South to Seville

South to Seville

The word puente has two meanings in Spanish. Most commonly it simply means “bridge.”

But it is also the word for an extra day off given when a holiday falls in-between a weekday and the weekend. For example, December 8, 2015—a Tuesday—was a holiday; and as a result I got the preceding Monday off. (This holiday, which comes every year, is called the Día de la inmaculada, a day dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Unlike in the US, most holidays in Spain are religious—specifically, Catholic.)

In short, it was time to go to Seville.

But how to get there? Before I came to Spain, everyone told me that flying in Europe was remarkably cheap; but every flight to Seville I found was annoyingly pricey. How about the high-speed train? This was even worse. What, then?

“How about Blablacar?” someone recommended, as I vented my frustrations.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a ridesharing service. It’s like AirBNB, except for car rides. You pay the driver and then go together. It’s quite cheap.”

“Hmm, interesting.”

“And it’s a good way to practice Spanish, too, since you can talk with the driver. I’d recommend it.”

(As a side note, I have since used Blablacar dozens of times, and I have had nothing but  good experiences. Though I was at first concerned for my safety—getting into a car with a stranger—the identity checks and the system of reviews on the site make it quite safe. And besides, what other ways are there of forcing a Spanish person to talk to you for hours on end?)


When you take the usual dross material of small-talk, and then throw in the difficulty of communicating in a language you hardly know, the end result is pretty stale conversation. Our poor Spanish driver had thus to deal with five hours of slow and painful attempts by me to be personable and interesting, while I fumbled for words and made a mockery of grammar.

Many hours after I had reached the full extent of my Spanish ability, we reached Seville.

Seville is a city with a long past and a bright present. Populated at least since Roman times, the city grew into a prosperous power under the Moors, who controlled the city for about 500 years—until, in 1248, the city was conquered by the Christian king Ferdinand III of Castille.

The city is 80 km (50 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean, crowded along the banks of the Guadalquivir River; and Seville’s harbor is the only river port in all of Spain. This port on the Atlantic Ocean gave Seville a huge economic advantage when Spain began the age of colonization in the New World—an economic dominance which lasted until the 17th century, when silting rendered the port unusable, thus leading to the ascendence of Cádiz (though by this time Spain was economically in decline).

Though not as dominant as it was in the past, Seville is still a thriving place. The fourth largest city in the country, with a population of about 700,000, the city is also the capital of all of Andalusia. It is also the metropolitan area with the highest average temperatures in all of Europe—its summer highs only exceeded by nearby Córdoba. Culturally, too, Seville is extreme: its massive Holy Week processions are internationally famous, as is the city’s raucous annual festival.

Our first stop was the cathedral. The Cathedral of Seville, Santa María de la Sede, is one of the largest church buildings in the world. Indeed, when it was first built it surpassed the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which had held the title of the biggest church for the previous 1,000 years. The cathedral was built on such an enormous scale as a way of celebrating the Christian reconquest of the city from the Moors, back in 1248, as well as the city’s growing wealth. According to an old tradition, the cathedral chapter wanted to build a cathedral “so big that those who see it think we are insane.”

Despite all this, I must say that, from the inside, the cathedral did not feel noticeably bigger than the other cathedrals I have been in. All of them are fairly gigantic.


In any case, the Seville Cathedral is not only big, but is one of the finest in the country. The cavernous space, populated by a forest of columns that branch into elegant ribbed vaults, is spacious and bright. The choir, the organ, the chapels—everything has been decorated with extreme skill and unfailing taste.

Even among this embarrassment of riches the main altar stands out. Like the cathedral itself, it is absolutely massive: 20 meters (66 ft) in height, 18 meters (59 ft) wide, and divided into 28 scenes of the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Considered among the finest altars in Christendom, this piece was designed by Pierre Dancart, and took fully 80 years to complete (by which time Dancart had long since died). The audioguide remarked that the altar can be thought of as a gigantic visual theological treatise, though perhaps calling it a visual Gospel would be more accurate. Several hours would be necessary to properly examine the whole work, savoring every scene and detail. As it was, I could only gape stupidly at the big hunk of finely decorated gold for a few minutes before moving on.

Photo by losmininos; licended under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

I do remember being somewhat disappointed with the audioguide. The visit took us to every small chapel in the cathedral—and there are many—directing us to look through the grilles at the altars and tombs inside, as the narrator simply listed off individual object therein. I would have appreciated more information about selected pieces rather than a catalogue. In any case, according to the guide the cathedral possesses one of the most important collections of religious paintings in all of Spain. Unfortunately this collection is difficult to appreciate, as—peering through the bars of the grille like a prisoner, squinting from 15 feet away—you cannot get a good look at most of the paintings.

So I was a bit bored by the time I circled through half the cathedral, and found myself standing in front of an impressive statue of four men holding a coffin on their shoulders.

“This is the tomb of Christopher Columbus,” said the guide.

Columbus’s Tomb

I froze. This is an excellent example of what I call “European Travel Syndrome.” Let me explain. It is sometimes easy to forget that you are traveling in Europe. On a car, a train, a city street, often surrounded by other American tourists, you could be at home. But sometimes the reality that you are in Europe—the place which you spent so long learning about in school, the place where Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon performed their famous and infamous deeds—brings itself to your attention so forcefully that it nearly knocks you down.

This was one such occasion.

Most of the time, historical personages like Columbus are little different from fictional characters. We hear a few stories about them, stories which purportedly explain some facet of the present world; but really they remain shadowy figures in our imagination, in the same realm as Santa Claus and Huckleberry Finn. But here were Columbus’s bones.

I was staggered. It is not that I have any particular love or respect for the man—from what I’ve heard, he was horrid—but it was simply the shock of having an erstwhile figment of my imagination become a flesh-and-blood individual right before my eyes.

It’s worth noting in passing that Columbus’s remains roamed nearly as much as he did. They were first interred in Spain, first in Valladolid and then in Seville. Then they were moved to the Dominican Republic, and then to Cuba, and then finally back to Spain again. The man was well-traveled.

The Giralda

Columbus’s bones notwithstanding, the highlight of the cathedral is without doubt the Giralda. This is the cathedral’s famous and lovely bell-tower. It owes its form to two cultures: originally a minaret constructed by the Moors, the Christians later added a Renaissance-style top to the edifice, leaving the Giralda with a unique juxtaposition of styles. The result, however, is a beautiful structure, which stands nobly over the surrounding area, its tan façade shining brightly in the Andalusian sun. The tower’s 105 meters (343 ft) are topped with a statue (known as “El Giraldillo”) of Faith triumphantly lifting a cross, designed by Hernán Ruiz. (A copy of this statue greets visitors on their way inside the building.)

The Giraldillo

Though the Giralda is tall, the climb to the top is not so bad. This is because there are not any stairs. Rather, dozens of ramps lead the pilgrim gently up and up, without having to break a sweat. The original purpose of these ramps, by the way, was to allow people to ride their horses up to the top, which sounds like great fun to me.

Like the Empire State Building, the top of the Giralda is always crowded, with people jostling for space, squeezing into every spot with a view. I joined the contest, nudging and elbowing my way to a good spot. It is worth the struggle, for this is undoubtedly the finest view in Seville. You can see for miles and miles, all of Seville stretched out before you with its rows of white buildings glaring in the sun, so bright that it was hard to look at them.


The visit ended in the Courtyard of the Oranges—which, as the name implies, is a courtyard full of orange trees. This is typical of Seville: there are orange trees everywhere, in every park and alongside every street. Several times I considered plucking one of these oranges, but thought better of it when I noticed that nobody else was doing so. Perhaps there’s an obscure sevillano law forbidding it. Regardless, I’ve never seen fruit trees just sitting around a town like that, completely laden with ripe fruit. Don’t the oranges eventually rot and fall into the street? Do they have government employees dedicated to cleaning up all the fallen oranges? Are they ever harvested? These are the questions that keep me up at night.



In a rare spasm of foresight, I did a bit of research and bought tickets to a flamenco show before arriving in Seville. Andalusia is known for its flamenco; and being a longtime fan of Paco de Lucía, I simply had to see a show.

So after a stroll around the city, across two bridges which spanned the Guadalquivir river, we found ourselves in a cozy room filled with folding chairs—not more than thirty, I’d say—the walls covered in sundry Spanish guitars, sitting before a stage. The show was about to begin.

