Andalusia

 



I liked Spain so much last time I decided to see some more. This time Andalusia, which I didn't get to at all on the prior trip.

 

My quest for lowest fare and maximum mileage results in a routing Orlando-Detroit-Amsterdam-Madrid. Due to a strong tailwind, the transatlantic segment is mercifully short, less than seven hours. (Those trans-Pacific ordeals really put things in perspective.)

 

This is my first encounter with the convenience of the euro. Money drawn from the ATM in Amsterdam will good for the rest of the trip. Also, the euro is new so all the bills are crisp and the coins shiny.

 

A very short layover for the Madrid flight. The KLM flight to Madrid seems very roomy: a 737-800 configured 5 abreast. Then I figure it out: we are in "business class." The front half the plane is 5 across and the back half 6 across with a sliding half curtain between. Depending how many business class tickets they sell, the airline moves the curtain accordingly. It doesn't look like they sold many premium seats. We get a "coach" meal, but a "business class seat." The seat is fine for steerage but pretty cramped for eurocrats and other nobility.

 

It is still morning when we arrive in Madrid. We make way over to the train station. We are going to take the futuristic AVE bullet train to Seville.

 

The train may be a high speed, but the system of selling tickets for it is decidedly low speed. Service to Seville is hourly, which is also the amount of time required to buy a ticket. We get to the ticket office at 11:30. By the time my turn comes the 12:00 train has departed and the 1:00 and the 2:00 are sold out.

 

With two and a half hours to kill we visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, conveniently adjacent to the station. The blooms are a week or two past their peak, but still very pretty.




The train journey takes two and a half hours. My GPS confirms that we are traveling at the advertised 170 mph. Arrival in Seville is at 5:30. With the help of the accommodations booth we quickly secure a very acceptable hotel (51 
euros) and head out. The city is just awakening from siesta.

 

A word about the euro, at least in the early phases of its introduction. If a peseta price has been converted to euros the result is usually an odd amount. That is usually the story on stuff the locals buy; people still think in pesetas and shopkeepers will often convert prices on a hand calculator before ringing up the euro price on the register. For tourist expenditures, far more common are prices in whole euros, which means that the price has been rounded up.

 

Our evening walking tour reveals Seville to be extremely photogenic. Views and scenes everywhere. They have done a good job of keeping the power lines out of sight, and just about the entire old city has been prettified. Spain is on double daylight savings time so sunset is not until after 9:00 PM.




When you come to Spain, you had better not plan on an early evening. The restaurant we select for dinner doesn't even open until 9:30 PM. It's a local spot known for experimental cuisine. I order ostrich brochettes. (Our electronic menu translator is stumped on that one.) Pretty good, but too rare --I usually eat my ratites well-done.

 

The next day, Saturday, is a full day, which is enough to cover the major sights. The weather is perfect: warm, sunny but not hot, with low humidity and clear blue skies. I am consuming film at a prodigious rate. There are plenty of other tourists, but not an overwhelming crush. 



The cathedral is the largest Gothic church in the world and the third largest overall (after St. Peters in Rome and St. Pauls in London), but beautiful is not a word that comes to mind. More like dark and boring. Like many of the principal churches in Andalusia, it was built on the site of the main mosque. The belltower was formerly a minaret, and you can climb it for climb it for a great view. The only thing interesting thing inside is Columbus' tomb, moved to here from Havana. The other noteworthy sight is the Alcazar, which was first a Moorish fort and then a palace.



Memo to Chamber of Commerce: put signs on the streets. It's an unmarked medieval maze made worse by the maps not being oriented North at the top and not indicating which way is North. For a dedicated urban compass man like me, very confusing.

 

Having done Seville, Sunday morning we are ready to move on. Boy, the streets are dead! I don't understand why there is a need for a siesta when no one gets up before 10:00.

 

We travel by bus to Ronda. The route is very scenic, especially now because it is early spring and the hills are green, green, green. The poppies are in bloom, my favorite. We pass a couple of the famed White Towns of Andalusia: villages of whitewashed houses on a hillside beneath a church or ruined castle. We arrive around noon, the best time to find a place to stay.

 

Ronda's claim to fame is that it straddles a deep chasm -- the two halves of the city are on either side of the gorge connected by three bridges at different levels. One of the last Moorish strongholds, it now survives on tourism (surprise!). Day trippers mob the narrow sidewalks, the narrow streets already being jammed by cars. It's the same problem as Italy: ancient, photogenic streets ruined by parked cars. Also, they could do a better job of hiding the power lines.




