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Spain> Moorish Memories


The culture of contemporary Spain is a rich mixture of its prehistoric Celtic-Iberian, Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish heritage. When the last of the Moors (Moslems) were expelled from Granada in 1492, after almost 800 years of war known as the Reconquest, the modern nation of Spain was born. Each of the cultures, however, left its mark and nowhere is the variety of modern Spain more evident than in the area covered by this itinerary: from cosmopolitan Madrid to the glamorous Costa del Sol, playground of the jet set. You visit historic Toledo, capital of Visigothic Spain from the 6th to the 8th centuries and of Christian Spain from 1085 to the mid-16th century. Chosen home of the renowned painter, El Greco, Toledo is perhaps the most Spanish of all Spanish towns and a veritable open-air museum of history.

If you are an ardent Cervantes (or a Man of La Mancha) fan we offer a side trip across the plains of La Mancha to visit the home of Dulcinea. Then on to Córdoba-capital of Moorish Spain and, in the 10th century, second in wealth and luxury only to Baghdad. Córdoba still recalls the glory of the Moslem empire on the peninsula. After that, you visit the Moors' last stronghold, Granada, where the most spectacular architectural monument of the culture, the Alhambra, towers majestically over the city. This itinerary ends on the sunny beaches of the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun), where European royalty and Hollywood stars moor their yachts.

Your route passes many kilometers of olive groves and vineyards and winds through small towns spilling down mountainsides under the remains of ancient castles. Be sure to sample the regional wines, the delicious cold gazpacho soup (there is nothing so refreshing on a hot day), and the varied seafood specialties.

RECOMMENDED PACING: When you leave Madrid, plan on an overnight stay in Toledo or Almagro and spending two nights in both Córdoba and Granada before heading for a sojourn on the coast.

Whether before or after your stay in Spain's capital city, a journey to her southern cities, steeped in Moorish heritage and graced with Mudéjar mementos, should not be missed. So, when you are ready to leave the hustle and bustle of Madrid, head south to follow in the footsteps of Don Quixote and the warriors who reclaimed Spain for the Christians.

Take N401 south from Madrid to Toledo, passing through the medieval town of Illescas. Fortified Toledo is lovely to come upon, and you may wish to take a turn around the walled city (bear right just before entering the Bisagra gate) when you first arrive. When you witness the incredible views of the city from the hillside across the River Tagus, you understand what inspired El Greco's famous painting, View of Toledo (now in the Prado).

Be prepared for wall-to-wall tourists as you tour the abundance of sights in Toledo. When the capital was moved to Madrid in the 16th century, Toledo remained the center of the Catholic hierarchy in Spain, and the cathedral (13th to 15th centuries) is one of the largest in the world. Highlights include the decorative high altar, the ornate choir stalls, and the sacristy with its paintings by El Greco, Titian and Goya. In Iglesia de Santo Tomé church, you can view El Greco's famous Burial of the Count of Orgaz in its original setting (the sixth figure from the left is said to be a self-portrait of the artist) and the El Greco’s House and Museum, which lends an idea of how he lived. Also noteworthy is the startling Mudéjar decoration of the El Tránsito and Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue. The Museo de Santa Cruz Museum, with its fine 16th- and 17th-century art, includes paintings by El Greco.

Toledo is loaded with souvenir shops and is famous for its swords and knives-you find both decorative and real ones in all shapes, sizes, and prices-and for its Damascene ware: gold, silver, and copper filigree inlaid in black steel. There is an abundance of sightseeing but, above all, walking the ancient, winding streets of the city, pausing for refreshment at one of the many cafes in the Plaza de Zocodover, and soaking up the essence of Spanish history are the highlights of Toledo's offerings.

Leave Toledo on CM400. You are soon in La Mancha (from manxa, an Arabic word meaning parched earth), the land of Cervantes' Don Quixote, famous for its wine, cheese (queso manchego), windmills, saffron, olive trees, and ceramics. Above Consuegra, you pass the ruined 12th-century castle surrounded by 13 windmills. (The best picture-taking spot is after you leave the town to the east.)