A young man with a full black beard, dressed from head to foot in plain black clothes, climbed onto the stage and sat down. He was the guitarist. As soon he began I could tell that he was excellent. Like all flamenco guitarists, he played with his fingers, not a pick. The nails on his right thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger were filed into impressive knife-blades, with which he plucked, strummed, tapped, and flicked the strings. Most of the interesting guitar-work in flamenco is done with this hand. The guitarist picked out complex arpeggios and sustained notes with a rabid tremolo, his fingers so precise that they seemed more like machines than human appendages.

But there was nothing mechanical about the music. The first song was in a free rhythm. It began in a whisper and ended in a roar. The harmonies used in flamenco are not the sweet and dulcet harmonies often heard in, say, classical guitar. Rather, they use (among other things) a lot of parallel octaves and fifths, which gives the chords a strong, striking, and slightly sour sound.

Partly as a consequence, there is a certain emotional flavor associate with flamenco music that I find hard to put into words. As in American blues, in flamenco sadness is the fundamental emotion of the music, and the problem to be dealt with. But whereas blues deals with melancholy using a winking ironic, in flamenco the response is passionate melodrama. The emotions are mastered, paradoxically, by pushing them to the limit of intensity. Thus there is something grandiose, even ostentatious, about flamenco; it is as if one must puff oneself up with pride before performing.

The show went on. The guitarist shifted to a faster tune, showing off his rhythmic chops. A man joined him on stage for this song, wearing leather shoes with high heels, who stomped and clapped as accompaniment to the guitarist. But in addition to being the drummer of sorts, this man was the singer; and for the next song he stood up, walked to a corner of the stage, and raised his chin into the air as he prepared to sing.

His voice was incredibly loud—almost painfully so. In flamenco, the goal of the singer is neither melodic flourish nor sweetness of tone, but intensity. To this end, the singing is done with the back of the throat, producing a thick, husky timbre, surging with energy. The result is extremely expressive; it is as if you are not merely hearing the sound, but being pummeled with it.

Next came the dancer. She was a young woman, wearing a bright dress. Before she began, she arched her shoulders back and looked straight out across the audience, her face scrunched up in an expression of both pain and the contempt of pain. She seemed somehow too giant for that tiny room and that miniscule stage. Her squinted eyes looked past audience and even the walls, penetrating far beyond.

The dancing began. She was wearing high-heeled shoes similar to the singer’s, which allowed her to use her feet as drumsticks to pound on the floor. It was staggering how quickly she could move her feet, sounding like a snare drum as she crossed the stage from right to left, left to right, creating a sound so tremendously loud that I considered plugging my ears with my fingers.

Soon I was completely absorbed. My sense of time disappeared; I was so involved in the sound, my entire attention focused on the little details of timbre and ornament, that no concentration was left for anything else. I forgot everything: where I was, who I was, even that I was anything at all—my mind so awash in notes and rhythms that, for all I knew, my whole life up until that point might have been a silly dream.

By now I was sitting on the edge of my seat, my feet tapping of their own accord, my heart thumping, my skin covered in goosebumps, the hair on my arms and legs standing on end. The singing was so loud, the rhythm so fast, the guitar playing so intricate, that the whole effect was overwhelming. It became as physical as it was mental, as if the sounds were reaching across the room and shaking me in my seat.

My mind started to race. Thoughts popped in and out of my head, new thoughts, strange thoughts, memories, hopes, dreams, fears, vague longings, all colored with ecstatic shades of excitement. I felt timeless and invincible; I felt that nobody has ever been so inspired or so creative. The world around me took on a new glow, and I saw and heard everything for the first time. Mad confidence surged through me: I

And then the music ended, my heart rate slowed, and I became tired and groggy, like I just woke up from a troubled sleep. I walked from the venue into the cool night air, which brought me back to my senses. Like all great music, the flamenco had lifted me into a heightened state and kept me there, refreshing my spirit in the process.


Because one day of the puente was taken up visiting Córdoba (an easy day trip on the train), we only had one more day to see Seville.

It was time to visit the Alcázar of Seville. Now, there are “alcázars” all over Spain. This word (as do many Spanish words that begin with “al-”) comes from Arabic (“al-” is just the word for “the”, and “cázar” comes from “qasr”, meaning palace, castle, or fort). After the Moors were banished from Spain, several impressive castles and forts were left behind, which the Spanish Catholics happily repurposed. The Alcázar in Seville is one of the most famous of these, and justly so.

After a long line that thankfully moved quickly, we had passed through the front gate—the Puerta del León, named for the painting of a grotesque lion, wearing a crown and holding a cross, which sits over the entrance—and had arrived inside.


The Alcázar of Seville is among the most fascinating building complexes in Spain. Gothic, mannerist, baroque, and mudéjar styles are crammed up next to each other, as different sections of the palace were completed in different phases of history. The most famous section of the palace is the mudéjar palace. Though the palace’s history dates back to the Moorish period, this palace was built under Peter I of Castille, a Christian king who hired Muslim artisans to construct a palace similar to the Alhambra in Granada, which had been built just 20 years before. This building is thus a testimony to the deep cultural exchanges between the medieval Christians and Muslims.

As a side note, the Alcázar is still a royal residence—where the royal family stays when they visit Seville—thus making it the oldest active palace in the country.


The intricate Moorish architecture, with its finely carved floral designs, its sweet blues and subdued sand-colored walls, its elaborate wooden and gilded ceilings, gave the structure a gentle nobility far removed from the ostentatious grandeur of the gothic architecture of Seville’s cathedral. Every surface of every wall was covered with complex designs: arabesques, calligraphy, and colored tiles running along the lower half. Horshoe archways (which the Moors copied from the Visigoths) separated chamber from chamber. Within was an open space, the Courtyard of the Maidens, containing a rectangular pool of sky-blue water.


The most impressive room in the entire palace is the Salón de embajadores, or the Ambassador’s Salon, which is covered with a golden dome that has been ornamented with intricate geometrical designs. The adornments on the walls, too, are sumptuous and remarkably fine. One of the only reminders that this palace is not the Alhambra itself are the insignias of Castille and León which can be seen inserted into many of the designs.


Another clue are the floor tiles that contains the words Plus Ultra. This phrase is a reference to the phrase ne plus ultra (“not further beyond”), which was applied to the Strait of Gibraltar—believed in previous ages to be the limit of the navigable world. Columbus, sailing for Spain, proved this to be wrong, and thus the Spanish Coat of Arms contains the phrase “further beyond”: Plus Ultra.

There is also a gothic palace in the Alcázar. Compared with the mudéjar palace, this one looks rather shabby—some of the decorative tiles have even been installed incorrectly. But it does contain some excellent tapestries with images of old maps.

Beyond the palaces are the gardens. These are marvelous—and enormous, covering 60,000 square meters (about 15 acres), and containing more than 170 species of plant.

Tiled walkways cut through enclosures of big-leafed shrubs; tiny aqueducts lead from fountain to lazily bubbling fountain; palm trees jut into the air, towering high up above. It is very easy, and very pleasant, to get totally lost amongst the winding paths and tall trees. Suddenly you are not in a busy city, surrounded by tourists and street performers, but someplace far away, someplace quiet and green. It was lovely.

But we couldn’t stop and smell the palm trees; our time was running short. So, after just a half hour, we pulled ourselves from the garden and made our way to the Plaza de España.

This plaza lies in the heart of the Parque de María Luisa, the loveliest park in the city. Both this park and the plaza owe their current form to the Ibero-American exposition, a world’s fair held in Seville in 1929. Thus, unlike other plazas de España in Spain, Seville’s Plaza de España is not a city-square at all, but a massive exhibition space and architectural showpiece.

A fountain sits at the center of the large open space, embraces by a sprawling, semi-circular edifice. This structure was built in the Neo-Mudéjar (Moorish-Revival) style, and consists of a central building with two towers on either end, connected by curved wings. Separating the fountain area from the building is a moat, spanned by several bridges; and if you pay a price, you can rent a little row-boat and row around this artificial river. I didn’t do this myself, but the rowboats certainly added to the charm of the place.


Beyond the bridges, attached to the building’s façade, are rows of elaborately decorated benches. Each of these is dedicated to a specific Spanish city, and has a famous historical event depicted in colorful marble on the back. The cities were arranged alphabetically, making the Plaza de España a true celebration of Spain and all its history.

“Let’s take a picture in front of one of these,” GF said.

“Fine,” I said, and began to sulk. For whatever reason, I loathe the idea of bothering strangers to take a picture of me. First, I think it’s a silly reason to interrupt someone else’s vacation; and second, I have this reoccurring fantasy that as soon as my phone is handed over, they’ll just bolt with it.

