Have Bag, Will Travel
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“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatheards, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemon, girls in black mantillas, cathedrals, cardinals, bullfights, gypsies, serenades – in short, Spain.” – George Orwell
I have seen Roman ruins advertised before and sometimes they can be quite disappointing so I didn’t have high expectations of those in Carmona but they turned out to be a real surprise. It wasn’t the Aqueduct of Segovia or anything of the scale of Segóbriga or Mérida of course but there were extensive excavations and a museum with an informative film about the Romans in Andalusia and the significance of this place.
It was principally an ancient Roman burial site or necropolis near the Seville road that was discovered in 1881 and there was also the site of what had been a rather large amphitheatre. The best part of all was that there was free admission and we spent well over an hour to look around the site.
It seemed that we had underestimated the town of Carmona and there was a great deal more to do here than we had originally thought.
Close to the fortress gate there was a little bodega that we had picked out earlier for lunch. The Abacería L’Antiqua was full to overflowing and heaving with activity and just as we were pondering whether or not to stay a table became available and we elbowed our way through the wall of people and made ourselves comfortable. The food looked good and the bar was doing brisk trade so we selected some items from the tapas menu and waited for our food to arrive.
All around the bar there were barrels of sherry and this is something else that Andalusia is famous for.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez on the coast. In Spanish, it is called Vino de Jerez and according to Spanish law, sherry must come from the small triangular area of the province of Cádiz between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy and because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol. So now you know!
The food arrived quickly and it was delicious and we enjoyed it so much that we ordered second plates of those we liked best and more drinks. The bodega was a vibrant and effervescent place with people of all age groups and whole families enjoying their Sunday lunchtime gathering and we enjoyed the garrulous atmosphere and just being a part of it all.
But we couldn’t stay all afternoon because there were still things to see.
At the fortress we fished around in our pockets for the admission fee only to be told that today the entrance was free, so how glad we were that we hadn’t visited yesterday. It wasn’t a big castle but it was a good place to visit with commanding views in all directions across the Andalusian plain. This place had been chosen well as a castle of strategic importance. It had been restored and modernised of course, some time in the 1970s, but that didn’t spoil it one little bit. The sky was blue and it was warmer today so we had a good time climbing the towers and taking in the breathtaking views
I especially wanted to retrace our car journey of the first evening and we found the very narrow street and wondered just how we had managed to negotiate it without adding to the cars dents and scratches.
Practically every car in the town had some form of damage either from scraping past walls or from other cars squeezing past and a very high proportion of them had had their wing mirrors removed and were now only kept in place with sticky tape. This wasn’t the sort of place to live if you are at all fussy about the appearance of your car.
We found Micky in San Fernando Square sitting on a bench in the sunshine with a red nose and flu weary eyes and looking very forlorn. The man from Bar Plaza saw us and told us he had prepared paella for this evening but unfortunately for him we were determined to return to the Abacería L’Antiqua and so he had missed his opportunity.
We went first to the Forum Bar, which was busy and then walked to the Bodega, which was empty. The contrast from the lunchtime bustle made the place almost unrecognisable and although other diners began to drift in the place never achieved the sociable levels of lunchtime. We ordered some repeat dishes and experimented with some different ones and the food was equally as good and we stayed all evening before going back to the hotel for our final night at the San Fernando.
“…anyone that knows Spain will be aware of the frequency of the marriage in which the wife is deeply pious and the husband is irreligious. This is indeed a fairly normal situation. The man’s sense of self-esteem conflicts sharply with the teachings of the Church, while he is irritated by its many small, fussy rules and regulations, which treat him, he feels, as though he were a child.” – Gerald Brennan – ‘South From Granada‘
Once again it rained heavily in the night but by morning it had cleared when I went out into the street to check the weather. There were blue skies and as this was Sunday there was a church bell ringing with frosty clarity and calling people to service as I wandered aimlessly about checking the breakfast options in the little bars around the square.
The only place open was the Bar Plaza so we returned there for the fourth time and had the same breakfast as the previous day except that due to a misunderstanding we ordered way too much Serrano Ham and ended up with far more than we really needed and a much bigger bill than we anticipated.
The bad news this morning was that Micky had gone down with a nasty little case of man flu and he wasn’t feeling very good at all. This was the strain that affects the sense of humour and social skills and after breakfast Mick invited us to go out without him. Naturally we said we would do no such thing and then as we watched his normally stoic temperament evaporating in front of us he demanded firmly that we should go out without him and we took the hint.
