A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend.  I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.

I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.

The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.

When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi)  border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.

I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.

We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.

I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].

Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.

The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries.  I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.

[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]

Warsaw markets

I like a good market. I’m particularly partial to flea markets. I like seeing what other people no longer value or perhaps value too much. I’ve often fantasised about building a complete backstory for myself based on framed photos, discarded family albums, and books with handwritten dedications. I’ve fancied that such places must be where the spy people go to find the props to create new lives. I could (and do) spend hours sifting through other people’s stuff. I’ve got an eye for what I want so usually it’s enough to scan a table and see what draws me back for a second look. I like the foodie markets, too, if for no other reason than to see the strange produce on offer. Fruit and veg that I’ve never seen or tasted before. At one of the many Warsaw markets, Hala Mirowska, I saw tiers of eggs marked with various prices – am not sure whether they were from different fowl or just different sizes. It was too wet to venture closer; the battle of the brollies made the whole experience quite an effort. But had I done my homework before I went, I’d have looked for the bullet holes that still remain in the northern wall, lasting reminders of German executions during WWII. The older section is at odds with the massive supermarket that can be viewed from above. It’s like looking down into another world.

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets Hala Mirowska

Warsaw markets are plentiful. Just behind, Hala Gwardii [plac Żelaznej Bramy 1, Warsaw] concentrates on food-food with some 25 different vendors selling their wares and plenty of table space for punters to sit and eat. Warsaw likes its communal seating. I’m not sure if the table tennis tables and the boxing ring are permanent fixtures, but they added a lightness to the place that in some odd way helped dispel the everpresent sense of man’s inhumanity to man that I feel when I visit the city. We were wandering what was once the heart of the Jewish ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust were never far from my mind. That Poland, as a country, didn’t exist at one point in time is mind-boggling. The scars of the 1944 Uprising still remain. But in using old brick rubble to rebuild in the 1950s, the city still retains that oldie feel.

Warsaw Market  Hala Gwardii

Warsaw Market  Hala Gwardii

We happened upon another market – ZOO Market Bazar [Al. Solidarności 55, 03-402 Warszawa, Poland] In its second season, this is the brainchild of Agata and Olivia who rent the plot of wasteland from the city and on the second weekend of every month, rent out stalls to vendors selling vintage stuff and refashioned fashion. They open the place every weekend, regardless, as a laid-back outdoor bar and open-air cinema. Till midnight, the place is an alternative venue for those who like to spend their money on old stuff made new. In the past couple of months, all major shopping centres in the city close on the middle Sundays in the month only opening on the first and last. The women want to encourage people to buy old rather than new and also to encourage artisans in their craft. It’s a marriage made in ethical consumer heaven. A great spot for a beer and a browse.

Warsaw markets ZOO Market Bazar

Warsaw markets ZOO Market Bazar

Some more markets in Warsaw.

 

 

I’m getting increasingly sick of aeroplane travel. Eight of the last ten flights I’ve taken have been at least an hour late in arriving. And what with the ongoing pilot disputes with RyanAir and air traffic controllers on the outs elsewhere, booking a flight and printing a boarding card no longer ensure an on-schedule departure. So we decided to go from Budapest to Warsaw by train.

Booking 8 days ahead, we got some sort of deal – and opted for first class. Two return tickets, first class, came to €126 – €58 out, €68 back. and with as much luggage as we could handle. To get there on WizzAir, without luggage, would have cost the same and more, per person. Okay so the plane door to door might have taken less than half the time (if everything was on schedule) and resulted in airport transfer costs – but the train was so much more comfortable.

There are three departures daily from Budapest (Nyugati). The 7.41 requires a change and gets into Warsaw at the same time as the 8.41, which is direct. Both arrive at 18.56 (and they did – bang on). The 7.41 connects with the 8.41 at Breclav, which explains the same arrival. The overnight takes longer – leaving at 20.15 and getting in at 9.36 the next morning. I could do the 10 hours 15 minutes but the 13 hours and 21 minutes made me baulk.

