Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Weekend in Andalucía

This weekend was a bank holiday both in the UK and on the continent, putting me in the enviable situation of having a four-day weekend since I work for a London-based publication reporting on Europe (May 1st is May Day on the continent, but the UK always takes the first Monday in May off instead). I used the occasion to take a trip to Andalucía with my friend Lori, taking in the Costa del Sol, Malaga and Granada.

The region of Andalucía in southern Spain is stunningly beautiful, and steeped in history as it was the last bastion of Muslim power in Western Europe before the momentous conclusion of the reconquista in 1492. Having been under Muslim rule for about seven centuries, this fault line of Europe has historically been the stuff of legends. Moorish castles are scattered throughout the landscape and on the hills above the main cities, while the reconquista brought with it massive, intimidating cathedrals from the 16th century meant to show the Andalucians who the new boss in town was.

We started out our trip on the Costa del Sol, a stretch of beach south of Malaga made notorious over the past decades as a place for British tourists to get drunk and get sunburnt. Both of us being American, we were actually quite intrigued by the prospect of doing an authentic ‘Brits behaving badly’ beach trip on the continent, so we decided to stay in the town with the worst reputation for such things, Torremolinos. But perhaps because of the recession, of maybe because of the low value of the pound, we didn’t really get what we were promised. Torremolinos was actually rather quiet, filled mostly with Spanish elderly people rather than boozed-up Brits. In fact on Friday at the beach we didn’t even hear one British accent, the tourists that seemed to be most represented there were the French (French outside of France? This trip was blowing all sorts of stereotypes!). Friday night the Brits seemed to come out of the woodwork at the bars and clubs, but even then not until very late and there weren’t as many of them as we anticipated.

Analysts have been predicting that Brits will be taking fewer trips abroad this year, opting for domestic trips instead because of the collapse in the value of the pound. If our experience in Torremolinos was any indication, this seems to be in evidence. If this continues one wonders what will happen to places like this, towns whose economies depend on British tourism. Southern Iberia is to England what Florida is to the Northeast US (both in terms of tourism and retirees, and of course plenty of uninspired architecture, pictured right). What would happen if New York and Florida had different currencies and suddenly New York’s collapsed? It wouldn’t be good news for Florida retirement homes, I can tell you that!

Saturday we headed into Malaga, a city often skipped over by tourists but one with an equal amount of interesting Moorish history to its neighbours Granada, Seville and Cadiz. It’s actually the second largest city in Andalucía after Seville, and a very happening place in terms of nightlife. Malaga also has a Moorish fortress on a hill overlooking the city, but of course it’s overshadowed by the nearby Alhambra in Granada. Still, we decided to have a look at it as a little preview of the big cheese to the North. It does boast some spectacular views, especially of the bullfighting ring below (pictured left). It’s actually much older than the Alhambra, originally built in the 8th century during a brief period when Malaga was an independent kingdom, and then added to while it was part of the larger Kingdom of Granada.

Of course we couldn’t resist the siren song of the Alhambra for long so that night we took a bus up to Granada. There are definitely two very distinct sides to Granada. When we arrived Saturday evening it seemed as if there was no one in the city over 25. It’s a big university town, and as we walked around we just saw hordes of college-age kids messing about. It was funny because we went from feeling very young in Torremolinos to feeling very old in Granada.

However the next day it was like an entirely different city. Sunday happened to be the Festival of the Crosses, when crosses made of different materials are displayed around the city and the women all wear their traditional Sevilliana (flamenco) dresses. It was definitely a very atmospheric time to be there. Walking around the narrow steep streets of the Albaicin, the city’s old Moorish quarter, hearing flamenco guitars and seeing women dancing with castanets to celebrate the holiday, was a bit surreal. We then headed to the gypsy hill, where flamenco dancers still perform in caves where many of the gypsies live.

Then it was time for the big cahuna, the massive Alhambra palace perched above the city. The complex is one of Europe’s most famous attractions, composed of an original 11th-century fortress at the front called the Alcazaba, a sumptuous palace that was home to the Nasrid rulers of Granada, opulent gardens stretched across a Cliffside, the remains of a large town within the fortress that once contained 40,000 people, and finally the anachronistic palace of Charles V, built by the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand when he thought he would make Granada the capital of the newly united Spain (he changed his mind and moved to Valladolid, leaving the palace unused). Hugely important things happened at this palace. In the throne room in the Nasrid Palace, the last Sultan of Granada, Boabdil, held tense negotiations with the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. In the end the Catholic monarchs triumphed and the Christians took the fortress, the last bulwark of Islam in Western Europe, displaying the Christian flag from the bell tower at the top of the Alcazaba to signal the defeat.

Perhaps the most thrilling site in Granada for me though was the burial chamber of Ferdinand and Isabella in the cathedral (pictured right). Astonishingly the two monarchs are interned in simple lead coffins in a small space, along with their daughter (Juana the mad) and her husband Philip the Handsome. Above the tomb massive stone funerary effigies of the four of them can be found, but amusingly the one for Philip and Juana are much bigger than that for the far more famous Ferdinand and Isabella, because it was built during the rule of Charles V who was eager to establish the legitimacy of his parents. Buried here are two of the most important couplings in European history, linking the four most powerful dynasties of Europe at the time (Burgundian Valois, Habsburg, Aragon and Castile) and creating a Habsburg empire that included parts of modern-day Spain, Portugal, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Mexico, and Peru. It's amusing that the four of them are buried together, considering they all hated each other and at various times tried to have one another killed or imprisoned. And you thought you had family drama!

All in all it was a good trip, and the weather was amazing. It was a bit of a bummer stepping of the plane to a cold and rainy London. I’ll be working in Brussels the rest of this week though, so it’s just a brief stopover in Londontown really!


Carol said...

In defense of poor crazy Juana, I don't think she herself ever tried to kill her husband or her father, just those around her. The poor insane girl was just a tool in the power struggles between her mother, father, brother and son. And yet she managed to give birth to two emperors and four queens!

brian.jones@uwclub.net said...

Anyone wanting to know more about the much under-visited city of Malaga might like to take a look at my recently published short guide to the city - Footsteps through the City of Malaga.

See website above for details - or browse a copy at Waterstones or Stanford Travel Books.

astray@hotmail.com said...

As an Andalusian I've loved to read about my region seen by someone from outside. Great work!