We were planning to go for another drive out, possibly to the town of Ronda but this didn’t seem fair so the rest of us decided instead to stay and explore Carmona instead. We weren’t sure that there would be enough to do to keep us amused all day so we walked very slowly from the hotel towards the eastern gate of the old town, the Puerto de Córdoba which is of part Roman construction.
Because Carmona is built on an elevated ridge overlooking the central plain of Andalusia the view beyond the gate opens to a glorious vista of the surrounding countryside which today entertained us with the drama of magnificent skies.
The welcome warmth of the sun was in contrast to the chilly shade of the street and we stayed a while and admired the view and warmed ourselves up before going back through the gate and climbing steadily towards the Alcázar Del Rey Don Pedro, which is an old castle at the top of the town that has been converted to a luxury Parador hotel. We went inside and admired the lounges and the restaurant and the stunning view from the balcony but it didn’t seem that they particularly welcomed non-paying guests so we quickly left and carried on.
Next around the southern rim of the town and there were more good views over the plain and we sat for a while and soaked up more weak sunshine that was struggling to get up to full late morning temperature. Our route took us now to the Alcázar de la Puerto de Sevilla, which was the western gate protecting the entrance to the old town and then we walked for a little way into the new town because I wanted to take the girls shopping but sadly on account of this being Sunday they were mostly closed. I was desperately disappointed about that as you can probably imagine.
There seemed to be strange goings on in the main town square because it was full of men just standing around and chatting in groups and making an enormous din as they competed with each other to be heard about the great political issues of the day or the previous day’s football results perhaps.
Mostly elderly men because as Gerald Brennan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.” This was obviously a Sunday morning ritual while wives attended Church and the street corners and the public squares were overflowing with men all in animated conversation waiting for the service to end.
Brennan also explains that – “At bottom the husband almost always approves of his wife’s devoutness, is aware that he is only playing truant and that, after a lifetime shrugging his shoulders at the Church, he will return to it in time to receive its last sacraments.”
Back at the Puerto de Sevilla there was a sunny pavement with café tables so we stopped for a drink before going back to the hotel to see if there was any sign of Micky. There was none so we continued our walk around the town without him, this time back to the Roman ruins about a half a mile away back in the same direction that we had just returned from.
“We are in the Spanish south. The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”, Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
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“Seville was dazzling, a creamy crustation of flower banked houses fanning out from each bank of the river…. A thousand miniature patios set with inexhaustible fountains which fell trickling upon ferns and leaves, each a nest of green repeated in endless variations around the theme of domestic oasis”, Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning”
The Goya was closed this morning so we had a very similar breakfast at the Bar Plaza instead and debated our itinerary for the day and agreed that on account of the unpredictable nature of the weather that we should drive to Seville.
The city is the fourth largest in Spain after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, it is the city of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro with a reputation for drama, flair and theatre, castanets and flamenco, gypsies and horses and we set out therefore with very high expectations.
After trouble finding an underground car park it was quite a long walk to the old town but at least the sun was shining, lighting up the buildings with a rosy glow and casting long shadows in the narrow streets and we optimistic that it would be a warm day as people rearranged the shade of the canopies on their balconies.
The route took us along a couple of busy main streets and then following a road to the centre of the city we turned off into a tangled web of narrow streets and alleys that criss-crossed and dog legged in a most confusing way and made following the street map with any degree of certainty almost impossible.
We were in the district of Santa Cruz, which is a maze of whitewashed buildings and alleyways all leading eventually to the centre and La Giralda and the Cathedral that is built on the site of a former Moorish mosque. The Cathedral is the largest in Spain and the third largest in the world, after Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London.
Some uninvited grey cloud had swept in rather quickly so we were tempted to go inside but there was a long queue so we investigated the Palace Real Alcázar opposite but there was a long queue for that as well so we abandoned both options for the time being and walked down to the river through the district of El Arenal. We don’t like queues.
After Madrid, Seville is the second most important centre for the national sport of bullfighting and after a few hundred metres we left the river and came up outside the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, which is the oldest bull ring in Spain.
The origin of modern day bullfighting on foot (rather than horseback) can be traced back to here and to the town of Ronda, also in Andalusia. It is one of the most charming bullrings in the country and although its capacity is only fourteen thousand spectators, which makes it rather small (the bullring in Madrid has a capacity of twenty-five thousand, the local football stadium, Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium has a capacity of seventy-thousand) it attracts all of the country’s finest bullfighters.