We had the carriage practically to ourselves until we crossed over into Poland. I found this strange as when we’d booked the tickets, there were only 6 seats left. But when the world and her mother came aboard, I understood. It was standing room only in the second-class carriages and the entire first class was full. The dining car, too, was fully seated. My one and only complaint (I loved the complimentary water and free newspaper when we went through Slovakia) was that the air con was up so high it was bloody freezing while the rest of the train was baking. But apart from this imbalance, it was a very pleasant trip. Plugs for the laptop, table to work on, room to stretch out and sleep. What more could a body ask for.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Warsaw. But I remember being very  impressed with the city, favouring it in my mind over Kraków. I’ve yet to explore but it seems to be hopping. Last night, the street cafés in our neighbourhood were spilling over onto the sidewalks and the mood bordered on ecstatic. I wonder what’s in the Warsavian water.

Hala Koszyki warsaw

Taking a local’s advice, we headed for Hala Koszyki – a food hall over on  Koszykowa, No. 61. It is what the food hall on Hold Utca behind the American Embassy in Budapest could be, if it had communal seating and opened every night. It was great. You order from whichever place you want, take your buzzer, get your drink, find a table, and then wait.

Halla Koszyki Warsaw

We went for Cuban – jerk chicken and mango chicken with cassava hash browns. Delicious. We could have had Mexican, seafood, Thai, French, Italian, Polish – and lots more we didn’t get around to checking out. It’s a particularly good venue if you have a crowd of disparate eaters who can’t agree on where to go. In fact, when we’d been dithering earlier about a neighbourhood Georgian place (which was too hot to sit in and eat) I overheard three people arguing with the guy saying, in exasperation – Look, we can’t agree on what to eat, so we’ll go to Koszyki. What a great marketing strapline.

Hala Koszyki Warsaw

And tucked in between the resturants is a wine shop, a butchers, a bakery, a bookshop, a kitchen shop, and much more. The shops close at 6 but the restaurants and bars stay open till midnight.

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If I had to choose one city to revisit from this trip across Andalusia, it would have to be Granada. Yes, Ronda is beautiful. Yes, Cádiz has some great beaches. Yes, Córdoba has the whole cathedral-in-a-mosque thing going on. Yes, Seville has the oranges. And yes, the roads between these cities link many fascinating towns and villages, too. But my vote would definitely go to Granada.

Alhambra Palace, Granada

Granada was only on our list because himself want to see the Alhambra palace. Truth be told, I was churched-out by this stage and finding the heat difficult to deal with. I’d had just about enough of lugging suitcases in and out of hotels that proved difficult to access as Google  Maps is lagging behind the one-way systems in many of Spain’s old town centres. I hadn’t done any research at all. I couldn’t even situate the Alhambra in history. We had a 6 pm booking (be sure to book well in advance (weeks) if you want to see inside) and didn’t get there with much time to spare. Inside the Palacious Nazaries (access time is noted on your ticket) I saw a father with this two sons in their early teens. In a stern British accent, he was telling the two boys that this was an amazing place, with stunning architecture, built hundreds of years ago, and that they should be grateful to be able to get inside to see it all. The two boys, half-dead with the coupling of heat and boredom, just couldn’t seem to muster any interest. I felt their pain.

What began life as a small fortress back in 899 is now the most visited tourist attraction in Spain with a couple of million and more dropping by each year. The Moorish king of Grenada thought it a fixer-upper and renovated it in the eleventh century. And if we fast forward a few hundred years to 1333, we see that Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, turned it into a royal palace. Originally white, its walls have been backed to a red in the heat of the Andalusian sun. The detail is spectacular and the gardens something else. But had I a do-over, I’d have gone in the early morning to avoid the heat and to be sure of getting a charged audio guide.

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace Granada

Sacromonte, Granada

The hills above the city are lined with caves. Sacromonte, the neighbourhood known locally as the gypsy quarter, is where all things Flamenco happen. This would be the place to go at night – to see the dramatic shows and hear the soul-filled music. By daylight, the views over the city worth the uphill hike to the Camino de Sacromonte. If you have time, or are fleeing the midday sun, the Sacromonte Caves Museum showcases this rock houses while Sacromonte Abbey takes care of the religious relics.

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Sacromonte Granada

Albaicín, Granada

Lower down on the hillside, across the Darro River from the Alhambra, is the former Arabic barrio of Albaicín. This maze of narrow cobbled streets winds between whitewashed houses suspended in jasmine-scented air. The views of the Sierra Nevada and of the palace itself from Mirador San Nicolás are definitely worth the wheezy climb, but both Sacromonte and Albaicín are also accessible by local bus – if you can figure out the loop-like system. We failed. Twice. But, like the streets of Venice, this neighbourhood is somewhere to get lost in. Treat yourself to time off the tourist track and wander. Of course, if you don’t go early in the morning off-season, you’ll be wandering with hordes of other tourists, but it’s worth the effort.

