These three villages all lay on the road between Málaga and Cádiz, and make for very easy and pleasant stops along the drive.
Of all of the beautiful villages in the south of Spain, Ronda may be the most famous. This is due to its dramatic location—perched high over the edge of a cliff.
Improbably, the two sides of this small town are separated by a massive gulf. For centuries, they were only connected by a relatively small bridge, built at a point where the height and width of the chasm are manageable, but far from the town center. It was only in 1793, after forty-two years of construction, that the massive “New Bridge” was completed, which spans the canyon at its tallest point. This was a major engineering challenge. A previous bridge, built in 1735, had collapsed just six years later, killing fifty people in the process. When the New Bridge was finished, it was the tallest in the world (98 meters, or 322 feet). Even for somebody used to skyscrapers, its dimensions are stupefying to behold in person.
More importantly, the bridge is beautiful. Made of the same rock as the surroundings, it seems to emerge from the landscape, as ancient as the cliffs themselves. The Guadalevín River flowing underneath it seems almost pathetic in comparison to so much towering rock—but, of course, it was the action of this patient little stream which cut this chasm in the first place.
My brother and I took the path down into the gully. The way down is relatively easy, the afternoon sun notwithstanding, and recommended if you want to get a real sense of the size of the bridge. I was disappointed to find that the path leading under the bridge and into the canyon had been closed off. On my previous visit, this was not the case. Once we had gone all the way back up to town, we were thirsty, sunburned, and exhausted, and decided to continue our drive towards Cádiz.
But Ronda has more to offer besides its iconic bridge. For one, the oldest bullring in Spain is in the city, and you can visit even if you do not want to see any animals slaughtered. There are ruins dating back to the town’s Muslim past, and lovely views of the surrounding landscape. Even without all of this, the town itself is a charming example of a whitewashed pueblo. No wonder that Orson Walles, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Ernest Hemingway were so fond of the place. Indeed, Hemingway set a major scene in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in Ronda; and though he embellished, it is actually true that prisoners were thrown into the canyon during the Civil War.
On that grim note, let us turn our attention to the next pueblo.
Arcos de la Frontera
We visited Arcos de la Frontera on our return journey to Málaga, when we did not have very much time to stay. Even so, it was a memorable visit.
The beginning was harrowing. My brother had innocently set the GPS to take us straight to the center of the village. However, this quickly appeared to be a bad idea as the road narrowed, twisted, and turned, leading us in a crazy labyrinthine path that was constantly diverted due to construction. Convinced I was either going to hit a pedestrian or scrape the side of a building, I was in a panic as we tried to navigate the tiny medieval streets. Finally, with some relief, I saw a sign informing us that only local cars were permitted to park in the center. We escaped the maze and parked the car in a grassy lot right on the edge of town.
The walk up was considerably more pleasant than the drive had been. The center of Arcos de la Frontera is impossible, located as it is at the top of a large hill. In just a few minutes we had arrived at the church that crowns the entire village, the Basílica de Santa María de la Asunción. As commonly happens in Spain, this church seems unnecessarily large and ornate for a village of some 30,000 people. The façade is ornately decorated, culminating in an elegant neoclassical tower. Unusually, the building’s massive buttresses extend over the adjacent street. The inside is just as elaborate as the exterior, with several fine altars and beautiful vaulted ceilings.
The plaza in front of the basilica is taken up, rather prosaically, by a parking lot. Next door is the local “parador,” which is the term for a historical building which has been converted into a state-run hotel (normally on the pricier side). Across the square is the town hall and, right behind it, the castle, at the highest point of the city. This castle is not open for visits; but the lookout point at the end of the parking lot is fully satisfying. As in Ronda, you are treated to a wonderful view of the Andalusian landscape—fields of crops, rolling hills, and not a modern building in sight.
As we had to drop the car off and catch our train back to Madrid, our time was limited. I can say with confidence, however, that Arcos de la Frontera is worth a much longer stay.
Zahara de la Sierra
Our next visit was the briefest of all. Indeed, we had not even planned on stopping to see any more pueblos. But the sight of Zahara de la Sierra—perched, like so many Spanish villages, on a rocky hill, presiding over a sapphire-blue reservoir—convinced us to at least stop for lunch.
This little town (population just shy of 1,400) is known for its meat stews, and that is what we ordered. Indeed, we had time to do little else. But I think any visitor who is not in a rush ought to climb to the top of the ridge and see the old castle, which still stands guard over the village. And it would not be a Spanish village without a beautiful and historical church—in this case, Santa María de la Mesa, a rather joyful-looking Baroque temple.
Unfortunately for us, we only had time to glance at the main attractions before we got back in the car and kept driving. Yet the drive itself—on the rural highways which connect Jerez de la Frontera with Málaga—was extremely lovely, and a wonderful way to close our long trip to Andalucía.