All of us except Christine, because she loves animals and can’t bear to think of them suffering, paid for and joined an informative and entertaining thirty-minute tour of the arena and the museum.
The walk back towards the Cathedral was along difficult cobbled streets where the houses had balconies with flowers spilling over the sides and it was full of the sights and sounds of postcard Spain and it was lunch time now so we found a traditional bodega serving sherry and tapas and went inside for food.
After dining we returned to the Cathedral Square, the Plaza del Triunfo, and had to make a choice between visiting the Cathedral or the Palace and we chose the Palace. It was a good decision because the fourteenth century building was a jewel box of Moorish architecture and decoration with tiled patios, elaborate halls and extensive gardens. It has been the home of the Spanish Monarchy for seven hundred years and the upper floors are still used by the royal family today as its official Seville residence.
When we paid the entrance fee it was still overcast but by the time we had been around the interior the sun was out again and we had a very enjoyable hour walking around the extensive gardens and the wall top walks. When we had finished we left and strolled back to the Cathedral and then into the network of narrow streets to make our way back to the car park.
Back in Carmona we rested and changed and went for a pre-dinner drink in a lively family bar called the Forum and joined the residents of the town out for an evening and noisily watching a football match on a big screen TV.
Later we returned to the Bar Plaza and ordered paella but there was none so instead we had a very similar meal to the previous evening. We were the only customers in the place and the owner must have been glad of the company. Actually the Plaza was the only place open and we worked it out that because it was out of season the owners were probably operating a cooperative rota system and we thought that was clever.
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“The Supreme Caliphate of Cordoba was set up in rivalry to the Abbasside dynasty of Baghdad and was so cultured, sophisticated broad-minded and fastidious a state that for a century southern Spain was the lodestar of Europe”, Jan Morris
Although the road was swinging encouragingly to the south it couldn’t keep us sufficiently ahead of the cloud and by the time we reached the city of Córdoba it was clear that we couldn’t outrun it and it beginning to overtake us.
It was still patchy as we parked the car but by the time we had set off for the centro historico its advance was relentless and it became quite gloomy, overcast and cold and we were all beginning to regret the lightweight clothing option that we had selected earlier. It was lunchtime so we looked for somewhere warm to stop and eat and came across a restaurant with a reasonable menu del dai at only €10 and we enjoyed a pleasant if not an especially spectacular lunch.
Outside the weather had not improved as we had dined and we were disappointed to find that one of the two principal attractions the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos was closed for the afternoon so we had to make do with the external views and move on to Córdoba’s Great Mosque.
Situated amongst a lattice work of narrow streets, patios and plazas in the city’s old Jewish quarter the Mezquita was once the second largest mosque in the world and at the completion of its construction this was the grandest and most beautiful mosque constructed by the Moors anywhere in Spain.
After the Spanish Reconquest, it was transformed into a church and today it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral and the main church of the diocese of Córdoba. This is the good things about buildings, when they are no longer required for their original purpose they can always be converted to some other use. All over Spain Mosques were converted to Christian Churches, Arab Alcazabas to medieval fortresses and more recently stately homes, haciendas and castles to modern Parador hotels.
It was getting even colder and there was a spot of rain or two so we were pleased to buy admission tickets and go inside in the warm for a while.
I think I can rightly say that the mosque of Córdoba is without doubt one of the finest buildings in Spain – the most original and the most beautiful. From the moment of entering the great court planted with rows of orange trees there was a feeling of peace and harmony which is quite different from the mood of religious holiness and austerity imparted by some Christian cloisters.
Inside it was immediately spectacular with almost a thousand columns of granite, jasper and marble supporting the roof and creating a dazzling visual effect. When the Cathedral was constructed in the sixteenth century some of these pillars and arches were removed which I suppose might be described as an act of vandalism but in actual fact, despite being a sort of cuckoo in the nest, the Baroque structure didn’t seem to be entirely out of place.
“To Cordoba belong all the beauty and ornaments that delight the eye or dazzle the sight.” – Stanley Lane-Poole – The Moors in Spain
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It took some time to walk through the Mezquita and see all of the highlights and explore hidden dark corners and when we left and returned to the courtyard it had thankfully stopped raining and although it was still quite cold the temperature had thankfully risen a degree or two above zero. We walked for a while down by the river and crossed half way on the Puente Romano, which is an elaborate bridge that still sits on original Roman foundations and was used as another Game of Thrones location, this time the Long Bridge of Volantis.