Albaicín Granada

Albaicín Granada

Bazaar Granada

Eating in Granada

Had we had time, I’d have gone back to El Molino (Calle Molinos, 8, 18009 Granada, Spain) again and again and again. It is the perfect stress-reliever with delicious tapas included with every drink. Complicated ones, too, not just some thrown-together affair designed to appease the tourist. These are the genuine article. And they keep coming, even when you’ve ordered other things to eat. The chap who was there didn’t speak English but couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. The TV was showing footage of some old Flamenco shows which, judging by the reaction of the local regulars, was good stuff.  A delightful place that you can catch on your walk downhill from the Alhambra.

And yes, of course, the Cathedral is spectacular – from the outside at least. The street bazaar seems to offer everything you might possibly want to take home with you. And a walk along the riverside on Carrera del Darro is a must, stopping for a coffee and some delicious chorizo.

Yes, had I to pick one city I’d go back to, it would be Granada. Off-season. In cooler weather. Just under 2 hours from Malaga, it’s definitely doable.

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That’s it for Andalusia. It was quite the trip, clocking up about 2200 km. Next destination is Warsaw … by train. If you’d like to receive similar posts directly to your inbox, sign up on www.anyexcusetotravel.com

 

granada

Granada Cathedral

 

 

By Roger W Haworth, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3208996

The road from Seville to Granada is a long one, especially if your point of origin is Burgau, in the Algarve. We’d already experienced driving from Spain to the Algarve as we’d taken time out from the road trip through Andalusia to take in a wedding in Praia da Luz and five days later, fully refreshed, we were back on the road. We had a 6 pm booking for the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which meant that detour time was restricted to pit stops for coffee and essentials.

Had we had the time to stop along the road, though, we’d have done so at Osuna. Remember the Jack Nicholson movie The Passenger, where his character is assassinated in the Hotel de la Gloria? Well, this was said to be in Osuna but it was actually filmed in Vera, in another province entirely. But the town was used in the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Apparently, it’s similar in style to Écija, with many Baroque buildings to be seen. This, of course, has been duly noted, should we ever find ourselves back in the vicinity.

Even though we didn’t stop to see anything spectacular, I did have time to reflect on the dos and don’ts of driving from Spain to the Algarve.

  • Don’t wait to buy petrol in Portugal. Fill up before you cross the border as it’s $0.30 at least more expensive than in Spain.
  • Don’t ignore the slip road signposted FOREIGNERS when you come off the Guadiana International Bridge. I saw it. In four languages. And I ignored it because it said nothing else other than FOREIGNERS. {If there is another sign mentioning tolls, I didn’t see it.) And, having an EU passport crossing from one EU country to another, I didn’t class myself as a foreigner. BUT, just a few km up the road, it dawned on us that it was for the new electronic toll system. Now we were on a toll road going through electronic toll booths with no toll ticket.
  • If you want to avoid tolls, exit at either of the first two exits Castro Marim/VRSA or Altura/Monte Gordo. If you use them, you’re not liable for tolls.
  • When you buy a toll ticket, don’t wait for any texts other than the first one confirming that you have a balance. It’s not in real time. Add the tolls up as you go along and when you’ve used your allowance, buy another.
  • If you have a foreign registered vehicle, don’t waste time in the Post Office trying to pay outstanding tolls before you leave the country – they only deal with tolls for Portuguese cars.
  • Don’t throw out the toll cards… you might just need them to prove you paid up when in Portugal.

So there you have it. What I wished I’d known when driving from Spain to the Algarve.

We made it to Granada with an hour to spare, saved by an enterprising tout who pulled up beside us on his scooter as we struggled to admit defeat at the hands of the one-way system in the old town. He asked us where we were staying. We told him. He drove ahead and took us there. And then wanted €10 for his trouble. Fair play, I thought. We’d have been lost without him as with sod all Spanish, it’s impossible to know which streets you can use and which you can’t and when.

The final stop of the tour, Granada. But more on that tomorrow.

 

 

Seville

Seville. Oranges. Seville oranges. The city, with its 25 000 or so orange trees, has capitalised on the fruit: it’s in everything from lip balm to wine to hand cream. Nuns in cloistered convents don’t sell marmalade though – they sell rose petal jam. And some of the rose bushes we saw are said to be 300 years old. So between the oranges and the roses, Seville smells great.

