Tag Archives: Moors in Spain

Travels in Portugal, The Town of Silves

Algarve Castle of Silves

After a full day of no driving but plenty of walking today we returned to four wheels and planned a trip to the nearby town of Silves.  I had been there before of course so there were more comparisons to be made.

Silves was once a Moorish city, the capital of the Algarve and the most important city in all of what is now Portugal.  How the Moors must have loved life in Iberia, excellent weather (not as hot as North Africa), no deserts, plenty of fresh water, good fertile soil for crops and not nearly so many flies.

This idyllic lifestyle came to a sudden and abrupt end after the Reconquest when the Moors were forced to abandon their city after a brutal siege by Northern Crusaders.  In Spain and Portugal they celebrate the reconquest but in reality it was the replacement of a benevolent and progressive regime with a barbaric and medieval reversal of progress.

Without the Moors the city became neglected, the river silted up and the city went into a long period of decline.  This is something that always intrigues me, it is rather like the Roman Empire, great civilizations provide advancement in human development but Barbarians always come along and tear it down and set progress back several hundred years.  Rather like BREXIT in the United Kingdom right now.  It really frustrates me because we learn absolutely nothing from history.

What happened to the Ancient Egyptians, the Native Americans of USA, the  Classical Greeks, the Romans, they all showed great progress in human development and then they disappeared and the process was reversed.  What lies ahead for us I wonder?

Silves Street

To reach Silves there was a magnificent approach from the south as the road dropped into the lush green valley of the Rio Arade and then climbed through the ridges and boulders of the other side with all the time the magnificent spectacle of the red sandstone walls of the old Moorish castle undulating along the top of highest point with its defensive turrets thrusting magnificently into the sky above us.

This is what we had mostly come to see so we found a car park and made our way to the castle past the statue of Sancho I of Portugal and towards the main gate.  Interestingly Sancho seems to have been moved and relocated since my visit there twenty-five years before because from modern pictures he seems to be much closer to the entrance than I remember.

IMG_2666223

We went inside and were struck by the fact that the Portuguese hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.  The Castle was a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations below.

Except for making sure we didn’t get too close to the edge and fall over this didn’t really spoil the visit to the castle and we enjoyed an hour or so walking around the battlements and through the gardens, discovering interesting fragments of history and reading about the Moorish occupation and the eventual Portuguese reconquest.

Outside the castle we walked around the narrow streets and the pastel coloured houses with their elegant but rusting iron balconies and the window boxes overflowing with boiling geraniums, visited the cathedral and stopping frequently to admire the views and to conclude that Silves hadn’t changed a great deal in the intervening years since my first visit.

The storks were still there…

Silves Stork 01Silves Stork 02

After a couple of hours we made our way back to the coast.

Travels in Spain, Valencia to Alicante

I have taken this drive before but here are some new pictures…

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Travels in Spain, The Mezquita of Cordoba

Spain - Historic Centre of Cordoba

“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.

Cordoba Moors Mosque

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

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

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.

Roman Bridge at Cordoba

Travels in Spain, The Palm Forest of Elche

Elche Palm Orchard 4

Close by to where Mick and Lindsay live is the city of Elche.  It is the third most populated city in the Community of Valencia (after Valencia and Alicante) and the twentieth largest Spanish city.  I would never have guessed that.  The twentieth largest city in the UK is Nottingham and I have heard of that of course and in USA it is El Paso, Texas which surprised me.  In Australia it is the splendidly named Albury–Wodonga in New South Wales.

The two main reasons for visiting Elche are to buy a pair of shoes (footwear manufacture is the largest industry in the town) or to visit the Palm Forests which are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  No one needed a new pair of shoes today because we had been shopping the day before and been in every shoe shop in La Zenia so today we were visiting the date palm orchards which date way back to the time of the occupation of Iberia by the Moors of North Africa.

In 2000 UNESCO designated the Palm Grove as a World Heritage Site citing the transfer of landscape and agricultural practices from one culture and continent to another – Moorish North Africa to Christian Europe.

Elche Palm Orchard 3

Currently, in the urban area of Elche there are almost one hundred different orchards containing about seventy-thousand date palms mostly in the east bank of the Rio Vinalopó. This number however does not include other large plantations located around wider urban area and all together the number may be close to a staggering two hundred thousand palms. It is the only palm grove of its type anywhere in Europe, the northernmost of its kind and one the largest in the world outside of North Africa.  Individual specimens of the palm trees can grow to a height of more than one hundred feet and be up to three hundred years old.