Ronda is also the home of the bullfight, and draws its afficianados. To peek at the Plaza de Toros costs 4 euros. I don't bother -- from the picture in the brochure I can see that it is round. What else is there to know?  For the rest of the trip that becomes my reference of relative value, making the rest of Spain seem cheap by comparison.

 

A couple hours is sufficient to take in the town. Widespread automobile ownership means lack of demand for public transport. We want to visit a couple of the white villages, but there are no buses on Sundays. Oh well, no choice but to join in the siesta.

 

Monday is Gibraltar day. We take a morning train to Algeciras, then a bus to La Linea, from which we walk to the border. Since it is all EU, there is no passport stamping. It's a compact place: the entry road goes directly across the airport runway (sign: "Please yield to maneuvering planes") to Winston Churchill Ave through a tunnel on to Main Street. So far, very few other people. Coming through the tunnel is like being transported to Disneyland on the 4th of July: the scene is wall to wall people trudging up and down Main Street shopping. Four cruise ships are in port; it's like Juneau in July, only worse because Gibraltar is so tiny.

 

The principle attraction seems to be duty-free shopping. Cheap booze and cheap cigarettes. At $10/bottle/carton they are cheap enough, but everything else is bloody expensive.

 

I am interesting not in shopping, but in the other attraction: The Rock. It takes 20 minutes to get through the scrum just to reach the base of the cable car, where there is a long line. Ticket prices are a puzzle: 6 one way, 5 round trip.




At the top is a giant souvenir shop and restaurant surrounded by viewing terraces. It's clear, so one can see across to Africa. After a bit of a wander, we decide to take the steps to the Apes' Den and then the cable car back the rest of the way. Apes (actually tailless macaques) abound, and we get our fill of them soon enough. 




The Rock is honeycombed with tunnels, some new and some old, and some still secret. I want to see the WWII tunnels. After a long walk, am I disappointed to find they are closed for reconstruction. There is no point is hiking all the way back to the cable car so we walk the rest of the way down. That pretty much kills the day, not that we miss out on anything. Main street is still mobbed, and we just get back to Spain in time for the last train to Ronda. 

 

Tuesday morning we take the train to Granada. It bears the romantic but misleading sobriquet, The Andalusian Express. There is a train of elegant, restored cars with fancy lettering parked in the station, but I guess it is only operated in the summer for tourists. This one is slow, spartan, and doesn't skip any stops.

 

After finding a place to stay, we face a major decision: do we do The Alhambra today or tomorrow? My mental coin flip comes up "today."

 

Admission is by timed ticket only. Most of the tickets are block booked by tour groups, but a small number are made available each morning and afternoon. The afternoon hours are 2:00 PM to 8:00. When we arrive at 2:00 they are announcing that only 250 tickets are available with earliest admittance at 6:00 PM. By the time we reach the window, they are down to fewer than 50 tickets and the entry time is 7 PM. That's the problem with first world travel: hordes of fellow tourists. It's only the shoulder season, so summer must be even worse. At least the weather is beautiful, which helps greatly.

 

While waiting, one is free to visit the old castle/fort and formal gardens. Very nice, but hardly four hours worth.



The palaces is good, but after such a long wait I am underwhelmed. Impressive, but not "oh wow!" material. And it's still pretty crowded. Oh well, visiting the Alhambra is spozed to take half a day and it did, though most of the time was spent cooling my heels.

 

Monday, May 1st. May Day, or as it's known in the socialist world, Labor Day. The International Day of Revolution. Also a public holiday. We emerge from the hotel at 9:30 AM to find the city dead quiet. Bums are still asleep in the doorways of the shops and the streets are free of traffic.

 

First stop is the Cathedral. Built in the Renaissance, it is light and airy, a sharp contrast to the one in Seville. Before 10:00 they are not even collecting the admission fee. In the adjacent royal chapel are the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella.




Then we hike across town to La Cartuja, a Carthusian monastery which has elaborately decorated Baroque interior. I like it better than the Alhambra, largely because it is unaticipated and uncrowded.




As we walk back towards the city center a sound truck from the labor union federation is driving through the streets broadcasting revolutionary exhortations and songs. In the plaza masses of people with protest signs and red banners are assembling. Their main beef seems to be the closing of a cigarette factory. Their signs do not urge people to smoke more; instead, their demand is that the workers should be able to take a permanent smoking break while still drawing paychecks. Another sign: "Telefonica culpable." (When in doubt, blame the phone company.) They march down the main street but there are no cheering crowds or throngs of supporters, just a few tourists snapping pictures. Whither la revolucion?




