Tag Archives: Reconquista

Travels in Spain, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

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I am fairly certain that I have mentioned here before that I have a travel ambition to visit all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain.  So far I have managed fifteen but still need to add La Rioja and Navarre to my  list.  I could have chosen to go there this time but instead I went to the east coast where I have been previously.

I have been to Valencia and Murcia before and I have always said that it isn’t my favourite part of Spain but now my sister lives there so this provided an opportunity to visit and possibly make a reassessment.  I resolved that if possible that this should be a voyage of discovery.

This part of the east coast of Spain is called the Costa Blanca now but it is still quite often referred to by its once regional name of Levante from a time when the Moors had colonial ownership of the Iberian peninsular and had a heavy presence all along this Mediterranean coastline.

It is said that the name Costa Blanca was originally conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom.  I think this may explain why I have always been a bit snooty about it because I have always associated it with concrete holiday resorts and as we flew in over Benidorm, gleaming like a shiny pin-cushion I was fairly certain that nothing short of dynamite was going to change my opinion.

Alicante Castle

This opinion exposes my prejudice and ignorance because the problem that I have is that I find it difficult to get an understanding of Valencia because you need to dig deep to find the true heritage of the place.  Nothing shouts out to me like the Flamenco of Andalucía, Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or the Conquistadors of Extremadura, of Gaudi in Catalonia, the Camino Way of Galicia or tales of Saint James and the Reconquista in Castilla y Leon.

The only flimsy thing that I have ever had to go on was the story of El Cid and the battle with the Moors over the city of Valencia

Benidorm Spain

Allow me to go on; it has always concerned me that there are a great many British living in this part of Spain, in Torrevieja alone there are about twelve thousand which accounts for about thirteen per cent of the entire population.  In fact the Spanish themselves are in the minority at only forty-eight per cent and soon it is estimated that in total there will be one million Brits living on the Costa Blanca.

It is not only British but also the Scandinavians and the Germans and the Dutch and even the Spanish themselves because as more immigrants arrive then more people from other regions of Spain head east for the jobs that are created. Valencia has some difficulty retaining and protecting its own identity and many local people lament the loss of heritage and language and tradition.

So I got a bigger spade and started to dig a bit deeper to try to learn something about Valencia other than the story of El Cid.

paella

I suppose I have to start with paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia.  When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.

They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice.  Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.

These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans.  Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal.

valencia-oranges

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. After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sharp, 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 some five hundred fruits.

We landed in Alicante in bright sunshine around about lunch time and after a short drive to the urbanisation of Quesada we immediately settled in to local life by finding a bar with some local tapas.  It was good to be in Spain once more.

Tapas Alicante

Travels in Spain – The Alhambra Palace and the Rugby Granada Cinema

Alhambra Detail

“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 a good room in a nice hotel in Romilla and from the balcony we began to adjust to the pace of the place which, it has to be said was dangerously close to reverse.

The sun was shining now so we went for a stroll at what I would describe as a sort of normal walking pace but which seemed to startle a couple of the locals who were busy sitting around doing nothing and who broke out into a sweat just watching us amble by and then we came across a bar who seemed surprised to suddenly have some customers.  Anyway, it was very pleasant sitting in the sun at last and we stayed for a second beer and the barman prepared us some complimentary tapas.

I was reluctant to raise the issue of the obvious absence of restaurants in Romilla but despite my efforts to avoid it conversation inevitably turned to evening dining arrangements.  These were so limited that our only real option was to return to a service station at the side of the nearby main road.  This could have been a disaster for me but luckily it turned out fine, there was a motel on the site and an excellent reasonably priced restaurant where we enjoyed an unexpectedly good meal.

Alhambra Granada

We had an unusually early start the following morning because we were driving to Granada and had timed entrance tickets to the Alhambra Palace complex and believe me this is a good tip – make sure you book in advance on line because entrance tickets are strictly limited to a prescribed number and if you turn up on the day expecting to buy a ticket and it is full then you won’t get in.  End of!

I have been to Granada several times as it happens.  Not this one of course but the Granada Cinema in my home town of Rugby.  What a flea-pit it was.  A towering brick building built in 1933 and originally called the Plaza but later in 1946 changing its name to the Granada in the same way as so many others as they borrowed continental place names such as Alhambra, Rialto, Amalfi and Colosseum to make them sound more exciting.  Later car manufacturers did exactly the same of course and we had the Ford trio of Corsair, Cortina and Granada, Triumph had the Toledo and the Dolomite and the Seat the Ibiza and the Cordoba.

Rugby Granada Picture House

And not just Granada, I have also been to the Alhambra, that is the Alhambra public house in Coventry which was on the once a month Saturday night pub trail when I was a lot younger.

