This trip preceded my Morocco tour.
It covered Madrid, Toledo, Seville and Cordoba before making my way to Algeciras to catch a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier.
Apart from never having been to Spain, landing in Madrid and visiting essentially southern parts of Spain seemed a logical side trip to the Morocco tour. As it turned out, it was a perfect complement to it as so much of the history, culture and past governing regimes coincided.
The title of this page – Al-Andalus – comes from the Arabic name given to a large part of central and southern Spain and Portugal that was governed by Muslims (Moors) between the 8th and 15th centuries. For the first half of this period, especially during the Caliphate of Cordoba in the 10th and 11th centuries, al-Andalus was considered a leading centre of learning, culture and economic activity throughout the known world.
In succeeding centuries, al-Andalus became a province of the Berber (Moroccan-based) Muslim dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohads, subsequently fragmenting into a number of minor states, most notably the Emirate of Granada, which was the last of the Muslim states to hold out against the Christian kingdoms to the north. The surrender of the Emirate of Granada in 1492 meant the end of al-Andalus as a political entity.
I have always been aware of the Moors; but probably mostly from history lessons at school – and then probably church history where everything was given a very Christian slant. In reality, not only were the Islamic/Muslim/Moorish dynasties centres of learning with great teachers and philosophers from all the main religious groups (Muslim, Jewish and Christian) but they have also left a marvellous cultural and architectural legacy.
This write-up of my trip to al Andalus suffers somewhat from being undertaken almost two years after the experience. I have lost a lot of memories, reactions and information. I’ve had to dig around on the Internet to identify a lot of photos in the slide show and fill in gaps of information.
I don’t have much to say on Madrid. But that belies the interest I had at the time. I wrote a lot about impressions and feelings after spending time in a few of Madrid’s museums and galleries – especially the Prado, which, I have read, is renowned as being the largest art gallery in the world. Not surprisingly, it has an impressive collection of Spanish artists, of whom Goya stands out noticeably.
Frustratingly, I was timed out or thrown out by my email server and lost a couple of hours work. I never sought to recreate it. I don’t even have photos to jog my memory, as with physical structures such as castles, cathedrals and mosques.
I can say, however, that, while Madrid was a very different experience to the culture, history and architecture of other places visited, it had its own intense attraction and satisfaction.
In addition to time spent in the Prado and the Archaeological Museum; and walking around the key landmarks, I more or less stumbled across another attraction: a Ballet Flamenco performance in the Teatro Espaňol, in the neighbourhood of my hotel. It was a new program called Lluvia by Eva Yerbabuena. In fact, as I discovered later, it was a one-night premiere performance. Eva Yerbabuena is a highly acclaimed and award-winning flamenco dancer who set up the company Ballet Flamenco. It was a great evening and a fantastic take on flamenco: layers above the tourist-oriented performances. Eva Yerbabuena subsequently took Lluvia to London and Athens. It was all pretty special. You can see a bit of the show here.
Toledo is a World Heritage site. The old town goes back to Roman times and also displays much of its Moorish history – as with Seville and especially Cordoba. Under Moorish rule, Toledo was a substantial cosmopolitan city of considerable cultural, academic and political influence. Its fall to the Christian king Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 was the first time a major city of al-Andalus had fallen to the Christian forces. Fortunately for Toledo, its libraries and store of manuscripts were preserved; and many translated into Spanish and Latin, thus extending a huge store of knowledge into the Christian world.
Toledo was a one-day train trip from Madrid. Once I discovered it was so close to Madrid, it became a must-visit place. Its attraction or fascination goes way back to high school days.
The Alcazar of Toledo
I’ve always remembered a story about the siege of the alcazar in Toledo that was read in the refectory at some stage in my boarding school days. I don’t recall the book itself specifically but it was most certainly The Epic of the Alcazar, a history of the siege of the Toledo Alcazar, 1936 / by Major Geoffrey McNeill-Moss (Geoffrey Moss). That seems to be the only one that was around in those days.
