Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Some historians speculate that the ancient Greek vinestock of  Malvasia grape reached the Canary Islands with the Romans. Others credit Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator with introducing the vines in the 15th century. Either way, historical records show that wine has been produced on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the archipelago, some 60 miles (100 k) offshore off the western Sahara, for over 500 years. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sweet aromatic Malvasia wine was thought after throughout Europe, with England its major export market.

Life in Lava Land

Lanzarote - vineyard 1

Lanzarote vineyards now thrive in the volcanic landscape.

Lanzarote was a fertile place then, with a thriving agriculture industry. However, Lanzaroteños had to rethink things when in the 1730’s, six years of continuous volcanic eruptions buried one third of the island, including its best farming land, under a thick coat of lava and volcanic ash. Grain and cereals, the staples of the time, were now out. Those farmers who didn’t flee for greener pastures in the Americas had to drastically revise their methods of survival. The island did have a proud heritage of viticulture, but would vines still grow in this new apocalyptic landscape?

La Geria-Vineyard

The ruins of ancient bodegas still stand amid the vineyards.

Actually, yes. The vintners soon discovered that the volcanic ash (picón) that now covered the farmland was an efficient porous mulch. It absorbed the moisture from the air, released it into the ground and then prevented evaporation.They had to dig several feet through the picón to reach the original soil and plan the vines. Within its own basin, each plant then had to be protected from the sometimes fierce Atlantic wind by a semi-circular wall built from the omnipresent black basalt rock. Since then, wine growers have built over ten thousand of these tiny craters throughout the island to create the spectacular countryside of black vineyards that is unique to Lanzarote.

No Sour Grapes

La Geria-Vega de Yuco

Bodega Vega de Yuco.

Today there are over a dozen thriving bodegas (wineries) on Lanzarote, covering close to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of active vineyards concentrated mainly in the central area of the island known as La Geria. Together they produce an average of 2 million liters (530 thousand U.S. gallons) annually, with around 75 percent of the production still dedicated to the Malvasia grape. Although they now produces a variety of wines, the most famous remains the traditional sweet dessert nectar with a rich texture reminiscent of aged Madeira. The balance of the production is split between Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which also produce quality sweet wines, and Listan Blanco for whites, and Listan Negra Mole for reds and rosés.

Lanzarote-vineyard2

The traditional single vine hole-and-wall method remains in use when planting new vineyards.

Typically, all Lanzarote wines are said to have a distinct personality: fruity, but with mineral characteristics and good acidity.The few that I sampled did fit that description, unsurprisingly given the island’s unique growing conditions. Most of the Bodegas welcome visitors with guides tours of their facilities and tasting opportunities for a reasonable fee. They usually require advanced booking. Here are three of the most popular wineries:

Lanzarote-El Grifo

Famed native son César Manrique created El Grifo’s logo.

Bodega El Grifo– Founded in 1775, El Grifo is the oldest bodega in the Canaries and one of the ten oldest in Spain.Their 50 hectare (125 acre) vineyard surround the El Grifo Wine Museum, which gives visitors an interesting insight of the unique methods of viticulture practiced on Lanzarote as well as a snapshot of the island’s history.

Bodega La Geria– Built in the late 19th century against the spectacular backdrop of the Timanfaya National Park, Bodega La Geria is considered one of the most important vineyards on the island, with an annual production capacity of 300,000 liters (80,000 U.S. gallons). Six wines ranging from dry and semi-sweet to sweet Marvasia are produced under the La Geria Label.

Lanzarote-Bodega Rubicon

The ancient cellars of Bodega Rubicón

Bodega Rubicón– Another venerable institution dating back to the mid-18th century, Bodega Rubicón has retained its beautifully restored colonial-style main house (a rarity on the island), complete with the courtyard shaded by an ancient eucalyptus tree. While the traditional artisan winemaking facilities of the old winery are reverently maintained, Rubicón has undergone major renovations and expansion in 2000 to introduce new technologies in the production of their wines.