If you are an ardent Cervantes (or a Man of La Mancha) fan take a side trip to El Toboso to visit a reproduction of the home of the peerless Dulcinea, reluctant recipient of the knight-errant's undying love (closed Mondays, open March to October). It's about 50 fairly fast kilometers each way. Head east from Madridejos on CM400 around the wine-trade town of Alcázar De San Juan continuing east on N420 to reach Campo De Criptana where, it is claimed, Don Quixote had his tryst with the windmills. A few kilometers farther east you see the Ermita Santisma Virgin de Criptana church on a knoll. Turn beside it for the 15 kilometers drive through sky-wide countryside to the village of El Toboso which comes into view several kilometers before you reach it. Just southeast of the church in the center of the village is Dulcinea's home. The house supposedly belonged to Ana Martínez whom Cervantes renamed Dulcinea (dulce = sweet + Ana). Tour the house with its 17th-century furniture and intriguing antique olive oil press on the patio in the back. Across the street from the church is a collection of over 300 editions of the novel in everything from Japanese to Gaelic. A number of interesting facsimiles and signed and illuminated editions are housed there, too. Return to Alcázar de San Juan and from there head for Puerto Lápice, where you can follow the signs to the delightful Venta del Quijote-a well-restored example of the type of inn where Don Quixote was dubbed knight. The Venta has a charming restaurant and bar, as well as some cute little shops.

Back on the main itinerary route you pass through the fertile plains of the Campo de Calatrava as you pass Daimiel and Ciudad Real on the way to the interesting town of Almagro, once the main stronghold of the knights of the military Order of Calatrava who battled the Moors during the Reconquest. Almagro's unique, oblong Plaza Mayor is surrounded by wooden houses-many of which are cafes and restaurants-and the restored 16th-century Corral de Comedias (in the southeast corner) where the plays of the Spanish Golden Age were performed. It is similar in style and epoch (as were the plays) to the Elizabethan theaters of Shakespeare's time. You will enjoy exploring the town's cobbled streets and alleyways with their marvelous whitewashed houses, sculptured doorways, and shops selling the renowned, locally tatted lace. A number of historic buildings are in the process of restoration.

Leave Almagro heading for Valdepeñas, a short drive to the east. Join the NIV and head south, climbing gradually into the pine-forested Sierra Morena until, at the Despeñaperros Gorge (despeña perros means throwing off of the dogs, i.e., Moors), you officially enter Andalusia. The Andalusians are fond of saying that this is where Europe ends and Africa begins. This is not a total exaggeration-Andalusia has a markedly different culture and a much stronger Moorish tradition than the rest of Spain.

You pass through La Carolina before coming to Bailén, where you head east on N322 through Linares to Ubeda. Recaptured from the Moors in 1234, it once served as an important base in the Reconquest campaign. The heart of all Spanish towns is the plaza, and Úbeda's striking oblong Plaza Vázquez de Molina was designed for lingering, lined with palaces and mansions with classic Renaissance façades, grills, and balconies and the beautiful El Salvador chapel. You can also spot the remains of old town walls and towers around town. Úbeda's elegant parador (on the plaza in a 16th-century palace) offers an imaginative lunch menu, if the time is appropriate.

From Úbeda it's a short drive to captivating Baeza, the seat of a bishop during the Visigothic period and a prominent border town between Andalusia and La Mancha during the Reconquest. Golden seignorial mansions testify to its importance as a Moorish capital before 1227, when it became the first Andalusian town to be reconquered. Make time to drop by the tourist office in the enchanting Plaza de los Leones, pick up a town map, and wander on foot from there to visit this open-air museum of architecture, from Romanesque through Renaissance.

Return to Bailén, then head west toward Córdoba. You pass Andújar, with a pretty little plaza dominated by an ochre-colored Gothic church and an arched Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir. You are in the major olive-producing region of Spain now, and drive by continuous symmetrical rows of olive trees (olivos). After passing Villa del Rio, on the left bank of the river, you see the fortified town of Montoro. This was an important stronghold during the Moorish period, and today is a center for olive oil production. The remaining kilometers to Córdoba pass through seemingly endless olive groves.

Cordoba was the most opulent of the Moorish cities in Spain and is today a vast vibrant city. Córdoba is such a popular destination that it sometimes seems that every person who comes to Spain stops here. Park by the river and walk into historic heart of Córdoba, the old Barrio de la Judería or Jewish quarter. The old city boasted a university to which scholars from all over Europe came to study in the 11th and 12th centuries, when it was the largest city in Europe. Just a small portion of the historic metropolis remains as a virtual maze of twisting streets, modern and ancient shops, and colorful bars and cafés.  Even on foot, it is very easy to lose your sense of direction in the tiny streets as each one begins to look like the rest. This is especially true if you allow darkness to catch you-which you should let happen if possible, since the area takes on a very different, magical aspect when lit by its quaint lanterns.

