Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

world-map malaga


I've had a hell of a week this week as a back injury has put me out of action totally forcing me to stay at home and not move a muscle for fear of immense pain. However, it's getting better slowly and since back problems only inhibit moving and not talking, (and I do do a lot of the latter...), I took up an offer today and appeared on a local radio show discussing Christmas and various religious and folkloric traditions associated with this time of year. Since it went rather well, I'm hoping to be back on the show very soon and talking about travel so be sure to tune in! The show I did today will be available on playback very soon and when it is, you can find it on the Six Tows Radio website at Let me know what you think!

Also, please check out my latest travel article on Travel Mag, an account of walking some of Britain's canals, found here:

This week's post is a continuation of the piece started last week, detailing some travels in Southern Spain that I did with my brother Rob a few years back. As some of you may already know, Rob is quite a famous artist and whilst we travelled he did some sketches, some of which I have interspersed the text with. Like me, he loves feedback so let him know what you think of his work. If you do like what he does, he has a Facebook page and also the Big Red Blog which can be accessed from my Blogger profile. Anyway, without further ado, please join me and the Sibling on a trip to Andalucia...

Keep it real!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Travels in 2007: Part 1: Berlin

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

Travels in 2007: Part 3: Tangiers and Fez

Travels in 2007: Part 4: Merzouga and Demnate

Travels in 2007: Part 5: Casablanca and Marrakech


And so that brings us back to the beginning, back to the three cities with one airport, back to the long, long queue at the check-in for Easyjet flight No. EZY6541 to Málaga. The queue in which the Sibling and I stood, eager to be off.

Few people when they see us together, believe that we are brothers, but the fact remains that we are. One could say that I got all the looks and he got all the freckles, but that would, alas, be a little misleading. His assertion that I got all the pies instead, is equally erroneous. Despite our different appearances however, and a divergence of interests, we somehow do travel well together. Experience has borne that out. Moscow and Bulgaria in 2002, and the Trans-Europe trip the following year. Ok, so he can get a little annoying at times, but that’s what brothers are for. Well, that and also the purpose of someone to look good against when compared.

This trip, not only to Spain, but also Morocco afterwards, (all that we had booked was a flight to Málaga and a flight from Marrakech some nineteen days later), was unlike the Berlin one in virtually every respect. It was longer for starters, and it was definitely not spur of the moment. We’d talked about a holiday together almost a year before, and the flights themselves had been booked in September. Morocco had not been the original destination however. Initially I had wanted to go to Turkey, but when it was revealed that we would be travelling in February, (for our trip was dictated by the timing of She Who Must Be Obeyed’s journey home to Paradise on Earth), then I knew straightaway that that destination was a non-starter. I had been to Turkey before in February and it had snowed in Istanbul and been that cold in Ankara that my hands ached. And the further west you go in Turkey, the colder it gets. And I wanted to go to the rarely-visited far west, to a city called Kars. I learnt about Kars from an Orhan Pamuk novel entitled ‘Snow’. In the book, it is winter and the city is cut off from the rest of the world by heavy snow. No, Turkey was a non-starter.

So, where else? I still cherished Turkeyesque ideas of going to some Middle Eastern country with sprawling souqs, magical mosques and steamy hammams. Islam and its world has long fascinated me and having read the Qu’ran and a life of the Prophet, I wanted to experience more first-hand. I had of course, visited Muslim countries before – Palestine, Egypt, the UAE and Uzbekistan to name but a few – but you can never have too much of a good thing and besides, I was coming from a new angle now. I have long found Islamic art and architecture sublime, the geometric patterns and coloured tiles do far more for me than the statues and paintings of Christendom, but at the same time, I have always struggled to see the spiritual beauty in the faith that inspired them. True, sometimes it can be glimpsed, in the call of the muezzin or in the works of some of the Sufi Masters, but generally speaking, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet’ left me cold. I said earlier that I had read the Qu’ran, and that is true, but in English at least, it seemed to be largely a series of rules or exhortations to remember that God is One and don’t worship idols or hell is your destination for eternity. Hardly the stuff of spiritual depth, nothing to compare with the insights of Buddhism or Christianity’s ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.’ Reading a life of the Prophet helped it make a lot more sense, gave flesh and character to the bones, but then a different problem was raised, that that life was, in Western eyes, such a controversial one. Here is a man, regarded as the perfect example to follow in life by all Muslims, who slept with a nine-year old, murdered a whole tribe of Jews who once gave him sanctuary, went raiding during times of sacred truce, married no less than thirteen times and led whole armies across the desert. One thing is for certain, Jesus of Nazareth he wasn’t. But then that is only one side of the story, and I knew that there was more, both to the Prophet and to the faith that he founded, now the second-largest on Earth. I knew that I was missing something, and experience has taught me that the best way to find stuff out is to travel.

After Turkey, my initial thought was Yemen, and the Sibling was supportive. One of the most ancient areas of human settlement on Earth, (the Queen of Sheba is reputed to come from those parts), and Arabia proper, this would give a truly Islamic experience. Furthermore, there are treasures to see in Yemen, the spectacular capital city of Sana’a, Aden, once one of the greatest ports on Earth and above all, Shibam, the desert city of mud skyscrapers dating back centuries. These were world-class sights and best of all, this is a country rarely visited by tourists. My mind was made up.

It was not all so rosy however. One reason why the tourists failed to visit was because when they did, they were occasionally kidnapped. This worried a lot of people more than the Sibling and I, but what finally made us turn away from that Arabian paradise was the cost. It was going to be around £400 each for the flights, a price simply too fat for our slender wallets.

Dismayed, the idea was reluctantly abandoned, but then an unexpected saviour stepped in. John Higgins, a supply teacher at work, began telling me about his travel passion, Morocco. Every year for the past two decades or so, he has flown over there with his bike and ridden around the mountains and plains of that little North African country. He recommended it thoroughly. I was sceptical. Isn’t it too touristy? I heard that hassle was a problem? He reassured me that only Fez and Marrakech were really touristy, up in the mountains you were alone. And as for the hassle, isn’t any third or second world country the same? Hmm, good points, but I wouldn’t know where to go, to get off that oh-so-beaten track I protested. ‘I can sort a route out for you if you’d like?’ he offered. I took the offer up and the flights were booked.