Lanzarote-Bodega Vulcano

Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote opened its doors in 2009.

Not all the wineries on the island are historical. Some are quite recent, such as the Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote that opened its doors in 2009. But even these modern operations use the traditional single vine, hole-and-wall method when planting their new vineyards, preserving the unique landscape created three centuries ago by the ingenuity of the early vintners.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of the capital city of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and major western European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
  • Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses serving all the major points of interest, and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option for exploring the vineyards at leisure.
  • Visiting –  Bodega El Grifo, Lugar El Grifu, Carretera Teguise-Uga LZ-30, Km,11,35550, San Bartlomé, is open daily from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Sunday at 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 524 036, mail. malvasia@elgrifo.com. Bodega La Geria, Carretera la Geria, Km 19, 35570, Yaiza,is open daily from 9:30 am to 7:00 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday at 2:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 178, mail. bodegalageria@lageria.com. Bodega Rubicón, Carretera Teguise-Yaiza, 2, 35570, La Geria, Las Palmas is open daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 708, mail. administracion@bodegasrubicon.com.
  • The vineyards of La Geria are an area protected by the Lanzarote DO destination of origin.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Geria

El Grifo

Rubicón

The Volcanic Wonderland of the Canary Islands – Lanzarote

The Volcanic Wonderland of the Canary Islands – Lanzarote

The Canary Islands rise from the Atlantic Ocean some 100 kilometers (62 miles) at their closest point off the coast of North Africa. As the southernmost province of Spain, the archipelago has become over the past few decades a popular subtropical escape for beachgoers from Western Europe. And it has acquired a mass-tourism reputation that has kept it off my list of compelling destinations – until now.

Why Lanzarote?

Lanazarote-agricultural interior.

Lanzarote’s landscape was shaped by volcano eruptions.

With winter about to close in on the Northern Hemisphere, I am yearning for just one more week of sunshine and snorkeling before the onslaught of the year end holidays. The easy accessibility of the Canaries earns them a second look, and preconceived perceptions dwindle. As with most places, the archipelago has its share of less developped areas, places like Lanzarote. Much less familiar than its overbuilt Gran Canaria and Tenerife siblings, the island owes its unique personality to two major influences: the longest volcanic eruption in recorded history and the island’s favorite son, César Manrique.

An Alien Planet

Lanzarote-Timanfaya logo.

The sculpture marking the entrance to the Timanfaya National Park was created by César Manrique.

The eruption began in September 1730. Over the next six years, it buried a third of the island under torrents of lava, wiping out a dozen villages and several hundred homes, and dusted most of the remaining agricultural land under a thick layer of ash.To this day, the scarred badlands it left behind, now the Timanfaya National Park, are as starkly surreal as an alien planet.

Timanfaya-Fire Mountains.

The Fire Mountains vistas evoke an alien planet.

The park is the island’s leading tourist attraction, drawing close to two million visitors per year. Fortunately, strict controls are in place to protect its unique landscape from human depredation (as well as protecting visitors from the unforgiving terrain). At the Visitor Center, sightseers must board a comfortable air-conditioned bus that take them on a winding tour of the aptly named Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains). The narrow 14 kilometer (9 mile) “Ruta de los Volcanes”, is a one-way circuit closed to normal traffic. The bus stops at the most spectacular vantage points, with enough time for passengers to capture the moment. Throughout the trip, a soundtrack in Spanish, English and German dispenses information about the eruption.

Timanfaya-Silver desert grass.

Tufts of sliver grass rise from the thick coat of ash.

Although there hasn’t been an actual volcanic upsurge on the island since 1824, the fire still smolders beneath Timanfaya. Back at the Visitor Center, staff demonstrate the heat of a residual geothermic anomaly (or magma chamber) close to the surface, instantly causing dry brush to burst into flame and vaporizing water into a jet of steam.

