After dinner on our second day in Córdoba, we walked to the Roman Bridge to view the Blue Moon. We found ourselves a spot somewhere in the middle, stared at the moon, stared into the dark Guadalquivir, and fell into thoughts on the vagaries of history.
Guadalquivir, the river that flows through Cordoba and Seville, gets its name from the Arabic al-wādi al-kabīr, which means the ‘big riverbed’ or ‘big wash’. Across time, distance and language, al-wādi al-kabīr provides a tangible connection with home, for wādi is ‘valley’ in Kashmiri, and ‘kabīr‘, which means ‘great’, is a common enough name across Hindu, Sikh and Muslim families in India.
While travelling around in Andalucia, but especially in Córdoba, I felt the familiarity of things I recognised from home, things that made me feel more comfortable but also startled me as I recalled that I was “in the west”. The people look familiar – Andalucia has less blonde hair, more dark-eyes and stronger-featured people (the noses, especially, have more character). Every once in a while, the buildings have familiar silhouettes – the architecture of the Islamic tradition that swung across half the world to reach India too. There are beggars on the street, persistently calling out for alms, blessing passers-by in the name of Allah. The poverty is very visible. The siesta, the long lunches, the hot dry air, and the slow afternoons with empty lanes, were indistinguishable from my memories of past summer vacations spent in northern India.
There is more of the chaos and shoulder-shrugging laissez faire attitude that I wasn’t truly expecting – the man behind the counter from whom I purchased the onward train ticket scribbled my signature across the receipt, waving away my hand as I was about to sign, saying it didn’t matter since no one ever cross-checked these documents. (In contrast, while purchasing train tickets in Munich, the lady behind the counter first lectured me on my unsigned foreign currency card, made me sign it in front of her, checked it against my passport, made me sign the tickets and the receipt, and then cross-checked those against the card!).
Even as it felt bewilderingly familiar – flashes of home but fascinatingly unknown – it was also a constant struggle to not colour my experience with my imagination; to not romanticize all of its history. Córdoba, more than any other place we visited in Spain, made me yearn for a different past, a different present.
In Old Delhi, one yearns to turn back time and see the neighbourhood in all its beauty and splendour, but with all its chaos, it is easy to imagine it as the cultural and social centre of Hindustan a few centuries ago. In Córdoba, it is easy to feel the age of the city; it is more difficult to imagine it as the bustling centre of trade and knowledge it used to be. Its streets are probably cleaner, quieter, less crowded than they were in its heyday. It has been “preserved”, but it is hard to see it as the city that once stood at the centre of the world.
Food, as I mentioned earlier, is not the most important priority on my list while travelling. However, finding good food at affordable prices without much effort is always a pleasure, and in Córdoba, it seemed difficult to go wrong. There are restaurants in every nook and corner in the old town, which plate up fairly large servings of good food at reasonable prices. The Writer and I are not connoisseurs of Spanish food and we were usually ravenous by the time we would get around to eating, so perhaps our judgement was slightly clouded, but we felt we had come a long way since our days in Madrid. Every new meal in Córdoba seemed to better the previous one and left us satisfied and happy.
Our dinner on the first night was at La Esquinita de la Juderia, an outdoor-seating restaurant in a small square with other restaurants around, and turned out to be our least fancy eating place in Córdoba. We ordered our usual suspects – chorizos, fried aubergines, fried peppers and salmorejo. I’ll always have fond memories of the place because it was here that we finally figured out how to say “tap water” in Spanish. As usual, as we sat down, we pointed at our glasses and indicated that we wanted water, agua (that word we knew). Our waiter brought back bottled water and before we could react, had snapped open the cover with much style and was about to pour, when we waved our hands at him and began our usual pantomimes. I truly do not know why we never asked any of our fellow-travellers or the front desks at our hostels how to say tap water in Spanish, and searching for “tap” in our English-Spanish dictionary provided about 50 different options for all the meanings the word has in the English language. Our pantomimes, which usually did not take too long to be understood, were a complete failure here, so I opened the dictionary and gave the 50 words to our waiter. He was taken aback, I shrugged, and he bemusedly stared at the phone I’d thrust into his hands, and then there was a moment of comprehension! Nestled somewhere in the cloud of words was the one we wanted and it had caught his eye – he looked at us and said “Aaah agua grifo!” Our excitement knew no bounds. So it was that for the remainder of our Spanish travels, we would walk in to restaurants, seat ourselves and very dignifiedly request some agua grifo.