The siege of the alcazar was one of the more renowned episodes of the Spanish civil war. Given the labyrinth of emotions, allegiances and politics that the Spanish civil war has always engendered, the event may well not have the same resonance it had – at least for some – at the time and in the immediate aftermath. Looking back, I wonder about the motivation for having it read to high school kids. Perhaps, in the mid 1950s there was still a strong religious allegiance to the perceived Catholic side, especially from an older generation of priests at the school. Even today, however, dropping into a few Internet sites dealing with the siege, there are tell-tale indications of authors’ allegiances or prejudices, such as choice of expressions about players on one side or the other. Irrespective of that, it was a two month siege in atrocious circumstances, as can be gleaned from the photo of a model of the alcazar as it was by the end of the siege. Irrespective of historical and political views, the siege is still a good war story.
The alcazar today is unmissable and unforgettable. It sits at the pinnacle of the city and is dominatingly visible from everywhere. It wasn’t hard to imagine the near impossibility of conducting a successful siege; and the isolation and desperation of its defenders. The disappointment for me was that the alcazar was closed on the day I was there – and seemingly had been for some time. It was being extensively renovated. So I didn’t get to see inside.
Churches and Monasteries
The Cathedral in Toledo is considered among the greatest Gothic structures in Europe. Its mainly 13th century architecture was inspired by the Gothic cathedrals of France. Its exterior easily generates an overwhelming impression. Judging from descriptions and photos on sites such as this one, its interior is equally impressive. I don’t recall going inside; nor do I have any photos. I can only assume that it must have been closed. I can’t imagine that I would have otherwise missed such an experience.
Somehow I found the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes on the edge of Toledo. I can’t remember how this came about. Anyway, it’s an historic monastery founded by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Toro (1476) over the army of Afonso V of Portugal (according to Wikipedia).
The monastery's construction began in 1477 and was completed in 1504. It was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist for use by Franciscan friars. In 1809 the monastery was badly damaged by Napoleon's troops during their occupation of Toledo, and abandoned in 1835. Restoration was not completed until 1967. The monastery was handed back to the Franciscan order in 1954. Now, here is an interesting bit of information; and I do recall it captured my imagination at the time. It’s become a memorial place to honour a listed number of members of the Franciscan Order who were martyred during the Spanish civil war. That sounded important. It’s only been when writing up my visit (in 2011 – almost 2 years after the visit) that I have discovered that every member of the clergy who was killed during the Spanish civil war is regarded as a ‘martyr.’ This might just be yet another dimension of the complexities – political, religious, social, intellectual etc – of the Spanish civil war. I won’t go there; it’s just too complicated!
City Walls and Gates
The city still has substantial remnants of its old walls, mostly dating back to Moorish rule. A walk around the ramparts of Toledo showed the cunning Moorish design of zig-zag approaches to ensure any enemy intrusion was subject to maximum vulnerability. There are still several massive gates in the old walls.
Seville might justifiably call itself the city of opera. Not necessarily in the sense of opera performances but of opera settings. Bizet’s Carmen is set in Seville, notably in the precincts of Seville’s famous bullring. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville provides a less tragic perspective of life in Seville. Seville provided the setting for two of Mozart’s greatest operas: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Verdi also used Seville for one of his operas – but one I’d never heard of.
I didn’t go to any barbers in Seville, didn’t get into any of Figaro’s predicaments, and certainly didn’t emulate any of Don Giovanni’s (or Don Juan’s) licentiousness – evidenced by not suffering his just fate; but I did visit Seville’s bullring.
The attraction that most caught my imagination was La Giralda. So much so that I twice climbed the 35 inclined ramps that took you to the top of this 104 metre bell tower that was once a minaret.
La Giralda started life as the minaret of what must have been a grand mosque. It dates back to the late 12th century during the Almohad period in Seville. The tower was – and still is – regarded as the culmination of Almohad architecture. It is considered the finest of the three great Almohad minarets still standing (the other two are in the Moroccan cities of Rabat and Marrakech). In fact, the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech served as a model for La Giralda.