 

 

 

César Manrique, Local Hero

Lanzarote-Village

Traditional whitewashed homes are the norm on the island.

Born in Lanzarote’s capital of Arrecife in 1919, César Manrique went on to build a reputation as an abstract artist in Madrid and New York before returning to his homeland in 1968. An passionate environmentalist, he then dedicated the remaining 25 years of his life to the preservation of what he called the “singularity” of his beloved island. He relentlessly lobbied the local government to introduce regulations that would ensure the responsible development of tourism. His influence proved as far-reaching a force in shaping present-day Lanzarote as the overwhelming volcanic eruptions that blasted the island three centuries ago.

Lanzarote-El Diablo Panorama.

The panoramic views from the Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surreal landscape of the park.

Manrique was instrumental in drawing up strict guidelines for the construction of the beautifully simple, whitewashed low-rise buildings reminiscent of the ancient  White Villages of Andalusia. They have since influenced all development projects on the island, from the restoration of humble village houses to sprawling luxury resorts. But Manrique didn’t stop at the preservation of Lanzarote’s distinctive identity and natural resources. He also left his imprint on the land with a series of landscape art creations. In Timanfaya National Park, high above the Visitor Center, the dining room of his circular Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surrealist landscape of craters and crusted magma formations streaked with startling orange, reddish-pink and purple overtones.

The El Rio straight, seen from the edge of the Famara cliff.

Further north up the coast, his Mirador del Rio is an other testimonial to his inexhaustible architectural creativity. Here, a lookout point is wedged into the Famara cliff face, framing with a curved spaceship-like window the overwhelming views of the Atlantic Ocean some 475 meters (1,500 feet) below, and across the narrow El Rio straight, the nearby island of La Graciosa.

 

 

Manrique’s Own Home

Lanzarote-Taro de Tahiche

Created within volcanic bubbles, Manrique’s home includes a spectacular swimming pool.

Of all of Manrique’s creations, the one that best reflect his passion for the island’s extraordinary landscapes is his own home at Taro de Tahiche. At ground level, the façade appears that of a simple, whitewashed, lanzarotoño country house. But step inside and it’s all open spaces, with light flooding in from skylights and a glass wall looking down at an open-air aquamarine swimming pool surrounded by giant cacti. Around the pool, curvy nooks and rooms created from five natural volcanic bubbles are interconnected by tunnels excavated in the lava. Today the property houses the César Manrique Foundation and attracts visitors in droves.

Another Manrique favorite is the majestic adjoining Jameos del Agua, a vast volcanic cave system that includes a shimmering underground lagoon filled with silvery blind albino crabs and a natural auditorium that slopes down into the earth.

Seashore Favorites

Lanzarote-Playa Blanca

Once an isolated fishing village, Playa Blanca is now one of the island’s popular resorts.

While I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected abundance of unique attractions on the island, I didn’t lose sight of what had originally drawn me there: Lanzarote’s reputation for some of the best snorkeling spots in the Canaries. The southern tip of the island, with over six kilometers (four miles) of pale sandy beaches sheltered from the gusting Atlantic winds by the nearby Femes mountains seemed an obvious place to settle. At the center of it, Playa Blanca, until recently an isolated fishing village, has predictably grown into one of the island’s most popular resorts. Although it now shows all the signs of a mass tourism destination: large resort hotels, a boardwalk lined with café terraces and souvenir shops, it was pleasantly uncrowded during my late fall visit. But mainly, it boasts clear, calm waters and seawalls teaming with life accessible right from the beach. Just swim in and float along with a variety of small species: schools of sardines to be sure, but also rainbow fish, zebra fish, parrot fish, cuttlefish and sea cucumbers.

Lanzarote- Playa de Papagayo

The Playa de Papagayo cove is one of the most pristine snorketling spots on the island.