On our second day in Córdoba, while on our way to the Alcazar, we came across a poster at the entrance to a tucked-away street advertising a four course meal for two people for 20 euros including taxes – 10 euros per person – our upper-price limit for each meal, and this looked fancy. So, around lunchtime, we made our way to La Fragua, still not fully convinced that we had understood the deal correctly, bravely prodding each other onwards, and confirming with our server twice before settling in for what turned out to be a gorgeous meal. It was a pre-set lunch of (i) salmorejo garnished with a touch of apple, ham and boiled egg, (ii) fried eggplant, (iii) flamenquin iberico – deep-fried pork wrapped in ham and filled with cheese, and (iv) a house dessert. We were stuffed by the time the third course rolled around, so much so that I, who have an extremely sweet tooth, have no recollection of what we ate for dessert.
That night, buoyed by our knowledge and experience of the ready availability of good food in Córdoba, we decided to splurge a little and treat ourselves to some great food. We landed at El Choto, a lovely little restaurant at a corner of Calle de Almanzor, and that dinner was probably the best food that we had in all of Spain. We walked out of there replete and relaxed and ambled down to the Roman Bridge for a late-night walk.
We were not the most adventurous with our food in Spain – we settled into our favourite dishes quite early on and ended up ordering them almost everywhere we went. We did become more discerning as to the quality of our favourites; the good chorizos (such as the ones at El Choto) were a world removed from some of the others we had. I would have loved to try out more of the Spanish dishes, including the more exotic-sounding ones – grilled ox steaks and Córdoba-style bull’s tails – but, the Writer isn’t a very meat person, and without being sure if I’d enjoy eating the entire dish, I didn’t want to gamble on my main meals of the day. Looking back though, I have no regrets eating Salmorejo every chance I got – I’d do it again, especially as I remember it and crave it daily in this current Indian heat.
Our second day in Córdoba was action-packed as we tried to balance fitting in everything possible, while taking our time doing so. The Writer was unwell and needed to rest for a few hours in the morning, and I used that time to buy our tickets for our train the next day – since we had already figured out the procedure the day before, making my way to the train station and purchasing them was a straight-forward process.
By this time, the city-map made more sense to me, and I stayed on the bus (the same one we’d got on the day before) even as it took me past the previous day’s stop, across the Guadalquivir, to the very edge of the city and to the highway towards Seville, and just as I was thinking I should have gotten off earlier, and walked the long walk again, the bus stopped right by the Mezquita, not 100 metres from the hostel, next to the Puerta del Puente – it was an extra 45 minute ride but the knowledge would have been extremely useful the day before!
The Puerta del Puente is open to the public for a donation of one euro and with time to kill, I walked up for some more views of the town (the Calahorra Tower has better views but given the opportunity, I will climb any steps for a view from the top). The roof of the gate is a constrained space, and the walls of the Mezquita loom large next to it. It seemed to be a favoured spot with teenaged local couples (the one euro entrance versus the 4.5 euro entrance for the Calahorra Tower probably plays a part). A room midway to the top holds reproductions of paintings and photographs of Córdoba and the gate from earlier times. The Gate was originally a part of the city walls, as would make sense for it to control access to the city, but in the early 20th century it was detached from its surrounding walls – an honest mistake of the early archaeological years – and now exists as an independent structure.
“The Entrance to the City” by Arthur Trevor Haddon, 1908
Photos from the early 20th century exhibited inside the Gate
Photos from the early 20th century exhibited inside the Gate
The Córdoba visitor centre is located in a lane next to the Puerta del Puente. I walked in to generally ask for information on things-to-do that we might have missed and pick up another map of the city. The guides were very helpful even if communication in English continued to be difficult, and told me to also take a look at the exhibits in the centre itself. The ground floor has some minor pieces and basic information about Córdoba, but the basement holds Roman ruins excavated during the building of the visitor centre. This was my first introduction to the maintenance of excavated ruins underground with nothing to show their existence from the outside of the building – Barcelona would provide an even more amazing example. The first floor of the building was cordoned off but as I was the only person around at that time, the guides indicated I could bypass the tapes, and waved at me to duck under them and climb the stairs, where the hall held interactive models and 3D displays of Córdoba at different times in history.
