Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Travelling Spain: Granada

The mountains that I flew over into Málaga were the same ones I bussed through on the way out. When touring Canada five years ago, I remember being humbled by the landscapes of British Colombia. A similar feeling descended en route to Granada, especially when the snow capped Sierra Nevada appeared in the second half of the journey. 

The colder climate of this high inland city was the most noticeable factor upon arrival. It's been a crisp few days, with the average temperature hovering around thirteen degrees. Yet even in chilly November, the Spanish sun has been strong enough to sit in and worry about getting burned. The evenings have been closer to a less comfortable two or three degrees. But I'll take cold over wet any day. 

Granada is a much nicer place than Málaga. Even its tourist districts have no hint of the disposable "getaways" that emanate from the Costa Del Sol. I stayed in a charming spot just west of the supremely mounted Alhambra. A bohemian atmosphere surrounded my digs, with dreadlocked buskers playing acoustic versions of the western world's favourite songs. This is usually a jaded kind of scene. But Granada's example felt a little more authentic. 

The day after I arrived, I trekked up through the Albayzín quarter. The sight and sound of a vibrant Arabic community is almost like a revival of Al-Andalus itself. Structures and streets looked closer to images of North Africa than anything I ever knew existed in Spain. Narrow streets where cars and buses barely squeeze by are a staple of Granada. Paved with ornate cobblestone, they twist around elevated areas revealing building after building of irresistible charm. This was probably the nicest thing about my stay. 

Visiting the Alhambra itself fulfilled one of the primary objectives of my whole trip. Rough Guides champions Granada because of the "sensuality" of this fundamentally Moorish complex. Christian additions also play their part in making it a very impressive experience. But I'm less likely to forget the folly of racing back up toward the Nasrid Palace after realising I was in danger of missing my designated entry time. My arrival amidst teaming sweat was confirmation enough that running around Kilkenny isn't as pointless as it sometimes feels. 

Granada was also where I encountered a religious procession making its way through windy streets at night. I was told that these sombre advancements have less to with genuine religiosity and more with a time-honoured Spanish tradition. But it looked suitably God-fearing to me. Carrying a grand effigy of the Virgin Mary were fifteen suited young men. Behind them were candle-holding girls, older members of the congregation and a brass band playing foreboding music. I couldn't help but marvel at the eeriness of it all.

My ongoing journey is being underscored by reading The Battle For Spain by Anthony Beever. That La Guerra Civile happened here less than eighty years ago is inducing both captivation and horror. Accordingly, I watched a left-wing protest making its way through central Granada on Sunday morning with considerable intrigue. It's interesting to see young families march with students and trade unionists under hammers, sickles and the republican tricolour. It reminded me of trying to teach English to Italian teenagers a couple of years ago, and being taken aback by them knowing what Das Kapital is. Ideals in southern Europe seem an integral part of life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Travelling Spain: Málaga

I knew southern Spain was going to be different. But until seeing brown rugged mountains on the approach to Málaga, I didn't really expect it to "strike" me. My flight had departed Dublin in early-morning darkness, leaving behind some of this year's most uninviting Irish weather. After tiring of futile attempts to sleep, Andalucía from the air looked exotic enough to delay my inevitable fatigue. 

It was sunny of course. This part of the world sees few days that aren't. A very comfortable seventeen degrees sprang my step all the way to the accommodation.
Yet the sight of coat and scarf-wearing locals conveyed that this was Málaga's version of winter. 

The abiding memory of "day one" will be my first deployment of Spanish, just weeks after learning my first word. It was, admittedly, to ask a waiter if he spoke English, which turned out to be of similar standard to my Spanish. Still, propelled my willingness to eat and his eagerness to sell, we managed to do a deal. Afterwards I asked him if there was a bathroom.

"Si" he replied cheerily, pointing the way in tandem. 

Then, for reasons unknown, I attempted to ask him if I'd posed the question correctly. That was when we finally hit the linguistic difficulty we'd being do so well to avoid. He presumed I was reasking the question, and merely repeated his answer more vigorously. Then I tried explaining that I wasn't asking the same question, that I was wondering if I'd asked the question correctly. Such deadlocks are broken only by smiling broadly and going, finally, to the bathroom. 

My first full day in Málaga was spent exploring the old city as part of a walking tour. The history was surmised by an Italian tour guide. Romans, Moors and Reconquista played their supporting roles before the emphasis settled on the Civil War and Franco. That totalitarian Spain remains very much in living memory was a point he made eagerly, and made well.  

Franco's terming of Pablo Picasso as a "degenerate" seemed as good a reason as any to visit the latter's hometown museum. Pablo left Málaga at age nineteen and vowed never to return as long as Spain stayed Francoist. In the event, the Generalísimo outlived him by two years. The Museo Picasso Málaga boasts 285 of the celebrated artist's works, each one as discussable as the last. I imagine.

Málaga's Moorish remnants are best exemplified by the Alcazaba and Gibralfaro fortifications that sit on elevated ground between the city and the port. While the strenuous 130 metre-climb to the Gibralfaro is rewarded by stunning views, the sheer elegance of the Alcazaba's interior secured its place on my "What I enjoyed most about Málaga" list.