For more seclusion and marine life, a few miles to the east the pristine shallow cove of Playa de Papagayo is tucked within the sheer cliffs of the Los Ajaches Nature Reserve. Although it is accessible only via a rocky dirt road to the parking lot, then a steep flight of stairs to the beach, it is well worth a visit. Still a bit farther up the eastern shore, and of much easier access, Puerto del Carmen’s Playa Chica is a favorite with divers as well as snorkelers. And with good reason – it is loaded with underwater critters. Here again you can swim right off the beach, or jump in from the small harbor wall. And the variety is even more interesting. In addition to the above, I spotted starfish, squid, various bream, small Sama eels and even a distant barracuda.

 

Lanzarote-Whitewashed village

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and most major West European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
  • Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses on the island and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option to thoroughly explore the island. There are excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. It’s about one hour of driving time to cross the island from North to South, and about thirty minutes across.
  • Visiting –Timanfaya National Park– Fire Mountains Visitor Center is open daily from September 16 to July 14, 9:00 am to 5:45 pm, and from July 15 to September 15, 9:00 am to 6:45 pm, with the last bus tour departing 45 minutes before closing time. Contact: tel. +34 928 840 057. Cesar Manrique Foundation, and Cesar Manrique House Museum, Taro de Tahíche – C/ Jorge Luis Borges, 16, 35507 Tahíche. Lanzarote, are open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: tel. + 34 928 843 138, mail. fcm@fcmanrique.org.
  • The entire island of Lanzarote was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in October 1993.

Location, location, location!

Lanzarote, Spain

Playa Blanca

Timanfaya National Park

Taro de Tahiche

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

From its beginnings as a Roman-era harbor and garrison to today’s exuberant capital of Catalonia, the northeastern-most region of Spain, Barcelona has developed into a fascinating patchwork of architectural styles.

Barcelona-Port Vell

Barcelona is one of the busiest port cities in the Mediterranean.

Once the seat of the medieval kings of Aragon, it remained an austere gothic city until the industrial revolution generated a Modernist rebirth. Today, these successive metamorphoses can be followed along its various barrios (neighborhoods), wooing tourists with an embarrassment of riches that makes this sunny Mediterranean city one of the most visited in Europe.

 

 

Begin along Las Ramblas

Barcelona-Living statue,

The lower part of Las Ramblas is lined with living statues.

It’s Barcelona’s most famous street, a 1.2 kilometer-long (0.75 mile) pedestrian artery that runs through the center of the city from the waterfront statue of Christopher Columbus to the Plaça Catalunya (Catalonia Square), where the old city meets the Modernist 19th Eixample neighborhood. In recent decades, to cater to the throng of visitors strolling in the shade of its venerable plane trees, it has become overrun with café terraces, living statues and street vendors of all kind. But never mind that it is mainly shunned by locals these days, if you are a tourist, it’s the first landmark you identify, if only for its no-fail access to most of the major attractions of the old town.

From the waterfront, a right turn into any of the narrow side streets gets you into the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gòtic.

The Gothic Quarter

Barcelona-Gothic Quarter styles.

Centuries of architectural styles coexist in the Gothic Quarter.

Barcelona-Royal Plaza

In the heart of the neighborhood, the 19th century Royal Plaza is one of Barcelona’s favorite meeting spot.

The oldest part of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic includes remains of the roman city wall as well as a number of medieval landmarks going back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. However, the most damaged of these ancient monuments were extensively restored in early 20th century, which transformed the original somber neighborhood into a neo-Gothic tourist delight.

The maze of narrow lanes now leads into inviting squares, most notably the elegant Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), built in the mid-19th century as a luxury residential complex on a site once occupied by a Capuchin convent. Inspired by French neo-classical squares, the rectangular plaza is surrounded by identical four-story buildings raised on vaulted semi-circular arches. Today, with its soaring palm trees, central fountain and arcades lined with restaurants, bars and popular night spots, the pedestrian square is a favorite meeting venue for locals and visitors alike.