It was strange being back in a big city again, with highstreet shops, streetside cafés, and the complete gamut of restaurants covering all sorts of cuisine. After the wows of Écija and Carmona, it was a little disorientating to see modern buildings, even if Seville has its fair share of old architecture, too. I felt a little off-kilter.

Eating and sleeping in Seville

We stayed in Hotel Zaida, once a single-family residence belonging to a doctor. A fabulously impressive place with some original, non-glazed tiles still on the walls. On the edge of the historic quarter, it’s around the corner from a great little bar/restaurant, Bar Zafiro (Calle San Eloy, 58) with its friendly staff and excellent tuna steaks and paella. Avoid the tourist cafés by the river and go deep into the Triana neighbourhood to see the real city. Beware of reviews – make up your own mind. If the place has locals in it, it’s a good sign.

Doing the church thing in Seville

I find it hard to pass a church if the doors are open. That I get three wishes when I enter one for the first time is an added bonus. My mother probably made that one up to get me to visit them as a child but hey, I’ve been doing it for years and it’s done me no harm. Three, in particular, stand out.

Santa María Magdalena, a Baroque church dating back to the early 1700s, is a little too much gilt and glitter for my liking but it has some pretty amazing wall paintings. And it was on this site that the first HQ for the Spanish Inquisition was located (the logo can be seen on the dome in the Calle San Pablo entrance). I’ve seen many depictions of the Crucifixion but this was the first time I’d seen anything about taking Jesus down from the cross.  Have a look around for yourself and enjoy.

Santa María Magdalena Seville

Santa María Magdalena Seville

In Iglesia de San Buenaventura, I came across an image of the Black Madonna but can’t for the life of me find any information about her. Back in a previous life, I was quite taken with her and travelled to see images in Poland, Italy, and Spain. She still intrigues me. Older, and somewhat simpler than the Magdalena, it, too, is worth a look.

Iglesia de San Buenaventura, Seville

High on my list of churches to see was the one in the Hospital de la Caridad. Surprisingly, I had little trouble shelling out the €8 entrance fee (audio guide included) even though I don’t usually like paying to enter a Catholic church, given that I’m a card-carrying member of the universal congregation.  But this church is part of a Baroque home for the elderly and the infirm and the entrance fee goes towards the costs of running the home. Seeing the residents wander amongst the visitors made it all too real. It houses some magnificent works of art, the main four being copies of originals looted and now hanging in galleries in Ontario, Washington DC, London, and St Petersburg. The virtual tour is worth a look. The founder, Don Miguel Mañara, wrote his Discourse on Truth more than 300 years ago. I have a  translated copy in my bag as my go-to read for the next few weeks. If I were to visit just one place in Seville again, this would be it.

Hospital de la Caridad Seville

Hospital de la Caridad Seville

Of course, while we were wandering the back streets, the real tourists were queuing up for tickets to the Alcazar. Having missed the one in Jerez, I had thought I’d go see the one in Seville – but to queue? No thank you. The line for the Cathedral was far more manageable and although I didn’t think much could beat the Mezquita in Córdoba (and I was right) I was curious to see the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world, the tomb of Christopher Colombus, and the 80 chapels the Cathedral is said to house. It was busy – very busy – and far from being a place to sit and pray, it is now a place to take selfies and wow. It could well have been that I was tiring of all this touristing, but I was distinctly underwhelmed.

Seville Cathedral

Walking the streets of Seville

The Plaza de Espana is quite the monument to Spain. Very impressive. Built for the 1929 Expo and situated inside Parque Maria Luisa, it is known as the Venice of Seville. Put a canal anywhere and you can call it the Venice of whatever. The 500-metre canal is spanned by four bridges (one each for the four ancient provinces of  Castille, Aragon, Navarre and Leon). It’s possible to rent a boat and row your way around but having been rowed across Lake Bled, I wasn’t tempted. Around the 50,000 sq m semicircular plaza (apparently the size of 5 football pitches), 48 alcoves with benches represent each province of Spain. Maps of the provinces are painted on ceramic tiles – azulejos  – and are the focal point for visiting Spanish tourists. It’s definitely worth a look.