In any case, we asked an elderly couple to do the honors. This little interaction led to a conversation—during which I learned that they were Germans, and that the husband was very displeased with Spain’s upkeep of its monuments. “They don’t clean anything here,” he said, and then went on to comment on the abundance of “black money” (money kept off the books) to be found in the country. They were Germans, all right.


Our last stop was the Metropol Parasol. This is a gigantic wooden structure that looks like a bunch of mushrooms sticking out of the ground in downtown Seville. Indeed, in Spanish it is known as Las Setas de la Incarnación, “Incarnation’s mushrooms.” This structure, which boasts to be the largest wooden structure in the world—judging from this and its cathedral, Seville has a preoccupation with largeness, it seems—was designed by Jürgen Mayer, a German architect, in 2011.


After another line (the omnipresent plague of holiday-makers), a three-euro fare, and a ride in a snazzy elevator, we were up at the top of the thing. A twisty passageway led from the elevator to the main platform. The view here was excellent, nearly as fine as the view from the Giralda. The sun was just setting, lighting up the horizon in a faint carmine glow, while the rest of the overcast sky was a dull bluish gray hanging lazily above us. A nearby church tower split the view of the city into halves; and beyond we could see the cathedral, standing proudly over the city streets. And as I looked out over the city of Seville, I could not help feeling the faint tug of melancholy, for our wonderful weekend had come to a close.

Our trip ended at a restaurant on the Guadalquivir river, eating tapas and watching the ferries go by. The lights from the boats and the bridges shimmered off the water, making the ground and sky melt into one another. Our waiter happily welcomed us to our seats, and then promptly forgot us—which is so typical of Spanish waiters. I sat and sipped my wine, watching a couple of children play on the fences nearby—and this is also typical of Spain, where parents take their young kids out to bars at night. In short, everything was perfect. There is something special about Andalusia.

The Guadalquivir River, with the Torre de Oro (“Golden Tower”) in the center.

Christmastime in Andalusia: Málaga

Christmastime in Andalusia: Málaga

(Continued from my posts about Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Nerja, and Ronda.)

The day started with another problem. We had flights booked back to Madrid, but both of us had forgotten to bring our passports. Before seeing anything in Málaga, therefore, we had to take a trip to the airport (luckily, easily accessible on the metro) to find out whether we could fly using our Spanish ID cards. Long story short, we couldn’t, and it was too late to get a refund. Travel can be a humbling experience.

It was a shame to waste time like that, since this was our only day in Málaga.

Málaga is the second-largest city in Andalusia, after Seville, and the sixth-largest in Spain. Like Cádiz, the city’s origins lay far in the past, founded by Phoenicians thousands of years ago, making it among the oldest cities in the world. Carthaginians, Romans, and Muslims Berbers have all ruled the city in turn. Nowadays the place is bustling—with a busy port and a thriving economy. Yet like everywhere on the Costa del Sol, the core of the city is tourism.

Today was a good day for tourism. It was December 30th and the weather was perfect.

After arriving back to the center we ate quickly in a kebab place, and soon were headed to our first stop: the Alcazaba. This is an old citadel in the center of the city; and as its name suggests, it was built by the Moors. The city of Málaga, by the way, was among the last to fall to the Reconquista, being taken by the Catholic Monarchs in 1487 after a long siege, just five years before Granada, the last Moorish stronghold, fell.

Street art in Picasso’s birthplace

The fortress stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding streets—a collection of tan walls and towers. Below the fortress are the remains of an old Roman theater; and the fortress itself is built over a previous Roman fortification. Thus the layers of history accumulate.

We paid the small fee and went inside. Most of the walking was uphill (which didn’t make the döner kebab in my stomach sit any easier). The place was attractive for its gardens and its promenades rather than its architecture. It was a fortress and not a castle, after all, and so free of ornamentation.

We spent a pleasant hour wandering around its walls and gardens, enjoying the ubiquitous Andalusian fountains and streams that flowed all over the place. These tiny aqueducts, carrying water down stairwells, across walkways, and into fountains, might be the most distinctive sign of Andalusia. These are a sign of Andalusia’s Moorish legacy: it was the Muslims who introduced irrigation into the region, which forever transformed the landscape and permitted the growth of new crops. Practical considerations aside, water has a special symbolic significance in Islam—a religion which grew up in a region even drier than Andalusia. Running water gives everything a touch of paradise, especially in a climate this hot and dry.


Below the Alcazaba is the aforementioned Roman theater. You can walk inside and sit on the top steps for free. By now, with my stomach in open rebellion from the greasy food, it felt magnificent just to sit down for a few minutes. Immediately below us were the ruins of where the stage had been. On the street beyond, a performer was playing John Mayer on guitar.


John Mayer thus collided with Ancient Rome in my mind, making me feel even more queasy. This odd juxtaposition of ancient and new, elegant and tacky, timeless and transitory, is what characterizes all trips to historical places. Just when you are getting lost in reveries of the ancient past, the constant crush of tourists with selfie-sticks and the peddlers with their overpriced baubles insistently shock one back to the present day.

Daylight was already waning, but there was something more I wanted to see: the Castillo de Gilbralfaro. It was in this castle that, in 1487, the Moors held out in a famous three-month siege against the Catholic Monarchs. The castle stands on the same hill as the Alcazaba, but much higher up. This hill, by the way, has the same name as the castle, Gilbralfaro, and is one of the foothills of the Málaga Mountains.

To get up to the castle, we had to go up a steep walking path that zig-zagged its way to the top. We took half an hour to get there, with fairly frequent stops for two unathletic Americans to catch their breath. The views kept getting better, though, so we pressed on, until finally we reached the entrance and walked in.

As the guard informed us, we only had half an hour before the placed closed. We didn’t waste any time. At the first entrance to the castle walls, we climbed up and began walking. The view from up here was incredible. (In clear weather it is possible to see all the way to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Rif mountains in Morroco.) We could see for miles and miles—the harbor, the city, and the mountain range to the north. The castle walls went all around the perimeter, allowing us a 360 degree view.


After walking across one wall, entering a tower, and climbing some stairs, I found myself standing on the highest point of the fortification, absolutely alone. The whole city stretched out before me. I could see the ships at dock and the massive cranes used to load and unload them; two large freighters were sitting in the water offshore; thousands of white apartment and office buildings spread across the hilly terrain; and green mountains curved into the horizon. From up here, everything looked so precious and so delicate. The town, in particular, looked like a bunch of toys scattered across the landscape.

Night was falling. To our right, as we faced the Mediterranean, the setting sun turned the sky a vivid orange. We descended slowly down the hill, by now completely cured of the stress of the morning, once more under the enchanting aura of Andalusia. The weather was perfect, the sky was cloudless, and everybody around was laughing. And in this state of reverie, we headed for the beach.

By the time we arrived, the sun had sank completely below the horizon, leaving the world in twilight. We walked alongside the water, listening to the soft sound of the waves. It was dark and a bit chilly now, and only a few people were on the beach. We reached boardwalk, walked to the end, and sat down.

The last light was just leaving the horizon, painting the western sky purple and the skyline red. The shore, the city, and the harbor were outlined against the sky. The skeletal silhouettes of cranes hung over the water. A lighthouse began flashing its warning. The wind whipped up, chilling us through our light clothes and sending waves splashing.

It was time to eat dinner and go to sleep. We went back towards town. Dozens and dozens of shacks lined the road, selling fireworks, dolls, toys, knickknacks, incense, candy, and nativity figurines. It was a Christmas market. In Spain, you see, gifts are normally given on Epiphany, or Three Kings Day (in Spanish called Tres Reyes Magos), which falls on January 6. Thus Christmas season extends a lot further than December 25 here.

The sidewalk was crowded with Spaniards; kids were all over the place, some sparring with toy swords, some slumped in sleep in strollers. We reached the main avenue and turned towards town. A long arch of Christmas lights extended over the packed sidewalk.—the famous Malagueño Christmas lights. Suns and moons and stars studded the glowing canopy, which extended hundreds of feet down the avenue. More than anything I saw that vacation, this walkway, crowded with happy people, awoke in me that wonderful Christmas feeling—the feeling of naïve wonder and excitement, the magic feeling of childhood when the world was simple and good and everything was new.


Our trip had come to a close. We were taking a Blablacar back the next day. To celebrate, we ate at El Pimpi, a restaurant and winery that was recommended to us. The service was astonishingly attentive for a Spanish restaurant, the food was excellent, and I drank several pintados (which the waiter explained was half sweet wine and half dry sherry).