 

 

The Cathedral of Saint Eulalia

Barcelona-Cathedral

The Gothic nave of the Barcelona Cathedral.

Meander northward from Plaça Reial and within ten minutes, you come to a sprawling gothic confection rising from the highest point of the neighborhood. It’s the Barcelona Cathedral, officially knows as the Cathedral of the Holly Cross and Saint Eulalia, after a local girl who defied Roman Emperor Diocletian by refusing to recant her Christian faith. Built on the site on an earlier roman temple, its origins reach back to the early days of Christianity. The present cathedral stands on the remains of a succession of sanctuaries, with most of the current structure from the 13th century, when the construction of Gothic basilica began. As for the grand façade, it’s a flamboyant example of neo-Gothic style added in the early 20th century.

Barcelona-Saint Eulaila crypt.

In the crypt, this Renaissance sarcophagus is said to hold  relics of Saint Eulalia.

Inside, the most notable elements are the Gothic choir stalls, the crypt with its elaborate Renaissance tomb dedicated to the eponymous saint, and the 15th century cloister. In addition to its series of side chapels, the elegant cloister includes a garden, a fountain, the Font de les Oques (Fountain of the Geese), and a pond that is home to a gaggle of 13 white geese. They have been squawking here since medieval times, when they warned against intruders and thieves. Their number is explained variously as representing the age of the saint when she was martyred or that she suffered 13 tortures during her persecution.

Leaving the cloister, it’s only a few steps to the Plaça Nova (New Square), which traces back to 1358, when it was the site of the city’s hay market. It is still flanked by two of the defense towers that protected the fortified Roman colony.

The Palace of Catalan Music

Barcelona-Palace of Catalan music.

Elaborate mosaics decorate the facade of the Palace of Catalan Music.

Another short walk northward from the cathedral to the street that bears its name but is far too narrow to do it justice, the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana stand it all its glory. Built at the turn of the century for Orfeó Català, a presitigious Barcelona choral society, this architectural jewel is the crowning creation of famed local Art Nouveau architect Lluis Domènech I Montanier.

Barcelona-Palau glass ceiling.

The main concert hall boasts an ornate stained glass ceiling.

Designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, it exploits natural light to create an exquisite harmony of sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork inside and out. The rich glazed mosaic decor of the façade, which incorporates traditional Spanish and Moorish architectural elements, is especially striking. The interior is equally flamboyant, particularly the main concert hall with its inverted stained glass domed ceiling. The Palace remains to this day an exceptional venue for opera and symphonic as well as folk music, and an essential landmark in the cultural and social life of Catalonia.

Graze at La Boqueria

Barcelona-Boquaria fruit.

The vegetable and fruit stands are especially colorful.

Barcelona is famous as one of the foodie capitals of Europe and the Barri Gotic, one of its most visited neighborhood, offers plenty of attractive eating options. But the first de rigueur stop for connoisseurs is just across Las Ramblas, at the edge of the El Raval neighborhood. Arguably the most famous food market in all of Spain, the Mercat de Sant Joseph de la Boqueria (a.k.a La Boqueria) traces its origin back to the 13th century when it started out as a cluster of meat stalls. It settled in its current location in 1840, on a space previously occupied by a convent dedicated to St. Joseph. Its graceful Art Nouveau iron and glass structure was added in 1914.

Barcelona-Jamón Iberico

Jamón Iberico is much appreciated by gourmets throughout Spain and beyond.

In its current iteration, la Boqueria is a grid of some 200 permanent stalls selling all manners of local and exotic foodstuff. They converge on an oval plan from colorful local vegetable and fruit displays to cured meats and cheeses to fresh-out-of-the ocean seafood in the center. Those who are shopping for provisions come early, before the aisles become clogged with tourists. For the rest of us, it’s fun to graze through La Boqueria, munching on slivers of Jamón Iberico, the famed dry-cured ham from the Iberian breed pigs, or grab a stool at one of the many tapas bars sprinkled around the market. They are hugely popular so you may have to hover a while before scoring one. Then order whatever looks good in the plates of your neighbors, a glass of cava(local bubbly) or cerveza(beer) and watch the world go.