It is said that La Giralda was so venerated by the Moors that they wanted to destroy it before the Christian conquest of the city in 1248. This was prevented by King Alfonso X, who declared that "if they removed a single stone, they would all be put to the sword." La Giralda was thus preserved.
Shortly after the reconquest of Seville by the Christians, the original mosque was consecrated as a cathedral. When an earthquake badly damaged it in the mid 14th century, it was decided to replace it with a new cathedral. The tower survived the earthquake, but the copper spheres on the tower fell and were replaced with a cross and bell. The new cathedral incorporated the tower as a bell tower. Later, during the Renaissance, additional levels were added to the tower to accommodate a belfry. Balconies were also added.
The cathedral is one of the world's largest. The interior is magnificent, with numerous chapels, remarkable vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows.
The most famous sights in the cathedral are the gilded altarpiece (Retablo Mayor) and the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
The Retablo Mayor is supposedly the largest altarpiece in the world. It consists of 36 gilded relief panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the lives of saints. It took over 80 years to complete (1482-1564). Large iron grilles, forged between 1518 and 1532, separate visitors from the altarpiece.
The cathedral museum is housed in the main sacristy, where there are several valuable paintings as well as the large silver ostensorium (monstrance).
Near the main entrance to the cathedral stands the large funeral monument to Christopher Columbus, which supposedly contains his body, which was brought there from Havana at the end of the 1890s. The sarcophagus is carried by four large statues, representing the kingdoms of Aragón, Castile, León and Navarra.
The Patio de los Naranjos (Orange Tree Courtyard) was originally the courtyard of the former mosque; and, along with La Giralda, survived the 14th century earthquake. The patio is now part of the cathedral. (Orange tree courtyards seem to be a feature of the Moorish mosques.) A large portal, the Puerta del Perdón (door of pardon), built in the 12th century by the Moors, leads to the patio. At the centre of the patio is a stone fountain which dates back to the Visigoth or possibly even the Roman era.
Real Alcazar of Seville (Royal Palace)
The Real Alcazar is the Royal Palace of Seville. The heart of the complex is the Palace of King Pedro I, who constructed his royal residence on the site of a Moorish palace.
In 1364, after the reconquest of Moorish Spain by Christians, King Pedro I commissioned the construction of a new palace, the Palacio Pedro I. The palace was constructed by craftsman brought from all over what had been al Andalus. Hence, the overall style of architecture and decoration was very characteristically Moorish, although it came to be called Mudéjar, seemingly to suggest an indigenous Spanish style, albeit heavily influenced by Moorish traditions.
The palace is arranged around a number of patios. Over the years, other monarchs kept expanding the palace, resulting in a diverse complex with different architectural styles.
It was interesting to catch recently an episode of Ancient Megastructures on the NatGeo channel. It was about Alhambra in Grenada, most of which was constructed late in the life of al Andalus, as the Christian Kings were reducing al Andalus to the Emirate of Granada. It seems that some sort of mutual coexistence arrangement had developed between Pedro I in Seville and Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada, to the point where Muhammed was benefiting in his contribution to the construction of Alhambra from the designs and decorations of Pedro’s palace. The result was that the later stages of Alhambra incorporated much that was designated Mudéjar style and even Christian style.
Regrettably, I had not been aware of Alhambra when planning my trip. I became aware of it in Cordoba. I would have loved to have seen it but that will have to wait.
The murallas are the remnants of the old Roman and medieval walls.
The Romans were the first to build city walls around Seville as early as in the first century B.C. At the end of the Roman Empire the wall was largely destroyed by the Vandals, only to be rebuilt later by the Visigoths.
The walls that can be seen today date back to Muslim al Andalus. Construction of the wall started in the 11th century and was completed in the early 13th century. The 6 km long wall with 166 towers and nine gates encircled the whole city. At the time Seville was considered Spain's best fortified city.