In the morning we woke up early, said goodbye to our hosts, and walked to the train station, Vialia, to meet our driver. Five hours later we stepped out of the car into the cold Madrid air. It was New Year’s Eve. That night we celebrated with some friends of ours. As is the custom in Spain, we ate twelve grapes as the clock ticked down towards New Year’s, making a wish for each grape. Everyone was celebrating, the world was reborn, and the future was bright.


Christmastime in Andalusia: Ronda

Christmastime in Andalusia: Ronda

(Continued from my posts about Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, and Nerja, and continued in my post about Málaga.)

The drive from Málaga to Ronda is one of the pleasantest in Spain. The countryside is exquisitely rustic, with sun-baked fields and tiny towns full of white houses. We took a Blablacar with a nice young woman, on her way to her pueblo nearby. Ronda is about 100 km west of Málaga, and the drive takes about an hour and a half.

(It is a common thing, by the way, for Spaniards to have a “pueblo.” This is the town, not necessarily where they were born or where they grew up, but where their family is from. Work is scarce in these small towns, however, and so many people move to cities to find jobs; yet family ties remain strong and weekend trips to visit parents and relatives in “the pueblo” are ubiquitous.)

We were dropped off in the center of Ronda, and began making our way to Ronda’s most famous landmark: El Puente Nuevo, or the New Bridge.

This bridge is eye-poppingly massive—a stone structure standing almost 400 feet (98 m) above the Guadalevín River. Indeed, the huge effort necessary to create a bridge of this size struck me as out of all proportion to the city of Ronda itself, which now is home to about 35,000 people. And I am doubly astounded when I consider that, as the name “New Bridge” suggests, there was already a bridge in Ronda: the Puente Romano—which, despite its name, was probably built by the Moors.


Looking down from the cliff at the towering structure, I wondered: How on earth was it built? Indeed it almost wasn’t. The bridge that stands today, built between 1751 and 1793, was the second attempt to span this chasm. The first attempt, constructed from 1735 to 1741 with a single arch, was built hastily and poorly, and soon collapsed—resulting in the deaths of 50 people. The bridge which stands now, designed by José Martín de Aldehuela, is not only strong but beautiful—its graceful form tying the whole landscape together.

After we had taken our fill of photos, we began to walk around the promenade overlooking the cliff. The view of the countryside was, if possible, even lovelier than the bridge itself. A vast green field was divided into neat patches, some brown, some with rows of bushy plants. Here and there was a farm, looking like doll houses from so far away. And beyond was a patch of forest, which led to the sierra in the distance, the morning fog still sitting on the peaks. On a dirt road a pickup truck was making its way to who-knows-where, throwing up a tiny cloud of dust. Ronda_Countryside

To our left we could see a path leading down into the gorge below. It looked like too much fun to resist. We crossed the bridge, found the path, and soon were carefully edging our way down. The path forked several times, and each time we chose the one that led towards the bridge. At times it was quite steep and slippery, so we proceeded slowly for fear of falling.

We were getting close to the bridge now; it loomed overhead like a skyscraper. The white noise of the waterfall below turned into a steady roar.

After walking down a hazardous rocky path, made slippery by the atmospheric spray of water, we came upon a little shack. It was visibly run-down, obviously hadn’t been used in years. We took a peek inside. It wasn’t terribly interesting: full of old leaves, beer cans, and other garbage. On the walls, above a little hole in the floor, was spray-painted the ominous message: “It’s easy to descend into hell.”

“Wanna go down there?” I asked GF.

“No way.”

“Good idea.”

We turned around and began again to approach to the bridge. In fact, the path went right under it. A staircase that bounced too much to inspire confidence led down to a concrete pathway with a wobbly iron railing that went straight through to the other side. We passed underneath the bridge, and then under some impressively huge boulders sitting at the base of the bridge. Now we were standing between the two cliffs, which stretched hundreds of feet up above. Everything was quiet here.

Though it was broad daylight, and though we were following a public path, we felt like we were sneaking into a place we shouldn’t be. This impression of trespassing was reinforced after we found ourselves in a small working area. There was a concrete hut, empty on the inside, with plants growing on the roof; clearly it hadn’t been used in years. Nearby were all sorts of metal devices—a trough, a wheel used to raise and lower a barrier, and other things I didn’t understand—laying apparently unused and rusted. The place had that sort of eerie, post-apocalyptic feel that all abandoned places have.


After taking in the scene we started trekking back up. The steep ascent didn’t feel good on my knees, I can tell you.

By now we’d had our fill of the bridge. I knew of only one other thing to see in Ronda: the Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. Built from 1779 to 1785, and designed by the same architect who designed the New Bridge, this is the oldest bull ring in Spain. Every year the Corrida goyesca takes place here—a traditional bullfight performed in historical costumes. For most of the year, however, it is a museum—of bullfighting and more.


I had never seen a bullring before, so I had nothing to compare it with. But it was quite pretty. Martín de Aldehuela designed the ring in a harmonious neo-classical style. Two floors of seats, four rows each, surround a circular area filled with sand. I stood in the center and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be a matador, how absolutely terrified I would be if I was facing a bull, only armed with a cape and a little sword.

The little museum on the inside is about the history of bullfighting and other violent European pursuits, such as hunting and dueling. Most memorable for me were several pairs of ornate dueling pistols, in lush velvet cases, alongside plaques that explained which famous persons had used these weapons on one another. For my part, I cannot imagine any situation in which I would let somebody fire a loaded pistol at me purely for the sake of honor. As the honorable Falstaff said:

Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honour”? Air.

I can’t help feeling that bullfighters would disagree.

After we spent enough time in the museum to get our money’s worth—staring at the rifles and pistols, the elaborate costumes for men and horses on display, and perusing the old bullfighting posters advertising bygone shows—we made our way to the gift shop, where I found a copy of Death in the Afternoon. This is Hemingway’s book on bullfighting, which I would recommend to anyone at all curious about the bloody art.

Hemingway, for his part, was very fond of Ronda. In that book, he says:

[Ronda] is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with any one. The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is romantic background and there is an hotel there that is so comfortable, so well run and where you eat so well and usually have a cool breeze at night that, with the romantic background and the modern comfort, if a honeymoon or elopement is not a success in Ronda it would be as well to start for Paris and both commence making your own friends.

Ronda has repaid the compliment by naming a street after Hemingway.


When we left the bullring, it was already time to go back to Málaga. We began to make our way up narrow cobblestone streets, back towards the train station where we would meet our ride. My shoes—cheap sneakers I bought here—have thin soles, so I could feel every stone sticking out from the pavement. Our footsteps made that distinctive thud that footsteps make in quiet, narrow, stone-paved Spanish streets.

Eventually we reached the main road, got to the station, and were again driving through the Spanish countryside. We had only one day left before our trip was over.

Christmastime in Andalusia: Nerja

Christmastime in Andalusia: Nerja

(Continued from my posts about Jerez de la Frontera and Cádiz, and continued in my posts about Ronda and Málaga.)

Our next Airbnb was in Málaga. The Blablacar driver for our ride was a nice fellow from Cádiz. His accent, however, was absolutely incomprehensible to us. He spoke like a jackhammer, and made about as much sense. I have heard from people here in Madrid (who are obviously biased) that the people of Cádiz have the worst accents in all of Spain; even native Spaniards have trouble understanding it. He might as well have been speaking another language.

At least we could understand the radio, however, since it was in English. Málaga, you see, has become something of a getaway home for retired English people—England’s Florida, you might say. This expatriate community has created its own little England in the province. Radio stations, advertisements, store names—English is all over the place. You can even find bars that serve fish and chips and warm beer.

(Subsequent experience only confirms this. I came back to the Málaga a year later to stay with a relative in the outskirts of the city. One day, while walking around the neighborhood of my cousin’s rented house, I noticed that all of the “Beware of Dog!” signs on the houses were either in English or in German (Vorsicht vor dem Hund!), but none were in Spanish.)

And this is not to mention the huge numbers of tourists who come here, usually from colder climes, to enjoy the famous Costa del Sol—the series of beach towns on the south of the Peninsula, perpetually sunny and beautiful. We had come to see one of these beach downs: Nerja.

Nerja is about 50 km east of Málaga. The bus leaves from Vialia, the central transportation hub in the city for both buses and trains, and the ride takes about an hour. We arrived not knowing what to expect. The only reason we went was because a friend had recommended going.