Barcelona-Panorama

The roof terrace of the luxury Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel offers a unique panoramic view of the city.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air:A number of low cost carriers, including easyJet, Germanwings, Ryanair, Transavia and Vueling connect Barcelona International Airport with most major cities in Western Europe and beyond. The airport is located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the city center and easily accessible by public transportation or taxis. By train: there are multiple daily high-speed-rail connections between Barcelona and Madrid (travel time between 2.5 and three hours) and several major cities in France (travel time from Paris is 6.5 hour, Lyon 5 hours, Marseille 4 hours and Toulouse 3 hours). By sea: the city is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean for cruise ships and ferries. There are ferries from the Balearic Islands, North Africa – Tangier and Algiers, and Italy – Genoa, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Sardinia. The ferrys dock at Port Bell, at the bottom of Las Ramblas.
  • Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot and easily walkeable. However there is also a good public transportation network of buses, trams and a modern metro system with twelve lines that provide efficient access to all parts of the city.
  • Visiting – The Cathedral, Plaça de la Seu, Barcelona, is open Monday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Saturday, 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm and Sunday, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Nearest metro stop: Jaume I. If time allows, a short elevator ride to the roof offers a panoramic view of the city. Palau de la Música Catalana, Carrer Palau de la Mùsica Catalana. Nearest metro:  Concert times vary throughout the year. There are guided tours  daily from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm.  La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, 91. Nearest métro: Liceu. Open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am through 8:00 pm. 
  • Staying– On this recent visit, we stayed at the Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel, Moll de Barcelona, s/n, 08039 Barcelona, my son’s favorite hotel in Barcelona, and now mine, for its unique central waterfront location within a 5 minute-walk from Las Ramblas. Built by famed Chinese-American I.M. Pei (think the Musée du Louvre Pyramid in Paris, or the J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston). In addition to all the amenities and services one expects from a 5-star hotel, this luxury property offers exceptional panoramic views overd the entire city and the mountains to the horizon. Contact: e-mail reservas@grandmarinahotel.com, tel. +34 936 03 90

Location, location, location!

Barcelona, Barri Gotic

Las Ramblas

La Boqueria

Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel

Moorish Palaces and Gypsy Grottos – Granada

Moorish Palaces and Gypsy Grottos – Granada

While the region surrounding Granada is known to have has been populated from at least the eighth century B.C., the present-day city wasn’t founded until the early eleventh century, recently by the standards of the Mediterranean basin. Three centuries into the Moors rule of the area, a civil war ended the Umayyad Caliphate. Victorious Berber general Ziri ibn Manad established an independent kingdom for himself. However, the local capital (Elvira) was located on a low plain, which as he had himself demonstrated made it difficult to protect from attacks. So the newly minted Zirid ruler decided to transport his quarters to higher grounds.

Taking to the hills

Andalusia - The Albacin Moorish neighborhood of Granada.

Albacin is the ancient Moorish medina of Granada.

The hilltop hamlet of Gárnata (altitude 738 meters) seemed a better bet. Especially since it came with an ancient military fortress (or Alcazaba) already in the neighborhood. In short order the site was transformed into one of the most important cities of Al-Andalus, as the Iberian Peninsula was then called. By the end of the eleventh century, the Alhambra had become a walled military citadel. The city itself had spread across the Darro River to include the Albaicín, a steep labyrinth of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and secluded inner gardens (or cármenes). It is this ancient Moorish medina that I choose to call home for my visit to Granada.

Granada-Alambra view.

View of the Alambra from my window at La Casa del Aljarife.