So Morocco it was, because I wanted a taste of Islam and the Orient. But what of the Sibling? Well, he was happy wherever, just so long as there were ample opportunities to sketch or paint. I showed him pictures of the old city of Fez. Yes, that was quite good enough, he was in.

The Sibling: surrounded by art

So, that is Morocco, but what about Spain. Well, that I must admit, was my little addition. As I said before at the beginning of this work, I have always had a thing for cultural transitions. In an ideal world, I should like to travel to every destination that I head for entirely by land or sea, so that I can see clearly how my reality has evolved into that other reality. In a real world however, we neither have the time nor the money to do this all the time so instead we have to select. By flying to Spain we could get a hint of Europe yet a part of Europe – Andalusia – that was dominated for centuries by a Muslim (and indeed, Moroccan) culture. We could take in the Alhambra Palace, the finest Muslim monument in Europe, and then cross the Straits of Gibraltar and experience the ‘real’ thing, the meeting of Europe and Africa. That at least, was the plan, and thankfully the Sibling was once again happy to go along with it. Besides, we’d both been to Spain before and enjoyed the experience and since Muslims are forbidden alcohol, we wanted to make sure that we could fit in at least one night’s drinking on our travels.

It was ten o’ clock at night by the time we touched down at Málaga’s Pablo Picasso Airport. I was amazed. I had expected some middling-sized terminal, yet the place was huge, perhaps as big as Manchester Airport and easily eclipsing the puny Berlin Schönefeld that I’d touched down in but a fortnight before. You wouldn’t expect that would you? A port city of half a million having a bigger (and better) airport than the capital of the world’s 3rd biggest economy, a city of almost four million, but the modern world throws up surprises like that. The reason behind it of course, was that Aeroporto Málaga was also the air hub for the Costa del Sol, perhaps the biggest (and some would say the ugliest) tourist development in the world, several hundred kilometres of almost continual touristic sprawl, inhabited by Brits, Germans and Scandinavians on two-week package tours or perhaps retired with a humble villa saved up for over the years.

We however, hadn’t thought about the Costas and instead were amazed by the size and modernity of the place, and the forest of cranes that betrayed the fact that it was going to get bigger. Still, big airport or not, it was nice to be away again. The smell in the airport revealed immediately that we were again in the alien, in a country hotter than our own, with richer perfumes that only mild nights can bring. I inhaled deeply and remembered the words of an old friend of mine, a former sailor who said that you always knew when you were near Africa, even if you could not see it yet, there was a smell, a special smell, the wonderful smell of Africa. This was not Africa and I doubt not that it was nowhere near so wonderful an odour, but it was still different, still to be savoured.

Once through the airport at the adjacent railway station, we began to realise just how little Málaga’s airport serves the city of that name and how much it serves the Costa instead. Thirty or forty people came down with us and formed a queue at the ticket machine, causing us to miss the city-bound train that came and went as we waited. Then, when we got to the platform, we discovered that we were the only ones there. The rest were crammed onto the opposite side, all awaiting the train to a place called Fuengirola which sounded vaguely familiar to my ears. Later checking of the map revealed that it should do; it was one of the major resorts on the Costa del Sol. Its easterly neighbour is Torremolinos. ‘Nuff said.

A couple Spaniards had joined us by the time the train arrived but it was still half-empty and we were the only foreigners on board. That train took us underground, right next to the old city from which it was a short walk to the hotel that I had booked via the internet, the Kris Tribuna, with three stars a veritable palace for us. The girl on the reception desk was a dark-haired beauty who made us both feel glad to be in Spain, whilst the room, with en suite shower and toilet, was far beyond what we had expected. We were not however, in the country to admire the hotel and besides, we were both hungry and thirsty, so we immediately tripped on out again in search of some sustenance.

The Málaga that we had walked through on our short trip from the railway station to the hotel was a pretty uninspiring place, bland and modern with huge buildings and wide streets. Through it ran a river, or at least, at some times ran a river. When we walked it was just a trickle running along the bottom of an enormous trough of concrete, liberally graffitied by the local vandals. One half-expected Danny Zuko, Sandy Olsson and all the gang to come speeding down in banged up old automobiles singing ‘Grease Lightning’.

But that was the new city and the old city of which the hotel was right on the edge, was something quite different. Narrow winding streets lined with old, elegant blocks, some four or five storeys high, with cast-iron balconies and walls of mellow stone, now, that was the same that we had come looking for! Quite what went on inside those buildings however, was another matter. The first bar that we passed had ladies of a dubious-looking reputation standing outside along with tattoo-bedecked gents. A smell of cheap perfume pervaded and inside a chainsaw could be heard and a woman screaming in ecstasy. We walked on swiftly by. Later perhaps…

We settled for a small fast-food outlet opposite an ancient church with a couple of tables outside. It was too cold to be dining al fresco really, but we were British and the novelty had not worn off. We began our journey into Spanish cuisine by ordering some pollo in a wrap and then some guacamole with nachos and another dish which translated as ‘Nacho Special’[1] and was in reality, nachos with some melted cheese and tomatoes. We ate them all, washed them down with a couple of Mahou beers and then continued on our way.

We decided that we liked Málaga after all. We liked the fact that it didn’t seem to have changed in centuries and that every so often the narrow alleys opened up into small squares with lively restaurants or bars on them. We stopped at several, enjoyed a cold beer and some free tapas (usually paella), and marvelled at the ladies who were of unquestioned loveliness. In the final bar that we visited, a narrow affair with Moorish tiles on the walls, I sat facing the TV which was inexplicably showing some hard-core porn, (not that the clientele of largely middle-aged, middle-class couples seemed bothered), whilst the Sibling, facing in the opposite direction had unrestricted viewing of the sizable cleavage of a pretty young brunette who was out with her boyfriend. Yes, we did like Málaga.