There are still several towers standing. The tallest tower on the murallas is known as Torre Blanca (White Tower). Several towers that were originally part of the defensive wall around Seville have survived in other parts of the city, including the Silver Tower and the Golden Tower (Torre del Oro), Seville's most famous tower.
Plaza de Toros de Maestranza
This is Seville’s bullring.
The historic bullring of Seville was built in the 18th century. It was decided in 1761 to build a permanent venue (until then bull fights had been held in one of the city’s main plazas). It would take more than a century before the arena was finally completed in 1881. The arena has a seating capacity of about 14,000. It is the oldest bullring in Spain and considered one of the finest in the world.
My first concern was whether it was bull fighting season and, if so, whether I would try and attend a bull fight, despite my instinctive abhorrence of the activity. As it turned out, it wasn’t the season and I didn’t have to grapple with my conscience, although I couldn’t help feel an unconscionable fascination to experience the spectacle.
You can visit the bullring only by a guided tour. That was fine. They took place every half hour. The tour pointed to the various entrances to the arena, each designated for a specific function, such as the entry of the torero, the entrance of the bull and the entrance of the picadors on their horses. There’s a chapel, dedicated to the Virgen de la Caridad, where the toreros (bull fighters or torreadors) pray before entering the ring; and an infirmary - in 20 per cent of bullfights the torero needs emergency treatment. The bulls aren't as lucky.
Alameda de Hercules
Not least of all that deserves mention is the Alameda de Hércules – a large plaza, built as a public garden in 1574 and extensively renovated in 2008. It purports to be the oldest public garden in Europe.
It’s probably not a tourist attraction as such. It’s just that my hotel was around the corner so it was an unexpected discovery.
From the time it was built in 1574, four columns were placed to mark off the promenade. They had been found in the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Hercules which once stood in that part of the city. On two of the columns, statues were placed, one of Julius Caesar and one of Hercules. In the second half of the 18th century two more statues, lions with shields representing Seville and Spain were placed on the remaining columns at the other end of the promenade.
It’s well known for its surrounding bars, cafes and restaurants. Or so I read.
Cordoba was perhaps the greatest centre of Al-Andalus. For a century and a half, the Cordoba Caliphate ruled Al-Andalus. Under the Caliphate, Cordoba became the largest city in the then known world, overtaking Constantinople (Istanbul). Within the Islamic world, Cordoba was a leading academic and cultural centre.
The central attraction in Cordoba is the Mezquita (the z is pronounced - subtely - as th). It´s Spanish for Mosque.
It hasn´t been a mosque as such for eight hundred years, but still has the look of one. It has to be one of the most amazing buildings in the world. It´s right up there (at least in the impact it had on me) with Aya Sophia in Istanbul and the Taj Mahal in Agra.
It started life in the 8th century when a mosque was first built over a Visigoth Christian church of the 7th century. The first mosque was extended four times over a few hundred years to eventually accommodate 40,000 worshippers in its final form in the last years of the 10th century.
The size and antiquity are mind-boggling. Each extension copied the essential interior design of the first section, but there are some differences in flooring and floor levels. It has the most spectacular Mihrab (the Mihrab is probably equivalent to the tabernacle in a Catholic church, in the sense that it´s the most sacred part).
With the fall of Cordoba to the Christian kings in the 13th century, the mosque was dedicated as a Catholic church. During 13th and 14th centuries, a Christian chapel was built inside the mosque and eventually a huge Gothic-esque nave, altar and choir stalls. All this was constructed pretty much in the middle, so there are still enormous areas of original mosque on all sides of the Gothic cathedral. Interestingly, the Mihrab, in all its glory, still stands as it did from the 8th or 9th century (the current one, described as "a masterpiece of architectural art," was put in during one of the extensions.)
The Mezquita has an orange tree patio with fountains and, of course, a minaret (or did; it´s now a bell tower remodelled under Christian rule).