Thus we were surprised, after walking from the bus stop through town, to find ourselves standing in a plaza filled with restaurants and people, which sat on a big rock overlooking the sea. This is the famed Balcón de Europea. The view was incredible. In front was the Mediterranean, a bright aquamarine; and flanking the plaza, far below us, were small beaches. Foamy waves washed the sand where kids were playing in the water. Over these beaches, white houses and hotels clung to the cliffs, every window open to the ocean breeze. It could not have looked more like a tropical paradise.


We climbed down some stairs from the plaza to the white beach, which was hemmed in by rock formations on either side. Whole families were sunning themselves on the sand; brightly colored canoes were sitting near a little hut; and a father was playing with his daughters in the gentle waves. I can see why so many tourists come here.


After we got our fill of sun and sand we climbed the stairs again and ate. We had only one thing we particularly wanted to see in Nerja: the caves.

The Caves of Nerja were discovered as recently as 1959, accidentally stumbled upon by five friends. Since then they have become a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately for us, the caves aren’t in the town center; they’re about an hour away by foot.

A lot of this journey was, unsurprisingly, pretty dull; though there were some neat things to see along the way. We passed restaurants, houses, farmlands, bridges, with the Mediterranean constantly on our right. Eventually we came to the Aqueduct of Nerja, which looks like a Roman Aqueduct, more or less, but was actually built in the 1800s for the industrial revolution. It’s a fine piece of architecture, with four rows of arches built of red brick; and it’s still in use.


We arrived at the caves, both of us quite tired, paid the entrance fee, and descended into the bowels of the earth. These caves, which began to form about five million years ago, were in continuous use by humans from the Ice Age until a few thousand years ago. Paintings have been discovered on the cave, though you can’t visit them, and in 2012 it was announced that some paintings were possibly made by Neanderthals—which would make them unique.

After walking through a series of small chambers, we walked into one of the big ones.

It was stunning. I had no idea these caves were so huge. Standing at the bottom of one of the big chambers was like standing in a basilica looking up at the roof. Years of seeping water and liquid erosion has left the cave full of stalactites and stalagmites; every surface looks melted, as if the rock of the cave were chocolate left out too long in the sun. How many years of water drip, drip, dripping must it have taken for these bubbling, flowing textures to have arisen in solid stone? You can’t wrap your mind around it.



And the caves kept going, every chamber more impressive than the next. In the last and biggest there was a tremendous pillar, extending from the floor to the ceiling like a column in a cathedral. Indeed, the elaborate patterns in the rock reminded me very much of gothic ornamentation. And is it a coincidence that our most sacred spaces reproduce dark, stony, shadowy interiors such as this?

Think of the early humans, thousands of years ago, who took refuge in these natural shelters seeking protection from predators and the elements. What were their thoughts as they sat here in the darkness? What did they talk about? How did they pass the idle hours? Did this place, so grand and so inhumanly vast—a place of safety but also of mystery—excite the first religious stirrings in our ancestors? Standing in that cave, it must have seemed obvious that there were forces far more powerful than humans and animals shaping the earth.

After an hour, we were blinking in the daylight. Tired and thirsty, we still had the long walk back from the caves to Nerja, to catch the bus back to Málaga. So we bought bottles of water and set out, too tired to talk even if we had anything to say. The clouds closed in, evening fell, and the sun was setting in the distance when we reached the station. Both of us fell asleep almost immediately after we sat down on the bus. We had to rest: we had another trip the next day.

Christmastime in Andalusia: Cádiz

Christmastime in Andalusia: Cádiz

(This post is continued from my post about Jerez de la Frontera, and continued in my posts about Nerja, Ronda, and Málaga.)

As usual, the trip began with a problem. Trying to act with foresight, we bought train tickets the day before. But, as our host told us later that night, the tickets are only good for one day. Ours were expired. So we had to try to convince the train official to change our tickets, and do this with our halting Spanish.

The morning was thus off to a stressful start. We both had that sort of irritable cabin-fever you get when you spend day after day with somebody in a foreign country; every word we exchanged was peevish bickering. Things ran pretty smoothly, though. The man at the ticket office was very nice and understanding; it took him only a couple minutes to change our tickets.

Soon the train came and we were off. The ride from Jerez to Cádiz is gorgeous. We went through grassy wetlands; on either side of us we could see fields half-flooded with water, with irrigation ditches dug through them in a grid-shaped pattern. What crops are grown here? Outside the window I could see the aquamarine blue of the ocean, sparkling in the Andalusian sunlight like a sapphire.

We arrived. My first impression—and impression that gained in force throughout my stay—was that Cádiz is painfully pretty. I think it’s the prettiest city I have ever seen. The old city center sits on a peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. The narrow streets—lined with pink, yellow, and skyblue buildings—lead you through the interior; and every few blocks you come across a little plaza, with sidewalks tiled in black and white, and tropical trees I can’t hope to name. Eventually you reach the water, lightly lapping the rocky shoreline, which is so bright and blue it looks like it has been dyed.


Cádiz is the oldest continuously populated cities in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians back around 1,000 BCE. It might even be the oldest in all of Western Europe. By the time Herodotus mentioned it in the fifth century BCE, the city was already hundreds of years old. This continuous occupation is no doubt due to the city’s fine port, though nowadays the beaches are more for tourists than traders and explorers.

We got to the shore and strolled. The scene was so intensely pretty that I felt simultaneously ecstatic and relaxed. A sublime cheerfulness flooded my senses. GF had a list of things to see and do here, but now I couldn’t believe anything could be better than the city itself.

We passed a church painted with pastel pink, built in a colonial style, and kept going. Eventually we reached a park, El Parque Genovés. A long promenade cut through the center, each side lined with ferns shaped into spirals and cylinders. Big, twisting, knotty trees, covered in rubbery broad leaves, jutted from the ground, their trunks exploding in multiple directions. Trees even more bizarre bid us farewell as we left—one with a bulbous, almost cucumber-like trunk; and another that looked like it had been turned upside-down.


We turned another corner, and now the prettiness started to sting my eyes. Directly before us was a bay, filled with little white row-boats, floating idly in the calm, sparkling waters. To our left was an old fortress, the Castle of Santa Catalina—a squat, square structure built of tan stones, standing over the water. And to our right was the beach, the Playa de La Caleta, nearly empty. The scraggly heads of palm trees dotted the shoreline, and a boardwalk extended into the ocean beyond.


I could not pull myself away; so we sat in the nearest café and decided to have lunch. I sipped a glass of sherry as I attempted to burn the view into my memory. The white boats and buildings, the yellow-brown sand and tiled walkway, the ocean breeze and the slightly sweet taste of sherry—I was enamored and intoxicated. It was one of those views that look immediately familiar because they are so classically picturesque.

Indeed, as it turns out I had seen this view before. It is the where a beach scene in the James Bond movie Die Another Day was filmed. In that movie, the beach is supposed to be in Cuba—which explains why I was immediately reminded of Cuba, although I have never been there. It’s funny how our memories work.

After lunch we went straight for the beach, stumbling over the sand in a kind of bewildered, euphoric daze. Only a few other people were there, most of them sitting on the sand and looked out towards the ocean. At the end of the beach was a boardwalk, leading towards a big structure sticking out a few hundred feet into the water. This is the counterpart fortress of the Castle of Santa Catalina on the beach’s right side: the Castillo de San Sebastián. 

“Oh, this was on my list,” GF said. “It’s a castle or something.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

The Castle of San Sebastián is connected to the mainland by a narrow walkway, only wide enough for two people abreast. When we were midway across the wind started to whip up; the waves were no longer gentle, but angry. They splashed against the platform, spraying foam onto the walkway and covering my glasses in salty droplets. The wind accelerated every few seconds, turning our clothes into balloons and making our hair dance wildly.

The further out we crept, the more of Cádiz we could see behind us. The city was no longer the pretty jewel it had been one moment ago, but a bold bulwark against the brooding power of the sea.

We reached the castle. This was built in 1706 to complement the Castile of Santa Catalina on the other end of the beach. Before the castle was built a hermitage stood on this island, where sailors recovering from the bubonic plague could be isolated. Nowadays the fortress is in a dilapidated state, consisting mainly of ruins and rubble; in any case it is mostly a collection of stone walls, never meant to be pretty. But the view from the tip of the island was splendid, allowing you to see the whole coast of Cádiz and far beyond. Yet it was really the ocean that captivated me. The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt, and the feeling of the cool breeze chilling you to the bone.

We still had much to see. Our next stop was the cathedral. It isn’t very far off. The cathedral’s tall form towers over a row of apartment buildings. These buildings are painted in creamy colors; and the view of the marble cathedral looming above them is one of Cádiz’s distinctive views. Our road ran right along the sea; and to my right, separating the sidewalk from the ocean, was the breackwater: a pile of giant, perfectly cubic stones.