It was a short drive to Granada, one of the great cities of Iberia, located at the confluence of four major rivers and at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest in all of Spain and still snow capped at the highest peaks which created a picturesque backdrop as we made our final approach to the Alhambra.

At ten o’clock it wasn’t especially busy and we easily collected our tickets and began our visit to a place that with three million visitors a year claims to be the most visited site in Spain.

Alhambra Gateway

Top ten most visited are 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.

We began in the gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace of the Sultans and Emirs and built in the shadow of the mountains in the coolest spot on the site away from the suffocating heat of the Alhambra itself.

The Alhambra complex was built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain during the the Nasrid dynasty who at the time were 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.  It has been restored now to its former glory and exhibits the country’s most significant and most precious Islamic architecture.

Alhambra Nasrid Palace

The 1492 surrender of the Islamic Emirate of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs is one of the most significant events in the history of Granada as it marked the completion of the Reconquista of Al-Andalus.  As part of the deal the Muslims were allowed to stay in Granada and afforded religious toleration but within only a few years the Christians reneged on this and those who refused to convert were expelled.

El Cid 1

Christians took possession of the site and added a cathedral and a castle complex and sometime later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V demolished part of the site and built himself a grand palace but then having gone to all that trouble he never bothered to move in.  What a waste!

Fortunately today much of the Palace of the Moors remains intact (restored of course) and eventually we used our timed tickets to join a queue to go inside.  It was wonderful and it immediately transported us back to Morocco and the Palaces of Marrakech and Meknes.

Alhambra Gardens

Hanging gardens, foaming fountains and sparkling streams of water, cool welcome shade, sunshine trying to break in like a thief, startlingly fine alabaster white stucco work, geometric tiled patterns exploding with colour, decoration like stalactites dripping from the elaborate ceilings, carved columns and horseshoe arches and I immediately understood why this just might be the number one place to visit in Spain.

We stayed as long as we possibly could in the Palace complex but inevitably the flow of visitors carried us like an estuary to the exit and we left with an overwhelming feeling of total satisfaction.

Palace of Charles V Alhambra

In the heat of the afternoon we visited the Palace of Charles V and the museum inside and then the Alcazaba with stunning views over the whole of the city of Granada.

I had hoped that I might persuade Kim to walk down into the city centre and at least visit the towering cathedral but I could tell that she wasn’t particularly keen so I kept that suggestion to myself with the thought that one day we might return to Granada and see all of the things that we were now going to miss.

Granada from the Alhambra

Perhaps we should have stayed in Granada rather than Romilla but it was too late to reverse that decision now so we made our weary way back to the village and the hotel El Soto de Roma and rested a while before making our way back to the village bar for wine and tapas and later we returned to the motorway service station for evening meal where we reflected on a really excellent day.

Alhambra Reflection

Travels in Spain – Córdoba and the Mezquita

“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 – ‘Spain’

Although the road was swinging encouragingly to the south it couldn’t keep us ahead of the cloud and by the time we reached the city of Córdoba it was 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 beginning to regret the lightweight clothing option that we had selected earlier.

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!

Catalonia Spain

Walking to the city centre 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, the Mezquita.

As well as being the second largest mosque in the world at the time of its construction this was the grandest and most beautiful mosque of all constructed by the Moors in Spain and it is situated amongst a picturesque lattice work of narrow streets, patios and plazas in the city’s old Jewish quarter.  After the Spanish Reconquest, it was transformed into a church, and some of the Islamic columns and arches were replaced by a basilica and today it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral and the main church of the diocese of Córdoba.

Inside it was really spectacular with nearly a thousand columns of granite, jasper and marble stripped buff-white and rose-pink supporting the roof and creating a dazzling visual effect.  When the Cathedral was constructed in the sixteenth century some of these pillars 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.

That 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.

“To Cordoba belong all the beauty and ornaments that delight the eye or dazzle the sight.”  –  Stanley Lane-Poole – The Moors in Spain

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 orange trees it is possible to experience  a feeling of peace and harmony which is quite different from the mood of religious holiness and austerity imparted by Christian cloisters. The small reddish oranges cluster among the dark green leaves, butterflies chase one another, birds compete and squabble and the thrusting columns make a statement that they have been willed by God.

It took some time to walk through the Mezquita and see all of the highlights 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.

Because 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 away in the direction of Granada.

we weren’t staying in the city but in a small village called Romilla just about ten miles west and we drove in in the late afternoon and we knew immediately that this wasn’t going to be very thrilling.  This place was like a cemetery for the living and apart from the excitement of the visit of mobile vegetable shop our arrival was most likely the only thing that had happened in Romilla all day and possibly all week!