All in all, it is simply a stunning intertwining of Mosque and Cathedral, with all the trappings of Muslim and Christian architecture and religious atmosphere.
I wrote about it and the significance of its transept – El Crucero (the Crossing) – on the Fireside page under the heading El Crucero. You can read more about the Mezquita there.
There’s a lot more that was absorbing in Cordoba, including very well preserved palace buildings from the Muslim times that later became the castle of the Christian Kings (Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos) and a great Roman-built bridge that is still used but only for pedestrians.
The alcazar was built in 1328. Ferdinand and Isabella later governed Castile from the alcazar for eight years in the 15th century as they prepared to reconquer Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain. It was here that Christopher Columbus presented to Queen Isabella his plans for an historic journey to the Americas.
For nearly 300 years the alcazar was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Interestingly, I recall that I came across several ‘museums’ of torture instruments in Toledo and Cordoba. I guess it’s a Spanish thing.
The alcazar houses Roman mosaics from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as well as Moorish baths. The alcazar is surrounded by impressive gardens, which, although established in Christian times, are typically Moorish in design.
The Roman bridge of Cordoba had its origins in the 1st century. None of its 16 arches is original; and the bridge has been renovated several times. The first reconstruction was during Moorish times, followed by another reconstruction after the Reconquest. In the beginning of the 20th century there was still another reconstruction. The last took place in 2008.
At one end of the bridge there is the Calahorra Tower, which defended the south side of the Roman bridge. It shares 12th century Almohad and 14th century Christian components. The tower is now the site of the Museum of the Three Cultures – there’s more on this aspect on the El Crucero page. At the other end of the bridge is the Puerta del Puente (entranceway of the bridge) – one of the gates of the old walls of Cordoba.
The Old Town
Extensive portions of Roman walls, maintained and extended by Moorish and Christian rulers, still stand today. The walls stayed the same from the Muslim conquest in 711 until the fall of the Caliphate in 1031. Subsequent Moorish and later Christian rulers fortified and expanded the walls for their own defensive purposes.
In the 19th century, stretches of wall, towers and gates were torn down to make way for new streets. Today, the most significant remnants of the city's ancient towers and gates are la Puerta de Almodovar (Almodovar Gate) and la Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate).
During the days of the Romans and the Goths, the old Jewish quarter provided cultural and scholarly value. Several shrines are found there to pay homage to the prominent people of Cordoba from past generations, such as the Roman philosopher Séneca, Arabian philosopher Averroes and Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Puerta de Almodovar in the old walls provides entry to the old Jewish quarter from the modern city of Cordoba.
At the centre of the quarter is the synagogue, one of only three originals remaining in Spain. The interior includes a gallery for women; and plaster work with inscriptions from Hebrew psalms. Its main, beautifully restored wall has a semi-circular arch where a chest with the Holy Scrolls of Law used to be kept.
Crossing the Straits
It was a slow train to Algeciras in contrast to the super fast trains before that. It was certainly a few rungs down the hierarchy of trains. To make matters worse, it got shunted aside a couple of times to allow faster trains to go through. Eventually it arrived in Algeciras about 20 minutes late, so I gave up any hope of getting the fast ferry. I knew I had only 20 minutes between the scheduled arrival of the train and ferry departure; otherwise I would have a two hour wait to catch the slow ferry.
Having somewhat dejectedly made my way to the port, I was directed to the window of the company that had the next ferry – at 5.00pm. However, remembering that I read on the Internet that the timetables are not always adhered to, I instead went to the window of the company that had the 2.30pm ferry. It was about 4.00pm by now. Sure enough, they were still selling tickets for the 2.30pm ferry.
As it turned out, it was a slow trip owing to the swell and then being held off shore for a long time before being allowed to berth.
I finally got to my hotel in Tangier. It was old but okay. The room had a stone floor with lots of peeling paint in the bathroom. But it was clean and spacious for all that – even quaint, so suited the atmosphere of Tangier.
Thus began my Morocco tour.
Here is a slide show on the Al Aldalus trip
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