Crossing the mountainous region that separates the province of Andalusia from Extremadura, I dash into a field of aromatic wild flowers; wild licorice caressing my clothes and my nose. A patchwork of white, red, yellow, and purple wildflowers lace the lush green grass, a beneficial result from early Spring rains. Graceful oaks and charismatic, craggy olive trees abound, as do grazing sheep and moss speckled boulders. The signs of congested civilization, most notably people, are nowhere to be found. I can easily imagine trolls and pixies romancing in the afternoon sun as Spring birds sing their joyous songs.
Spain’s countryside is timeless, it’s history a visceral, palpable experience to the passerby. A medieval castle or hacienda abandoned, a Roman arched bridge or a forgotten Moorish wall are visible reminders of Spain’s past civilizations and the personal marks they left. Silently they sit in the open landscape as they have for centuries.
Open roads always provide me that exhilarating sense of freedom. Meandering along the less traveled ribbons of asphalt in this bucolic countryside, my rental car radio was able to pick up throughout the Andalusia and Extremadura provinces a classical radio station. A taste of classical music, sometimes opera, even some Segovia flamenco guitar, accentuated the passing Spanish scenery. Suddenly, I see up ahead in the distance the stalwart medieval city, Trujillo, glistening in the midday sun, rising high on the leveled horizon’s lone granite hill.
“Onward trusty metal steed,” I say to my shiny black VW. “I bring harmonious tales to my awaiting Spanish countrymen.” This cannot be said for another arrival to this valley, that of native son, Pizarro, who brought faraway tales derived instead from greed and cruel, ambitious desires.
So how did I get here, you ask? This southern Spain adventure began several days prior, along the shimmering blue Mediterranean shores of Malaga, an Andalusian treasure. Home to Picasso, situated between its more well-known Andalusian brethren cities, Seville and Granada, Malaga with its chicly renovated harbor, countless museums, lively city center, Moorish fortress and graceful gardens, has become its own cultural gem destination.
I spent first two days getting my Spanish bearings. Stayed at a fantastic apartment, wonderful host, and a bedside window view of the Mediterranean. Walking or easy bus distance to downtown; great beginning.
Comfortable, but ready to begin my journey, I head west toward the mountainous lands of the “pueblos blancos”, or white villages, the city of Ronda being the most prominent. Through the course of my Spanish travels, I would gradually become accustomed to the somewhat strict eating timetable. By 1 sometimes 2 pm, as I’m just about to perish from starvation, a restaurant opens with its saving grace “menu de dia”, a two-course meal plus dessert. Well-fed I continue the weaving mountainous drive through quaint small villages and more stunning wild scenery; eventually an old Roman wall and railroad track points me toward the outlying area of Ronda.
Ronda, a history as old as European civilization itself sits perched on two natural high precipices, connected by a dramatic bridge over the canyon river below. A fertile countryside spreads out in miniature across the valley, more steep mountain ranges in the misty distance. Bandits and conquerors sought this same view, fought over to win only to lose over time to the next desirer.
Man’s perpetual struggle with his inner divinity and his inner beast is physically dramatized within the innocuous circular bullfight arena that overlooks the dramatic cliffs. The origin of the bullfight, home to the greatest bullfighter and immortalized by Hemmingway, the symbolic as well as barbaric battle between man and beast has played out for centuries here to generations of Spanish audiences within its massive wooden gates. Ole!
Romanticism aside, I would soon learn the reality of my visit to Ronda; all rooms… I repeat all rooms had been booked for that evening. Once resigned to the fact I was sleeping in my car, a surprisingly liberating feeling emerged. Untethered as simply a tourist outsider, this experience would create a stronger bond for me with Spain, reliving a similar sensation I had not felt since my overnight in car experiences back in the U.S. The traveling vagabond, at home and abroad.
I roamed the old medieval and Moorish quarters past midnight, reviewed bars until closing hour. The night was surprisingly cold, requiring both my pullover and jacket. As the tourists dispersed to their hotels early, I discovered an all Spaniards tavern where impromptu flamenco guitar music suddenly engaged the crowded room. Patrons ordered their red wine while others, predominantly women, of all ages, burst into song and flamboyant gestural dance, pelvises and hands weaving to a passionate pulse. This IS flamenco country, and you feel this intimate connection among the people, this heart and soul passion unleashed with their dance and music. The neighboring Dublin bar was not quite so lively.
Half past midnight, all was closed, so I continued to wander across the ancient bridge toward the old city’s gas-lamp lit streets. In the shadows the towering catholic cathedral glowered over the defeated Moorish fortress, its ramparts and stairways still leading to lookout points designed to watch for lower valley approaches from bandits and other interlopers. The history enshrouded in that beautiful enveloped darkness was palpable, the silence only broken by the imaginary whispers of former souls and their wispy specters. I was tempted to just lay on the stone bench and breathe in that crisp night air until dawn.