Travels in Spain – Consuegra, Windmills and Castles

Consuegra Castle and Windmill

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain.  And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. “

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

It was going to be a long day so we rose early ready for a quick start and as usual my first job was to check the weather.

The air felt fresher and from the hotel window I could see cloud to the east, which was a bit of a worry, but the lady on Spanish breakfast television seemed confident that it was going to be fine and out to the west it was clear blue and that was the direction in which we were heading.  After breakfast and check out we packed the car and started on the one hundred and fifty kilometre drive to Toledo.

We drove first to the town of Alcázar de San Juan but this wasn’t because of any sort of research just an instinct that it would be interesting based on what seemed to be a promising name.  I should have carried out some research because it didn’t seem very appealing at all, there wasn’t a castle to be seen and the clouds had caught up and overtaken us and there was a bleached out sort of chalky whiteness to the sky so we rather rudely carried on without stopping.

Somewhere just west of the town we crossed the old A4 highway and that reminded me of the mad drive through Spain with my brother and two friends in 1984 when we drove from southern Portugal to the French border in thirty-six hours in a ten year old clapped out Ford Escort.

Back in the hotel there had been pictures of a castle and a row of windmills at the next town of Consuegra so as it came into view on the left we left the main road and headed towards the whitewashed Castilian town squatting low down on the plain.

From what we saw of the town of Consuegra as we drove through it is rather untidy and uncared for, the streets are grimy and the roads full of precarious potholes but rising high above all of the disappointment is a line of whitewashed, blue domed windmills standing sentinel over the town and the adjacent plain like regimental guards overlooking the town.

Consuegra Windmills Spain

Across the crest of the hill, they march like giants.  No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword  and charged in combat to fight these windmills.

Originally, there were thirteen whitewashed mills lining this hilltop. Now only eleven remain of which four still retain their working mechanisms. Known as “molinos” in Spain, the windmills are each named — Sancho, Bolero, Espartero, Mambrino, Rucio, Cardeno, Alcancia, Chispas, Callabero del Verde Gaban, Clavileno and Vista Alegre.

The buildings are tall cylindrical towers capped with dark cones and four big sails that move with the wind.  In days gone by, farmers would haul their grain here where the structures harnessed the power of the wind to grind the corn. The windmills and the skills to operate them were passed down from fathers to sons.

Windows placed around the tower of the windmill provide great views today. But that was not their original use. From these windows, the miller could keep watch on the shifting winds. When the winds changed he would have to move the tiller beam to turn the mill. If he didn’t a sudden strong wind could strip the sails, rip off the top and the whole building could be destroyed by an aggressive wind.

From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a rather sorry state of disrepair but from here there were terrific views over the great plain of Castile and it was easy to see why this was once a very important military place as it guarded the direct route from the south to Toledo and Madrid.

The castle was once a stronghold of the Knights of San Juan, the Spanish branch of the Knight’s Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

Although the sun was shining there was a sharp chill at the top of this exposed ridge and the wind moaned through the sail wires and as we walked between the black sails and admired the bulk of the castle nearby we drew strange glances from bus tourists who were wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves that were much more appropriate than our linens and short sleeves.

Shortly after that we left the windmills of Consuegra and continued our journey towards Toledo.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Victory

El Cid Burgos Spain

El Cid and the Reconquesta

Once over the river we crossed a bridge lined with statues depicting the heroes of the Reconquesta and then, there he was – El Cid, looking fearsome with his grizzled beard, wild cloak flowing madly behind him, his mighty sword La Tizona extended ahead of him,  much too big and heavy for an ordinary mortal, his burning eyes fixed ferociously on an enemy army as he led a charge to victory against the Moors sat on his magnificent famous white steed Babieca.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Converge – The Mosque at Cordoba

Cordoba Mosque

The Great Mosque of Cordoba was, and continues to be, considered a wonder of the medieval world by both Muslims and Christians alike. Built on a Visigothic site, which was probably the site of an earlier Roman temple, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was begun between 784 and 786 during the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman I and constructed initially from materials taken from demolished Roman structures including those as far away as Merida in Extremadura.

At the time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.  The indigenous cultures interacted and integrated openly with Muslim and Jewish cultures in complex ways, thus giving the region a distinctive culture which perpetuates even today.

As well as being the second largest Mosque in the world at the time of its construction this was the grandest and most beautiful church constructed by the Moors in Spain and it is situated deep in the heart of the city amongst a lattice work of narrow streets, geranium laden balconies, secret patios and half-hidden plazas in the city’s old Jewish quarter.

Read the full story…

Cordoba Andalusia Spain