Granada to die for,
Malaga of my loves, how I remember you!
Cádiz is a white handkerchief and a sigh in the bay….
Córdoba is Moorish and Christian…
The love of my loves,
what I want most in life, and
this is my land and it is called Andalusia.
– Federico Garcia Lorca
November 2021- May 2022
You’ll love Andalusia! everyone said. Little did I know what a sensory – and sensual – experience it would be in my new found happy corner in Southern Spain. For six months, I withdraw myself, go offline, and take the plunge: back to dancing! Flamenco 101!
Along the way, I discover the region’s glorious history from the Phoenicians to the Romans, Jews, and Arabs. I marvel at exquisite Moorish architecture and get a glimpse of Gypsy roots and influence. I hop from one heritage village to another, hiking in spectacular country trails. But most of all I try to train my novice ears for impossibly complex Flamenco compás, under the influence of flowing sherry wines paired with mouth-watering Iberian tapas. If only my neurons were fast enough to translate those beats into clean taconeo/footwork! Who said it’s good to start something you suck at? What joy of learning – and failing!
Before settling comfortably into my new long, elegant Flamenco dress, I give myself the luxury of a three-week DIY tour of the region, trying to feel the “lost paradise” of the Generation of”27 poets. How a city sings from November to November… with the Guadalquivir river that runs between orange and olive trees, and the cypresses of romantic blackness. Never let me lose the marvel. Never let me lose what I have gained...
From Faro in Southern Portugal, it is a breeze to cross to Seville, the Andalusian soul. From there, everything is within an easy stroll: Cordoba to the North, Granada to the East, and Malaga, Cadiz, and Jerez to the South. For a day, I cross into Gibraltar to stand on top of that famous Rock, looking back at Africa where I had just spent an unforgettable year. How distance always makes the heart grow fonder!
The Eternal Light of Seville
The poets are always right! No words seem sufficient to describe the magic of Seville. The orange trees, what a sight! And the light… on the city walls and the Alcazar, on the Cathedral where a mosque once was, and on the elegant University where Bizet’s Carmen entered and famously sang her habanera: Love is a rebellious bird! There, following the lovely Maria Luisa gardens, the visitor marvels at the grandiose Plaza Espana, before the sun sets on the gentle river bridging Seville and Triana, the home of soul-stirring Flamenco soleá…
In the mornings, I love to stroll in my favourite Santa Cruz barrio, the old Jewish Quarter, to enjoy fleeting light and shadow, watching local residents follow their life script, going forth, going slow…
Seville was once the New Rome, filled with splendid palaces and gardens, charming patios and timeless squares. In Plaza Espana, I am mesmerized by the slanted shadows across the beautiful colonnades and arches on the shiny marble floor. Before long, Flamenco artists trickle in for their daily shows. If you ask me where I’m going/And if you want to know who I am/Realise that it’s easy to guess/That I’m me/Oh oh, oh oh oh…
How I envy Antonio Machado who writes: My childhood are memories of a courtyard in Seville! For a few short-lived days, I follow the spirit of the Generation of ’27 poets in this city of a thousand surprises where oblivion lives, contra-tempo, in a Flamenco palo…
Cordoba: The Shining City
Setting foot in the magnificent 1200-year-old Mezquita, the former mosque and now Cathedral, is a journey into time and presence divine. The exquisite arches and columns exude such peace in the quiet of early mornings and impermanence in the march of the afternoon light, immortalized by the verse of Pakistani poet, Muhammad Iqbal. The succession of day and night, is the fountain‐head of life and death.../But what if you are found wanting/What if I am found wanting…/What else is the reality of your days and nights/Besides a surge in the river of time, sans day, sans night…
I take a day trip to Madinat al-Zahra/the Shining City, an impressive UNESCO World Heritage site of a 10th century archeological palace city built by the first caliph of Al-Andalus. What pure joy to wander Cordoba’s medieval alleys, crossing the Roman bridge, following the footsteps of Andalusian poets.Though one knows the way, one never gets to Cordoba. Cordoba, distant and alone, laments Federico Garcia Lorca.