Next destination is Cordoba. The rail network in Andalusia is not very comprehensive, so we take the bus. Nice countryside. Olive groves stretch across the rolling hills to the horizon. Plenty of newly planted trees. Spain is currently the low cost producer of olive, and they must be betting that demand will increase or that Italy and Greece will give up. 

 

Cordoba is another goodie. In its heyday, about 1000 years ago, it was the largest and richest city in Europe, and before that a Roman provincial capital. There is plenty of stuff to see. It's not too hard to kill a day and a half. The highlight is the Mezquita, the cathedral built inside and atop the former grand mosque. In my opinion, it too is better than the Alhambra. 




I have seen Andalusia, and we still have two days left. We decide to see Toledo, which, according to the map, is on the way to Madrid. But getting there from the South proves impossible. There is no direct rail service, and only one bus a day. So Saturday morning we take the AVE back to Madrid. (This time I buy the tickets on the internet the day before, having stopped by the station earlier and seen a replication of the Madrid ticket-buying nightmare.) We speed north for an hour and 45 minutes at 170mph, then change trains and chug slowly back south for an hour.

 

Toledo was the capital of Castille until the King accepted a job-related transfer and moved to Madrid. It's a walled city, full of churches castles, etc. It proves to be a disappointment. Too Disneyfied: the buildings are so heavily restored that they look new; and the stores are all tourist junk shops. Swords, swords, and more swords, plus plenty of knives and a few suits of armor. Nor is the place all that photogenic, particularly in comparison to Andalusia. They need to bring in a little greenery, conceal the power lines, and do something about the cars parked in front of everything. To top it all off, the place is packed with zillions of tourists.




That said, the cathedral is pretty good, and I like the Alcazar, which was besieged during the Spanish Civil War. It's sort of a Fascist Alamo, with the difference being that good guys (bad guys?) won when Franco diverted his army to lift the siege. The fort was pounded into rubble and later rebuilt. Nowadays it's a military museum honoring the defenders as well as Spanish military glory, though they had to dig pretty deep into history to find victories to glorify.




A general comment about Madrid and its environs: if they want people to take them seriously, they should lose the Castilian lisp. Every time someone opens his mouth I feel like smacking him and saying "get serious." Movies and TV are dubbed separately for the Spanish market and for Latin America. Audiences in Mexico would burst out laughing if The Terminator said "Hathta la vithta, baby."

 

Sunday is the last full day of the trip. Segovia is the runner up for day trips, so we give it a try. It is about 50 miles north of Madrid which means going back through and beyond.

 

What a difference! I like Segovia! Same general theme as Toledo, but better in all respects. Better stuff to see, better prices, and without the crowds. Also, Segovia is the only place we've been where the streets are signposted and north is at the top of the map.




First stop after hotel room acquisition is the cathedral, the last Gothic Cathedral built in Europe. It looks better on the outside than the inside, but it has two redeeming features: it's free, and it's uncrowded.




Next, the Alcazar (the fourth one this trip). Another twelfth century fortress situated on the commanding heights. After a fire some 150 years ago it was rebuilt in Disneyland form -- it looks just like Cinderella's castle.




Then the weather fails us. The whole trip so far has been sunny and clear. This morning it is cloudy but the sun has been peeking through. While we are in the Alcazar, it starts raining. After a while it lets up, so we hotfoot it back to the hotel. Around 5:00 we venture out again. The rain has stopped, but the skies are still overcast. I use up the rest of my film, lamenting on how much nicer the photos would be with blue skies. Right after I expose the last frame, the clouds disappear and everything looks radiant in the late afternoon light. Deep question: are beautiful sights as good when you are out of film?

 

Segovia is famed as a gastronomic center. The local specialty is roast suckling pig. (A number of storefronts display dead piglets to whet one's appetite.) Also featured is suckling lamb. I do not see any place with the obvious slogan "Our Food Sucks." 

 

Monday is departure day. The train from Madrid was a two hours ride on a glorified subway car. We go back by bus -- one leaves four times an hour, takes 70 minutes, is cheaper and more quite comfortable.  On board, I look around -- every one else is sound asleep. Maybe if they ate supper and went to bed at a decent hour they wouldn't need to include the bus ride as part of their sleep regimen. I almost feel sorry for the bus driver, one of the few people in Spain whose job requires him to be awake at that hour.

 

Back in Madrid. Lousy weather. Just as well; we are leaving. At 95 euro cents (85 cents), the subway ride across town to the airport is one of the better transport bargains. Then, chasing the sun, it's a LONG day home.

 

 

 

Trip date: May 2002