For statistical reasons I now digress.  The tallest trees in the World are the Californian Giant Redwood which grow to nearly four hundred feet, in Australia there is a species of Eucalyptus (Mountain Ash) which gets to three hundred and thirty feet and the tallest trees in the UK are the Douglas Fir which by comparison struggles to get to just two hundred feet or so.  The iconic English Oak (which we always think of a tall tree) is left way behind at only seventy feet!

Tallest trees

We arrived in Elche at mid-morning, found a convenient parking place and wandered off towards the palm forest, none of us thought about noting down the name of the street where we had left the car!

Elche Palm Orchard 7

Very quickly we were in the first orchard, a carefully managed public park with winding footpaths and clear direction signs but not very long after that we strayed into a less well managed area with winding dusty paths and not so many direction signs.  Soon it became clear that we were losing our sense of direction and as anyone who has been in a palm forest will know one palm tree looks very much like all the others because there isn’t a great deal of variation in shape or form.

We wandered around a little more getting ever further from our starting point and with realistic hopes of following the same route back rapidly deteriorating and it was at about this point that it suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t absolutely certain about where we had started from anyway.

Eventually we came across a busy road and close by a public park where there was an entrance fee to see the palms.  Having just seen about a thousand palms for free I wondered if this was necessary expenditure but we paid up and went inside and we were glad that we did because the gardens were immaculate and there were several interesting palms in there including one known as ‘Imperial Palm’ with seven stems in the shape of a candelabra and estimated to be about one hundred and seventy-five years old . It was named after Elisabeth, the Empress consort of Franz Joseph of Austria, who visited the plantation in 1894.

Palmera Elche

The visit over we made our way to the city centre but finding it to be a modern concrete sort of place with little really to interest us, it seems that most of the historical centre has been demolished and cleared away, we turned our attention back to the issue of finding a way back to the car.

We were still surrounded by a forest of palm trees on all sides so there was quite a bit of guess work involved here and several disagreements about direction and I always get nervous when Kim assumes the role of navigator because this is rarely good news.  I say nothing of course.  As it happened Mick had the keenest sense of direction, overruled all of our panic suggestions and insisted on a route that soon got us back to the car without any further detours.

Elche Palm Orchard 6

Travels in Spain, The Moroccan Tea Gardens at Crevillent

Moroccan Tea Garden 09

““Do you like that?” I’ll say and she’ll look at me as if I’m mad.  That!?” She’ll say, “No, it’s hideous” “Then why on earth,” I always want to say, “did you walk all the way over there to touch it?”  but of course…I have learned to say nothing when shopping because no matter what you say…  it doesn’t pay, so I say nothing.”  Bill Bryson – ‘Notes From a Small Island’

In several previous travels to Alicante and the east coast of Spain we had visited much of the coast and the obvious places to go and see so today we set out to do something different.

I didn’t really have shopping at the top of my travel itinerary but you have to give and take sometimes and Kim and Lindsay wanted to go and look at sparkly things so we spent the morning at a modern mall at the town of La Zenia. I didn’t do a lot of shopping I have to say, just wandered about a bit and found somewhere for a drink as the girls enjoyed a frantic two hours or so in the shoe shops.

Later that day we eventually did something quite different. Mick and Lindsay knew of a secret place at the foot of the mountains inland, Moroccan Tea gardens called Carmen del Campillo the ‘Casa Morisca’. This it turned out is an unexpected and enchanting place with echoes reminiscent of Moorish Spain.

Moroccan Tea Garden 10

The description Moors derives from the Latin Mauri, a name for the Berber tribes living in Roman Mauretania, modern day Algeria and Morocco.  It has no ethnographic meaning but can be used to refer to all Muslims, Berber or Arab, who over a thousand years ago travelled north out of Africa and colonised the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors arrived in Iberia in the year 711 and began a period of history which would give Spain a different and unique history to the rest of Europe as the entire region adapted to a new religion, language and culture.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region.

They expanded and improved Roman irrigation systems to help develop a strong agricultural sector.  After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. They introduced many new crops including the orange, lemon, peach, apricot, fig and pomegranate as well as saffron, sugar cane, cotton, silk and rice all of which remain some of Spain’s main products today.

The terraces on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia and Murcia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Alcoy Spain The Moors Parade

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca or Costa Calida but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air.  Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia. The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of up to five hundred fruits.