The taxi from the train station in the lower, contemporary part of the city drops me off at the bottom of the hill on Plaza Nova. It’s on foot after that, an ankle-twisting noisy walk rolling my luggage uphill over cobblestones that randomly morph into stairs. Ten sweaty minutes later, I arrive at La Casa del Aljarife and feel instantly rewarded for the climb. This tiny Bed and Breakfast is perched high on the hill, a typical narrow multi-level seventeenth century house in the far corner of the handkerchief-size Placeta de Cruz Verde. My host, Christian Most, takes over the luggage-hauling up the steep, centuries-worn stairs all the way to the fourth floor. La Casa del Aljarife has only four guest rooms. Mine is a light-filled retreat at the very top of the house, with an eye-level view of the Alhambra.

Granada-Albacin patio

The patio of our Albacin home is filled with trees in bloom.

In the morning, Christian dishes out hearty Anglo-Saxon breakfasts in the inner courtyard filled with fruit trees in blooms and bird songs. It wouldn’t take much convincing to get me to linger in the serene cármen, but the vibrant andalusian world is calling. It’s uphill again to the highest point of the Albaicín, the Plaza de San Nicolas famous for its panoramic view of the Alhambra against the snowy backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.

 

Fabulous Flamenco

Andalusia - Granada Flamenco Dancers.

Granada Flamenco Dancer.

The Albaicín is a neighborhood perfect for getting lost. I follow narrow lanes lined with hole-in-the-wall bazaar shops and eateries sending out cooking smells that speak of North African souks. My wanderings invariably lead to some tiny placeta, where I can rest my cobblestone-weary feet over sweet mint tea. This is how I come across the Jardines de Zoraya. I step in for tea in the shaded garden one afternoon, and return the next evening for great local food and even better Flamenco.

Granada has a long Flamenco tradition, in the Albaicín and even more so in Sacromonte, the historic home of the city’s thriving Roma community (often called Gypsies, or Ginatos). They settled in the Sacromonte neighborhood of Valaparaiso Hill to the north of the Alhambra in the fifteenth century, after the combined forces of Aragon and Castile finally tossed out the Moors. Sacromonte is famous for its many whitewashed caves cut into the rock, some still used as residences today. It is the home of Zambra, a Flamenco variation with a distinct oriental feel.

A pearl set in emeralds

Andalusia - Alhambra Nasrid Patio.

Patio in a Nastrid Palace in the Alhambra.

This is how Moorish poets saw the Alhambra. After days of admiring it from afar, I finally get to set foot into this sublime masterpiece of European Islamic art. The Alhambra is first of all a fortress with heavily fortified peach colored brick walls that snake around the crest of al Shabika hill. Over the centuries, succeeding dynasties expended it until it became a city onto itself, and the seat of power of the Nasrid Emirs.

The palaces that once housed the rulers and their court are deep within the walls, surrounded by a small town that was home to lesser nobility and common people, and a military area with the barracks of the royal guard. The sheer size and complexity of the site are overwhelming. After a day spent exploring every corner, awed at every turn by architectural grandeur and stunning artistic details, it is a relief to escape to the Generalife Palace.

Andalusia - Granada Generalife Patio.

Alhambra Generalife Patio.

A five-minute walk over a bridge outside the fortifications, I enter the legendary Generalife gardens. Built on the south slope of the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the Sun), the gardens and orchards were originally created to supply food for the Alhambra. The palace was added the fourteenth century as a summer retreat and country estate for the then Nasrid monarch, Muhammad III. Generalife is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens anywhere.