Taken together, this was a special trip in many ways. For one, it was an amazing relief to travel after being trapped in our tiny Madrid apartment for months. And this was probably one of the few times in recent decades that such iconic sites such as the Alhambra, the caves of Nerja, and the beaches of Cádiz could be visited with hardly any crowds. This was also the last trip I took with my brother in Spain, before his return to the United States to study law. As such, it was a little sad—but only just a little, since we really had a wonderful time.
After our stays in Granada and Málaga, our next base of operations was Jerez de la Frontera.
If you know some Spanish, you may recognize that this name translates literally into “Sherry of the Border.” But this has an explanation. For one, sherry wine is named after Jerez, not vice versa; the original name “Jerez” goes all the way back to Phoenician times. And the place is referred to as occupying a “border” because, during the middle ages, this town was on the border between Christian- and Muslim-controled areas.
After dropping off our things, the first thing we did was to visit the city’s Alcázar. Now, there are “alcázars” all over the country. The name—like most Spanish words beginning with “al”—comes from Arabic, in this case from al-Qasr, meaning a castle or a fortress. This one was built in the 11th century, when Jerez was part of a small Muslim kingdom. The conquering Christians added to the fortress. Even so, the fortress—with its horseshoe arches and baths with star-shaped vents—is an excellent example of Moorish architecture. And the walls provide an excellent view over the city.
Next we visited the city’s cathedral. This is quite a grand building. But if you are used to the scale of European cathedrals, it may strike you as on the smaller side. This is because it was not originally built as a cathedral, but as a collegiate church which was later “promoted” to the status of cathedral in 1980. In any case, it is a lovely building with gothic flying buttresses and baroque decorations on its façade. Even lovelier might be the Church of San Miguel. If memory serves, the opening hours of this church are rather limited (and they aren’t posted online). But if you manage to get in, you will be rewarded with striking gothic vaults and richly-carved altarpieces.
But the highlight of Jerez is not, in my opinion, any monument. Rather, it is the wine. We happened to arrive on a Sunday and most of the major wineries were closed. But after calling several in a row (getting through to a janitor in one of them), I finally reached a man who seemed rather surprised on the phone. He said he had a totally flexible schedule and that we could come any time we liked. Like an ignorant American, I suggested five o’clock, but he quickly told me that it would be too hot then, and that seven would be far better.
We arrived punctually at Bodegas Faustino González. An older man with white hair was waiting for us. He introduced himself as Jaime, and led us inside. It quickly became apparent that this tour was just for the two of us. And it was also quickly apparent that we had inadvertently chosen a beautiful bodega. (In Spain, a “bodega” is a winery, not a corner store.) In a simple white warehouse there were long rows of barrels, stacked three barrels high. Jaime explained that this is the standard way of aging sherry. The bottom barrel is known as the “solera,” from the word for floor (“suelo”). This is the basis for the wine, as the solera is never entirely emptied. Thus, it preserves the distinct character of any particular winery. Then the sherry is moved up to the next barrel, a “criadera” (literally a “breeding ground”), and finally to the last one. This process takes at least two years, often far longer.
(The barrels, by the way, are made of American oak. Once they are too old for sherry, they can be sold to Scottish Whiskey makers, where they continue to age fine spirits.)
Jaime took a device known as a “venencia”(basically, a cup on the end of a stick), stuck it into a barrel, and let us taste the fresh wine. It was fresh and quite tart. He explained that dry sherry is normally made with palomino grapes, which are white. There are several varieties of the wine, which can be divided into two main groups: manzanilla and fino (white, clear, plain), and amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso. These latter three kinds are oxidized during the aging process, giving them a dark, rusty color and a far more aromatic flavor. (For my money, oloroso is consistently the best.)
Many exported sherries are basically sold as cooking wine, and taste like finos with added sugar. But if you really want to taste a sweet sherry, one must try the Pedro Ximenez. This wine is made from the grapes of the same name, which are left to dry into raisins before they are turned into wine. This makes the final product almost black in color and incredibly sweet. The flavor is intense—almost too intense to drink, like maple syrup. In fact, I used the bottle I bought from the winery to pour over vanilla ice cream, and found it to be extravagantly delicious.
As you can probably tell, my brother and I were delighted by the visit. We emerged, about two hours later, very satisfied and quite drunk (we had been given about six glasses of sherry), and wandered off to find something for dinner. I have subsequently bought sherry from Jaime and can attest to its excellent quality.
During our time in Jerez, we managed to visit another winery: González Byass. Its name comes from its founder, Manuel María González, and his English agent, Robert Blake Byass. (There is a charming statue of Manuel near the cathedral.) This is possibly the biggest and certainly the most famous producer of sherry. The iconic Tío Pepe fino sherry—whose mascot is a bottle dressed in a red sombrero and jacket, holding a guitar—is from this company. Any visitor to the Puerta del Sol, in Madrid, will recognize it: an advertisement which has been elevated to a symbol of Spain. (An even more famous symbol of Spain, the Osborne Bull, also originated as an advertisement—for sherry brandy.)