Bounded by the Barrio de la Juderia, the Mosque (Mezquita) is the highlight of a visit to Córdoba. Begun in 785 and added onto over the centuries, it appears as a vast square of apparently endless red-and-white-striped arches, with a second level above the first to providing a feeling of openness. Hakam II added the elaborate prayer niche (mihrab) and the lavish caliph's enclosure (maqsura). In the 16th-century part of the mosque was destroyed and a cathedral was built.  Even though the Emperor Charles V had approved the idea, he is said to have lamented "the destruction of something unique to build something commonplace" when he saw the result. Hire an audio guide in the courtyard-adjacent to where you purchase your admission tickets.

Search out the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, just a couple of blocks from the mosque. Its gardens with their water terraces built in the 14th century are a sight to behold.

Head south out of town on NIV to follow the Wine Road (Ruta del Vino) on a journey to Granada at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. At Cuesta del Espino, bear southeast on N331 through Fernán-Núñez and Montemayor-with 18th- and 14th-century castles-to Montilla, an ancient town perched on two hills. A short time later Aguilar De La Frontera appears, an old hilltop town whose whitewashed, octagonal plaza of San José is particularly charming. Before turning northeast to Cabra, you see Monturque, with fragments of its ancient town walls; and Lucena, a center of the Andalusian wine trade (in whose ruined Alcázar the last Moorish king in Spain, Boabdil, was once held prisoner). Near Cabra are the ruins of the Castillo de los Condes and San Juan Bautista church, one of the oldest in Andalusia.

Continue northeast on a beautifully scenic stretch of road to Baena, tiered gracefully on a hillside. In the upper, walled part of town are some wonderful Renaissance mansions. From here you can look forward to a lovely, if not speedy, drive on N432 through Alcaudete dominated by a ruined castle, and Alcalá La Real overseen by the Fort of La Mota, before reaching Granada. As you arrive near the town, it is vital that you do not follow signs for Granada Centro. Take exit (km) 133 off the N323 signed for Alhambra, which (following signposts) takes you for the 6-km drive to the Alhambra complex.

Granada fell to the Moors in 711. After Córdoba was recaptured by the Christians in the 13th century, Granada provided refuge for its Moslem residents under whom it flourished until 1492 when the city was recaptured by Ferdinand and Isabella, marking the official end to almost eight centuries of Moorish presence in Spain.

The Alhambra with its Generalife Gardens takes a complete day to visit. The ticket booths open at 9 am and it is handy to be there a few minutes early to avoid lines. Alhambra comes from the Arabic name "Red Fort" and, although it is red, its somewhat plain exterior belies the richness and elegance of its interior. After your visit to this magical place, we are sure you will agree with the poet Francisco de Icaza who, after experiencing the Alhambra and then seeing a blind beggar, wrote: Dale limosna, mujer, que no hay en la vida nada como la pena de ser ciego en Granada; meaning "Give him alms, woman, for there is no greater tragedy in life than to be blind in Granada." Look carefully to see a plaque with this inscription set into the Torre de la Vela on the palace grounds.

Most of the Moorish part (the Alcázar) dates from the 14th century. The palace of the Emperor Charles V, one of the finest Renaissance structures in Spain, was designed and begun in the 16th century. It now houses a museum of pieces from the Alcázar and a fine-arts collection of religious painting and sculpture.

The magnificent tile-and-plaster geometric decoration is an expression of Moslem art at its zenith. The stunning patios and gardens with their perfectly symmetrical design will dazzle you as you stroll through the various halls and chambers. Equally appealing are the cool, green gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace. Countless fountains-now, as then, moved by gravity only and surrounded by sumptuous flower gardens, orange trees, and cypresses-testify to a desert culture's appreciation of water.

Several spots on the north side of the grounds offer splendid views of the old Moorish quarter (the Albaicín) across the River Darro, as well as of the city of Granada. The same is true of the towers of the Alcazaba (fortress), which is the oldest part of the complex.

Try to schedule a nocturnal visit to the Alhambra grounds. Some nights it is totally illuminated and others only partially (ask at the hotel for the current schedule). Either way, the experience is unforgettable and dramatically different from a daytime visit. Also, inside the grounds are two good dining spots located in hotels: the Parador de Granada and the Hotel America.

But your visit to Granada should not end here. The Cathedral, in the center of town, with its adjoining Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) was ordered built by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella for their final resting place and their tombs have been there since it was finished in 1521. Subsequently, their daughter, Juana the Mad, and her husband, Phillip the Fair, plus Juana's son, Prince Miguel, were buried here. Juana's other son was Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain in the 16th century.