Plaza de Espana Seville

Plaza de Espana Seville

The riverside walk was ruined for me as I couldn’t get Chris De Burgh’s Spanish Train out of my head:

Well that Spanish train still runs between
Guadalquivir and old Seville
And at dead of night the whistle blows
And people fear she’s running still
But it is rather lovely. Interestingly, instead of plaques showing where famous composers, poets, and artists have lived, the Triana part of town has memorials to bullfighters. And, if you’re in the market for ceramics – this is the part of town to visit to see the artists at work.
There’s plenty of stuff to see in the city – like the seat of the presidency at the Palace of San Telmo or the city’s only circled-square plaza, hidden through a passageway by the cathedral. And if you’re in the city on a Sunday, this is the place to be for the Collector’s Market. I enjoyed the visit, short though it was. I sorry I missed the Hospital de los Venerables (it closes at 1 pm) but were I ever back in the area, that would be my first call.
Palace of San Telmo Seville

Palace of San Telmo

Plaza del Cabildo Seville

Plaza del Cabildo

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Parador Cartama

I stand in shame. How I ever could have written off Spain as a being the sum of Barcelona, Madrid, and Costa del Sol is beyond me. It’s a country I’ve had little interest in but after the road trip from Córdoba to Seville, I’m a convert. Our three stops – Monturqe, Écija, and Carmona – none of them places I’d ever heard of before, left me at a loss for superlatives.

Monturque

Although not actually on the road to Seville, unless you go out of your way, we made the detour because of the award-winning cemetery (a must for taphophiles) and the Roman cisterns – even though I wasn’t quite sure what a cistern was. The geographical centre of Andalusia, this village of 2000 people perched on a hilltop about 57 km from Córdoba, warrants a blog of its own. It’s doing its damnedest to get on the tourist map and if the lovely Lourdes (our guide) has her way, it’ll happen. The well-preserved Roman cisterns discovered beneath the cemetery in the late 1800s are the fourth largest in the world after Bord Djedid (Tunisia), Albano (Italy), and Cherchell (Algeria) holding some 850 000 litres of water. And they’re still finding them – as recent as last December another was discovered while doing roadworks. Tours need to be booked ahead (www.monturquetourismo@gmail.com), cost €3, and run from 9 to 1 pm daily.

Roman Cistern at Monturqe

Écija

We’d passed the church-laden skyline of Écija on our way to Córdoba and made a note to stop on the way back. We nearly didn’t. Known locally as the frying pan, Écija was hotter than anything I’d imagine Hades to be. But life is too short for regrets and curiosity got the better of us. I’m glad we did. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous with a wow every five minutes. It wasn’t just the heat and the exertion that left me gasping for breath. With more than 20 convents and churches and palaces, it is a truly stunning town. But better to go early morning or late evening because the afternoon is uncomfortably hot.  Just 85 km east of Seville, it’s also a good day trip from the city [Note: The car park underneath the main square charges by the minute….]

Palacio de Valdehermoso Écija

Palacio de Valdehermoso

 

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista Écija

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

 

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista Écija

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

 

Palacio Peñaflor Écija

Palacio de Peñaflor (aka the house of long balconies)

Carmona

Carmona was on the list because of the Parador Carmona and the Puerta de Córdoba. But even though I’d seen pictures of the gate, I was still unprepared. We climbed the winding road to the hilltop town, rounded and bend and there it was. I braked and gave my loudest wow of the day. These Roman boys really did know how to build. We went looking for the Alcazar and the Parador intending to have lunch – but we had left it a little late. Lunch ends at 4 pm. Come to think of it, Carmona and Écija were practically closed. The afternoons appear to be sacrosanct so if you’re visiting, go early or late, but avoid the afternoon – unless you want the place to yourself and lots of closed doors.

Like Écija, Carmona has its fair share of gorgeous buildings. We found the last open restaurant on the circular square of Plaza San Fernando and had some gazpacho. I’m a convert, even though I’m not a great fan of tomatoes. With that and the cold carrot starter from Jerez,  my culinary repertoire has some nice additions. At 33 km north-east of Seville, it’s another very doable day tour.

Puerto de Córdoba Carmona

Puerta de Córdoba

Carmona

Carmona

Carmona

Hotal Parador Carmona

Hotel Parador pool

Cartama

A city with a sense of humour

While Ronda and Cádiz and indeed Córdoba have plenty to offer tourists, it is the smaller towns and cities like Écija, Carmona, and Monturque that are the real gems. Getting off the beaten path in Spain is doable. And not knowing what you might find is an added bonus. That sense of possibility and discovery really adds to the experience.