The tour lasted about an hour and was with a group of about twenty people. I imagine that it is more difficult to secure a spot on a tour during normal times. Right after the lockdown, we were given a spot on the very next group. Compared to Faustino González—an artisanal producer, with a single warehouse—this winery was enormous. It is also, obviously, famous. There were bottles dedicated to heads of state and signed by celebrities (notably, Orson Wells). Indeed, according to our guide, the most attractive of the warehouses, La Concha, was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel, on the occasion of a queen’s visit. (It appears, after looking it up, that this is not really true. Though commonly attributed to Eiffel, “La Concha” was designed by an English firm.)
Finally we were ushered into a posh bar for a tasting. Though I can hardly be called an expert in this ancient art, the difference between the handcrafted sherry of the previous visit and this industrially-produced wine was immediately apparent. The sherry from González Byass tasted simple and even bland by comparison. In fairness, the GB products are significantly cheaper and easier to find. And I certainly would not turn down a glass of their oloroso.
Jerez de la Frontera is a delightful city by itself. But one of its best qualities is its close proximity with Cádiz. Indeed, aside from Venice, I would rank Cádiz as the prettiest city in Europe. And unlike that Italian icon, Cádiz is a place where people actually live.
Cádiz is located on a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic ocean. It is an extremely old place, inhabited since at least the 7th century BC. Arriving from Jerez is a breeze: the local train takes you right there in about 45 minutes—treating you to some arresting views of the landscape and the ocean along the way.
The first thing any visitor to Cádiz ought to do is to simply walk around. The buildings form a coherent color palette: made of tan stone or painted pastel colors. The inner streets are narrow and winding, like those of any city with a long pedigree. But go too far in any direction and you emerge onto the open sea. Even on a hot day, the breeze makes it tolerably cool, and if it is sunny the ocean shines a kind of delirious turquoise. (You can probably gather that I am fond of Cádiz.)
One of the most attractive parts of the city are the Gardens of Alameda Apodaca, which is located alongside the water on the Northern side of the peninsula. It is a kind of garden walkway, with flowers hanging from trellises. At the end of this garden you reach two strange and enormous trees. These are Australian Banyans, which have special supporting structures known as “buttress roots,” which spread over the ground to support the enormous canopy. An equally lovely park is the Parque Genovés, which is full to the brim with exotic plants, such as a Drago tree (from the Canary Islands), a Metrosideros (from New Zealand), and a Norfolk Island Pine (from Australia).
As you can perhaps tell from these exotic trees, Cádiz is (or was) well connected with foreign lands. Indeed, the city owes its wealth to being the primary port of trade between Spain and her American colonies for several centuries. Of course, this source of revenue abruptly ended when Spain lost her empire in the 19th century, which is one reason the city is still so quaintly beautiful. If that had not happened, then doubtless Cádiz would be full of modern glassy skyscrapers.
After a stroll around, my brother and I were in the mood for lunch. For the hungry or the morbidly curious, the Mercado Central is worth a visit. On the inside you can see an enormous collection of freshly-caught seafood, still covered in ocean brine. There are piles of squids and shrimp, and tuna as heavy as a person. If this whets your appetite, you can get something to eat in any of the dozens of food stalls running along the outside. I would certainly recommend sampling the seafood. Local specialties include tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters) and cazón en adobo (marinated dogfish)—both quite tasty, in my opinion.
After our meal, we visited the Cádiz Museum. Normally, this institution has exhibits which range from prehistory to the 20th century. But when we visited, it was under renovation, and the upper floors were closed. This was fine with me, however, as the section on ancient history was still open, and this is what I especially wanted to see.
As I mentioned before, Cádiz has a very long history, and the museum has artifacts dating from well before the era of Socrates and Confucius. But the two most famous artifacts are two Phoenician sarcophagi, carved in the form of a man and a woman, made some time around the year 400 BC. The male sarcophagus was discovered all the way back in 1887, with a well-preserved skeleton still inside. The corresponding female was found almost an entire century later—coincidentally just outside the former home of a museum director—during a routine construction job. The two tombs are quite lovely works of art, showing possible Greek influences but still unlike any Greek statue I have ever seen.
Perhaps the best way to get a tour of Cádiz is to visit the Torre Tavira. This is a former lookout tower, now the second-tallest structure in the city (after the cathedral). The views from the top are worth the fee to go up. But your visit also includes a kind of remote tour using a camera obscura, reflecting light from outside onto a large dish, while a guide points out all of the major landmarks in the city. It is certainly a touristy experience, but one I do not hesitate to recommend.