Córdoba also has an Alcázar which is well worth a visit. Built on the site of a Visigothic fortress followed by a Moorish one, it has a dark history, even as histories of forts and castles go. Its formal name is Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (the “Castle of the Christian Monarchs”) and it was one of the primary residences of Ferdinand II and Isabelle I. It was then handed over to the Spanish Inquisition which converted it into chambers for interrogation and torture, and maintained a tribunal here for three centuries. Perhaps because much of it is empty and well-lit now, there isn’t any undercurrent of lingering oppression, or perhaps, we just weren’t aware enough of the weight of history.
The Alcázar is not very large, and like most Moorish-influenced constructions, has many courtyards and gardens. Unlike most places in the West where safety warnings and features abound and are taken to an extreme, the administration is not particularly obsessed with warning people to not be stupid, and I mean this in the most positive sense. There are narrow stairways leading to crowded towers, high, uneven steps, and walkways along the battlements and no security waving you away from the more interesting places. We particularly enjoyed it for its almost maze-like orientation and we never knew what to expect around the corner – Roman mosaics, a Roman sarcophagus, prisoner graffiti, hidden fountains, concealed spaces – it felt like a surprise treasure hunt.
Across the road from the Alcázar are the Caliphate Baths, the hammam, built in the 9th century C.E. We walked around a square a few times before realising the Baths were underground and we needed to walk down the ramp at our feet. The Baths replicate the Roman order of rooms for cold, warm and hot water. There were rooms for dressing, prayers, and massages, as well as for the furnace, woodshed, and other servicing areas. The Baths used the “hypocaust” system to channel hot air into pipes under the floor and through the walls to maintain the warm temperatures.
The ritual of cleansing is essential in Islam, but the baths built by the Moors all across Andalucia also served (perhaps, more importantly) as centres of political discussions and social meetings. They were open to women, but only on particular days, for particular times. The period of civil war from 1009 C.E. to 1031 C.E. in Andalucia that preceded the end of the Caliphate of Córdoba saw the Baths become the scenes of intrigue and murder time and again. In 1018 C.E., the Caliph Ali ibn Hammud al-Nasir was assassinated while at the Baths by three of his slaves, and the Caliph Abd ar-Rahman V was assassinated in 1024 C.E., by the townsfolk, the latter due to widespread public discontent over the preferential treatment shown to the African troops billeted in the city.
We wandered around the old city in the evening, walking into shops, purchasing souvenirs and more often than not, just engaging in conversations with the shop owners in very broken English. We hung out by the old city walls and watched people walk their dogs, and by the Guadalquivir on the Roman bridge to view the supermoon. It was a perfect day, and we returned to our rooms late at night when I realized that I had lost my camera. I could not even recall the last time I’d had it on me. I had already broken the screen of my phone in Toledo, I was still only into the second week of my eight-week holiday, and the realisation that I had lost the photographs of the previous weeks was extremely depressing; I went to bed disappointed and angry with myself.
Peering into the famous courtyard gardens of Córdoba
The old city walls and one of the two dogs that frolicked in the water as we watched
Our bus ride from Seville discharged us at the Córdoba station and having learnt our lesson in Seville of not wasting time returning again and again to the bus station, we had vowed to finalise our onward travel plans and purchase our next tickets before making our way to our hostel. The bus station and the train station face each other across a road, which we thought was perfect – we could explore both options and then decide what mode of transport would suit us best. However, we reached Córdoba in the middle of the siesta, and the Spanish take their siesta seriously, especially in the South, and what we actually ended up doing was walking from one station to the other (with all our baggage) trying in vain to find a tourist information booth, or any information in English, or anyone who understood English.
We finally approached a woman in charge of a kiosk selling tour tickets for “Córdoba by bus”- our assumption that the lady would be dealing only with tourists and would, therefore, speak at least some English was well-founded. She was extremely helpful, even if a little disappointed that we weren’t approaching her for the tour, and with a lot of hand-waving and some English, she informed us that taking a train to our next destination would be easiest and directed us towards the counter number we needed to find to buy the tickets. We even managed to wrangle one of the tour maps of Córdoba out of her.
The official counters, however, were all abandoned for the afternoon break. We gave up after another quarter hour of wandering and waiting, and once again, our ticket-buying was pushed to the next day. Another conversation involving many smiles, confused stares and more hand-wavings with another kiosk-girl who spoke no English, and we were almost sure we were on the right bus into the city, and with the map provided by the tour-bus lady in our hands and closely monitoring my offline map on my phone, we sat down for a long ride through the more modern neighbourhoods of Córdoba (we never did venture beyond the walls of the historical city other than on our bus rides to and from the station).