This was a place for couples. Unlike in Britain where people hunt in packs on a Saturday night, or later in Morocco where the sexes socialise strictly segregated, every man was with a girl here and vice versa. The Sibling and I felt quite out of it, which we were, but we cared not. We were on holiday after all, and besides, without a girl by my side, the Chinese ladies who did the rounds selling roses, generally left us alone.

One thing that the Sibling also liked about Málaga were the huge posters on the walls advertising a special Picasso exhibition. Picasso was born there in 1881 and his hometown still hosts one of the best collections of his work in the world. The Sibling had long been a fan of Pablo’s, having seen some of his works in Barcelona and was delighted at having chanced on seeing some more. I however, was more interested in looking for signs of the Moorish Spain that had been consigned to history when the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus fell in 1492, (although Málaga became Christian five years earlier), and just below the surface, those signs were there. The Moorish tiles were one, an Arabian look to some of the people another and by the church where we had eaten nachos, there was a Calle Mosque.

One of our ports of call looked at the connection from a different angle. We stumbled by accident into a bar that didn’t sell beer but instead strange cocktails. It was decorated in a faux Moroccan style and was teeming with hippies who reclined on Berber rugs and held hands in the candlelight. The place was tastefully done and the Sibling liked the artistic photographs of naked women reclining on sofas, but somehow it didn’t feel right. We had come to Spain for Spain, not Morocco and this was all a little… false. We had one kahlúa milk with strawberry (I ask you!) and walked on out.

Later the rain began to fall and it grew colder so we deemed it best to retire for the night as we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to look around the city the following day. When we walked past the strange bar, the smell of cheap perfume still pervaded the air but the chainsaw had at least been switched off. It was no doubt for the best.

I didn’t know what time it was when I woke up that morning and that bothered me. It was a Sunday and I wanted to attend Mass. Unsurprisingly, doing such a thing was unlikely to prove to be a serious problem in one of the most staunchly Christian countries on earth – Masses are hardly in short supply on a Spanish Sunday – and I had asked the girl on the reception desk the previous night the time of the Masses in the cathedral, only to be given a list as long as my arm. But despite all that, I did hope that it wasn’t too late. After all, it would have been a shame to waste a precious day and so it was that I hurried my slothful sibling on with a reminder.

“Get a move on won’t you?! The Holy Mass will start on time even if you don’t!”

“Is that what you’re calling yourself these days then?”

“Excuse me?”

“The Holy Mass, your new title. I must admit, it’s a good one.”

Oh Lord, remind me never to go travelling with a master of sarcasm again!

We breakfasted in a street café near to a magnificent Romanesque church. As soon as we had sat down, the Sibling got out his sketchbook and started to sketch, not the stunning Gothic House of God, but instead some unsuspecting passers-by. This, I was very soon to learn, was to become a recurring theme of our holiday. Whenever we sat down, if only for s fleeting moment to rest our weary feet, out that accursed book would come and away he would go, capturing the sights around him in 2B pencil. The sketches produced were undoubtedly good, but when we were in a hurry, it could be more than a little annoying.

When the breakfast came, it swam in grease and was delicious. I devoured the pork that would soon be forbidden to me with gusto and mopped the grease up with the bread. Then we parted company, I to my faith and he to his, or to be more specific, to the much-advertised exhibition in the Pablo Picasso Museum.

Málaga’s cathedral, like so many in Andalusia, is in the heart of the city, built on the site of the former mosque. It is also ridiculously big, a grand boast from the 16th century of the fact that Christ the Omnipotent had kicked out the infidels, replaced their temple with His own and then nicked the wealth of the Americas to furnish it. The massive doors, gorgeous decoration and soaring walls seemed to shout out ‘God is great!’ Apt perhaps considering what had formerly stood on the site.

As well as being big, the cathedral was also locked, as a Mass was in progress and the worshippers did not wish to be disturbed, but that did not stop the beggars on the steps from requesting alms from the pious. I gave them a few coins and reflected that they were one of the constants in European history that has now largely disappeared from the landscape of Britain. During the Middle Age and after, beggars always congregated on church steps after a service, playing on the temporarily heightened moral conscience of those whom had heard the Word within. One imagines too, that the tradition of these modern-day beggars perhaps goes back even further than the church itself, the descendents of today’s vagrants perhaps also congregated around the doorways to the mosque before Málaga was liberated in 1487.

To pass the thirty minutes or so until the next Mass, I walked down to the Tourist Information Centre to obtain a decent map of the city, (the Sibling having taken the guidebook). That was just out of the old city by a broad avenue and the harbour, in which a sailing ship was moored as if to remind one of the glorious 16th century in which the cathedral was started. The sun shone and the scene was glorious and once more I was reminded that I really do like Spain.

Inside the cathedral was, as you might expect, sumptuously decorated and inspirational. The Mass, with its choir and majestic surroundings was good but somehow it did not touch me as much as I had expected it to and never did it reach the heights of the service in the Berliner Dom. During the collection, a pound fell out of my wallet and rolled into the middle of the central aisle where it then sat in full view of both priest and congregation as the service continued, I being prevented from retrieving it by an ornamental iron railing. During communion however, when the aisle was full of the devout, it disappeared. As I bowed my head in prayer, I wondered whether its new home was a collection box or a pocket.

After Mass I still have several hours before my pre-arranged rendezvous with the Sibling, so I decided to climb up to the fortress that overlooks the city. On the way I passed an ancient amphitheatre built by the Romans and then walked through a narrow road tunnel that passed under the citadel that was my destination.

The climb to the top in the scorching midday sun was hard work for one of my stature but undoubtedly worth the not inconsiderable effort. The views across the city and beyond were breath-taking – the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the circle of the bullring, (where I believe Ernest Hemingway often took in a fight), the old city laid out like a map with the cathedral towering over the houses like a mother hen watching over her brood and then beyond it all, the arid hills of Andalusia. As a lover of mountains and adventure, the sight of them excited me, for later in the day we were planning to travel over them.