(The cathedral, I should mention, is also certainly worth a visit. Unfortunately, it had yet to reopen after the lockdown when my brother and I visited.)
The next site I want to mention did not figure on our itinerary. But as I visited two years later, with Rebe, I think it worth including here for the sake of information. This is the Gadir Archaeological Site. Gadir is the original, Phoenician name for the city, and this site takes you directly into the ancient past. As fate would have it, the site is located under a puppet theater. Visits are conducted by guided tour only, which means you must reserve at least a little bit in advance. During my visit, the tour was conducted by one of the archaeologists who actually did work on the site, which made for an especially interesting experience. The ruins are not visually impressive (consisting of the outlines of buildings and streets), but the information revealed about ancient lifeways was fascinating.
But of course, I cannot end a post about Cádiz without mentioning the beach. There is an extremely long beach—Playa de la Cortadura—running along the road that connects Cádiz with the mainland. Far more beautiful and iconic, however, is La Caleta, which is at the very end of the peninsula. My brother and I spent two evenings lounging under the shade of an old spa and taking dips in the ocean, from which I can conclude that it is a thoroughly lovely spot. (This spa building, by the way, is itself an icon of Cádiz. It was built in 1926 with long, sweeping arms suspended over the sand. The spa went out of business, however, and nowadays it is the headquarters of the Underwater Archaeology Center.)
La Caleta is made especially picturesque by being flanked by two castles. On the right is the Castle of Santa Catalina, built around the year 1600. There is a small exhibition center inside and a good view of the beach. (I also think there is a hotel somewhere in the castle.) On the left side is the Castle of San Sebastián, which is located on a small island off shore, and connected by a thin walkway to the beach. It is possible that a Greek temple occupied this spot millennia ago, but the castle was built around the year 1700. The last two times I visited Cádiz the castle was closed, though the very first time I went I could go inside (and there was not much to see). In any case, the walkway is attractive enough to merit a visit.
That does it for our trip to Jerez and Cádiz. As great as were Granada, Málaga, and the little towns we visited, these two cities were easily the highlights of the trip. There is little that can compete with a cold glass of exquisite sherry followed by a swim.
We arrived in Málaga in the late afternoon, reversing the hour and a half drive to Granada we had just done the day before. Compared with that interior city, the climate of Málaga felt cool and humid—no doubt, thanks to the Mediterranean.
The City of Málaga
Málaga is among the largest and most important cities in Spain. Populated since Phoenician times, it is also among the oldest. Even so, for me the city has a curiously un-Spanish atmosphere. This is due, I think, to the huge numbers of immigrants—from England and Germany, mainly—who live in and near the urban center, as well as the many tourists who stop through on cruises.
Yet this is not to say that the city is not a nice place to visit. Case in point: As soon as we arrived, we walked into the city center and ascended Gibralfaro Hill. This is a somewhat arduous trek, going up ramp after ramp, but you are rewarded with some truly terrific views.
The best vistas are to be found from the walls of Gibralfaro Castle, a fortification that dates back to the city’s Moorish past. Indeed, the history of the castle actually extends much farther back; a natural point of defense, a fortress of some sort has been here for over two thousand years. This castle is connected to a fortress lower-down the hill, the Alcazaba, which was another holdout against Christian conquest. The Catholic Monarchs starved out the defenders in a prolonged siege, which ended in 1487. One can easily see why it took the Christians so long: fortified with double walls, and in a perfectly defensible position, it is a formidable redoubt.
Another worthy historical site is Málaga’s cathedral. Though the building was not finished until 1782 (and arguably not even then, as one tower remains conspicuously incomplete) the church is made in a Renaissance style. Like any worthy cathedral, the place is filled with works of art, some of them quite wonderful. The wooden choir stalls are beautifully carved, there is a lovely neoclassical altarpiece, and hanging on one wall is a monumental painting by Enrique Simonet depicting the beheading of St. Paul.
But I suspect that most visitors to Málaga don’t come for the historical sites. Rather, they come for the seemingly endless beaches and its endlessly sunny weather. Dotting the shore are a certain type of restaurant called chiringuitos, which are distinguished by the large wooden fire outside, often made atop an old boat that has been filled with sand for the purpose. These are not just decoration: fish are skewered and fire-roasted for the guests.
And this sort of place is very popular among the locals, as my brother and I discovered when we tried to have lunch in Litoral Pacífico without a reservation. There was not a single spare table. Defeated, we drove to Chiringuito Mari Guitiérrez, another well-rated place a little outside of the city center, and did manage to get a table. There, we ordered the most famous regional dish, espetos de sardinas. These are little sardines which have been cooked over the fire.