We reached the cathedral and went inside. Everything was smooth lines, rounded forms, and clean white marble. This was neoclassical—elegant and symmetrical. According to the audioguide, this cathedral was built when Cádiz began to profit enormously from Spain’s trade with her colonies in America. Thus this grand edifice resulted. By contrast with gothic cathedrals I had seen, this one looked more like a celebration of human reason than divine might. Its even proportions, its emphasis on balance, its ghostly white marble columns, all this reminds one more of a mathematical theorem made manifest rather than a vengeful deity who sits in judgment.


If you visit this cathedral, make sure to go to the crypt in the basement. There isn’t much to see, but the central chamber has really astounding acoustics. Stand in the right place, and even a whisper will be magnified into an omnipresent hiss. And the sounds of your footsteps bounce from the roof to the floor like a rubber bouncy ball sped up fifty times.

Next stop was the Torre Tavira, an old tower from the city’s golden age of trade. At first I thought it would be a scam—pay a few to climb a lot of stairs. But it turned out to be perhaps the best thing we did in Cádiz. The view from the top is worth the money, as it is probably the most impressive in the city. But the best part of the visit commenced when we were led by the guide to the cámara oscura. This is a very old and very simple device, consisting of a dark chamber with an angled mirror with a small opening. Light enters the aperture and is reflected by the mirror to a surface, where the image shows like a projector.

Our tour guide led us into the room, had us encircle the disc-shaped projecting surface, and dimmed the lights. The show began. Light poured in through the camara obscura above us, created a perfect image of the city on the disc. This image was magnified quite a bit; and by turning the mirror overhead the guide could focus on different areas of the city. Going on this way, we explored the city in every direction, our guide pointing out the notable buildings and briefly explaining their history.

The show ended and we went downstairs. By now I was exhausted. Being continually astonished really takes a lot out of you. I didn’t have the energy to gape at anything else. Besides, it was getting dark by now, and we had to get to our next stop. So we pulled ourselves away from this city, walked to the train, and returned to our Airbnb. Please, if you get the chance, visit Cádiz. It’s a jewel.

Christmastime in Andalusia: Jerez de la Frontera

Christmastime in Andalusia: Jerez de la Frontera

(Continued in my posts about Cádiz, Nerja, Ronda, and Málaga.)

The Voyage

On December 24, Christmas Eve—or Noche Buena (“Good Night”) as the Spanish call it—in the year 2015, at an egregious hour in the morning, we met up with a couple of guys that we had contacted through Blablacar to make the drive down to Jerez de la Frontera.

They were both extremely nice, agreeable fellows; but I’m afraid they had Andalusian accents and I could hardly understand them.

The people of Andalusia, you see, have something of a reputation. Their accent is distinctive and difficult for outsiders to understand. They speak in a rapid staccato, spitting out the words like a machine gun. Unlike in most of Spain, Andalusians do not pronounce c’s or z’s like “th” (often mocked, incorrectly, as the “Spanish lisp”); and instead pronounce all soft c’s and z’s like an “s,” as they do in Latin America. For most people this would not be a problem; but since I’m only used to Castillian Spanish this confuses me.

What is more, Andalusians drop the terminal “s” wherever it appears: tres becomes tregracias becomes gracia, and so on. To top it off, the consonants separating two ending vowels are also dropped, and the vowels are blended together into a dipthong: complicado becomes complicao. With all these factors taken together, the final result is, for me, an indistinct slur of sound that never resolves itself into separate words.

In sum, I could not understand them. So I slept; and GF slept; and we woke up and then fell asleep again.

The countryside of Andalucía, normally so flat and treeless that you can see for miles, was shrouded in a mysterious and impenetrable wall of fog. Apparently, mornings in the south of Spain are typically foggy, which I find odd considering how absolutely sunny and cloudless are the days.

But I had traveled this road before, when I went to Seville. So even though I couldn’t see much, memories flew by the window instead.

There are castles, I recalled: mostly run-down and in ruins, dotting the countryside; we must have passed five or six. Then there are the great, big, black silhouettes of bulls, which stood here and there, sometimes next to the highway and sometimes on a hillside beyond. These are the Osborne Bulls: signs that were originally set up as advertisements for Osborne brand sherry. Despite this prosaic commercial origin, they have since become something of a symbol for Spain, and you can find them on everything from T-shirts to book jackets to postcards.


I also remembered the livestock. The Spanish countryside has a rugged, rural, pastoral charm that I did not expect to find in an industrialized country. In what look like wild fields along the highways you can see cows grazing, sheep huddling in herds, and horses bathing their shiny coats in the sun. No human can be seen watching over them; not a fence is in sight—except perhaps and old, derelict stone barrier that looks short enough to hop over.

Then I thought of the wind turbines—those gigantic white towers, their blades meditatively spinning in the breeze—and the solar panels, glistening like the future itself in the sun. These new technologies served to break the spell of the castles and the wandering livestock, snapping you back to the twenty-first century. But they also showed a wonderful continuity; people still made their living here, and were still doing their best to achieve harmony with their environment.

But the castles and the bulls and the horses and the turbines were nowhere to be seen this morning; just the grey fog, the clouds overhead, and the few feet of road in front of us. I was having trouble staying awake, and still more trouble staying asleep. So I drifted in that unpleasant, cramped, confusing, groggy twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness, my neck hurting, my knees in pain, my eyelids feeling as though a gigantic weight had been placed upon them.

But then we arrived. Our driver, very kindly, drove us right up to the door of our Airbnb, and soon we found ourselves in Jerez de la Frontera, blinking in the familiar bright of the Andalusian sun, our bags sitting on the sidewalk, both of us tired and dazed, pressing the buzzer to get in.

Jerez de la Frontera

Our hosts were just as kind and friendly and welcoming as our driver had been. One of them, the husband, was a professor of Spanish and French from Switzerland; and his wife was a wonderful woman from Peru. They were hospitality incarnate; they gave us a tour of the neighborhood, told us about the bus schedule, provided us information about all the things to do and see in Jerez, and in general answered every question we had. Not only this, but they had the patience of saints with our halting, slow, mistake-ridden Spanish.

Soon we were on the bus, heading towards town. We arrived at 3:30 in Jerez de la Frontera, on Christmas Eve. The restaurants were jam-packed, the streets filled with so many people eating, drinking, and talking that there weren’t nearly enough chairs, so most people had to stand—not that anybody seemed to care. On Christmas Eve, apparently, the entire town celebrates by having an after-lunch drink.

With more hope than foresight, we thought we could visit some of the main sights of Jerez. First, we tried the Alcázar, a Moorish castle in the center of town. It was closed. Then we tried the cathedral. Closed. After that, we walked to a bodega (winery), to taste some famous sherry. (Jerez de la Frontera is the birthplace of sherry wine.) They were all closed, too. It was Christmastime in Andalusia, and the only places open were the restaurants.

So we walked around, somewhat aimlessly, feeling lost and out of place. What were we doing here? This was the holidays, a time for family, and here we were, just the two of us, alone in a strange city with nothing to do. After two hours of wandering, we decided we might as well eat, and sat down at the first restaurant we could find.

Two tables over an entire extended family was gathered together. They were playing flamenco. Three boys were strumming on guitars, others were stomping and clapping, and they were singing in unison, the women an octave higher than the men. It wasn’t professional by any means, but it was fun and exciting. As we sat outside in temperate sun, listening to this family play flamenco—not because they were being paid, but to celebrate the holiday—the day suddenly became ineffably romantic.

We sat at that restaurant as long as we could before they kicked us out—which was at about 5 o’clock. Then we walked back to the Airbnb.

It did not feel like Christmas Eve. We spoke with our families through Skype, but this only served to remind us of what we were missing. The loneliness was easy to forget during the day, when surrounded by crowds, overhearing small-talk, exchanging pleasantries with waiters. But as the sun went down and the shops began to close and the people retreated indoors to be with their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, we could not forget that we were not at home; that on another side of the globe, our own families were celebrating without us; and that instead of being surrounded by familiar faces, we were surrounded by faces entirely new, and even strange.

And with these thoughts, we went to sleep.


Christmas morning.

We got out of bed and went downstairs. Sadly, there weren’t any presents waiting for us, not even a tree; but there was breakfast. It was simple and delicious: bread, yogurt, fresh fruit, and Spanish ham. Even though our goodly hosts had eaten several hours before, they had sat at the table with us just to talk. As I sat there, I realized how odd it was to be staying at the house of a stranger—or, at least, someone we’d just met—during Christmas. It felt somehow intrusive and indecent. But then I remembered that our hosts were immigrants, too, and all their family was elsewhere as well. This made me feel a bit more at home.