At the top I drank a well-earned bottle of water but then discovered that – contrary to the information given in the guidebook – the fortress charged for entry and the €2 demanded was beyond what my pocket contained. Still, it was no great loss; I had climbed the mount primarily for the views and these I had already enjoyed for free and so, after drinking them in a little longer, I descended back down to the Old City, this time on the other side of the hill which was covered with trees and so provided some shade and reminded me somewhat of the green slopes of Corfu.

I met with the Sibling in the Plaza de la Constitucion – the city’s main square – where we then had a coffee. He raved about the museum and about the great man that had inspired and promptly declared that old Pablo had enjoyed the life that he, the Sibling, wanted. It sounded too good to be true; a large house, a partner who understood his art and was dedicated to it, and above all (in the Sibling’s mind), huge canvasses on which to ‘express himself’,(whatever does it for you I suppose). To support him on his newly-inspired Picasso trail, I pointed out that since most people could never work out what most of Pablo’s paintings were meant to be of, then all that my esteemed brother needed was the bird, mansion, cash and canvasses. Unimpressed, he sulkily reverted to his usual behaviour of sketching passers-by and fellow coffee-suppers, (though this time in a Picasso-esque style), whilst yours truly felt like the proverbial spare part again.

The time to depart from the fair city of Málaga was now upon us so, with great reluctance, we gathered our bags together, handed the key into the sultry receptionist[2] and walked to the bus station, my little wheeled bag trundling behind me noisily in a manner that so annoyed the Sibling that I was sure never to carry it throughout the entire trip as partial payback for such quips as the one relating to the Holy Mass. Amen.

Málaga’s bus station is in the bland new part of the city and is a pain to find, being hidden behind a vast shopping complex that also plays host to the city’s railway terminal. It was only after we had circuited that cathedral of commerce several times that we found the exit to the buses whereupon I promptly booked two tickets for the next departure to the fabled Moorish city of Granada, (named after the Ford automobile no less!), whilst the Sibling sat down and started to sketch bored travellers. Since we had half an hour to wait and the Sibling was no company whatsoever, I nipped into the bus station café for a bite to eat, choosing a delicious-looking bowl of meatball soup from the photo menu. Alas however, did I learn that even photographs can be deceiving in the alien world, for when the said soup arrived, those round shapes floating in it that I had assumed to be meatballs, turned out in fact, to be some sort of shellfish. Still, one’s tastes are varied and one’s stomach round, and so I gobbled it up regardless, although one must admit that, had I realised beforehand, I may have ordered a ham sandwich instead.

The hour and a half bus journey through Andalusia to Granada was fascinating throughout its entire length. After negotiating its way through the ugly suburbs of Málaga and onto the highway, our bus headed into the hills, arid and rocky. On one peak just outside the city, a massive black metal silhouette of a bull stood proudly overlooking the road, a road that twisted and turned between the hills, whilst far below a trickle of water announced grandly as the Rio Guadalmedina, (now if that isn’t an Arabic-inspired name, I don’t know what is!), on each of the viaducts that traversed it, dribbled its way towards the sea.

But whilst the nature was undoubtedly majestic, the human habitation of the region was sparse. Largely this must be due to the aridity of the land which can support little, but that is not the only reason. A dip into my guidebook revealed that:

Spain is one of Europe’s least densely-populated countries, with about 80 people per square kilometre. Spaniards like to live together, in cities, towns or villages (pueblos), a habit that probably goes back to past needs for defence and must have a lot to do with their gregarious nature. Only in the Basque lands are you likely to see much countryside dotted with single farmsteads and small fields. Elsewhere, farmers go out from their pueblos to their fields in the morning and return at night.’[3]

So, a history of danger, dastardly deeds and upheaval has dominated Spain’s past and accounts for a lot of what we see – or don’t see – today, and of all that tumultuous history, no region has been subjected to more upheaval than Al-Andalus, the last bastion of the Moors in Europe. As I have mentioned before, I had come to Andalusia because I had wanted to see some evidence of that rich Islamic heritage, but this countryside revealed little of any human history. Revealed or not, that history was played out fiercely in those parts and not just during the Reconquista, but also far more recently. During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, some of the most bitter battles were fought in Andalusia.

Gradually the hills thinned out and the Rio Guadalmedina left us. Some human dwellings appeared now, scattered farms with groves of fruit trees nearby, but even so, this was still a largely empty land. As Granada approached though, it began to fill up; with tatty apartments and small factories whilst huge and hideous advertising hoardings lined the roads, eagerly informing the Spaniards of how their newly-acquired wealth should be spent.

It is in the city fringes that one realises just how recent Spain’s wealth is. My travels in the country have not been extensive, but all of the cities that I have seen – Tarragona, Barcelona, Málaga and Granada – have been incredibly beautiful cities yet at the same time possessing some of the scruffiest and worst-planned outskirts in Western Europe. Only Greece’s can compare. Now of course, the edges of any city are rarely its strongpoint and are more to be driven through than enjoyed, but even so, the urban fringes of Spain are more suited to the Third World than the First. They may not be poor, but they are unplanned. But of course, Spain’s wealth – and it is considerable these days – is essentially new; but forty years before and Third World is basically what the kingdom was. The city centres, smart and beautified, bear little trace of this, but go into the suburbs and the truth is revealed.

Granada, a city of almost half a million souls, was much bigger than I had expected it to be. In one’s mind, there is an image of some sleepy museum town for these names so laced with history’s romance. Samarkand, Kyoto, Jerusalem and York, one expects them to be perfect period pieces, but inevitably modernity starts to creep in and in Granada’s case it has steamrollered its way to centre-stage with vast housing developments, supermarkets and wide highways. As we alighted in the huge bus terminal however, it was a modern reminder of an ancient reality that caught my eye – several Muslim girls in headscarves were waiting to catch the bus into town. Were these descendents of the inhabitants of the Mediaeval kingdom that had its capital here? Probably not, but one never knows. Perhaps their ancestors fled to Morocco in the fifteenth century only for their descendents to unconsciously make the journey back in the twentieth?