Signs are not the most systematic or sensible things in southern Spain and often seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. We got off at a stop that we hoped was close enough to the hostel (no help came from the bus driver who spoke no English, but perhaps, outwardly, we looked confident enough for we were asked for directions from an older definitely-lost French couple) and with some sense and some luck walked about a kilometer – it may have been less but under the summer sun and with our baggage, it was a never-ending walk; there was one wonderful moment to it – coming upon the the walls of the Mezquita in the quiet afternoon – the heat also meant that the tourists had disappeared and the shops were shut and the lanes belonged to us.
We had booked a room at a youth hostel, the Albergues Inturjoven. Much like Toledo from Madrid, Córdoba is mostly visited as a day trip from Seville, so that hotels are cheap and the hours after lunchtime are quiet and wonderful. Our room here cost less than the shared dorms that we had been staying in till then, and the personal space felt extremely luxurious – to be able to laze and stretch and talk and take a shower without worrying about being polite and considerate to stranger-roommates was an extravagance I had but rarely on my Grand Tour.
That evening we walked across the Puente Roman, a bridge across the Guadalquivir first built by the Romans and then renovated over the centuries by the many and varied rulers of Córdoba. Across the river is the Calahorra Tower, built by the Almohads to control and protect the entry to the bridge and to Córdoba, and restored and renovated under subsequent dynasties and powers.
The Calahorra Tower currently holds a most eclectic and wonderful museum, focusing largely on a history of Córdoba under the Moors. It seems to be a very personal museum, the idea of an individual perhaps, holding an odd collection of objects and dioramas. The entry ticket for 4.50 euros is well worth the price and includes an audio guide, and if nothing else, the views from the top of the tower are stunning.
The very first room that we walked into had life-size sculptures of four men from 12th century Spain – the philosphers Maimonides, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Arabi and the king, Alfonso X – the audio guide introduces their fundamental beliefs and ideas, mostly in their own words, and they left a deep impression on us. They symbolise the golden age of Córdoba, when it was amongst the largest cities of the world, the most advanced city in western Europe, and a centre of knowledge, scientific thought and culture. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (935 C.E. – 1002 C.E.) described it as “…an ornament of the world, a new and magnificent city, proud of its strength, famed for its delight, dazzling in the possession of all its goods…”.
Today, the historical quarter is a compact neighbourhood, contained within the old city walls and indulging the whims of the hordes of tourists that descend upon it every day. I wonder if the people who live within its limits would prefer to move out to more modern suburbs, much like the very understandable preference of the people of Old Delhi, but the chaos and dilapidation of Chandni Chowk is missing and perhaps old Córdoba is a neighbourhood-in-demand. What old Delhi and old Córdoba do have in common is the melancholy that pervades any old city that has known grand days and has only history to give to the present.
We had decided to take a bus from Seville to Córdoba and ended up walking to the Seville bus station thrice – the first day to check tickets, the second day to buy the tickets, and the third day to get on the bus. The route from our hostel to the station involved a walk along the Guadalquivir; unfortunately, there was construction going on along the banks of the river and we had to walk on the opposite side. It wasn’t a pleasant walk, especially since we always seemed to end up walking it in the heat of the afternoon. The only place of interest along the route was the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, the famous bull ring of Seville. The Writer was not interested in bull-fighting, I toyed with the idea but I wasn’t sure if I could stomach it, so we skipped it completely.
For our first walk back to the hostel from the bus station, we took a more winding route through the labyrinthine lanes of old Seville, and worried about getting mugged the entire way (it was still early days in our travel, and our safety antennae were on hyper-sensitive mode all the time). We got a little lost, ended up with extremely tired feet, but nothing happened to us, and we were back in the more familiar squares in the vicinity of the Cathedral by twilight, and could orient ourselves with the Giralda visible over the roofs of the houses.
We had decided that we would go for a flamenco performance in Seville. We chose the Museo del Baile Flamenco (Museum of Flamenco Dance)because it was not expensively priced, had a smaller and more intimate audience seating than most other places, and the tickets were available around the corner from the hostel at the tourist information office. It turned out to be a great decision. I’d only ever watched flamenco performances in bits and pieces on television and went for the performance as one of those must-do things in Spain.