Granada where the stars wish to rest…
I am not alone, for from here I contemplate an astonishing garden, inscribes a poem on the arch of entry to Daraxa’s mirador in the Alhambra. On a chilly November morning, I set foot in the legendary Nasrid Palaces in the impressive 13th century Moorish palace and fortress for the first time, utterly spellbound. What attention to details and immaculate execution! I emerge only at noon to climb the towers of Alcazaba for an unparalleled view of Granada and the snow-capped mountains of Sierra Nevada. By the time I reach the Palace of Charles V, the afternoon light reaches the colonnades of the spectacular circular patio where I sit to admire the Renaissance masterpiece. I extricate myself only reluctantly in the direction of the Generalife. What enchanting gardens and what views! Your visage appears before us as a sign/that is where all the perfections have met!
Every afternoon, painters, Flamenco artists, and visitors congregate in Plaza San Nicholas in Albaicin, the photogenic historic neighbourhood known for its steep, winding streets and Moorish influence, to enjoy the magical moment of yet another eternal Andalusian sundown…
Steps away, Sacromonte has the mystic reputation for being the ancestral home of gypsies who arrived here in the 15th century, settling in cave dwellings that still exist today. From this humble setting emerged some of the most influential artists like the legendary Habichuela family that would take Flamenco to a mass audience in the 1960s before evictions permanently uprooted the community. Because yesterday in my verse, companion/the blow of your dry palms sounded/and you gave the ice to my singing/I will sing you… the eyes that you lack (Antonio Machado).
Malaga: the Loving Waves
The sun and the sea, a beautiful Moorish castle and palace at the top with lush gardens and blooming bougainvillea, Roman theater and ramparts, hip bistros and funky modern art… Malaga has it all. My eyes always see you/the city of my seabound days/In your plunge into the wavy blue/You rule under the sky and above water…/Before you sink down the loving waves (Vicente Aleixandre).
From Malaga, I take a guided day trip to Antequera to visit sacred ancient dolmens and hike in the spectacular El Torcal amidst its dramatic “pancake” limestone formations plus a million-dollar view of the Moroccan Rif Mountains, at once so close and yet so remote…
Nearby, Ronda is a beautiful village set in an impressive gorge, famous for bullfighting and the Puente Nuevo that drops 100m straight below. If not for the overwhelming pre-holiday crowd, I would have gladly lingered in its beautiful trails…
Gibraltar: The Rock
Spending the night in La Línea de la Concepción on the Spanish side, I set out for British Gibraltar in early morning, crossing a runway to get to Market Place. I walk towards scenic Europa Point, gazing at North Africa only a ferry away. By the time I reach the nature reserve, it is too late to climb to the top. I head back to the coast instead, visiting various forts along the way, marvelling at the rich cultural mix of English, Spanish, Maltese, Portuguese, and Arabic, enjoying a glorious Gibraltarian sunset.
Cadiz and the Little Silver Cup
Money and diamonds once flowed abundantly through the city of Cadiz, nicknamed the Little Silver Cup. The oldest inhabited city in Europe with the strongest forts, the most amazing monuments and intriguing museums, the best beaches and the freshest seafood, and the most fun-loving Qaditanos! The 3000-year-old city sparkles with its dazzling cultural heritage, from the Phoenicians to the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans and Muslims. How many travellers have come and stayed in this magnificent port city where old walls and the sea reveal their deep secrets only slowly? Oh! it gives me chills, the ship’s siren../when they say “Oh! they’re leaving”…/When you enter through Cadiz/By the Bay/You enter the paradise of joy (Chano Lobato, Alegrias de Cadiz).
The Andalusian Culinary Universe
This is a region with a culinary reputation based on many cultural traditions. Espinacas con garbanzos/spinach with chickpeas in Seville, salmorejo soup in Cordoba, fritura Malagueña/fried seafood platter in Malaga, and chicharrones/roasted pork belly of Cadiz, just to name a few. Six months of sherry and tapas greatly enhance my palette and repertoire!
For my birthday, I head to Michelin-starred Lu Cocina y Alma in Jerez where I let Chef Juan-Lu take me to his spacious, appetizing Lu universe. What a culinary tour de force – blending French cooking with traditional Andalusian recipes so smoothly – and a visual smorgasbord!
I have been enjoying one of the mildest winters in years and am tempted to stay. Something beckons me… those guitar notes and sorrowful songs oozing out of the Andalusian soul that, on a quiet night, you can almost hear from within. So I take a bold decision to embark on the greatest adventure in my life: braving the lightning-speed Flamenco zapateado!
Moon, moon, moon, run!
If the gypsies come,
they will use your heart
to make white necklaces and rings.
Let me dance, my little one.
– Federico Garcia Lorca, Ballad of the Moon
Next: Twelve, One, Two: Six Months of Flamenco Blues!
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