Being novices in the world of fish and seafood, we were unsure of the correct procedure for this particular fish. Impatient, I decided to eat one whole—tasty, but also a bit crunchy and slimy. My brother, Jay, more observant, saw that the locals ate the fish like corn on the cob, picking the meat off and leaving the spine. I tried another fish that way, and found it considerably better. To round out the order, we have boquerones fritos, which are basically sardines which have been breaded and fried. (You do eat those whole.) It was a very fishy meal.
But the best part of eating at a chiringuito is, undoubtedly, the fact that you can lounge on the beach and go swimming right after you finish. And that is just what we did.
At this point, I would like to make a general observation about Spanish food. Virtually every region—sometimes every city—has its own culinary specialty that the locals are very proud of. Nevertheless, once you try a few of these famous local dishes, you realize that these are mostly just variations on a basic theme. For example, in Málaga we were advised to have “pitufos,” which we discovered was just a sort of toast with crushed tomato—a dish consumed all over the country—but with a slightly different type of bread. We were also advised to get gambas pil pil. But when the dish was served, we found that it was identical to the commonly served gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic in olive oil), except for the addition of a few red pepper flakes.
If I sound like I am complaining, I can assure you I’m not, since all of these dishes and variations are delicious.
There is a lot to see and do in the city of Málaga. But as we spent much of our time visiting nearby towns, we unfortunately did not see many of the city’s attractions.
We did manage to make it to the Automobile and Fashion museum. It is a rather long walk from the city center, but accessible with the urban buses. When we arrived, we were greeted by about a dozen young people wearing strange clothes, who were arranged in the walkway in front of the building—apparently, models in training.
As a person who has virtually no knowledge of, or interest in, fashion, I really cannot say anything about the fashion side of this museum. But as somebody who knows nothing about, but can at least appreciate a cool-looking car, I can give the automobiles my blessings. The collection of odd and historic cars is quite impressive. There are examples of some of the first commercially available automobiles; enormous luxury cars with plush interiors; sleek sports cars; and some novelty vehicles, such as a car with a propeller or one designed to run on solar power. Though there were little informational plaques about the vehicles, it was more pleasant just to wander from specimen to specimen, to witness how something as familiar as a car can take so many different forms.
Mariposario and Mijas
On one of our days in Málaga we got into the rental car and made our way to the Mariposario de Benalmadéna, a butterfly sanctuary a short drive from the city.
When we parked the car, however, we could not help but notice the very large and odd structure nearby. This is the Stupa of Enlightenment, a 33 meter (108 ft) tall Buddhist shrine that has a commanding view over the landscape. According to the website, this stupa is the largest “in the Western world.” As far as I can tell, this is actually true—the only competition coming from the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, in Colorado, which is about the same height—though it is not, for my money, among the most beautiful examples of the genre. To enlighten you a little further, I will add that this stupa was completed in 2003 and consecrated by a high-ranking Tibetan lama.
Visible from the base of the Stupa is another odd monument, the Castillo de Colomares. This is the brainchild of one Esteban Martín, a doctor by profession, who decided to design and build a huge monument to Christopher Colombus. And while that explorer is no longer in such high repute, one must admit that this eccentric homemade castle is rather impressive. For some reason, this castle is the site of the smallest church in the world, with a total area just shy of 2 square meters (just over 21 square feet).
These silly buildings are interesting enough. But I think the real star of this area is the butterfly sanctuary. After paying the entry fee, you walk through heavy plastic flaps, and enter a tropical world—hot, humid, and full of exotic plants. Signs warn you to be careful where you step, so as not to accidentally crush any of the inhabitants. The air is teeming with life. Bright wings are continuously flapping all around you. The butterflies range in size from a postage stamp to a paperback book, and come in every color and pattern imaginable, some with long, slender wings, others with wings like flower petals.
To be honest, I had never taken much time to appreciate butterflies before this visit. But spending time with these harmless, dainty creatures was almost therapeutic. And butterflies weren’t the only animals on display: the sanctuary also had tortoises, exotic birds, and a wallaby.
After that, we went to the town of Mijas, which is right next door. This is a typical whitewashed Andalusian village, with excellent views of the Costa del Sol. We did our best to explore the village and to enjoy the vistas, but the tremendous afternoon heat was not conducive to calm enjoyment. So, after a short walk, we found a restaurant with air conditioning and chugged down a few glasses of water with our meal. Then, it was back to Málaga.
Arguably the best day trip from Málaga is the small town of Nerja. We had our rental car, but I know from a previous visit that it is fairly easy to get to by bus.
On the day we visited, we headed immediately to the caves. These are located in the outskirts of the city—admittedly a fairly long walk if you arrived on the bus, but still doable. They are certainly worth the trouble of visiting. They are magnificent. After making your way through a few smaller chambers, you emerge into a series of caverns, each one bigger than the last. Elevated walkways make the visit quite easy to navigate, despite the slippery surfaces and dim light. The rock formations are wonderful—undulating, folding, melting, seeming almost alive.