The Moroccan Tea Gardens are difficult to find and involved a long drive along a dusty track until we arrived at what seems at first sight to be an oasis in a thirsty plain.  Getting in is easy enough but I worried about getting out again when the iron gate was closed firmly behind us with a firm jailhouse rattle.

Moroccan Tea Garden 06

One inside the whole place is a rapturous assault on the senses, the sights, smells and sounds of Morocco, brightly painted walls and decoration, the aroma of burning incense and the music of North Africa.

Terracotta pots with effervescent geraniums and boiling blooms.  The garden weaving intricately and effortlessly through the house, making it an indoor and outdoor experience all at the same time. The house consists of a labyrinth of rooms that open onto open balconies, sun-bleached decks and private terraces that lead directly to the rooftops.  The objective of this tea house is to encourage tranquillity and relaxation and as afternoon slipped into evening it was illuminated with Islamic lamps and traditional wood burning fireplaces in every other room.

After we had investigated the house and gardens we found a table and ordered tea and sweet pastries and waited for the sun to disappear behind the mountain range, the Serra de Crevillent and when it had gone and we felt tranquil and relaxed we left the little piece of Morocco in Spain and made our way back to Rojales and the coast.

The blue of the sky and the terracotta of the earth…

Moroccan Tea Garden 07

Travels in Spain, The City of Granada

Granada Pointless Souvenirs

“Granada! Holy place of the glory of Spain, Your mountains are the white tents of pavilions, Your walls are the circle of a vase of flowers, Your plain a Moorish shawl embroidered with colour, Your towers are palm trees that imprison you” –  José Zorrilla y Moral

We had nice accommodation in Granada, a studio apartment with kitchen and living room.  We liked it and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and then immediately set off into the city in search of something to eat.

Unlike the previous stop in Puerta de Don Fadrique the streets were busy and everywhere was open so there was a lot of choice.  It was mid afternoon by now so we only wanted a snack so we found a tapas bar and then proceeded to order far more food than we really wanted.

We needed to walk it off so after we had finished and settled up we set off towards the Alhambra Palace and a viewing point called the Mirador directly adjacent.

Alhambra Granada

After a gentle stroll along the banks of the Rio Biera the road turned sharp left with signposts to the viewing platform which involved a much steeper climb than we had really anticipated when we had set out.  The road seemed to go on forever and become steeper and steeper by the step.  The smart people zoomed past on the shuttle buses that were taking passengers to the top but without a ticket we just had to continue slogging away.

It was one of those climbs when every so often you think you are there but you are not, hopes are dashed and another set of steps appears ahead and then another dog-leg to tease and to taunt.

Eventually however we were at the top, there was nowhere else to climb and there was a welcoming bar and some vacant tables.  Hardly surprising really because the prices were as high as the elevation but to be fair we were paying not only for the beer and wine but the magnificent view as well and we sat and looked out over the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the south and in the foreground the Alhambra Palace and the hundreds of visitors climbing around the walls.  Busy because with three million visitors a year it claims to be the most visited site in Spain.

The top ten most visited are the Alhambra, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Mosque at Cordoba, Santiago de Compostella, Burgos Cathedral, the Alcazar of Segovia, Roman Theatre at Merida, Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Cathedral and La Giralda in Seville and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I have visited them all except for the Guggenheim.

Granada Alahbra Face

The Alhambra complex was built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain during the the Nasrid dynasty who at the time were becoming increasingly subject to the Christian Kings of Castile.  After the final expulsion of the Moors and being allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, the buildings occupied by squatters, the Alhambra was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, who carried out retaliatory destruction of the site.

Our original plan was to visit the Palace but due to some sloppy travel planning on my part this wasn’t going to be possible this time.  It seems the place is so popular and so busy that during the peak season it is necessary to book tickets at least three months in advance and when I eventually got around to doing it I had left it too late.  Never mind, on the plus side it means we may need to back.

Alhabra from the Mirador

So for this time anyway we had to satisfy ourselves with a wonderful view of the exterior which I have to say provided a significant amount of compensation. When we had finished our drinks and had stopped drooling over the view we made our way back down into the city which thankfully was a lot easier than the climb up.

We sat for an hour or so now and enjoyed the accommodation before going back into the city for evening meal. We didn’t go far, just into the next street where there was a good choice of restaurants, using the selection criteria of looking at what other people were eating and spotting a man with a very nice steak we chose the first one that we came to and enjoyed a simple meal and a jug of house wine.