The guidebook said that all the cheap hotels were situated near to the Plaza Nueva in the old part of the city, so we headed first for there and booked into the Hostal Britz which overlooked the square and had beautiful green Moorish tiles in the stairwell and reception room. Now we were beginning to feel nearer to Al-Andalus and to celebrate the fact, as soon as we had dropped off our bags, we went to an establishment in the square that sold kebabs and gorged ourselves on some Muslim fayre, washed down with some refreshing ayran. Ok, so it was Turkish rather than Moorish, but we weren’t picky and we were hungry and there are some places that only kebab meat can reach no matter where one happens to be.

Following our meal, we then decided to go on a stroll in the pleasant evening air and so we headed south towards the modern centre of the city and the vast Roman Catholic cathedral. This, like its counterpart in Málaga, was built on the site of the old central mosque and was of such ridiculous proportions that it would not fit on a single photograph. Around it lay narrow streets interspersed by shady squares. We stopped off in one – the Plaza Bib Rambla – a pleasant place with an elegant 19th century feel to it, though with a less genteel history than one might have guessed, for following the fall of Granada in 1492, the Plaza Bib Rambla became the site where countless heretics, Muslims and Jews were burned by the dreaded Inquisition.

Granada Cathedral : Feel the power of the Lord!

The Inquisition was originally founded in the 13th century in France where its job was to root out heretics, a plague that seems to have worried the Catholic Church since its inception. It achieved its fame – or infamy if you prefer – however, when the Catholic monarchs of Spain revived it to purge the newly reconquered and re-Christianised land of all those who did not quite agree with the new order theologically. The wars against the Muslims had forged the Spanish identity as a Catholic country, the Christian faith giving the Spaniards strength and legitimacy against the Muslim Moors and so it was that the new country was always going to be defiantly Roman Catholic. However, despite the fact that it was the Muslims who were the catalyst for the revival of the Inquisition, it was the Jews who bore the brunt of the organisation’s attentions. The reason behind this lay in the Spanish cult of sangre limpia or ‘pure blood’ which stated that that only those without any Jewish lineage could really be trusted as true Christians worthy of the newly-liberated Spain. Spain however, had Europe’s largest Jewish population and a long history of inter-religious marriage, particularly involving the Jews, whose case was not helped by the fact that the Church blamed them firmly for murdering Jesus. All of this combined to cause the Spanish nobility to go to great lengths to hide any Jewish ancestry and punish those conversos (people who had converted to Catholicism) who could not. Few of course, including the monarchs themselves and the cruel and ruthless Grand Inquisitor, Fray Tomás de Torquemanda, did possess that ‘purity’ and so everyone was under suspicion. De Torquemanda sent around two thousand to the stake and in 1492 he succeeded in his life’s mission by convincing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to expel all the Jews from the kingdom who refused Christian baptism. Between fifty and a hundred thousand did convert, but far more, approximately two hundred thousand, left, causing what is now known as Sephardic Jewry to come into existence.

The expulsion of the Jews however, did not mean the end of the Inquisition’s work, for then their attentions turned to the Muslims. Around three hundred thousand of them converted, creating an unhappy minority known as the Moriscos, but as with the converted Jews, they never gained full acceptance in a country that revered the cult of the sangre limpia and they too were eventually expelled between 1609 and 1614, but not before thousands had lost their lives in agonising fashion at the stake, many in the now-peaceful Plaza Bib Rambla.

As a practicing Christian who, although not a Roman Catholic, has a definite soft spot for the Church of Rome, the Inquisition leaves me feeling uneasy, confused and even slightly guilty in a way in which its 20th century successor, the Final Solution of Nazism, never does. That latter evil was the product of an ideology that is not mine and of a regime soundly defeated and condemned by history, yet the Roman Catholic Church that perpetrated those earlier crimes is still alive and well and beloved by a billion. Yet if one looks at the two persecutions and the ideas that inspired them – the sangre limpia and the pure-blooded Aryan Race – then one has to admit that the parallels are frightening, and even more so when we realise that the Austrian artist who perpetrated the latter ‘cleansing’ was a Catholic whose bedrock of support lay not in cosmopolitan Berlin, but instead the staunchly-Catholic Bavaria. Would the Final Solution have ever happened without the horrific example set by the Inquisition? It is an interesting question to ponder.

But perhaps all these thoughts of Final Solution have been pushed into my mind because of my recent sojourn in Berlin, and indeed, despite the parallels between Nazi ideology and the sangre limpia cult, it has to be said that the ideology of Hitler was overwhelmingly pagan in origin, whilst the Inquisition was very much a Catholic creation, sanctioned by the Pope himself and one that in many ways was born of factors inherent – and indeed, still very much present – in the faith of Christianity to this day. Indeed, this is not a fault that can be laid solely at the door of the Roman Catholics, (as many have tried to do), for have not Christians of all persuasions taken the words of Christ, written down by St. John in his gospel “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” to mean that their religion is the correct one, the only correct one and the only means by which salvation can be attained? Thus it reads, that is there is only one route to God, and that the aim of all men is to strive for Heaven, then to convert by any means necessary is not only acceptable, but indeed, is much more than that, a good deed, for despite the pains meted out in this world, the glory in the next will be unbounded.

Now I am no theologian, but I do know that such a viewpoint is not mine. I cannot believe that there is only one route to God, but at the same time I must say that when one reads those words of St. John, words supposedly spoken by my Messiah, in my holy book, then it is easy to see how such a viewpoint might be believed by others, particularly those who seek reassurance in their lives and indeed, to this day, that sentence is perhaps the most-quoted verse in the entire Bible. The Vatican may have renounced torture these days, but many of its hierarchy have not renounced the idea that the Path of Christ is the only true faith, whilst at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum, most Evangelical Protestants positively revel in it. Here is a faith that declares itself to be the only true one out there, is there any wonder that it took to burning outsiders?!