It seems that earlier—much earlier—humans also found the place captivating, as the cave was used over thousands of years. There are cave paintings (in an area inaccessible to the visitor) made by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, as well as the remains of domestic animals, textiles, and pottery from later agricultural humans. Apparently, the cave was still used by locals up until the Middle Ages, but at some point knowledge of the cave was lost. It was rediscovered by a group of 5 locals in 1959 who, for whatever reason, decided to go catch some bats. For any visitors curious to learn more, I recommend the Cave Museum, located in the center of Nerja.
The cave thoroughly explored, we made our way into town, passing on our way the Acueducto del Águila, an enormous aqueduct made in the ancient Roman style, but constructed in the 19th century. We parked the car and had lunch in a restaurant called Dolares El Chispa. I imagine that it is a pretty crowded spot in normal times. Traveling in the wake of a global emergency, however, we almost had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed a feast of fish and seafood. Spanish cuisine at its finest.
Any visitor to Nerja will soon end up in the Balcony of Europe, an imposing viewpoint over the surrounding coastline. The name of this jutting cliff was given by the much-beloved king, Alfonso XII, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 27, but who still presides over his balcony in the form of a metal statue. Nearby are the town’s gorgeous beaches. Unfortunately, we had neglected to bring our swimsuits.
On the way back to Málaga we stopped, briefly, at another beautiful village: Frigiliana. This is another very popular day trip from the city, and it is easy to see why. Frigiliana is a classic whitewashed Andalusian village, nestled on a mountain ridge. We arrived at the hottest part of the day, however, and only withstood about 10 minutes of walking around under the afternoon sun before we returned to the car. So I will leave this part to be filled in by you, dear reader.
It was the summer of that fateful year, 2020. In Spain, the major restrictions had just been lifted. Indeed, in retrospect this summer was the eye of the storm, as the first wave of infection had just receded, falling to very low levels; and public health officials were still unsure whether further measures would be necessary—and, if so, which.
My brother and I had weathered the pandemic in our tiny apartment in Madrid. He had been accepted into law school back home, so his time in Spain was coming to an end—time which had recently been spent doing pushups in his room and watching movies on his laptop. Now it was finally our chance to get out and have one last trip through the country.
Our plan was, as usual, rather convoluted. We took the high-speed (AVE) train down to Málaga, and then went to the airport to rent a car. Finally, we drove an hour and a half to Granada, listening to an audiobook about the Morgan banking dynasty along the way (random, I know).
We arrived in the middle of a typically hot summer day. It was around 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) and the streets were totally deserted. But like two dumb tourists, we decided to walk into the city. The whitewashed walls of the buildings seemed to reflect the sunlight into our faces. On the side of one building somebody had spray painted: Welcome to nueva normalidad (the new normal). And the city did have a post-apocalyptic feel, if only because nobody seemed to be living in it. The shops were closed; the windows and doors all shut; and a few lonely drinkers hid inside the bars.
We experienced some relief when we entered the Granada Cathedral. The cavern-like interior was reasonably cool. As you may know, Granada was the last stronghold of Muslim Spain to fall to the Catholic Monarchs (Isabel and Ferdinand), finally conquered in that other fateful year, 1492. This cathedral is, then, something of a triumphalist monument, having been built over the remains of the mosque that once occupied this spot. To add insult to injury, the Catholic Monarchs are themselves portrayed as figures on either side of the main altarpiece (a device later used by Ferdinand II in El Escorial), piously thanking God for their victory.
One can sense the symbolic importance Granada had to these two epochal figures, as they are buried right next door, in the Royal Chapel. Curiously, although the cathedral is built in a clean, elegant Renaissance style, this chapel—though constructed just a few decades earlier—is wholly gothic in style, bristling with spires and points. Photos are not permitted inside, but the main attraction is the beautifully carved tomb of the king and queen, carved by the Italian Domenico Fancelli.
Right next to these are the even grander tombs of Juana la loca (the mad)—daughter of the Catholic Monarchs—and her husband, the very short-lived Felipe el hermoso (the handsome). This unfortunate Philip, who died at the age of 28, actually was the king of Spain for a few months in 1506, but died in Burgos under mysterious circumstances. It is unknown whether, or to what extent, his widow Juana really was mentally ill, as the men in her life (her husband, father, and then her son) all had much to gain by having her declared unfit to rule and confined.
Next, we visited the Monastery of San Jerónimo, which was built at around the same time as the cathedral and the chapel, also at the behest of Isabel and Ferdinand. Like the cathedral, the monastery was constructed in the Renaissance style, which had just arrived in the country. By far the outstanding part of the visit was the main altarpiece, which is both enormous and enormously detailed. But I also enjoyed the statue of the maniacally smiling nun.