It was a wonderful experience! I am no dancer but if I could, what joy it would be to be able to do the flamenco! There is the passion that everyone talks about, but there is also a primeval joy in the very act of dancing, an exuberance that envelops the audience, making you want to match the dancers step for step. It reminded me of bhangra performances back home – yes, it is a performance and the dancers’ emotions may be an act, but the joy of dancing is very real.
The flamenco tickets also included a free, optional walk through the old Jewish quarters, the Barrio Santa Cruz. Our guide was a young left-leaning Jewish chap who spoke many languages and provided a lot of information as he led us down alleys with buildings towering over us, where almost every corner had a story (usually one of persecution of its populace), past squares where inquisition burnings were carried out with the blessings of the church, and places where synagogues used to stand. There was not a single Jewish symbol on any of the houses of the Jewish quarter – historically, it did not pay to advertise your faith. Interestingly, there were a lot of palm leaves, in celebration of Palm Sunday, still hanging from the balconies all over the neighbourhood.
At the end of the tour, our guide provided his restaurant recommendations and I really appreciated the fact that he very clearly divided them into the expensive, the medium-priced and the awesome-food-at-cheap-prices places. We went for the last option (of course) and had a great dinner sitting on rickety chairs and a wobbly table on the sidewalk with the lit-up Giralda for a view.
My staple diet through Andalucia – Salmorejo
Goat cheese and crackers
I insisted on a walk to the Plaza de España to round up our Seville visit. The Plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition and consists of a complex of buildings in a huge semi-circle with towers at both ends and a canal that follows the inner perimeter of the complex. Along the inner walls of the Plaza are tiled alcoves depicting the provinces of Spain, many of which depict the Reconquista. It’s interesting that even as the alcoves celebrate the glory of the Christian victories over the Moors, the Plaza incorporates a “neo-Moorish revival” style in its architecture.
We walked into the Parque de María Luisa, and its meandering paths and shade and coolness were a welcome respite after the heat in the Plaza. It was not yet midday but there was blinding sunlight and temperatures were rising fast. We sat on a bench and observed old Sevillian men meet friends for picnics. The park was also created in 1929 and includes buildings constructed for the exhibition which have now been converted into museums. We made our way to the Archeological Museum and were quite excited about seeing it. On a whim, just before purchasing our entry tickets, we asked the lady at the counter whether the museum artifacts had any English labels. The answer was no, nor were there any audio guides or any guided tours in English, at which point we gave up and returned to our hostel for a short break.
One of the guide books that the Writer favoured highly recommended trying out a sweet called yemas at La Campana, a bakery located at the northern end of Calle Sierpes. The Writer desperately wanted to try it, so on our last day in Seville, even as we were running short of time, we made our way to the bakery. We walked in just as they were opening for the day and very confidently asked for a few yemas to be packed and pulled out our wallets to make the payment. The very competent women behind the counter spoke no English, but looked at us, waved away our money and indicated that we try it first, handing us a piece each. With three women looking at us expectantly, we bit into our sweets, and almost gagged. The yemas is made of egg yolk. Sticky, gooey, raw-tasting egg-yolk, surrounded by a layer of sugar. It is definitely an acquired taste and it was not what we were expecting. The Writer walked out, unable to swallow and unwilling to spit it out in front of the ladies. Before I could follow her, one of the women asked me how I liked it, and unable to do anything but nod enthusiastically, I swallowed my piece. The second of the women, perhaps wiser in the way of tourists, asked if we still wanted the sweet to be packed. I mumbled inaudibly, shook my head, thanked them and walked out to join the Writer on the street and gulp some water. And though La Campana had many other sweets that looked much more appetising (and smelled delicious) which we would have loved to try, neither of us had the courage to walk back in.
A large part of our second day in Seville involved ambling through the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede or as it is commonly known, the Seville Cathedral.
The Cathedral is located on the site of a mosque that was repurposed as a church after the “Reconquest” before being destroyed and the Cathedral built in its place. The mosque was amongst the largest in the world in its time, with its minarets being amongst the tallest man-made structures and was a symbol of the wealth and power of the Moorish world; the Cathedral played the same role for the victorious Christians and is amongst the largest churches in the world even today.
The tourist entrance of the Cathedral is from the side, through the gift shop and past the ticket counters and an exhibition room with paintings that I don’t really recall, which leads to a corridor with a small door at its end. You walk through this tiny door, the conceit being that the grandeur is even more overwhelming when you emerge through the door into the nave of the Cathedral – it is immense, the columns supporting the roof solid and thick and remind you of the trunks of Sequoia trees. The Cathedral is built to impress.