But even that does not explain the incessant search for purity and mistrust of converts. For that we must look elsewhere and the findings are curious. Christianity, a faith founded by a Jew who railed against those of his kind who applied the Law too rigorously, has a history unparalleled in world religions of striving for purity of belief and suppressing heresies. From its earliest days, Christians argued passionately about what was right and what was not, so much so that in 325 the Emperor Constantine summoned a Council of the entire Church to decide upon a definition of what they did and did not believe. The result was the Nicene Creed, still used to this day, but even that did not stop the arguments which have continued intermittently until the present day and amongst other things, have resulted in the Catholic-Orthodox schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation, that branch of the Christian tree now having splintered into over 33,000 twigs. Interestingly, no other religion has ever striven for such orthodoxy and no other religion has found itself so splintered. Of all the other major faiths of the world, only one other – Islam – has a creed and that is but a sentence long. The Nicene Creed by comparison, comprises of fourteen sentences and rules on such intricacies as to whether the Holy Spirit proceeded or preceded from the Son! In such a faith, the sad fact is that heresy is very easy to commit, I should know, I do it daily!

So, we have a faith that can be both exclusive and rigidly defined and the result is that organisations such as the Inquisition can rise easily. As I prayed earlier in the day in Málaga’s glorious cathedral, I had felt unable to enjoy fully the splendours and achievements of Spain’s Roman Catholic culture, knowing that it was all built on so much blood and suffering. However, we must never forget that there are two sides to every coin and as per usual, it is the positive one that rarely makes the headline. Whilst the Catholic Church in Spain has been responsible for thousands of deaths in the past, over the centuries there its priests, monks and nuns have also done countless good, tending the sick, feeding the poor and providing faith and hope to millions more than have ever been killed. For every de Torquemanda there have been scores of saints, both recognised and not whom we have never heard of and never will, and it is with them, in the Christianity of faith, love and charity that I feel the spirit of its founder resides, not in the narrow intolerance of its tormented bigots of all shades. Nevertheless, the two are inseparable and because of that, I, like all Christians should, feel a little of the guilt of those abominable atrocities of the past.

Whilst sat sipping coffee in that square so laden with history, the Sibling and I planned for the future, or to be more precise, what we hoped to do during our short Granadan sojourn. We decided to spend the following day exploring the Alhambra and Generalife and then to move onto Algeciras – and possibly Morocco – the following day. In order to facilitate that though, we needed to know the times of the trains out to the coast, so we decided to spend the remainder of the evening on a trek out to the city’s railway station.

Granada’s station lies on the western edge of the city, so we had a lengthy walk through the moon and lamplit streets to reach it. That walk though, turned out to be one most fascinating, for Granada is a beautiful city and we found ourselves strolling through streets lined with centuries-old buildings, past church after church filled with worshippers and around some of the finest universities in Spain, (for Granada, like so many cities with a glorious heritage, is also a renowned seat of learning). The atmosphere of it all – if not the actuality – reminded me of the 17th century Paris of the Musketeer films starring Oliver Reed, Michael Yorke, Richard Chamberlain and Raquel Welch that I had enjoyed so much as a child.

There were only two trains a day to Algerciras, one early in the morning and the other at midday which didn’t get into the port city until late afternoon, so we reluctantly booked ourselves onto the early one and then walked back, this time through the old Muslim city with its narrow streets and ornate arched gateway, once part of the city walls, that spoke more of Mecca than Madrid. Slowly but surely, the atmosphere was turning more oriental and with a trip to Islam’s greatest monument in Europe on the morrow, then I knew that that trend would only continue…

We were not in the best frames of mind when we rose early the next morning and climbed the steep hill up to the Alhambra Palace. To be fair, I am never in the best frame of mind when a). it is early in the morning and b). I am climbing a steep hill, but there was more to it than that. We had both slept very little the previous night owing to a church clock that chimed loudly every half an hour. I eventually fell asleep only after four. I know this because I never heard that accursed bell chime five.

The Alhambra – and its lesser-known neighbour the Generalife – were of course the main reason why we, and indeed most people, had come to Granada. The palace is world famous. I knew of it largely because there used to be a cinema in Stoke of the same name, (alas, it is now long-gone, demolished to make way for a dual-carriageway), but for most it is known as one of the finest Muslim buildings on earth and Spain’s principal attraction.

That said, I must admit, I was intrigued. I had heard so many good things about the place, yet all the pictures that I’d seen made it look distinctly, well… ordinary. It obviously wasn’t ordinary, otherwise why all the accolades, but it nonetheless appeared so. What was so special about it then? I wanted to find out. That and to explore the Muslim influence in Spain still further of course. The Sibling on the other hand, was less inspired. He had neither heard of the palace or the cinema, nor was he aware that Spain had once been Muslim. His shoulder-bag however, bursting with sketchbook and pencils betrayed his intentions for the day quite clearly.

We breakfasted on a sandwich at the entrance and then made our way in, rushing through the majority of the complex to the Nasrid Palaces, the most famous section of the Alhambra, which visitors are only allowed to visit on a timed ticket, (and this time was ours). As soon as we entered, I began to realise the secret of the Alhambra. This was not a place with one big sight, vista or attraction, it was not even a single palace, but instead a collection of palaces, a veritable Palatine city, each section having its own subtleties and strengths. The photos never look spectacular because on the large scale the Alhambra is nothing special; it is in its nooks and crannies, the details of the walls and ceilings, serenity of its courtyards and the views from its windows that its true beauty lies.

The Nasrid Palaces – the Comares and the palace of the Lions – were what I had come to see; showpieces of Muslim Al-Andalus. I delighted in its intimate chambers, decorated with intricate geometric patterns and flowing Arabic calligraphy in plasterwork. I soaked in the atmosphere of the Throne Room with its awe-inspiring ceiling, paused by the Court of the Myrtles, marvelled and the Court of the Lions and relaxed in my personal favourite spot, the shaded courtyard of the Lindaraja, the Christian annex to the Palace of Lions which best achieved what I so sought after, a mixture of east and west, National Trust stately home meets the Topkapı in Istanbul.