I am narrating these visits as if we were coherent. In truth, by this point we were sleep-deprived, hungry, dehydrated, and just worn out from the train ride, the drive, and from walking around the hot city. So, after a quick bite to eat, we decided to walk back to the Airbnb for a break. By now it was late afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Our path took us up one of the many hills in the city as the sun blazed down from above. The streets were still completely deserted. The only people stupid enough to be marching through the evening heat were the two American tourists. And we were regretting it. (If you think Spaniards are lazy because of the siesta, try staying active in the middle of an Andalusian summer day. There is a reason that certain customs develop.)
After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the Airbnb and collapsed into the bed, falling asleep immediately.
We awoke two hours later into a different world. The sun was about to set (which means that it was around nine at night) and the city had come alive then. Every bar and restaurant was full, the plazas and sidewalks were bustling. And it was easy to see why: the temperature had dropped from hellish to perfectly pleasant.
We had a quick dinner and then made our way to the famous Mirador de San Nicolás, a viewpoint on the top of a hill, directly opposite the Alhambra. As usual, it was swarming with people, though for a change they were mostly Spaniards (if memory serves, the country had not yet opened up to foreign tourists after the lockdown). We had a drink, listened to the locals playing flamenco, and looked across to that famous palace—emblem of Moorish Spain—which was the next item on our itinerary.
Even in the wake of the apocalypse, it is still wise to book your visit to the Alhambra in advance. We had our tickets to go bright and early. Now, I have already written a very long post about the Alhambra, its architecture, and its history, so I will not rehash that here.
I will only say that if you ever have a chance to visit this iconic site in the wake of a global pandemic, take it. The Alhambra is normally packed with people, which necessarily detracts from the experience—since it is hard to appreciate the mathematical elegance of its designs while elbowing fellow tourists. This time, there were perhaps a quarter of the usual number of visitors. It was incomparably better.
With our visit to the Alhambra completed, our short time in Granada was up. We ate a quick meal and then drove back to Málaga for the next stage of our journey.
This book is an excellent example of a text that is interesting as a historical document, but not as literature. To put the matter more bluntly, The Lotus Sutra has much to teach but is not very fun to read.
Having recently finished The Platform Sutra, I was struck by how different these two Buddhist scriptures are. The former is dense with doctrine and often quite deeply philosophical, whereas this text is full of revelations, miracle stories, and parables. And whereas The Platform Sutra accords pretty well with the Western conception of Buddhism as a secular, humanistic philosophy, The Lotus Sutra is frankly and powerfully religious.
This is not a world of quietly meditating monks, but of divine beings, hungry ghosts, endless eons of time, and extravagant promises of salvation. Indeed, the many layers of heaven and hell—the rewards and punishments doled out by Karma—reminded me very much of Dante’s cosmos (though here, neither state is permanent). Believers are promised to enjoy excellent senses of hearing and smell in their next lives, as well as good health and handsome noses; whereas nonbelievers will have crooked noses, bad skin, and halitosis. In short, no New York City atheist could really get behind the message of The Lotus Sutra.
One of the book’s most curious features is its meta-commentary. It is a story of itself—ceaselessly telling us how many sentient beings were saved by hearing its message. And yet, the book does not appear to have much of a message other than to inform us that it is very important. But I do think that The Lotus Sutra contains at least a few important doctrinal innovations.
Quite significant, for example, is the idea of “skillful means.” This is the notion that a Buddhist teacher may use any strategy to enlighten his pupils, even if that involves telling a lie. Closely related to this is the idea of the “one vehicle,” which holds that every strategy—meditating, memorizing sutras, repeating mantras, donating to monasteries, preaching sermons—are all merely aspects of one great effort to enlighten the world. This may sound harmless enough, but the implication is that the previous preachings of the Buddha were merely a half-truth, tailored to the low capacities of his first followers.
For example, the original doctrine held that the Buddha died and achieved enlightenment; that he was the first discoverer of the way; that there is only one Buddha; and that the path to enlightenment is to be attained only by those who diligently follow the path the Buddha laid for them. But The Lotus Sutra informs us that the Buddha never died; that there have been innumerable Buddhas; and that virtually everyone can become enlightened.
In other words, this sutra turns Buddhism into a kind of universalist religion, wherein merely repeating one line of a sutra or thinking one pious thought is enough to guarantee ultimate salvation. It reminds me very much of the transformation of the original Christian message (love your neighbor, abhor wealth, forgive your enemies) into the medieval Catholic church, wherein absolution could be bought and sins confessed away. In this case, Siddhartha Gautama’s demanding eightfold path is turned into an all-embracing highway, wherein anyone can drive straight to Buddhahood with a bit of goodwill.