We liked Granada and we looked forward to a full day in the city tomorrow.

Granada Tapas

Travels in Spain – Andalucía, Malaga

Malaga Postcard

It was our final day in Andalucía.  The sun was shining.  We debated changing our plans.  We decided to stick to the agreed itinerary and drive to Málaga.  After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed south to the city which happens to be the birthplace of the artist Pablo Picasso, the actor Antonio Banderas and the golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez.

It took about an hour to drive to the city and when we arrived I was horrified to discover just how big it is and difficult to navigate.  Málaga is the sixth largest city in Spain and the biggest most southerly city in all of Europe (apologies to Valletta which is slightly further south but only half the size).  Eventually we found a parking space in an underground car park and emerged from subterranean level blinking into bright sunlight somewhere close to the old town.

The journey had been stressful.  We needed a drink.  We found a pavement bar close to the centre and found a vacant table where we could examine the city map and get our bearings.

Malaga Andalucia Spain

It was Saturday and Málaga was busy.  There was a cruise ship in the harbour and tourists were wandering around like a plague of locusts, local people were out shopping (Kim reliably informs me that this is what people do on a Saturday morning) and the area was well provided for by roaming street entertainers.  We stayed for a while and after paying the staggeringly high bill then wandered off in the direction of the cathedral but we didn’t go inside because having just spent so much on a beer we were put off by the cost of admission so instead we made our way to the harbour and after that the beach.

Malaga Beach

It has to be said that this is a very good beach indeed and we walked for a couple of miles along a promenade which ran adjacent to a crescent arc of lush caramel sand and gentle blue water that softly caressed the inviting shoreline.  As we walked we assessed the beach restaurants where fresh fish and bubbling paella was being prepared on flaming barbeques and made a decision where we might eat.

Unfortunately we left this a bit late and by the time we had decided our first, second and third choices were all full up with no prospect of available tables for at least an hour or more.  So we walked some more and then some more again and when we guessed that the time might be right we returned to our first choice and luckily there was a table free and we enjoyed a meal of fresh red snapper and a house salad.  It tasted divine.

Malaga Cathedral

After lunch we walked back to the city centre and while Kim went to the shops I returned to the cathedral.  There was a service in place now which meant there was no longer an admission fee and because that is the sort of good luck that I really appreciate I took advantage of my good fortune, wandered inside and mingled with the worshippers until it was all over and then spent an agreeable thirty minutes exploring the church and the side chapels before stepping back into the sun-splashed streets.

Aging Hippies Costa Del Sol

I confess that I hadn’t been absolutely sure that I would like Malaga, it once had a reputation for boozy Brits and cheap holidays but this is a city that has thoroughly reinvented itself. Gone is its seedy reputation as a playground for misbehaving tourists and instead the capital of the Costa Del Sol has been revived as a cultural destination only narrowly missing out to Donostia-San Sebastián as the 2016 European Capital of Culture.  As I stepped out of the Cathedral I knew that I liked it here.

Malaga is a business hub and a tourist city now but it has a long and varied history.  The Romans built a city here and we walked alongside the ancient theatre, the Moors were here of course before the Reconquista and then the Christians built a castle on the site of an abandoned Alcazaba.

Malaga Bullring

Málaga was one of the locations where Muslim rule persisted the longest, having been part of the Emirate of Granada. While most other parts of the peninsula had already been won back the Moors still occupied Málaga. It was finally retaken by Christian forces in August 1487, only five years before the fall of Granada.  The Muslim inhabitants resisted assaults and artillery bombardments before hunger forced them to surrender – virtually the entire population was sold into slavery – that is Christian charity for you!

We paid the modest admission price and then climbed steadily towards the top.  The lower areas of the castle are functional and militaristic but at the top there is a Palace almost as good as that at the Alhambra with shaded gardens where sunshine was trying to break in like a thief, fine Moorish architecture and a sense that this was once a place not just of military muscle but also of intellectual appreciation of the finer things in mediaeval life.

When we arrived six hours earlier we wondered how we would fill the day as we waited for our flight home but as it happened the day was slipping away rapidly now as we left the castle and returned to the car park along a busy street that was filling up with local people out for a wander around the Saturday night streets.

We stopped at a bar for a final drink and watched the evening entertainment and then reluctantly paid up, left, returned to the car and drove to the airport for our late night flight back to UK.

We had enjoyed our few days in Andalucía but with so much more to see we agreed that we would surely have to return.

Malaga Street Entertainers