We were off to town again, though we hardly knew what for. Just like yesterday, everything was closed; and today, not even the restaurants were busy. This time we didn’t even try to see anything. We sat down at a restaurant, ordered some food, and relaxed. I must admit, though, that I was getting a bit cranky by this point. Not only had I missed Christmas, but for what?

I calmed down a bit after I pulled out my book to read. I read and read, looking up now and again to observe people strolling by, kids playing, grandparents chiding, young couples chitchatting—and the day passed like this. I began to feel calm and happy. There is something strangely intoxicating about Andalusia. I don’t know quite what it is. A big part is just the weather. The sun is so bright that it’s hypnotic. The intense light is just so constantly present; it transforms everything, making colors brighter, laughter louder, people friendlier.

Then again, the people really are friendlier in Andalusia. Here the social instinct of the Spanish is expressed most fully. In New York, there are crowds, of course; but the crowds are always crowds of individuals thrown together more or less by accident, by force of circumstance. But the Andalusians, as I witnessed on Christmas Eve, congregate purposefully and joyfully—taking pleasure in the feeling of togetherness and camaraderie and excitement that good crowds generate.

The day wore on, and nothing much happened. I looked around the square; there wasn’t much to see. A cone-shaped, plastic Christmas light sat in the center. Beside that was a civic statue of someone riding a horse, surrounded by fountains and flowers. Palm trees were lightly swaying in the breeze. At another table, an elderly British woman was yelling at her dog every time it barked; but the dog didn’t seem to care, and kept on barking at every passerby.

Behind me some kids were riding around on a toy car ride that played cheesy music as it went by. Later, another group of kids were amusing themselves by exploding firecrackers in the middle of the plaza. These firecrackers were astoundingly loud, sounding like gunshots. I nearly jumped out of my seat the first time one went off. I’m still surprised that the kids’ parents, who were sitting nearby, didn’t mind their six and seven-year-olds playing with such powerful explosives. American parents would sooner let their kids eat gluten and get vaccinated.

We sat there four solid hours, until the sun began to set behind the restaurant, casting the square in shadow. Without the sun, I began to feel colder and more lonely. So we left. The walk back took us through several strip malls, all completely vacant. Although the sun was still out we could see the moon. It was full and seemed much bigger and closer than usual. Behind us the sun was setting, turning the sky a bright storybook pink and orange. By the time we reached the Airbnb, all was dark.

Everything was closed, even the supermarkets. What would we eat? Our hosts came to the rescue. In their freezer, they had cooked, seasoned pork chops ready to heat up, along with rice, potatoes, and salad. It was fantastic. We sat around the table, talking some more—the kind of supremely pleasant small-talk that is both interesting and easygoing, the kind that engages the mind enough to keep your attention but not so much to get you flustered.

We ate; we slept. Tomorrow we were leaving, so we only had the first part of the day to explore. Thus, even though I spent three days in Jerez, the time lost to Christmas closures resulted in only a half-day to visit the sites.


Jerez de la Frontera, translated literally into English, means “Sherry of the Border.” Indeed the English word “sherry” is an anglicization of “Xeres,” the antique name for this town. For it is here that the famous fortified wine originated. Situated just 7 miles (12 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Jerez enjoys a mixture of humidity and heat that has proven ideal for its trademark wine. This sprawling city has overtaken Cádiz, the regional capital, as the region’s most populous city; and apart from its wine it is know for being the home of the Grand Prix motorcycle race.

A statue of Manuel Críspulo González y Soto, founder of Tío Pepe sherry, with the cathedral in the background

Our first stop was the Alcázar of Jerez. The word “alcázar” comes from the Arabic word for “fortress,” and many cities in Spain have one: Córdoba, Segovia, Toledo.

This alcázar is located right in the center of town, surrounded on all sides by pretty plazas filled with orange trees. Today this area was also filled with people. The locals were holding a market around the old fortress—a flea market, more precisely. Tables and tables were filled with all sorts of delightful rubbish, old plastic toys, dusty books with broken spines, varieties of colorful knickknacks, tiny statuettes for nativity scenes, and much else. We wandered through the crowd as we looked for the entrance, passing around the entire building before we finally found it.

The Alcázar of Jerez is a compound surrounded on all sides by a high wall. It was originally built when Jerez was a small Taifa kingdom during the Moorish period. Many of the internal structures—likely built of wood and therefore perishable—have disappeared, and a garden now occupies the center of the fortress.


An old Mosque, the only one that wasn’t destroyed by the conquering Christians, still stands (though I couldn’t identify it); and you can walk inside an old Moorish bath with its roof pierced with star-shaped holes. Also standing is the oven and the machinery that the Christian used to make their pottery. Yet the best part of the visit was just the opportunity to stand on the walls and see the whole city spread out before us.

After this we went across the plaza to see the city’s cathedral. The Jerez Cathedral is comparatively small. Indeed it wasn’t originally built as a cathedral, but as a church, and was only elevated to that status in 1980. Stylistically speaking, the building is eclectic: gothic flying buttresses were fixed to neoclassical columns. We walked in the door, excited to explore the interior, but stopped in our tracks. They were having a service.

The whole place was packed, every pew totally filled. At the altar, several white-robed priests were gathered. One of them was speaking through a microphone, his old, tired voice projected throughout the cavernous space. He sighed rather than preached, seeming to exhale the words with minimal emphasis. Meanwhile, his proclamations were punctuated by the cadences of an organ, going from the dominant to the tonic minor chord. This might have been the first time in my life that I’ve heard an organ in a cathedral. The sound was duly impressive. But more interesting were the musical interludes provided by a group of flamenco singers and guitar players. Yes, here in Jerez they even have flamenco in their church services. It sounded absolutely great in that old building, and provided a welcome contrast to the old gentleman’s fatiguing voice.

“You gonna put that in your blog?” GF asked as we walked out.

“Of course,” I said. “I put everything in my blog.”

This was the end of our time in Jerez. We had to eat lunch, pick up our luggage, and catch a train to our next stop. I still regret that we didn’t get to visit one of the town’s famous sherry wineries. I suppose I’ll just have to come back.

Review: Poet in New York

Review: Poet in New York

Poet in New York: A Bilingual EditionPoet in New York: A Bilingual Edition by Federico García Lorca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to cry because I feel like it
as the boys in the back row cry,
because I am not a man nor a poet nor a leaf
but a wounded pulse that probes the things of the other side.

Poetry is an odd thing. You notice this when you encounter poetry in a second language. This happened to me a few weeks ago, when I went to a poetry reading in Madrid. There were four or five poets there, some of them fairly well-known, with a crowd of hushed listeners hanging on their every word. Meanwhile, with my very imperfect Spanish, I was only able to catch bits of phrases and scattered words that added up to nothing.

“Look, I can be a poet,” I said to a friend after the show: “A cow is a moon, / a moon is a balloon.” That’s really how it sounded to me.

In a way, this isn’t surprising, of course; but it got me thinking how strange a thing is poetry. We string phrases together that, interpreted literally, are either false, absurd, meaningless, or banal; and yet somehow, when the poetry works, these phrases open up subtle emotional reactions in their listeners. Why is it that a certain phrase seems just right, inexhaustibly expressive and unutterably perfect, while a similar phrase may be dead on arrival, impotent, sterile, and maybe even unpleasant? Bad poetry, indeed, can be excruciating and embarrassing to witness, perhaps because it is in bad poetry that the essential strangeness of the act of poetry is most acutely manifest. We feel that this whole thing is silly—trying to make portentous sounding phrases that signify close to nothing. And yet the genuine article, once witnessed, is undeniable.

I usually group poetry along with novels and short stories, as literature; but lately I think that poetry may be closer to another art form: dance. Dance is distinct from every other kind of movement—from walking to golf to sign language—in that it is not oriented towards any external goal. That is, the movement itself is the goal; the point is to move, and to move well. In poetry, too, our words—which normally point us towards the world, if only to an imaginary or a hypothetical world—are stripped as much as possible of their normal denoting function; the point becomes, rather, the pure manipulation of diction and grammar, in much the same way that, in dance, the point becomes the pure movement of limb and trunk.

