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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Plaza de Toros de
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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. You can click on the arrow to view the thumbnails or click
anywhere to view in full screen (better option).