[England] [Ambling around Andalucia]          

April 2007:

A deep desire to see the moorish architecture of Andalucia was finally fulfilled with a lot of begging and some sneaky booking of flights. Michael had been away for the entire month of March and I was fortunate that his guilt played in to my hands. Ten days would never be enough but I was determined to fit in as much as possible. We were flying into Seville, then driving through the Andalucian countryside, culminating in the holiest of holies for me, the Alhambra in Granada, before flying out.

Seville's beauty and compactness makes it an ideal weekend visit for those within reach. We were fortunate enough to be staying about 20 flaps of a crow's wings from the Catedral - very central. Each morning we would locate somewhere for a basic breakfast of juice, coffee and jambon roll. Hannah would beg for the pastries and sweets stacked beautifully in the display counters but the thought of her running around the various tourist attractions on a sugar high was enough to strengthen our resolve to say no. Being masochists, we left her pram behind in London and decided to continue improving her walking endurance.

The nearby Catedral was impressive with its incredibly high vaulted ceilings. It is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world. The centre of the main catedral area houses the Royal chapel and choirs. Surrounding this are vast open walking/seating spaces with the side walls containing many chapels and rooms housing the catedral's art treasures. I mention the vast open spaces specifically because Hannah thought they were wonderful to run in. She was about to burn off her excess energy in the climb up la Giralda, the tower attached to the side of the Catedral. It was originally the minaret of a mosque that once stood where the catedral is. The climb is made slightly (ever so slightly!) easier by using brick ramps, rather than the standard steps. This was originally so that guards could ride up the tower on horseback. There are around 35 ramps to climb and we figured we would end up carrying Hannah for some of them. Not so, she amazed us by practically running all the way up and then trying to do the same on the way down - not recommended with the incline of the ramps! There are many little windows for viewing as you climb which not only keep you going for the views but also give you a breather. The apex of the climb is the viewing areas underneath the tower's bells. We were fortunate to arrive just before the hour so were there when they rung out - which made Hannah's day. Varying in size, the largest bell could have easily fitted her inside it.

The second day we ambivalently joined the queues to enter the Alcazar. With the main objective of the trip being to see the Alhambra in Granada, I hadn't taken much notice of the Alcazar when it came to research and so wasn't expecting much. Despite the lengthy queues we were inside the walls within 10 minutes and enjoying the scenery. The Alcazar was originally a fort then subsequently adapted and enlarged with several palaces by both Christians and Muslim rulers. It is still a royal palace today.

This was our first taste of the Spanish/Moorish architecture and it didn't disappoint. Room after room decorated with stucco plaster intricately carve with flowers, leaves and arabic scripts. Ceilings were alternately carved with wood and embellished with gold leaf or carved in the stucco. All the rooms had very high ceilings and thick walls, so were really cool to walk through. Floors had patterned tiles, sometimes with rills (water ditches) running though them. The first room we saw, had one of these and when I took a moment to gaze at the ceiling, Hannah took hers to paddle through the rill! Thankfully it was only about a centimetere deep with water and no official saw her. I imagine with the sheer amount of people that goes through the Alcazar, they would be used to stray children wanting to paddle...

After being stuccoed out, we escaped to the outdoors where the sheer size of the gardens had us gobsmacked. If I had realised the size of the place I would have brought lunch in with us, as the Alcazar has only one small cafe offering predominantly drinks, which meant eventually we were driven out by hunger, rather than because we ran out of things to look at! Maybe that was the intention... Many of the smaller courtyard gardens and pathways had lovely patterned tiles bordered by blue-edged tiles. These tiles were obviously all original and many were scuffed and worn with footsteps. While it was lovely to see them, it saddened me to think that they were gradually being worn away by the sheer weight of tourist feet (including my own). Where the garden beds ran to dirt, they were usually surrounded by some sort of hedging, which acted as a framing for the plant content. In the gardens close to the palaces, Hannah was escaping and I was chasing while Mike took some photos. A woman approached him to take her picture and she turned out to be Australian. It nevers fails to amaze me how Antipodeans manage to pick each other out in an international crowd.