We walked around peering into the chapels, trying to identify the many famous paintings that our guide book told us hung in various corners, checked out the purported tomb of Christopher Columbus which was under renovation (other cities, too, lay claim to that fame), stared at the stained glass windows that never fail to fascinate me, and tried to understand the beauty of the wrought-iron grills that one of the books the Writer was carrying rhapsodized about.
Just before you exit the nave and enter the Patio de los Naranjos, if you look up, there is a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. It is easy to miss it unless you know about it or happen to glance up, as we did, and it is a little surreal when you spot it unexpectedly. The story is that the Emir of Egypt asked for the hand in marriage of a daughter of King Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso the Wise, and as part of the gifts sent to make the marriage more appealing, he included a crocodile. Alfonso did not agree to the marriage but he kept the crocodile and upon its death, it got stuffed and hung in the cathedral. Today, however, it is a wooden crocodile that hangs in place of the stuffed one, a replacement, perhaps, when the stuffing gave out in the original. More interesting is the idea that Alfonso the Wise may have known that in Egypt, the crocodile was a symbol of fertility and rebirth, and may have had the stuffed crocodile placed as a talisman.
Another of the doorways opening into the courtyard has carvings of birds and animals that seem to be representations of fables. I vaguely remembered The Fox and the Crane but didn’t know what they symbolised. I found this explanation for a similar carving in another church but one assumes all ecclesiastical symbolism carries the same meaning – “the scene in which the crane extracts a bone from the fox’s throat…[has its] symbolical significance derived from the Physiologus and the bestiaries, in which the fox typifies the devil, and the crane is an emblem of Christian care and vigilance, ever active in saving souls from the jaws of hell. In this case, the crane must be imagined as coming to the rescue, not of the fox, but of the bone.”
Another carving, of a wolf and a rooster, seems to indicate a fable by Alcuin, which “applies to those people, whoever they are, who have obtained salvation rightly, but are then deprived of it by black deceits in paying heed to false breezes with their empty rumors.”
The entrance to the Giralda lies in the North-East corner of the Cathedral, close to the doorway to the courtyard and the current exit from the Cathedral.
Under the Christians, when the mosque was destroyed to make way for the building of the Cathedral, the minaret was retained and a bell-tower was added, making it even taller, and fully appropriating one of the most important cultural symbols of the Moors. Today, it stands at over a hundred metres in height, and reflects the various stages of its construction and materials used over many years under different kings.
One of the most interesting features of the minaret, that took me by surprise, is the fact that instead of climbing steps, you follow a gentle ramp whose incline decreases the closer you reach the top. As a minaret, it was used by the muezzin for the call to prayer, five times a day, and the muezzin could not afford to be out of breath when he did so. The ramp allowed him to climb the tower in ease on a horse!
There are small chambers at different levels next to the ramp in the Giralda that hold items recovered during various excavations of the Cathedral, including old doors, door knockers, tombstones and the like.
The minaret is topped by a bronze weathervane depicting the Christian Faith, holding a palm frond in one hand and a shield in the other. Palm leaves, in Christian imagery, represent the victory of martyrs, or the victory of the human spirit over the flesh, and we found them throughout the old quarters tied on balconies.
Once you reach the top, you are rewarded by grand views of the city, including looking down into the Alcázar and its gardens and can try and figure out its orientation – that had been almost impossible for me while walking through it the day before.
The Giralda was, without doubt, the highlight of the day for me. It is a beautiful building and while it is difficult to imagine what the mosque that stood at the place of the Cathedral looked like, the minaret provides a glimpse into the wonderful skill and artistry supported by the Moors. The Giralda has inspired many, many towers around the world, especially in the U.S.
Interestingly, the 12th century minaret was inspired by the Qutubiyya Mosque of Marrakesh which was also the inspiration for one of my favourite buildings in India, the Moorish Mosque at Kapurthala!