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Mezquita Córdoba

Mass in a mosque on a Monday. So that was why I wanted to come to Córdoba. I had completely forgotten. The main attraction in the city, once home to the largest library in the world, is the Mezquita – the mosque. And it’s not just any mosque but one with a Catholic Cathedral inside.

The hundreds of pillars were pilfered from various Roman temples in the vicinity and none of them are the same height – an architectural nightmare. Nineteen aisles run north to south and 29 more run east to west covering two-thirds of the 130×180 m space. It’s massive. Absolutely huge. So big, in fact, that it was a little difficult to find the Cathedral in the middle.

The mosque opens on weekdays from 10am with an admission fee of €10 but each morning from 8.30 am to 9.30 am, you can visit for free. Then at 9.30, everyone but the mass-goers is turfed out. We stayed and prayed – for the experience. Mass in a mosque. Surreal.

Gate to Mezquita in Córdoba

Mezquita Córdoba

Mezquita Córdoba

Mihrab Mezquita Córdoba

Mezquita Córdoba

Mezquita Córdoba

Mezquita Córdoba - the Cathedral in the Mosque

Flower pots and patios

Next on the list of the city’s claims to fame are the flower pots and the patios. Turn a corner and prepare to be blindsided by colourful plants in colourful planters set against a backdrop of whitewashed walls. Flowering courtyards and patios offer a bright contrast to the basic white and, like Jerez, religious pictures abound. Looking up, too, the skyline makes for interesting shapes with church spires, bell towers, and roolines all vying for space, working together in a way no one intended.

Flowers in Córdoba

Courtyards in Córdoba

Córdoba skyline

Sights to be seen

The Muslims left their mark with the Mezquita. And the Romans bequeathed the city a bridge, some arches, and a few water wheels. I’m not big on ruins – unless they’re churches or castles – but I do like a good build. That these have survived centuries is something I simply can’t get my head around. Where have we gone wrong?

Roman water wheel in Córdoba

Roman Bridge Córdoba

Eating and sleeping

I’m just about tapas-ed out, but had to try the Bodegas Mezquita and the famous 50/50. It was worth it. But after that it was to the deli counter at the local shop for cured meats and cheeses with fresh bread and olives. We lucked out by getting an upgrade from Hostal Maestre to Hotel Maestre. The former was full, even though I’d booked months ago and the latter, the big sister, had a subterranean apartment and on-site available. I love my space and having a living/dining room and a kitchen in addition to a bed and bath was perfect. It’s very central – a couple of blocks from the Roman Bridge and a short walk to the Mezquita. That it has parking is a plus. If you’re planning on driving around Spain, factor in a least €10-€15 a night for parking and be sure to book in advance along with your hotel.

Wandering around Córdoba

If I had to choose between Ronda, Cádiz, Jerez, and Córdoba, I’d take Córdoba. It’s so much quieter than Cádiz. It’s less touristy than Ronda, and more colourful that Jerez.  My one complaint is that the synagogue is under renovation and not open to the public. And if someone could do something about the heat, it’d be near perfect. Often overlooked when taking the lower route from Malaga to the Algarve because being north-east of Seville, it requires a detour, it really is a gem of city. The Patio Festival in May sounds promising and the Guitar Festival in June also sounds interesting. It’s only failing is the heat in the summer. Because it’s so late in cooling down, everything else is late, too. Restaurants, concerts, nothing much kicks off till about 10 pm and that takes some getting used to.


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When we were planning this road trip through Andalusia, Córdoba had been near the bottom of his list and near the top of mine. But I can’t for the life of me remember why or what in particular I wanted to see. The road from Cádiz to Córdoba is part motorway, but you can skirt Seville and take the country back roads for quite a ways. The scenery is quite something with massive landholdings all the more notable for their lack of fencing. Popping next door to borrow a bottle opener would entail quite the hike. As we saw on the road to Ronda, the farmland is set with military precision in a patchwork of colours that would do any painter’s palette proud. I had read about the miracle wines of Jerez and that city, on the road from Cádiz to Córdoba, was on the list, too, albeit a late addition.