This new, welcoming doctrine is not exactly so keen on women, however. The perfect future state of universal enlightenment is pictured as a world without women. And the one woman in the text who achieves Buddhahood—the daughter of the dragon king, Longnü—turns into a man the instant she does so. To be fair, Buddhism is hardly the only major religion with a misogynist streak; and I supposed it may have even been “enlightened” at the time to allow the possibility that a woman may transform into a man.
Thus, despite the text being rather repetitive and mystical, I would recommend it to anyone hoping to learn more about Buddhism. If you like it, you may have secured your future Buddhahood—though, I fear I may have attracted some grave karmic consequences with my review. If you meet a snake with very bad breath in the future, you know what happened.
I must begin this review with a kind of repentance. Many years ago, I made my way through The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. I figured myself rather clever and linguistically capable enough to handle the language. Indeed, I even felt no pangs about reading the book before bedtime, fighting through the morass of unusual spellings and unfamiliar words while I was at my drowsiest. Needless to say, I did not have an easy time of it. And this difficulty colored rather unfairly my opinion of Chaucer.
This time around, I opted for a modern “translation”—two, in fact: the first, a print version by Nevill Coghill; the second, an audio version by Gerald J. Davis.* Immediately the error of my first impression was apparent. When the obscurity of Chaucer’s English was stripped away, I encountered a thoroughly enjoyable and wholly interesting book.
Admittedly, the circumstances of my reading were also more propitious. I read The Canterbury Tales this time around while I was, myself, on a pilgrimage—spending a few days on the Camino de Santiago, in the north of Spain. Chaucer made for quite an excellent companion—more entertaining, in fact, than the real pilgrims I encountered. (The conceit of the book struck me as especially fanciful by comparison with my experience. Virtually all conversation between the real-life pilgrims consisted of the most predictable small-talk—where are you from, how many kilometers, what’s your job, etc. Certainly I was no better as a conversationalist.)
I was first struck by Chaucer’s obvious debt to Boccaccio. The basic device is the same: a group of people are stuck together, and must tell stories to pass the time. More than that, several of the stories in this book are taken directly from Boccaccio (who is not credited, though I think that was common practice at the time). However, the differences are important as well, and highlight Chaucer’s strengths. Most obvious is that Chaucer was not just a storyteller, but a poet, and his tales are written in brilliant verse. More important, however, are the characters Chaucer employs to tell his stories. While Boccaccio’s storytellers are all genteel aristocrats, Chaucer’s raconteurs come from all levels of society, the poor and the rich, the lowborn and the noble, the profane and the holy.
In these two great gifts—his poetic suppleness and his all-embracing social vision—Chaucer is a direct forerunner of Shakespeare. But the similarity does not stop there. While Chaucer’s characterizations, like Boccaccio’s, are often fairly superficial, at times he achieves depths worthy of the bard himself. This is most obvious in the acknowledged high point of the poem, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Here, it is clear that Chaucer realized he had achieved something of a breakthrough, since he allowed the prologue to run longer than any other—longer, even, than the story that follows. And like any of Shakespeare’s great characters involved in a soliloquy, the Wife of Bath comes wholly alive in a way that, as far as I know, was unprecedented for the time.
The content of the stories is varied, but some major themes stand out for comment. The most striking, I think, is that of women and wives. Chaucer presents several disparate views on the matter. One story, for example, advocates that wives be absolutely subservient and obedient to all their husband’s whims, while the Wife of Bath (among others) believes that marriages only work when the wife is in charge. Related is the question of women’s sexuality: Is it something evil or innocent? Is sex to be free and easy within marriage, or is virginity the ideal state? A secondary theme is that of religion. Chaucer, like Boccaccio, makes fun of monks and clergy outrageously, but this does not stop him from being extremely pious in other moments.
This brings me to the low points in the book, the two prose pieces: the Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale. Both of these are not really tales at all, but moralizing essays, full of Bible quotes and references to Aristotle and Cicero. (Indeed, they are wisely omitted from the Coghill version, but I suffered through the audio.) Here, we see that Chaucer could be dreadfully boring in certain moods. These two pieces have no humor at all, and are full of the stuffiest, most pedantic piety imaginable—solemnly concluding, for example, that temperance is the opposite of gluttony, or that good advice is preferable to bad advice. After the ebullience of the Wife of Bath, it is puzzling that Chaucer could have written such tedious pettifoggery. Did he intend these ironically, or was he protected himself from damaging accusations, or did he undergo a religious awakening halfway through writing the tales?
Whatever the case may be, the rest of the book is good enough to forgive him these trespasses. To state the obvious, this book is a classic in every sense of the word. Perhaps I ought to try the original once more? Or should I not press my luck? ___________ *For what it is worth, I liked the Davis version, and noticed no difference in quality from the esteemed Coghill version. However, I find it odd that Davis has translated books from so many different languages: Gilgamesh, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Beowulf… Either he is a linguistic genius or is getting some help.