The Alcaiceria (the old silk market) around the cathedral is now a tourist area full of souvenir shops. At its west end is Granada's most attractive plaza, Bibarrambla. It is a marvelous place to sit with a cold Spanish beer and watch the Granadinos (including the gypsies who live nearby) go about their daily business. For the Granadinos and for all Spaniards, this includes plaza-sitting; and for the gypsies, it includes begging from the plaza-sitters.

The old Albaicín quarter retains much of its former flavor. For an unbelievable view of the Alhambra and Generalife, try the terrace of the Iglesia de Santo Nicholas in the Albaicín at sunset, and do not forget your camera. Though it is something of a walk, we do not recommend that you try to drive into the Albaicín's maze of tiny streets (although an experienced Granadino cabbie can manage it). Beyond the Albaicín to the east is the gypsy cave-dwelling area called Sacromonte, famous for its gypsy dancing and infamous as a tourist trap.

If time permits and you like mountain scenery, you should definitely take the 60-kilometer round trip to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada southeast of the city. An excellent road (at its highest levels, the highest in Europe) winds its way to the winter-sports area of Solynieve (sun and snow) in the shadow of the two highest mountains on the Iberian Peninsula, the Cerro de Mulhacén (3,480 meters) and the Pico de Veleta (3,428 meters). There is a 37-kilometer road that ascends to the summit of Mulhacen and down the other side to Prado Llano, but it is open only in early fall.

Leave Granada on N323, which runs south to the coast through the wild terrain of the Alpujarras-the mountains to which the Moors fled, and from which they launched their futile attempts to retake Granada. After about 15 kilometers, you pass over the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor's Sigh) where, it is said, Boabdil, the last of Granada's Moorish kings, wept as he turned to take a last look at his beloved Granada upon his leave-taking. The contrast in scenery on the Motril road is breathtaking: green valleys, rows of olive and almond trees, and the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

If you get an early start, this scenic detour is well worth the hour or so it adds to the journey: About 40 kilometers from Granada, turn left on A348 and continue to Lanjarón, a lovely small spa with mineral springs in a gorgeous mountain setting, with a ruined castle perched on a shelf above it. The water is supposed to cure various ailments and is bottled and distributed nationally-if you order mineral water with your meals, you have probably tried it already. Continue on A348 to Orgiva at the edge of the Alpujarras. This is the area the Moors occupied for more than a century after Granada fell to the Catholic monarchs. In this picturesque, little mountain village you find fine views of the Alpujarras, the Sierra Nevada, and the smaller Sierra de la Contraviesa to the south. Leave Orgiva on A348 toward the south and turn right after 3 kilometers on A346. Thirteen scenic kilometers later, you arrive back at N323, which you follow to the coastal highway N340.

Turn right and you soon have the pleasure of coming upon Salobreña, a picturesque, white-walled village crowning a rocky promontory surrounded by a waving sea of green sugar cane. These pueblos blancos (white towns) are typical of the warmer areas of Andalusia and you see several as you drive along. Park at the edge of the town and stroll up to its partially restored Alcázar to enjoy the splendid view of the surrounding countryside and the Mediterranean.

As you head west from Salobreña, there are numerous lookout points with fabulous views of the sea and the beautiful coastline. The road winds along the coast through the small seaside resort of Almuñécar, with its ruined Castillo de San Miguel. A bit farther on, near the village of Maro, are the impressive Nerja Caves (Cuevas de Nerja), definitely worth a visit-vast stalactitic caves with prehistoric paintings and evidence of habitation since Paleolithic times. Its archaeological revelations (including parts of Cro-Magnon human skulls) can be seen at the small museum nearby. The caves are efficiently run and offer a cool break from driving. Continuing west, you reach the resort and fishing port of Nerja, known for the Balcón (balcony) de Europa, a terrace-promenade with wonderful views rising high above the sea near the center of the charming little town.

You pass through the seaside port of Torre del Mar, with its pretty lighthouse, and the village of Rincón De La Victoria, where another, smaller cave (Cueva del Tesoro) with prehistoric drawings can be visited in a park above town. Unlike the Nerja caves, this one was formed by underground water and presents a quite different impression. The area is popular with local Malagueños for weekend beach excursions.

Follow the coast road and you arrive in Malága, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, the provincial capital, and one of the oldest Mediterranean ports.

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A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Casa Olea
Priego de Cordoba, Andalucia, Spain
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Cordoba, Andalucia, Spain

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[ icon ] Alcaudete
Andalucia, Spain
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Andalucia, Spain
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Andalucia, Spain

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