All things come to an end, Even death itself dies the death of things. Destiny is chameleon-colored, Its very essence is transformation. In its hands we are like a game of chess, And the king may be lost for the sake of a pawn. So shake off the world, and find repose, For earth turns to desert, and men die. Say to this lowly world: the secret of the Higher world lies hidden at Aghmat…
In the 11th century, the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty, with their capital at Córdoba, collapsed, and Andalucía was divided into a number of petty kingdoms, the muluk al-tawaif, the Taifa kingdoms of Spain. One of these many kingdoms that arose from the disarray was the kingdom of Seville under the Abbadid dynasty. It did not last long, barely 50 years, yet, while it lasted, it was amongst the most vibrant of the Taifa kingdoms and Al-Mu’tamid was the third and last of his line. He is remembered for his benevolence and enlightened rule and as one of the great Andalusian poets of his time.
There are many tales surrounding him, especially about his love for his wife. One of the stories narrates how he met her. It is said that once Al-Mu’tamid was walking along the Guadalquivir River with Ibn Ammar, also a poet and a close friend, exchanging poems and challenging each other to complete verses. Al-Mu’tamid provided a half-verse: Sana’a ‘r-ribu min al-ma i zarad… (The wind has turned the water to chain mail)
Before Ibn Ammar could respond, one of the washerwomen on the banks of the river replied: Ayyu dir’in li-qitdlin law jamad! (What armour for a battle, if it froze!)
Al-Mu’tamid brought the young woman, named I’timad, to court, freed her from slavery and married her. The happy times were not to last long. Al-Mu’tamid lost his empire to the Almohads of Morocco, and died in exile longing for his Seville. He is buried on the outskirts of Aghmat, Morocco.
Was Al-Mu’tamid truly a great poet comparable to the best of the poets of the time? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. In my limited knowledge of him and his works, Al-Mu’tamid reminds me of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal. Zafar may not count amongst the greatest of Urdu poets, but he has a place all his own; his poetry, his lament for Delhi and hopeless pleading for two yards of burial space in his hometown, is poignant and full of pathos that no translation to English can ever capture – and perhaps that is how Al Mu’tamid reads.
How was I introduced to Al-Mu’tamid? There is a column placed in the gardens of the Alcázar in the memory of Al-Mu’tamid’s tragic exile with his name and date and recognition as a poet on one side. The other side of the column has lines from one of his poems – “God grant that I may die in Seville and that our graves be opened there at the resurrection”. His wish was not to be granted.
“Andalucía seems at times less of a real place than an invention of poets and storytellers” – Pallas Andalucia, Michael Jobs
Madrid had been a breeze in getting around and asking for directions – there were tourist information centres and people spoke English. Andalucía, for all its crowds of tourists that visit each year, was a completely different story and every time we reached a new town, we would spend the better part of an hour or two, trying to figure out public transport to our hostel. I had downloaded offline maps for all the places we were travelling to which also tracked our position on it, and those were extremely useful, for even after we figured out our buses and trams, we usually needed to walk for a while to reach our hostel.
At Seville, there were two bus stops across the road from each other outside the train station, but we didn’t know what bus number to get on or which side of the road to stand, so we spent half an hour crossing the road from one side to the other (with our bags), asking the driver in each bus that came by whether it would go past the general area we knew our hostel was in, and each of them kept directing us to the next bus that would come on the other side of the road, irrespective of which side we were on! Finally, there was a patient driver who explained, in some English and much Spanish and a lot of hand-waving, what we needed to do.
Our hostel overwhelmed our desi expectations! It was situated next to the Archives of the Indies (we planned but never got around to going in there) and was a two minute walk from the cathedral, with a café on the ground floor with lovely cheap sangria. Most hostels have electronic keys to secure entry for residents; here, we had our thumbprints scanned for access. My imagination was running wild speculating about EU plans to clandestinely get fingerprints on record when the Writer pointed out that “they already have those and much else”.
Seville, of course, has two things that every tourist must visit – the Alcázar and the Cathedral. On our first day, we had time to do just one of the two and decided to go with the Alcázar, our reasoning being that the afternoon heat would be more bearable in its green and airy environs. We had about three hours and it was too little time – for some reason, we were not expecting there to be so much to see and absorb! If I could do it again, I would leave the new day for the Alcázar and quickly see the Cathedral in a couple of hours instead.
The Alcázar is built on the site of an earlier Moorish castle, but very little of the original remains. Dating back to the 10th century, with structures standing from the 12th to the 18th centuries, it reflects various architectural styles – Moorish, Mudéjar, Renaissance, Baroque. It is the oldest palace in Europe still in use and the upper floors are reserved for the royal family of Spain.
