Margaret and Dick   


July '07: Down south in Spain

We’re back in Limoux after five days in Seville and Granada, two cities in southern Spain very different from the Barcelona and the Catalan north that we know.

Southern Spain means flamenco, of course.  We took in three evenings of performances at very different clubs.  The best was in Seville at El Arenal, with professional dancers and musicians.  Next we enjoyed a performance by young amateurs at an informal bar, their enthusiasm and talent somewhat marred by drunken British tourists.  In Granada we got adventurous and went to up to the gypsy caves for their version of flamenco, with lots of foot-thumping but less skill than the other venues.  After all, the attraction of the gypsy caves is not the skill but the perceived danger (the neighborhood has a terrible reputation, perhaps now undeserved; we took a tour just in case) and low-level titillation (in lieu of the traditional long sleeves and under-skirts – hot! – the gypsies of Granada show a lot of shoulders, arms, and legs, shocking by comparison). 

Adjusting to the Spanish timetable is always a challenge.  Son Chris located a “destination” restaurant for us, la Ruta del Veleta just outside Granada.  We walked into the cavernous restaurant at Except for that blowout restaurant, we mostly enjoyed little munches of tapas.  Our hotel-keeper in Granada recommended his favorite tapas bar.  “Trust me,” he said.  We found, nestled among several tourist restaurants, a small undecorated dive packed belly-to-butt with locals.  We squeezed in and were immediately at home. 

Perhaps too many tapas dishes are fried, but we came to appreciate them.  Fresh anchovies marinated, breaded and fried.  Sweet red peppers with onions and olive oil.  A simple potato salad flavored up a notch with garlic.  Spinach stewed with chickpeas (our best new recipe now being cooked at home).  Then there is Iberican ham:  heavenly paper-thin slices with a characteristic taste that derives from the pigs’ diet of acorns – exquisite.  (The FDA recently approved the import of this delice.  Watch for it at high-end restaurants.)

Seville became a favorite city, earmarked for a return visit.  It has a manageable scale, great walking and people-watching, culture and historical sites, and a relaxed mood.  Right next to the cathedral is the much older Moorish bell tower.  Its nine stories are climbed along a spiral ramp, which allowed dignitaries of days past to climb on horseback.  When the Christians reconquered Seville, this treasured monument survived.  The nearby Alcazar palace has airy open rooms adjacent to garden courtyards with cooling fountains.  The original Moorish layout is intact, with later Spanish décor covering more beautiful sculpted layers beneath.

The Moors (Moslem Arab invaders in the 700’s) understood how to use water evaporation to stay cool in this hot dry climate.  The tradition lasts: in courtyard restaurants the heat was moderated by a fine spray misting the vines above our heads.  It works, if you don’t mind a bit dripping into the wine glasses!

Granada has even more Moorish influence, dominated by the imposing Alhambra, a fortified city on a hilltop.  We reserved tickets for early morning before the crowds and heat built up.  The royal palace inside is a unique cultural treasure, dominated by its Moorish origins.  Intricate carved or molded abstract patterns decorated the walls and ceilings, figurative art being forbidden by the Koran.  Higher up the hill, the Generalife summer palace and gardens had water running everywhere in channels, pools, and fountains.  The Moors channeled water from a mountain river to irrigate and cool their garden palace. 

Back in Seville we enjoyed a last evening strolling in the crowded streets.  The paseo (stroll) in the cool of the evening is enjoyed by everyone:  window-shopping, people-watching, stopping here and there, no rush.  We tried to think of where we could do a comparable paseo in Atlanta, no success.  During a riverside stroll, we ventured into an upscale café at the water’s edge.  This view is going to cost us, we thought.  Not so: a couple of tapas plates and a delightful crisp white wine of Penedes (2 euros a glass!) set us back only 16 euros. 

Margaret did a great job of selecting hotels using on the internet.  We look for charm.  The rooms will be small, the plumbing may be unusual, the welcome will be enthusiastic, the locale will be central.  Our hotel Amadeus/La Musica in Seville was decorated with musical instruments and had a roof-top terrace for breakfast – the night-clerk was right to call it precioso – precious!

Our bit of Spanish, learned by cramming during the weeks preceding a visit to Guatemala last year, came back surprisingly well.  Hotel clerks with perfect English were happy to let us practice our halting Spanish.  The non-English-speakers in stores and restaurants were perhaps amused by our efforts, but on the whole we made progress.  There is no substitute for language immersion.

We drove back to Limoux on a high-traffic day (code ‘red’ in the French newspapers) as the French left for or returned from vacations.  The stream of cars condensed into a traffic jam that opened and closed like an accordion.  Relax, no problem, go with the flow – we’re just back from laid-back southern Spain!

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