The Alhambra Palace

Interestingly though, my esteemed Sibling was less impressed. He liked it all of course, (one would have to try hard not to), and soon fell to sketching the Court of the Myrtles after he had annoyed me intensely by breaking my brand-new digital camera when trying too hard to focus on a cat washing itself in front of a mosaic, but you could tell that his artistic loins were not really inflamed. The Sibling is a figure painter first and foremost you see, and Islam specifically forbids the depiction of the things with souls. Islam’s art is the art of the calligrapher and the exploration of pattern and geometry, of the pattern, whilst the Sibling’s art is freedom and looseness. I had taken him here partially to see what he would get out of the rich artistic soul of Islam and that reaction was fascinating. When I later quizzed him on it, I found that he had grasped the theological basis for it all far better than I. “It is perfect,” he said. “They aim for perfection because they are trying to imitate God and God is perfect. I however, don’t want perfect. I aim for self-expression and self-expression is impossible in perfection.”

Too perfect (the building that is, not the tool in front of it)

The rest of the Alhambra was pleasant but not up to the standard of the Moorish palaces. Charles V’s addition, a boastful square block with a circular courtyard inside I found to be an unwelcome visitor in that understated community of palaces, but the Sibling was more impressed as it was decorated with a series of impressive friezes of Spanish soldiers in battle, one of which he eagerly began sketching. We then moved onto the fortress of Alcazaba, but that, whilst mighty and commanding incredible views over the city, was but a shell and after the opulence of the Nasrid Palaces, a disappointment.

We finished off on the adjacent hillside in the Generalife, a far more rustic affair than its neighbour and altogether most pleasant indeed. I relaxed in its Italianate gardens whilst the Sibling sketched and then we made our way back down to the city, this time using a different – and altogether more atmospheric – route, through the valley in-between the two palaces which took us to the Albayzín, or old town of Granada.

The Alhambra had impressed, but it was the Albayzín that I fell in love with. We dined on paella, cheese and wine in a terrace café under the shadow of the great fortress and then walked down the main street back to the Plaza Nueva, a street that reminded me of the Balkans at their best, with its mixture of Muslim and Christian architecture, old churches and ancient stone bridges over the fast-flowing river than runs alongside. By one bridge the Sibling met a fellow artist who turned out to be an Englishman also, so whilst they chatted palettes and Picasso, I returned our stuff back to the hotel before then going to collect him.

Granada’s old city

The talk with the artist had evidently got the Sibling into Renoir Mode again, for he now began fretting about the fact that he had forgotten to bring pastels with him and was fast running out of pencils and paper, so we headed into the new city where his new friend had informed him an art shop was to be found and where there was a post office for me to purchase some stamps. That done, the Sibling decided to stay in the new city as he’d found a poster of a painting that had inspired him to more etchings, so I wandered back up to the Albayzín alone and took a stroll through its narrow, steep streets up to the top of the hill where the guidebook informed that some marvellous views were to be seen. These views were not as great as promised, but wandering through the streets of whitewashed dwellings was a pleasant, if tiring, way to pass an afternoon, particularly as it called to my mind memories of doing a similar such thing in the old cities of Ankara and Thessaloniki years before.

We dined that evening in the kebab restaurant once more and then decided to make the most of our last night in Christendom by doing what would so soon be forbidden to us; have a drink. We wandered along the street to the terrace restaurant where we had earlier dined, expecting it to be a lively and pleasant spot at night, but despite the Alhambra above it looking spectacular in its floodlit glory, the place was dark and deserted, so we wandered back and nipped into a small place for a glass of wine each. Our hearts however, were not in it, and the place was rather too trendy for my taste, so we left after the one glass and strolled back up the street seeking further diversions, finding them in a small Moroccan-style place that boasted shisha pipes to smoke. Although not a smoker in general, I have long been partial to a relaxing water-pipe and as the Sibling was not adverse to such delights either, we nipped in and soon realised that we had made the right choice.

The proprietor, a man with a beard so regal that I immediately christened him Nebuchadnezzar, was a jovial chap who made us welcome and sat us down in front of a TV showing cheesy pop videos from Arabia. The pipes came and we relaxed, revelling in the fragrant smoke and the Oriental beauties who danced before us on the screen, singing in such a heavenly manner that it can only be compared with Chalga. This was the exoticism that we were seeking and it was glorious. Nebuchadnezzar came and chatted with us and showed us how to write our names in Arabic and when we left we shook his hand heartily. In the old Muslim capital of Spain, our Oriental journey had at last begun…

There are few pleasures that life can afford that are equal to that of a great rail journey. Now, I am not talking about a good rail journey here, there are many of those to be had, but instead a truly great one. A great journey can only, of course, be made by rail, for it is by far the most civilised means of transportation, but even so, just boarding a train alone is not enough. There are, after all, many other factors to consider. Firstly, there is the length of the journey. Experience has taught me that a great journey can never be shorter than four hours long for shorter journeys are over almost as soon as they have begun, whilst at the same time, it rarely exceeds eight hours, for then one starts to get bored. Between four and eight hours gives one time to savour the experience rather than merely grab at it as it rushes past. One can indulge in some reading, games, writing or conversation without feeling guilty about it. Yes indeed, and that is important for all of those, but particularly the latter, are of vital importance. Good company is a must and good company can only be found on trains. In cars one is generally limited to whom one knows already whilst on buses and planes, for some strange reason, (probably related to the psychology of the seating arrangements), one rarely talks to strangers and it is the strangers that always provide that extra spice that makes the journey great. Once again, it is a trip to the alien, this time in person rather than place that is necessary to give life its zest. It is because of the conversation and company that I personally prefer compartments, as facing one another in a small space lends itself to chatter, but even so, the compartment should never be regarded as mandatory.

