Saturday, December 3, 2011

Scenes from Andalusia (Part 1)

Southern Spain was completely new territory for us and thus we were anxious to explore its many sights, sounds and cities. When we’d first approached Granada and its location on the map, I was struck by just how far south the city actually is. Only 60 kilometers from the Mediterranean, it’s a quick 45-minute drive away from the coast on the autovía. Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla roughly form a triangle with Cordoba at the top point, Granada in the southeast corner and Sevilla in the southwest. Even though we now wish we’d split our two weeks between Granada and Sevilla, the former still managed to serve as a good starting point for venturing into Andalusia.

Chite: The tiny little town in which we rented Casa Conejillo was anything but touristy. It was a genuine Andalusian village with real inhabitants, most of them over 70, and I’m sorry to report that it never really grew on us. There was one smoky, corner bar (in which I had to pick up our house key on arrival) and one neighborhood restaurant but we ventured into neither for a drink or a meal. Each time we passed by the two establishments, local laborers hanging outside gave us the once and twice over, thus exacerbating our feeling of being “other.” In fact, the Spanish villagers had no hesitation about staring at us for minutes on end and we did our best to respond with a smile and a sunny “hola.” When you’re being watched, it’s difficult to relax and observe your surroundings, which would be our intent if we patronized the Bar Nuevo or the Cafe Garvi. When the focal point of intense local scrutiny, our tendency is to focus inward, shrink into our own skin and not return the stares, knowing that our every move is being watched and evaluated. We were uneasy with the constant scrutiny, so we fixed many of our own meals in Casa Conejillo and hit the road whenever the weather cooperated. Chite did have a few of its own quirky “charms,” of course. Whereas in other small towns we’d been awakened by the church bells, in Chite we had several recurrent alarms: at 6:30 it was the chorus of family roosters; at 7 it was the neighborhood dogs inevitably involved in their daily skirmish; at 8 and every 15 minutes thereafter, it was the familiar peal of bells from the church down the hill; and most unusual of all, from 8:30 onward, the incessant honking of horns from small white vans circling through town interrupted the morning calm as they alerted villagers to their daily wares of fresh bread, meat and produce. We experienced (were subjected to?) other village oddities as well. At unexpected hours on any given day, canon booms and shotgun blasts from the surrounding valley punctuated the daily calm. We never did figure out what or who was behind the miscellaneous rounds -- we just chalked them up to the eccentricities of Chite. On one random morning, we awoke to the acrid stench of an unpleasant burning outside. Since the village houses are stacked one upon the other like interlocking stair-step Legos as they climb up a sharp hill, our neighbor’s terrace is just below our bedroom window. Sure enough, we discovered that the gentleman next-door was burning a toxic mixture of grasses and palm fronds that must have included some variety of rubber because the smell was simply awful. We had planned to do our wash that morning and hang it on our terrace to dry but our neighbor’s conflagration forced us to turn our living room into the laundry room. It would have been much nicer to have our clothes dry in the sun rather than draped over the couch, but the noxious, billowing smoke made that impossible. During our stay in Chite, Spain held national elections and as a result, we endured a mixture of strangely Soviet-style political propaganda from both the right and the left, all accompanied by rousing patriotic anthems blasted from huge speakers mounted on vans roaming the streets. We were happy when the election was finally decided (the conservatives won and ousted the socialists after 8 years) and we had to deal with one less bizarre interruption. The morning after the election, however, the campaigning continued when two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door (we sent them packing after a brief chat). “What will be next?” we wondered. We found our house in Chite cold and lonely and while the indoor chill may have been pleasant to return to as an escape from the heat of the scorching summer, in November at the end of the quiet, dark, dog-dropping-filled streets of Chite, it was downright depressing. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake not to have paid the extra few hundred bucks to turn on the heat. But we decided to economize and so we warmed up with long, hot showers, steaming cups of tea and whenever the weather permitted, hit the road to discover the rest of Andalusia.

Córdoba: We took a full day to explore this incredibly interesting city. Our two-and-a-half hour drive took us through the hub of the Spanish olive trade across miles and miles of rolling countryside covered with symmetrical groves of scraggly pale green trees. The focus of our visit to Córdoba was the architectural gem completed in 987 AD and the most important building and symbol of the city: the Mezquita, in the heart of the historic city. Formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba and a cathedral after the Christian Reconquista, locals know it as the Mezquita-Catedral. As is the wont of conquerors, the Catholic hierarchy needed to visibly assert its superiority over the vanquished Moors and thus built a grandiose Renaissance cathedral nave, and plopped it jarringly in the middle of the spacious, elegant Muslim place of worship. While the bulk of the original mosque was kept intact, the new imposing center drove a willful dagger through the heart of the original building. Upon hearing that Spain’s King Charles V approved the clumsy addition, Joe quipped, “Big mistake, Chuck. Bad move.” Even the king himself is said to have lamented his decision by informing the local religious leaders, “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.” Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about the redesign is that much of the original beauty of this sublime mosque was preserved. In most cases, victors simply level the structures of the conquered and build their own replacements from the ground up. The Mezquita’s iconic arcaded hall of 856 red and white striped double arches was crafted from the marble remains of the Roman temple upon which it was built. And although light and airy when first constructed, the expansive Mezquita now enjoys very little natural light since the vaulted openings facing the courtyard of orange trees were cemented over during the Christian conversion. What a sight the beautiful mosque must have been in its heyday, filled with thousands of worshippers praying on their mats in streaming sunlight. From the Mezquita, we wandered through the whitewashed old quarter and found the ancient synagogue, a cozy little space filled with delicate, carved woodwork, exquisite stucco decoration and the upper level women’s gallery that looks over the main worship space. It’s easy to remember the inferior position of women in each of the world’s great religions when visiting their places of worship. And I bristled as we walked through the historic streets of Cordoba and saw the two feet of dark latticed woodwork covering the bottom of every window. The screens that hid women from public view are constant reminders of how things have evolved vis-à-vis women, at least with respect to non-religious matters in most of the western world. We headed back towards the Mezquita, knowing that the subjugation of the Jews during the Inquisition was one of Spain’s bleaker moments. The stark choices offered them were convert, leave or die and all but three of the ancient synagogues in the country, including the one in Cordoba, were completely destroyed. The mosque, cathedral and synagogue all appear to live together harmoniously within 100 yards of each another in 2011 – what was the problem in the 1400s? Oh yes, the buildings themselves weren’t actually the issue. It was the hierarchy of the three religions who couldn’t play nice, and in varying measures, the rules of the day declared that whatever faith was in charge asserted its position by destroying, or at least suppressing, all the others. Behaving badly in the name of religion was all about power over others with little consideration given to genuine spirituality. What a tragedy that in some parts of today’s world, including our own country, so little has changed. 

Pictures of our adventures:

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