The three colors of Andalusia
Southern Spain belongs to her. In her mountains she custodies small towns attired in white; her cities have Arab heritage dressed in a reddish veil, and the blue territory concerns to the sea. Andalusia is so great that we must talk about her in three chapters, or, if possible, in three different trips.
The road hugs impossible routes. People drive on extremely narrow roads, but I have something to do with it: I left main roads and took those who do not follow the official guide. I have a map but I like better to follow landscape’s suggestions. There is no fixed time to reach a particular site. I suppose spontaneity does not know agendas and these lands -- forged over many centuries-- will be patient with my free roam.
The landscape you see from the car’s window is an eternal sea of olive trees. They are several decades old, even centuries old, but newer generations are occurring. Jaen region is one of the largest in the world producing olive oil, but I never imagined that it was necessary to flood mountains and valleys covered with thousands of octogenarian trees to do it. Industrialization issues, I guess. Crossing brief villages and knowing Mediterranean cuisine, it is clear that this goes beyond a business. It’s already part of the territory’s history and identity, where certainly several cultures have transited.
The journey began in the Sierra de Cazorla, although its official name is as long as the inherent beauty of the site: Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park. Speaking of sizes, it’s the largest protected area in Spain and the second in Europe. In addition, it is a Biosphere Reserve and Zone of Special Protection of Birds. But beyond such award, my journey in the park was not as long as I intented: to enjoy a place like this you must not go with haste but applying the modern term of slowtravel. I went to Borosa river’s point of birth and got a high dose of landscapes, some of them to enjoy from above, especially a series of corridors hanging on the rocks, with landscape and river literally at your feet.
Going down the road to Guadalquivir’s valley I got surrounded by the eternal world of olives. Later, at midafternoon, I chatted with a ceramist who not only shapes the earth but also knows to carve the moment, the talk, and insane things as politics as well. His name is Tito. He inherited a regional craft that comes since Neolithic times: the pottery. Iberian and Muslim cultures left strong traces in the technique and style, as in the baroque times, but Tito also prints reality. In his huge workshop, full of pieces hanging everywhere, he works with his own family, all from the city that gives them raw material to work and to be inspired, Ubeda.
The Renaissance had great impact in Ubeda as well as in Baeza --her soulmate city--, located few kilometers away. There were times of bustle for a young country. Muslims were expelled after 781 years of staying there, which gave them space to restart all over again. Such was the strenght of that time in these two cities, which thrust is recognized even after five centuries. Few years ago both cities were declared World Heritage and since then they became more fashionable than usual. I was on the trail of Joaquin Sabina, I must accept it. He is from Ubeda and my search was due to the inherent folly of a fan: his home, family... some trace. I found nothing except a bar with dozens of photos of the singer, but on the way I came across a city bursting with architecture, especially in the long Vazquez de Molina Square. Going to Granada I stopped a moment in Baeza, but it ended up being an extra day. It became clear that to wander the sixteenth century in the street, takes time.
Among dozens of pots, dishes and earthy smell, I managed to ask Tito where to find Arabic traces and he answered me with Andalusian sarcasm:
“Go to Granada right now!”, uttering a phrase of Machado at the same time: Every city has its charm, Granada has the own and that of all other. And there I was, obedient and punctual with the opening time to go into Alhambra’s Palace. There is not better place to live the long Moorish time of the peninsula. In fact, it is considered the best example of Arabic architecture outside Arabia. But there is a fact that baffles me: the construction was completed in the XIV century, a few minutes before the Catholic Kings expelled the Muslims from the peninsula. Murphy’s Law also works with history.