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The rest of our time in Seville was taken up wandering the streets soaking up the views. Despite seeming spread out, it is great for foot traffic and there was always time for a cafe con leche (amazingly creamier than anywhere else in Europe). We walked the pedestrianised mall strip with all its shops. We had a great time buying up a storm for Hannah - Spain does great clothes - someone once told me that Spain has way more artistic flair than France, and after this trip I agreed. We also brought Hannah a flamenco-style apron for her baking sessions.

Leaving Seville in a hire car, we zipped down a freeway to eat up some miles before heading off into the foothills on a scenic route to the Grazalema National Park region. As we climbed higher into the mountains we saw cork tree plantations with their partially-naked tree trunks made all the more obvious by the redder, darker exposed layer underneath. These are wonderful gnarled trees. The town of Grazalema tucked on a hillside, is nestled in a spectacular setting. The road winds down from above it in a horsehoe shape before descending into a valley. Looking back, the view is fantastic as you see the town clinging to the hillside with a looming limestone crag behind it. This is very much hiking country and we saw many walkers out and about, despite the early spring weather.

I had booked us into a small resort near Ronda, close enough for an early start but not so close that we would pay tourist prices for staying in the town itself. The resort was called Molino de Santo and although it seemed lovely on its website, the pictures didn't do it justice. Set on a sloping block of land next to a mountain stream, the collection of single-storey and double-storey rooms meandered in a higgeldy-piggeldy way but were united by the beautiful landscaped gardens. Hannah had slept quite a large part of the car journey from Seville so luckily that meant she was up for a slightly later bedtime with a restaurant dinner first. The hotel's restaurant is sited next to the stream and had the weather been a little wamer it would have been lovely to sit outside overlooking it. If it sounds as though I am gushing about this place, I am. Talking to some fellow diners, we discovered that most of the guests were repeat international customers who come here every year, sometimes for weeks at a time. I could understand why.

After a fortifyingly yummy buffet breakfast, we were set for tourist trekking around Ronda. Built on an escarpment, Ronda takes your breath away, particularly when you are walking along its clifftop promenade. The walkway clings to the edge of the cliff and the only thing separating you from a bloody long drop is a low stone wall. Fearful of heights, I tended to always stand about a metre back from the wall... We followed the path around until the famous bridge came into view. A picture of this bridge had made me want to see Ronda with a passion. Puente Neuvo (new bridge) spans the El Tajo gorge and links the older and newer parts of Ronda township. The height of the stone bridge and its pretty arches takes your breath away. We wandered thoughout the town, enjoying its pretty clifftop gardens and architecture. It has a beautiful bullring which Mike was determined to have a look at, having being unable to get into Seville's, due to a fight being held that day.

That night we arrived in our self-catering accomodation, located in the town of Valle de Abdejais for 3 nights stay. Located in a picturesque valley, I had chosen it for its proximity to various natural sites within half hour drive in any direction. This was our down time within the trip. The house was located high up with great views of the valley and small mountain on the other side of it. Each day we would see many paragliders floating down from this limestone mountain top. The first day we drove around the bottom of the mountain to the Ardale area, taking in many small white-housed villages and some lovely gorge scenery. Close to the town of Ardale are three man-made lakes, with a dam linking them. The water was a milky blue-green and it was lovely to sit and picnic by it.

The second day we headed to the town of Antequera where we wandered the streets a little, brought some picnic food before heading up to El Torcal National Park. The scenery on the climb to this unusual national park is fairly standard, lots of limestone crags and green hills. As you get to the top of a small mountain, you are suddenly surrounded by weird, exposed limestone formations (and a howling wind).

To be completed (go and checkout the photos while you wait!)


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