On account of the weather we didn’t really see Córdoba at its best and the grey skies took the edge of the visit and because of that we walked back to the car stopping briefly for a drink and a warm in a café and then drove back to Carmona.
Once in the car there was a continual chorus from the back seat of ‘put the heater on’ and I had to agree that it was a bit chilly. We took the direct route back along the Autovia which confirmed that there were no tolls and as we drove west the weather started to improve and by the time we arrived back at our hotel the sun was breaking through again.
Across the square was a café bar called the Bar Plaza and later that evening, even though we hadn’t intended going inside, the owner spotted us in the street and shepherded us in through the doorway in a much practiced customer gathering round-up routine and before we had time to make our own decision he had taken drinks orders and provided us with menus and there seemed to be a sort of commitment to dine there. Actually it was rather good and we ordered a range of dishes and shared them between us.
When we left the Bar Plaza it was raining again so went straight back to the hotel where we had a last drink in the lounge and a hand or two of cards before going to bed at about midnight feeling a bit uneasy about the weather prospects for the next day.
It was a glorious morning and although it was slightly chilly there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the perfect blue sky and we interpreted this as a really promising sign and although this was November dressed appropriately in summer linens and short-sleeved shirts. After all we were in Spain!
Together with a lot of local people we had a traditional breakfast at the Goya and this made a nice change from the usual hotel buffet arrangement that we usually have. It was a simple affair with a choice of toasted bread drizzled with olive oil and a thin tomato puree and topped off with thin slices of cured ham or alternatively, for those who didn’t care for the ham, toast and marmalade made from finest Seville oranges.
After breakfast we prepared for a drive to the city of Córdoba about a seventy miles to the east along the River Guadalquivir. Córdoba is a moderately sized place today but once it was the largest Roman city in Spain and later became the thriving capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba that once governed almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. It has been estimated that in the tenth century it was the largest city in Western Europe and, perhaps, in the whole world with up to half a million inhabitants. If this is true then only Constantinople and Rome would have previously been bigger and even today a population that size would be in the top three in Spain.
As always of course, be wary of biggest, highest, widest claims!
We didn’t take the direct motorway route because we thought the alternative may be more scenic and anyway we were worried about paying unnecessary road tolls. This proved to be a mistake on both counts because it wasn’t especially picturesque and there weren’t any tolls either.
First we drove to the town of Lora Del Rio along a road that took us through an agricultural landscape with fields all freshly ploughed and waiting for next year’s grain crops. Although the highest mountains on the Spanish mainland are in Andalusia most of the Province, which stretches from the deserts of Almeria in the east to the Portuguese border in the west is a flat plain in the valley of the Guadalquivir, which at nearly four hundred miles is the fifth longest river in Spain and is one of the country’s most important because it irrigates a fertile valley, and creates a rich agricultural area.
Lora del Rio was an unexceptional working town and there was nothing to stop for so we continued along the road through the similar towns of Palma del Rio and Posadas. On our left, to the north, was the Sierra Morena mountain range that separates Andalusia from the central plain of Castilla-La Mancha and there were some worrying accumulations of cloud that looked a little too close for comfort. Eventually we came to Almodóvar del Rio where a large castle was perched strategically on the top of a hill and this looked well worth stopping for.
The Castillo de Almodóvar is a grandiose Caliphal fortress erected on a high mound along the Guadalquivir. Square towers flank its towering walls and the entire castle is surrounded by a large moat. During the years of occupation it was a Moorish stronghold and after the reconquest it became the medieval home for members of the Spanish nobility. It gradually fell into disrepair however and much of it was plundered for convenient building material by the people of the nearby town but the Count of Torralba rebuilt it a hundred years or so ago restoring the external appearance of the original Arab fortification.
The castle was used as filming location for the TV series Game of Thrones where it was used (if anyone is interested, I know that I’m not) to represent the castle of Highgarden, the seat of House Tyrell in the Reach on the Mander River.
At its elevated position there was a spectacular view of the plains to the south and the mountains to the north and although the sun was shining it was getting cold and the clouds were getting closer. We visited the castle in the company of a school outing who were enjoying an interactive history lesson which must have been highly entertaining judging by all of the laughter and giggles.
It was a good castle and well worth the €5 entrance fee and we climbed the towers and walked the ramparts and when we had seen all there was to see we left and continued the drive to Córdoba.
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