Then there’s the factor of speed, another crucial one in the art of the journey. One should travel neither too fast nor too slow – eighty kilometres an hour is about right – fast enough to cover the distance yet slow enough to be able to see where it is that you are passing through and to be able to stick your head out of the window and feel the breeze, (oh for the days when all trains were not air-conditioned plastic capsules!), become part of the landscape that you travel through, smell it, hear it as well as see it.

And then last, but by no means least, there is the scenery, the essential ingredient to the perfect trip. What you travel through must be worth looking at. My personal favourites being mountains, hills and a nice stretch of coastline, and then at the end of it all, a destination worthy of the title, preferably with some grand old 19th century terminus that the train rolls into sedately before breathing its last and depositing you on the platform of a wonderful town. Yes indeed, take all of these, mix them all up together, add a drop of sunshine and a good buffet car and the perfect journey has been created.

Granada to Algeciras was not a great rail journey. It was however, a very good one. All that let it down was its destination and a lack of windows that opened. Oh yes, and the conversation. A Picasso wannabe busy sketching the inside of the carriage is no conversationalist and on this trip, besides the 2B-laden Sibling, the carriage in which we travelled was, for the large part, virtually empty for the entire four and a half hours.

Which was a shame, because the rest was all these. Getting to the station was a little rushed admittedly, due to the hotel receptionist sleeping on the job and giving us our alarm call an hour later than he had promised, but we did get there on time and even managed to enjoy a fine coffee, sandwich and glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice before boarding.

And the scenery was spectacular. Andalusia, I must admit, is a little dry for my tastes; I would miss the greenery if I were to stay there for any great length of time, but it is, nonetheless, a beautiful land. Our train, a local stopping service, meandered through arid hills, past pueblos and orange groves and over dry valleys, all providing a feast for the eyes which I devoured hungrily in-between completing an abysmal novel about holiday reps in Ibiza, continuing my Berlin journal and embarking upon Amin Maalouf’s novel about the life of that most famous of all Granadans, Leo Africanus.

Africanus, whose real name was Hasan bin Muhammed al-Wazzan al-Fasi, led a life most extraordinary. Born in Granada in 1488[4] his family fled to Africa soon after the Spanish conquest of the city, settling in the city of Fez. From there, as a young adult, he travelled with the caravans across the Sahara to the famed desert city of Timbuktu, before later embarking on some far more extensive travels, firstly to Timbuktu again, thence to Sudan, then down the Nile to Egypt where he settled for some time in Cairo before continuing to Constantinople, seat of the then omnipotent Grand Turk, then back to North Africa, then Italy and the Vatican where he converted to Christianity, acquired the name by which he is now so well known and where he helped educate the Western World, not only of the geography of the dark continent that lies so close to it, but also of the great wisdom and learning of the Orient which at that time was far in advance of that of Christendom and in doing so, thus accelerating the process of the Renaissance and therefore changing the course of world history irrevocably. Not bad for a kid from a dying kingdom and his life story was certainly suitable reading for a modern-day traveller who was following in his footsteps for at least part of his journey, over from Al-Andalus to Fez and then onto the very fringes of the Sahara Desert that Africanus crossed on several occasions.

Algeciras is a non-descript port town whose collection of scrappy concrete apartment blocks along the sea front recalled the Greek port of Igoumenitsa to my mind. We bought a ticket for the ferry across to Tangiers from the railway station and then went for one last Spanish meal in a cheap café in the bus station, (bus stations always being a safe bet for good local food at a reasonable price). It was in there that the changed character of the local population became clear – about half the diners were Muslim, hijaabed ladies and moustached men either just off or just about to get on the boat. Africa was near, a mere thirty miles distant!

We made our way to the port terminal only to learn from the beautiful young lady on the desk, (another product of the Sibling’s woman producing factory no doubt), that our ferry in fact left from a place called Tarifa, not Algeciras at all, and that to reach this other port, the company had laid on a free bus for us.

Tarifa was about ten miles away, just over the headland to the west. The ride to it, although short, was interesting. As we climbed up out of Algeciras we saw Gibraltar across the bay, that majestic British warship moored off the coast of Spain, whilst once up on the mountaintop, we found ourselves within a sea of windmills, a pleasing sign that the famous Levanter winds are now being used to provide energy instead of wrecking ships.

Tarifa is, in my opinion, the perfect name for a port. After all, what are ports famous for if not tariffs? And from what we saw from the bus window, Tarifa looked very much a perfect little port town. It was walled, with Islamic-style gateways and scenic streets. At the dock though, I was less happy. As per usual, I asked for a passport stamp, confident of getting one, but was refused point blank by the official, despite insisting, for no apparent reason other than to spite me. Quite what I had done to deserve such treatment, I am not sure. Perhaps she was irked by my compatriots still holding the rock down the coast. I boarded the ferry slightly rankled, but as we thundered out of the harbour, (for alas, it was one of those fast ferries that seem to be all the rage these days), by bad mood left me. I watched with excitement and hummed ‘Spanish Ladies’ as the green hills of that ancient land slipped into the distance and the barren rocks of the Dark Continent got closer. Whilst tankers and freighters destroyed the trail that our ferry had left behind and the Sibling sat sketching our fellow passengers, I wondered what sights we would be seeing during the next fortnight, a fortnight that would take us over the Atlas Mountains and to the very edge of the Sahara Desert, the greatest wasteland on earth…
Next part:

[1] According to the Sibling that is, and he should know as he did Spanish at GCSE.
[2] Following this, the Sibling put forth an interesting theory that he had been developing about there being, somewhere in Spain, a vast woman-cloning factory that provides all the waitresses, receptionists, museum attendants, etc for the country. Apparently, what happened is that some years ago the Spaniards discovered what was required to make the perfectly beautiful female – long black hair, dark eyes that you wish to dive into, a curvaceous figure with hips that indeed, do not lie, etc, etc, and since that day they have been churning them out by the million purely for the benefit of pervy visitors such as my brother and I.
[3] Lonely Planet Spain, p.47
[4] This date is disputed by historians.

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