Traditions run deep among the people in this region as well as in Extremadura. In the more remote “pueblos blancos” the elder men and women dress as their parents, and their parents’ parents did before them; Same stocky builds, same earth-tone sweaters, dresses and trousers, same tightly coiffed hairdos. I know if I looked back at pictures I took over twenty years ago, I’d probably think I was looking at their twins today. Either they make their own clothes with the same material or the nearest department store only stocks the same items every hundred years or so. Apparently, if someone tries to wear a polka dot shirt with shorts in these small country villages, they are run out of town!
Granada: A touch of class, civility, artistic edge and flare.
A tavern decorated with knights in shining armor, swords, and medieval ambiance.
A tavern decorated with minotaur paintings and various intriguing art forms.
A locals’ tapas / tabernas with jolly greeters, welcoming me to a table and an approving smile to my selection of spaghetti bolognaise and an ice cold cerveza.
A pub with rock n roll and provocative art.
A pub with an edgy, provocative art, punk-edge patrons, a cold small cerveza and a free tapa (hot pizza).
A Saturday night in a crowded tapas taberna where the bartenders are beautifully crazy; fast, fun, singing songs and busting each other’s’ chops while slinging generous servings of beer, wine, and free tapas to awaiting patrons.
A city park where the bronze statues are Spanish writers, including Lorca, sitting on park benches. Even a statue of a man reading a book. A tribute to poets and playwrights versus politicians and generals reflects well for Granada’s enlightened consciousness. Notably, the city park pigeons agreed for these statues lacked the usual stains of secretive disdain.
Grab a cold cerveza and wash this thought down with a midnight late snack assortment of home grown tapas – grilled shrimp, grilled pork, jamon, queso and peppers, olives, meatballs and potatas, pizza slice, jamon in olive oil, and a touch of paeia. A hungry heart and stomach no more…
Saving Granada’s crown jewel for last, the Alhambra is impressive in its majesty, its strength, its original feng shui, and harmonious design. Moorish engineering forethought channeled and sculpted the Sierra Nevada’s melting snows into poetic water streams and fountains, each flowing throughout the inner courtyards and around the fortress’s orange sherbet walls down to the old Moorish neighborhood, the Albaicin.
Taking in some cooling shade after the steep hike to the fortress wall, I enjoyed a brief conversation with some pre-teenage French boys waiting for their group to enter the Alhambra. We talked about the Arabian Knights on their horses galloping up this same imposing fortress entryway, swords drawn for action. They agreed building a fortress on a hill was a good strategy.
Below, within its narrow corridors the Albaicin transforms the Andalusia Granada into the Arabian Nights. Welcome to the Kazbah: Moroccan cuisine and teahouses merge beautifully with intimate flamenco nightclubs and tapas bars. Beautiful, just beautiful!
North of Granada, the La Mancha countryside had turned fertile since last spoken about by Don Quixote and Cervantes. Passing vineyards and olive tree fields filled the passing scenery whereas the semi-arid environment depicted in the La Mancha region of old was now the lands on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas.
Leaving Granada, the rugged lower mountains of the snow-capped Sierras dominate the landscape before settling in to drier dominions. Here, a dramatic scene unfolded as the Sierra Nevada’s ominous dark clouds loomed above the tangerine-hued La Calahorra castle.
Not far away, Badlands-styled sand hills provided modern underground dwellings for many residents in the fabled town of Guilix. White-washed red tiled abodes blending in beautifully with the desert-scape environ. This driest region of Spain continues down to the coast where I would finally discover the equally fabled windmills Don Quixote so valiantly fought.
Today’s more prevalent windmills are giant corporate windmills, whiter than white that reach the sky. A whole village could be obliterated if one of those windmill dragons comes crashing down.
My circular drive was complete upon my return to Malaga, enjoying more seafood by the sea, sunny Mediterranean views, and pleasant seaside “paseos” (evening strolls). From a man’s perspective, the Malaga beachfront is the perfect respite. My beachfront cafe served spaghetti seafood, or in Spanish, pasta “con fruitas del mar,” accompanied with a chilled white wine. Families and friends are milling about on the sidewalk and beach enjoying the day. Young women casually lie topless on the beach… pequenos, medios, and grandes… all size tatas all in a row, basking in the ripening sun.
I say to the owner’s wife, “Yo creo verano esta aqui”. She nods, smiles and says simply “Si”.
MORE MEDITERRANEAN TRAVELS TO COME …..