Today, the exactingly restored Alhambra and Generalife are considered a pinnacle of Moorish art and Andalusian history. They are, along with the Albaicín classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Good to know

When planning to visit the Alhambra:

  • It is prudent to purchase well tickets ahead as visitors are strictly limited to 6,600 per day. Only one-third of these tickets are set aside for day-of-visit purchase, This may seem like a lot until confronted with the endless lines at the box office.
  • Tickets are only valid for the pre-assigned day and time of visit and are not refundable
  • Only 300 visitors are allowed every half-hour by pre-determined schedule into the Nasrid Palaces.
  • Tickets may be purchased ahead at:
    • In Granada – The Alhambra shop (Tienda de la Alhambra)at 40 Calle Reyes Catolicos
    • Any ATM of La Caixa Bank
    • By phone in Spain: 902 88 80 01
    • By phone aborad: +34 958 926 031
    • They may also be purchased by internet ticketmaster.es . However Ticketmaster only has access to a limited number of tickets that are often sold out one week or more ahead of time.

Location, location, location!

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The essence of Andalusia – From Arcos to Ronda and Cordoba

The essence of Andalusia – From Arcos to Ronda and Cordoba

Andalusia - Arcos della Frontera.

della Frontera overlook the Guadalate River Valley.

After a week of enjoying the urban charms of Seville, a two-hour southward bus ride takes me to Arcos de la Frontera, the pearl of famous White Villages, for a taste of timeless Spanish culture. The old village clings to the very top of a narrow limestone ridge, a tangled maze of cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed medieval houses and ancient churches. From my room atop one of these historic homes, the view plunges abruptly down to the fertile valley of the Guadalate River and the rolling plain beyond. The whole place is a photographer’s paradise.

Ronda

Andalusia -Ronda and the El Tajo Gorge.

The Rio Guadalvin runs through the center of Ronda.

Another three-hour bus ride west, and I am in Ronda. I am a fan of Spanish busses. Comfortable, punctual and inexpensive, they are a great way to get from one small town to the next. Ronda is an eagle’s nest of a town famous for dramatic views and the 150 meter (500 foot) deep El Tajo gorge of the Rio Guadalvin that runs through its center. Celts, Phoenicians, Romans and Moors habited the area in turn before it was conquered by the Catholic Kings. Most left interesting marks of their presence.

Ronda and the local Romero family played a major role in the development of Spanish bullfighting as it is known today. While definitely not a supporter of the sport myself, I enjoy visiting the spectacular eighteen century Plaza de Toros. The vast bullring, 66 meter (217 foot) in diameter is surrounded by a stone passage and two layers of raised covered seating. The roof circular roof if supported by 136 pillars that hold 68 arches. The complex also houses a small museum dedicated to the sport.

Cordoba

Andalusia - Cordoba viewed from the Alcazar.

The Alcazar offers a fine view of La Mezquita and the Cordoba skyline.

The last stop of this journey is Cordoba where I can’t get enough of La Mezquita, the Great Mosque turned cathedral in the center of the historic town, considered one the most significant monuments of Moorish and Renaissance architecture. In its original mosque incarnation, it was the hub of Islamic community life in Al-Andalus for three centuries, serving as a teaching center as well as courthouse and place of worship. The building is constructed with 865 soaring columns of granite, marble, jasper and onyx, made from pieces of the Roman temple that previously occupied the site and other repurposed nearby Roman monuments. The sanctuary also has elaborately carved and gilded prayer alcoves. After Ferdinand III conquered Cordoba in 1236, the mosque was turned into a catholic church. A number of chapels were inserted over time within the expansive structure, most notably the colossal Renaissance cathedral nave.

Andalusia - Cordoba's gardens of the Alcazar.

Cordoba’s Alcazar Gardens.

Near the Mezquita is the old Jewish Ghetto, home to the Sephardic House and the Synagogue. Then at the southwestern edge of the old town there is the Alcazar de Cordoba. The palace was the seat of the independent Caliphate of Cordoba. Over time it expanded to become a large compound with baths, gardens and one of the largest libraries of the era. It was reconstructed and further expanded by the Christian Kings following the 1236 conquest.

So rich is the history of Andalusia and its architectural legacy that I feel this first visit has barely scratched the surface. I am already thinking of a return visit. Granada is next.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cordoba, spain