Alhambra means "red castle", tone given by the red clay used in the buildings. It shines especially in the first or last moments of the sun. Apparently all tourists know that, and artists like Garcia Lorca had it clear: he left settled the matter this way: “With such a large work, light leaves Granada”. Any terrace functioning as an observation point is inhabited by ruthless travellers who photograph it until the last megabyte. In such moments I understand firsthand a phrase repeated throughout the city: “There is no more misfortune than being blind in Granada”. It is difficult to walk through Alhambra’s buildings without thinking about the golden moments the Caliphate lived, or stopping to admire the geometric ornamentation and arabesque drawings that the same Escher succumbed and actually applied in much of his work. He left it explained in his writings by revealing that the Alhambra was one of the most fertile sources he had drunk.
Besides of being a refuge for the soul, the red fort had an algid political life, watched some times by up to 40 thousand soldiers and where it’s said that Catholic monarchs received Christopher Columbus before encountering another world across the ocean. To visit the site you must book early: everyone wants to be there and rightly so. Italian architect Paolo Marconi understood the clumping easily: “The industry of Granada is its beauty”.
The winding roads perched in the mountains invite to cross them one more time. Sweet tourist masochism brings me closer to natural areas, where you find more alternation between olive trees and corners full of rural life. They seem to be hiding from the hectic life of the rest of the world. This is a separate universe: Andalusia lives on the other side of modern Europe.
In the mountains of Huelva’s region more white splashes are taking villages’ form. Lime gives them the white tone. It is an attempt to protect themselves of summer’s heat, terrible at times. White is its defense but also its appeal. Many travellers end up seduced by these snowy landscapes, although there are no tourists stealing its genuine atmosphere, preserved apparently since Roman times.
It’s necessary to be organized. The road is ready to take me to all the villages of the region, but I have no more free days neither gasoline. Out from the top of the ancient watchtowers of the Arab period, you may obtain views of the streets and tiles network which create abstract paintings and perfect postcards of classical Andalusia; Zahara de la Frontera is ideal to know from above. There are other villages as well, as is the case of Grazalema, inviting you to live it privately. They are a handful of streets that do not increase in size over time, but every year add one more to its centuries of existence.
The small bars in the plazas and the rhythm of a deep Spanish encourage you to initiate the plan of leaving Earth and becoming another heir of a life that goes hand in hand with history, nature and a loose time clock. But I know I can not leave everything without having visited Ronda, which used to be a white village of small dimensions, buy became larger by the accumulation of beautiful buildings like the Palacio del Rey Moro (Palace of the Moorish King); Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) --the most famous in Andalusia, with over 250 years watching Tagus river under its high bearing--, and Bull’s Square, the oldest in the entire country. You can always return to the road and find those bulls living in their own habitat, in the Mediterranean nature. I opted for the latter while busting the car radio with the Gypsy-Moorish singing of El Cigala.
Moscatel at my table! There are two dozen barrels full of muscat around me. On one side of the cup I have tortilla de patatas (potato omelette), peppers and fried pescaito (fish). More Andalusian, impossible! Many directors and artists enjoy this gourmet menu during the Film Festivals. I am now in Malaga city, in a paradisiacal tavern called El Pimpi. Few steps from here is Pablo Picasso’ birthplace, and closer still, the Picasso Museum, with some of the 33 thousand works he made throughout his life. And from this place a short tour will take me to Alcazaba, another Muslim heritage who offers great views of the city, the port, and the Mediterranean Sea. This blue territory is inhabited by famous European beaches, and it’s possible to go beyond Costa del Sol to find unexplored beaches by mass tourism. Definitely, Huelva’s beaches were my destination, especially around historical Trafalgar’s Lighthouse, but we must take time to visit Marbella and Puerto Barnes as well, with their huge luxury yachts and semi private beaches filled of genuine Andalusian joy.
I also tried to know Andalusians’ daily life in its sea front, amidst Fuengirola’s chiringuitos (bars), and in Mijas town I found another of those white villages with views to the sea, and to the silhouette of Africa, which give her a special singularity.
End of route with Tito, the artist of Ubeda. I took him a photograph which gesture summed up the impression I have of southern Spain: the simplicity of a character that comes from a deep history.