This is a healthy thing, I think, since in life we can get so preoccupied with the attainment of a goal that we become blind to everything that does not advance our progress towards our object. A coach of a football team, for example, is only concerned with how well his players’ actions increase the likelihood of winning; and likewise, normally when we use language, we are using it to accomplish something specific, from ordering pizza to chiding children. Dance and poetry, by stripping away the intentionality of the act, reveal the subtle beauty in the activity itself, allowing us to slow down, to appreciate the rhythm of a word or the gentle flexion of an arm.

I must hasten to add that this description of poetry and dance does not apply equally to all examples. Alexander Pope’s poetry approaches very nearly to prose in its use of denotation; and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is on the other side of the spectrum. A similar spectrum applies in the case of dance, I suppose.

Federico García Lorca’s poetry is much closer to Eliot’s in this regard, perhaps even further along in its tendency towards connotation. This makes his poetry doubly hard for a foreigner like me to appreciate, since the specific emotional flavors of his words are bland in my mouth. As a young man Lorca lived in the famous Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where he became close friends with Dalí. The two exerted a mutual influence on each other, both moving towards the surrealism that was becoming trendy in the art world.

Lorca wrote this book many years later, during and after his visit to New York City in 1929-30, during which he witnessed the Stock Market Crash. Economic depression or not, however, the inhuman vastness of the city, the crowds and concrete, the money-obsessed workers and the poor and the homeless, the racial discrimination and the absence of nature, seems to have made a deep impression on the rural Andalusian poet. These poems are his anguished response to this experience.

Lorca’s poetry is surreal in the textbook sense that he uses a succession of vivid, concrete images that, taken together, add up to something nebulous and unreal. Much like Dalí, Lorca has a talent for creating bizarre images that nevertheless manage to be emotionally compelling. Opening the collection more or less at random I find:

All is broken in the night,
its legs spread wide over the terraces.
All is broken in the warm pipes
of a terrible, silent fountain.

Admittedly it does take some time to find the odd beauty in the apparently random, unconnected pictures. My first instinct was to read them like metaphors; but if Lorca did indeed have something specific in mind that he was trying to allegorize, the allegories are much too complicated and disjointed to be deciphered. Rather, I think these poems must be read simply for the beauty of the language, the striking collisions of words, the flashes of light and the rumblings of sound. The poems seem to capture nothing more nor less than an emotional mood—different shades of desolation—that presents itself to the conscious mind in a kind of personal mythology, as in a dream. Dalí was deeply influenced by Freud during his stay in the student residence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lorca was too.

Even if it is difficult to articulate the structure and meaning of Lorca’s image-world, it is certainly not random. Certain words and images come up again and again, as in a dream sequence, being shuffled and re-shuffled throughout the collection. Some of these words are oil, ant, worm, thigh, moon, void, footprint, hollow, glass, night, wounded, agony, sky, cracked, death, coffin, iron… The ultimate effect of these words, recombined again and again, is cumulative; they create echoes of themselves in the reader’s mind, calling up half-remembered associations from other poems, creating an emotional coherence in the literally incoherent text.

Look at concrete shapes seeking their void.
Mistaken dogs and bitten apples.
Look at the longing, the anguish of a sad fossil world
that cannot find the accent of its first sob.

The emotional resonance of the words themselves is also important, something that is unfortunately lost in translation. For example, the word for “oil,” aceite, has an interesting blend of comforting familiarity and a tint of the exotic. I think this is because the word originally comes from Arabic, and maintains a certain foreign flavor, even as it denotes something absolutely integral to the Spanish culture: olive oil, which is used in everything. The word also brings up the rolling olive fields, stumpy trees on sandy soil, that fill Lorca’s Andalucía; and this again calls to mind the age-old farming tradition, the intimate connection with the land, totally absent in New York City. There is also the double association of oil as integral to cooking and as something potentially toxic and polluting. A native Spaniard will likely disagree with this chain of associations, but I think the word is undeniably resonant.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think I can articulate exactly why the text of these poems is gripping, in the same way that I cannot articulate exactly why I find some dancers compelling and others not. You cannot learn anything about New York City from these poems, and arguably you can’t learn very much about Lorca, either. I’m not even sure that the cliché is correct, that these poems can “teach you about yourself.” Maybe they don’t teach anything except how to feel as Lorca felt. I don’t think that’s a problem, though, since the point of reading is not always to learn about something, just as the point of moving isn’t always to get somewhere. Sometimes we read simply for the pleasure of the text.

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Review: South from Granada

South From GranadaSouth From Granada by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All I have aimed at is to entertain a few armchair travellers, who may enjoy whiling away a rainy night in reading of how people live in remote mountain villages in the serene climate of the South Mediterranean.

This book left me cold. I didn’t expect this. Early on in the book, Brenan tells us how he used to sit under an orange tree in Andalusia, reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Shortly thereafter, he moves into a little town in the Alpujarras and brings along with him hundreds of books, with the intention of educating himself. It is hard for me to think of a more promising start to a memoir. But as I turned the last page, I felt only relief that the book was over and I could move on.

Perhaps this coldness is due to the long gap between Brenan’s stay there and his writing of this book. South From Granada is an account of Brenan’s time living in Yegen, a small town in Andalusia, in the years between 1920 and 1934. The book was written about twenty years later, and published 1957. The intervening time seems to have dulled Brenan’s memories or taken some of the tang out of his experience, for I found many of the descriptions of Yegen in this book underwhelming bordering on soporific. And this, despite all of the things this book has going for it: skillful prose, an interesting story, as well as cameos from Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. What went wrong?

Even though Brenan spent an awful lot of time in this village, I got the impression that he didn’t get to know most of the people all that well. His fullest portraits in this book are of his landlord, his servant, a drunken Scottish person who lived a few miles away, and his friends who came to visit him. Maybe he spent most of his time reading? (He mentions at one point that he was reading all twelve volumes of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.) Much of the rest of the book is given over to descriptions of the countryside—very good descriptions, I might add—and other amateur interests of Brenan’s: archaeology, botany, history, poetry, folklore, and anthropology.

As that list suggests, Brenan was an exceptionally well-rounded and well-educated man. Yet he doesn’t manage to translate this into interesting or insightful writing. Each chapter is much too short and too sketchy to provide any real understanding for the reader; and besides, I often felt that Brenan wasn’t the most trustworthy person to consult in these matters, and my skepticism got in the way of my enjoyment. In the introduction, Christ Steward suggests that Brenan’s versatility is a reproach to our overly specialized age. Yet for me this book taught the opposite lesson: if you want to do serious intellectual work, you’ve got to specialize. Otherwise, you end up like Brenan, with a superficial understanding of many things but a deep understanding of nothing in particular.

Brenan’s excellent prose might have been expected to remedy this situation. And indeed, much of the book is very impressively written. Nevertheless, even here Brenan irked me a little. First was his habit of using “one” in his descriptions of the countryside:

One flies over the villages in the air, one seens their strange names on the map, one may even, if one leaves the main road, bump past them in a car, but their life remains as mysterious at that girl with the unforgettable face one caught sight of for a moment through the window of a railway carriage.

Second was his habit of using “would” to describe his routines and village life:

I would come back tired and stiff from a long expedition and, while I washed and changed my clothes, the fire would be lit and a meal brought in. My post would be waiting for me and a copy of the Nation—that ancestor of the New Statesman—and over my coffee I would read my letters and begin to answer them.

This second habit I found especially distracting, because I’ve caught myself doing the same thing in my own writing and have tried to get rid of it as much as possible.

Both of these habits—using the impersonal “one,” and frequently using “would”—reinforce the feeling of distance and coldness that I experienced. It would have been much better, I think, not to tell us of what “one” would see, but of what he saw; not to tell us of what “would” happen, but of what did happen. There are too many generalities in this book and not enough specifics; there is too much description and not enough action.

Nevertheless, the book redeems itself in several places. The first is Brenan’s description of Virginia Woolf’s visit, in which he gives us an excellent portrait of her personality and also some details about his experience in the Bloomsbury Group. I actually got the feeling that Brenan was not a little in love with Woolf, his descriptions of her are so vivid and so thoughtful. The other standout chapter was Brenan’s account of his visits to the brothels of Almeria. The brothels themselves sounded dull, but the companion Brenan takes with him was a real character. But then just as the book is ending, Brenan tells us that he won’t give an account of Bertrand Russell’s visit—which really frustrated me, since I think that would have been another great chapter.

In any case, it must be admitted that this book is probably the most readable account of a time and place that no longer exists. According to the Wikipedia article, now there is a sizeable expat community of British people living in the town, probably in part thanks to this book. Still, I can’t help being disappointed that something with so much potential came out so mediocre. Wasted potential is always vexing.

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