The Alcázar has room after room of exquisite carvings in wood and plaster, in the mudéjar style, delicate and beautiful and overwhelming so that you need to look away to give rest to the eyes. The coloured plaster, at times when reflecting the sunlight, turns itself to gold from a distance. I had forgotten to charge my point-and-shoot camera (that is the limit of my capabilities – I wasn’t carrying a DSLR) and was relying on my iPhone for photographs; anyhow, my skills were not adequate for capturing the beauty of the palace rooms. Perhaps no cameras are good enough. I had seen photographs of the Alcázar before and none seem to have ever done it justice; for a picture will only capture one wall, one angle, one side of a room; the actual surrounds you on all sides, formidable in its immensity, stretching beyond the room you are in, forcing you to imagine away the crowds and recognise the skill of the artists who worked here.
The Writer kept trying to find nooks and crannies to adopt as her own and sit and plan a book of murders and mysteries and history. And I kept disturbing her peace by marching onwards and offering to go ahead if she wanted to just stay in one place, and tempting her to come along for fear of missing out. Walking on served us well enough in the end when we came across the rainwater tanks, more romantically (but wrongly) called Los Baños de Doña María de Padilla, the baths of Maria of Padilla. Perhaps because the entrance is dank and dark and not very welcoming, most people were walking right past it – we gravitated towards it out of curiosity, the desire to know where the open door in the lower levels of the palace led to, and there was nothing indicating we weren’t allowed there – and it felt like it was our place, cool and peaceful especially after the profusion of exquisiteness and tourists in the rooms above.
We realised we were running out of time and made a quick stop by the store – plead guilty to museum store obsession – and then wandered into the gardens (which incidentally is where parts of Dorne in Season 5 of Game of Thrones were shot (at times like this, I miss footnotes. This was a perfect footnote fact)) and other parts of the Alcázar, though I think we did miss out on some rooms.
Faster than fairies, faster than witches, Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches; And charging along like troops in a battle, All through the meadows the horses and cattle: All of the sights of the hill and the plain Fly as thick as driving rain; And ever again, in the wink of an eye, Painted stations whistle by…
We left Toledo early morning and took a half hour train ride to Madrid, a short wait at the station and a train to Seville, 536 kilometres south covered in two and a half hours; the Renfe is fast, touching speeds of more than 300 kilometres per hour, and Stevenson’s poem was a constant refrain in my head. Trains turned out to be our most used and most convenient mode of transport getting around Spain, and were not much more expensive than a bus even though we usually booked our tickets just a day or two in advance of our journey.
Spain’s lands are yellow, what Gerald Brennan called “the harsh and tawny lion-skin of Spain”. According to one of the many books that the Writer was carrying, the landscape is supposed to suddenly soften and turn green as one moves through the passes connecting the Meseta (the Inner Plateau region) with the Andalusian Plains in the south; perhaps the effect is more impressive if one drives over the mountains instead of through the hills on a train, or perhaps we were travelling at the wrong time and there isn’t much difference between the midlands and the South in the stifling summer months, for we did not see any softening. The tawny lion-skin of Spain stretched out before us everywhere we travelled, interspersed with olive groves and fields of dead sunflowers. The Spanish use a lot of sunflower oil in their cooking which is harvested from the seeds in the flower and which is ready only once the flowers are dead. The rows upon rows of drooping sunflowers wasn’t a sight I was expecting and was quite taken aback the first time I saw it. I tried taking photographs through the lovely huge windows in the train coaches, but we whizzed past everything so swiftly that most of my photos are slightly blurred and the vistas I tried to capture were “each a glimpse and gone for ever”.
Toledo shuts early, and once it shuts down, there is no one on its streets. We continued wandering around after dinner, up and down streets and into alleyways each narrower than the one before, often back-tracking, and peering through curtains into people’s homes and evening rituals – I did the peering, the Writer got embarrassed and walked on quickly. It was barely nine p.m. and we did not meet anyone on our strolls.
We came back to our hotel to sit on its terrace for an hour or so, and we mostly had the place to ourselves. It was a dark night, the milky way almost visible. We stared at the sky and spotted shooting stars and satellites, neither of which I had done in long time. The churchbells of the Toledo Cathedral rang every quarter hour and on the hour, and added to the serenity of the night. We mused whether nights in the distant past were any different than the one we were passing there; were they different when the town was under the Moors and when under the Church? were the evenings crowded and raucous and loud or were they always eerily still?