made Jeff come back with me for a second time. Even he thought it was a beautiful hammam and we schooled multiple Spaniards in asceticism in the cold pool (they’re very delicate).

Seville and Algeciras

From Granada, we took the train to Seville. Seville is absolutely pleasant but after all the excitement in Granada we didn’t do much. We sat in pleasant cafes and ate pleasant food. One day we mustered the energy to do a day trip to neighboring Cordoba to see the Mezquita de Córdoba, but that was about it.

From Seville we took a bus to the southern port town of Algeciras, where we got a taste of small town Spain. Algeciras is basically the stopping off point for tourists going to 1) Gibraltar or 2) Morocco (or in our case both). Algeciras is sleepy but pleasant, and we spent a day resting there before the next adventure.

After loosing our travel mojo a bit in Malta, Spain was a great way to reinvigorate the last leg of our travels. Fabulous architecture, gypsies, good food, and hammams – Spain has everything a person could want (as dictated by me). Next up, a visit to wee Britain in Gibraltar and then on to Morocco!

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