The miracle occurs in the wine cellar when, without any rational explanation, each cask decides, as though of its own volition, which type of sherry it is destined to be. The chemical composition of two casks laying side by side may be identical, but the trained nose of the vitner will smell out which solera it belongs to. ~ Andalusia in Focus

Denominazione di Origine

Sherry is the anglicised version of the Spanish Jerezand indeed since Sir Francis Drake nicked a few thousand barrels of the stuff from the port of Cádiz back in the late 1500s and took them home, Sherry has been a stalwart British matronly tipple. Until very recently, the only sherry I knew of was Harvey’s Bristol Cream and I was sure that it was British – but not so. For sherry to be sherry it has to be produced in the so-called sherry triangle between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María, and San Lucar de Barrameda.

I was offered a glass of sherry many lifetimes ago at a private do in Elm Park golf club in Dublin. I was in my 20s and was most upset that the butler could have mistaken me for someone older. In my world, only elderly aunts, and elderly maiden aunts at that, drank sherry. That sweet, sickly taste did nothing for me. But then I discovered the dry, white sherry – Fino – served chilled. Sherry isn’t restricted to creams or Fino, though. There’s also oloroso (medium sweet), amontillado (full-bodied), palo cortado (dark and strong), and the very sweet Pedro Ximenez and more.

Sherry and religion in Jerez

We hit Jerez on a Sunday, the one day that most of the bodegas are closed. Tio Pepe was an exception and I was all for taking a tour until I read on a poster at the ticket office that it was the most visited winery in Europe. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t want to be just another tourist. So instead, we wandered off, thinking we’d fit in a tasting of our own over lunch somewhere.

As luck would have it, the church bells tolled just then and we followed the sound to find mass. I quite like my churches but as a practising Catholic, I resent being charged to go in and light a candle. I’d much prefer to leave a donation. Getting a squint inside while also getting mass was a double win. Iglesia de San Miguel dates back to the fifteenth century and is a solid testament to the craftsmanship of that era. The two carved gothic pillars that flank the altar are so intricately done that we were at the Gospel before I got over marvelling at the fact that someone carved these using a chisel. No electricity. No power tools. Just a chisel.

Iglesia de San Miguel Jerez

Iglesia de San Miguel Jerez

The Cathedral, too, is another gem, but it was closed. We had to make do with the outside. The city is on the ball though, and well up with the times, judging by the selfie-spot painted on the steps in front. It amused me no end. The city walls are spotted with holy paintings and some interesting statuary. I was particularly taken with one of what looked like a baby Jesus on a cross. After Cristos Negro with the real hair in Cádiz, I am beginning to wonder at the Spanish take on tradition.

Jerez Cathedral

Jerez

Jerez

Jerez

Sights and sustenance in Jerez

Spain takes Sunday seriously, with many tourist attractions closed for the day. Still, Jerez is a wanderable city with plenty of interesting squares and buildings to marvel at. The place is heaving with restaurants and it’s difficult to decide where to go. We wanted shade and quiet and something to look out on to. Plus we wanted sherries and good food. And we got it all at Restaurante Antonio Centro on the Plaza de La Asuncion. Spanish is one of those languages in which I can make myself understood and understand quite a bit of what’s being said to me, too. It lacks inhibition. Hand gestures, facial expressions, shoulder shrugs, all beef up the conversation. Getting the recipe for the cold carrot starter was hilarious but I’m primed. We had what was undoubtedly our best meal so far in Spain – a notch or three above the usual tapas. And they’d no problem letting us taste the sherries till we found one we liked.

Jerez

Jerez

What we missed

Palacio del Virrey Laserna was home to General José de la Serna y Martínez de Hinojosa, the First Conde de los Andes, who acquitted himself well during the War of Independence, and was the last Viceroy of Peru and Spain in America. It only opens on Sunday from 11 to 2pm. The Alcázar (Moorish palace) tops the list of local sights and is probably a must for those interested in the history of the area.  It houses the last remaining mosque of the 18 that once stood in the city. For the best part of 700 years, Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula was strong. When Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, the decline began. Córdoba would fall in 1236, and finally, in 1492, Granada was surrendered to Queen Isabella I. The   Christian Reconquista was complete. Fast forward some 500+ years and the Moorish influence is still evident in Andalusia. Those boys knew how to build.

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There’s been an air of expectancy around Cádiz for the last 24 hours. Neat stacks of folded chairs lined the streets and squares. Suited men and high-heeled women walked with purpose either coming from or heading to somewhere important. It was like the city was at a wedding but the bride and groom were nowhere to be seen.

We arrived at our hotel after about an hour of circling through the maze of one-way streets that might well have been pedestrian – it’s hard to tell. It’s a former Dominican convent with an amazing tiled cloister and an air of holiness about the place that makes even holding hands a tad embarrassing. After parking the car and the bags, we hit the town for a wander.

Hotel Convento Cádiz

Religious fervour in Cádiz

First stop was a glimpse at the sea and a stroll along the promenade. It reminded me of the Malecon in Havana so I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the Bond movie Die Another Day was filmed along that very stretch of coastline, with Cádiz the city double. Then it was back into the melée to see if we could figure out what was going on. It was Friday. And a first Friday at that, but every church we passed had teems of people going in and out in a very Orthodox fashion – not at all RC like. Curiosity got the better of us at the Santa Cruz church, the oldest in the city, and a former cathedral. There was all sorts of singing and blessing and milling around going on – so very un-Catholic. Three huge processional floats were on display with people taking lots of photos. It reminded me of Malta.

Cádiz Cristo Negro Black Jesus

The priest and his entourage stopped in front of what looked for all the world like a statue of Jesus Christ – complete with long hair (which, I found out later, is very real). And he was black. I asked half a dozen people if they spoke English but no one fessed up. One man did confirm that it was Jesus… and a translation of a Spanish site tells me that it was commissioned by the Campe-Martíns and is a copy of a famous carving of Cristo de Medinaceli de Madrid. It is an amazing piece of work. But that didn’t explain all the fervour, as only half the people there were paying any attention.

Ageing beautifully

The city, said to be the oldest in Western Europe, has a lot to offer the energetic tourist. Our map showed no fewer than 68 places of interest. Dark narrow streets cut between high buildings open onto large sun-filled squares. It’s a great city to wander but I didn’t have the wherewithal needed to muster up enthusiasm for museums and the like. I had no idea Spain was so loud. Energy-sapping loud. The art of speaking softly or singly is one that hasn’t yet been mastered. One look at the long list and I had just one pick – the Central Market, to see the fish. And yes, it would give Pike Place a run for its money. The fish stalls are inside the great hall. The fruit and veg stands run around this outside, and the outer perimeter is the meat and speciality stalls. It’s all very, very orderly.

Cádiz

Cádiz Cathedral

Central Market Cádiz


At, on, and by the water in Cádiz

After that, it was on the Catamaran over to El Puerto de Santa Maria to find some sherry bodegas, some tiled buildings, and maybe even a beach. El P apparently is where Christopher Columbus sailed from, the second time he set out for America. The 30-minute boat ride was lovely (and a snip at €2.75). But it was the middle of the day, and it was hot. We forgot about the sherry, gave up on the tiled buildings, and headed for the beach.

Catamaran in Cádiz

Santa Catalina Beach Cádiz

Bull ring El Puerto de Santa Maria

We caught the No. 3 bus which was packed to the gills with beachgoers. It’s a great way to see the suburbs – and the bullring. The Spanish know how to do beaches. Entire families – three and four generations – had brought chairs and tables and umbrellas and were camped out with coolers of food and plenty of booze. It was bedlam. And deafening. And as we were leaving at 6 pm, they were still arriving. There are plenty of beaches to choose from – we simply decided by getting off the bus when everyone else did – at Las Redes along Santa Catalina beach.

Of course, we could have gone to any one of the many beaches on the Cádiz side, but we wanted the on-water experience.

Prayers and processions

Back it the city, there was definitely something going on. Our hotel – the convent – is right beside a church and there were hundreds in the streets waiting outside. We even had security on the door and had to show our keycard to get in. The processions had begun. We watched as foot by foot the massive statue of Jesus was edged out through the church door. It took 42 men to carry it, walking in drilled precision, swaying from side to side to keep it moving and balanced. This was just one of many processions from the various churches in the city that all passed through the main square. This was what all the folded chairs were for. Apparently, it was the 750th anniversary of the Diocese and reason enough to bring everyone out to the streets. It made watching the World Cup quarter-final between Croatia and Russia quite surreal. The penalty shoot-out played as the statue of Jesus carrying the cross filed by. God was definitely having a laugh.

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

And some trivia

Probably one of the city’s lesser-known famous sons was General George Meade. Meade’s father, who was Irish by the way, was working in Spain as a naval agent for the US government. His son George, who was born in Cádiz, commanded the Army of the Potomac, which defeated General Robert E Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. There’s one for the next table quiz.

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