“So what’s your favorite region of Spain?” I asked one day in Spanish class.
My teacher paused, smiled, and then said:
“Well, every part of Spain is nice. But there’s just something special about Andalusia.”
As she said this (in Spanish, of course), she looked wistfully away, and I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye.
So it was decided: we were going to Andalusia. The only question was, when?
Luckily, the Spanish are very fond of vacation. Not only do they get many holidays, but they also have something called the puente (literally “bridge”), which is an extra day off when a holiday falls in-between a weekday and the weekend. The extra day is thus a bridge between the holiday and the weekend, giving you a nice long vacation. For example, Tuesday, December 8, was a holiday (I don’t know which holiday), and as a result I got the preceding Monday off. It was time to go to Andalusia.
But how to get there? Before I came to Spain, everyone told me that flying in Europe was remarkably cheap; but perhaps because I wanted to leave on a Friday for a holiday weekend, every flight I found was annoyingly pricey. How about the high-speed train? This was even worse. What, then?
“How about Blablacar?” someone recommended, as I vented my frustrations.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a ridesharing service. It’s like AirBNB, except for car rides. You pay the driver for your share of the gas, and then go together. It’s quite cheap.”
“And it’s a good way to practice Spanish, too, since you can talk with the driver. I’d recommend it.”
It was perfect.
“Do you like movies?” I asked the driver (again, in Spanish).
“Yes, of course.”
“Have you seen Tuesday?”
“Oh, sorry, I mean The Martian.”
“Tuesday is a day of the week.”
“Yes, I know. My mistake. Have you seen The Martian?”
“No, I haven’t.”
(Tuesday is “martes” and The Martian is called “Marte” here.)
When you take the usual dross material of small-talk, and then throw in the difficulty of communicating in a language you hardly know, the end result is pretty stale conversation. Our poor driver had thus to deal with five hours of slow and painful attempts by me to be personable and interesting, while I fumbled for words and made a mockery of grammar.
Nonetheless, I still managed to have a swell time sitting in the passenger seat, saying whatever I possibly could with my limited vocabulary. It felt like being a kid again. I didn’t have to worry about sounding intelligent or charming; the only thing occupying my mind was how to put words into a sentence.
“What music do you like?” I asked.
“I love Ooh Dos.”
“Yes. And Earth, Wind, and Fire.”
“I also like Ray Chel.”
“Yes. He is an older musician.”
“Rachel… Oh, Ray Charles?”
We were interrupted by the ringing of his phone. It sounded immediately familiar. With a shock, I realized that his ringtone an audio clip from The Blues Brothers, one of my favorite movies.
“¿Los Hermanos Azules?” I asked.
“Yes, The Blues Brothers.”
This is one of the most peculiar things about being a traveler from the States. There’s simply no escape from American culture. Our music, our movies, our sodas and candies and television shows—they’re everywhere. I have walked into a store in northern Kenya, where no Westerners except fossil hunters travel, only to hear Rihanna playing on the speakers and bottles and bottles of familiar alcohol brands gracing the shelves.
After traveling in South America for his research, the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, remarked: “The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.” I often feel this way as an American. I will say, however, that as far as American culture goes, one could do worse than The Blues Brothers and Ray Charles.
We had arrived.
Our first stop was the Seville Cathedral, the biggest gothic cathedral in existence—and, if the audioguide is to be believed, the third-biggest catholic place of worship in the world. Its construction ended the 1,000 year reign of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as the largest church building. Despite this, I must say that it didn’t feel noticeably bigger than the other cathedrals I’d been in. All of them are fairly gigantic.
By now, I’ve gotten the hang of the basic layout of a cathedral. In the center is the main altar, which is separated from the viewer by an elaborate grille. Across from this is the choir, with rows of seats stretching around an open space, and the pipes of the organ high up above on either side. On the periphery of the cathedral are a multitude of little shrines, also fenced off, filled with statues and paintings and other religious paraphernalia, each dedicated to a different saint.
I typically find these little shrines to be the least interesting part of cathedrals; but whoever designed the audioguide apparently disagreed. Thus I was guided from nook to nook, dozens of them, peering through the grilles at the altars and tombs inside, as the narrator rambled on about every individual object therein. According to the guide, the cathedral possesses the third-most importance art collection in all of Spain. If this is true, the collection is, unfortunately, largely wasted, as you can’t get a good look at most of the paintings; instead, you have to peer through the bars of the grille like a prisoner, squinting from 15 feet away.
So I was a bit bored by the time I circled through half the cathedral, and found myself standing in front of an impressive statue of four men holding a coffin on their shoulders.
“This is the tomb of Christopher Columbus,” said the guide.
This is an excellent example of what I’d like to call “European Travel Syndrome.” Let me explain. After a while, it’s sometimes easy to forget that you’re traveling in Europe. You begin to feel comfortable and at home; and, besides, you’re surrounded by other American tourists anyway. But occasionally, the fact that you’re in Europe—the place which you spent so long learning about in school, the place where the Spanish Inquisition and the Roman Empire and Napoleon all performed their famous and infamous deeds—brings itself to your attention so forcefully that it nearly knocks you down.
This was one such occasion. Most of the time, historical personages like Columbus are little different than fictional characters. We hear a few stories about them, stories which purportedly explain some facet of the present world; but really they remain shadowy figures in our imagination, little different from Santa Claus. But here were his bones; here was his tomb.
I admit I was a bit staggered by the experience. It’s not that I have any particular love or respect for the man—from what I’ve heard, he was horrid—but it was simply the shock of having an erstwhile figment of my imagination become a flesh-and-blood individual right before my eyes.
It’s worth noting in passing that Columbus’s remains roamed nearly as much as he did. If memory serves, they were first interred in Spain; then, they were moved to the Dominican Republic, then to Cuba, and then finally back to Spain again. The man was well-traveled.
Columbus notwithstanding, the highlight of the cathedral was without doubt the Giralda. This is the tower of the cathedral; and as you might have guessed from the name, the tower was originally a minaret constructed by the Moors. The Christians later added a top to it, giving it a rather interesting juxtaposition of styles: Renaissance Catholic and Medieval Muslim architecture are jumbled together. The result, however, is a beautiful structure, which stands nobly over the surrounding area, its tan façade shining brightly in the Andalusian sun.
Unlike other towers I’ve climbed here, the way up to the top of the Giralda doesn’t involve climbing any stairs. Rather, dozens of ramps lead the pilgrim gently up and up, without having to break a sweat. The original purpose of these ramps, by the way, was to allow people to ride their horses up to the top, which sounds like great fun to me.
The top was crowded when I arrived, with people squeezing into every opening in the walls, jostling for space. I joined the contest, nudging and elbowing my way to a good spot. The view was marvelous. You could seen for miles and miles; all of Seville stretched out before you, with its rows of white buildings glaring in the sun, so bright that it was hard to look at them. I didn’t have a lot of time to stay and admire the view, however, as I soon had to make way for the next group of ambitious tourists. But I did have time to snap some good photos of the city, and that’s what counts.
I should not neglect to mention the massive main altarpiece, the lifetime’s work of a single artist, Pierre Dancart. It stretched up almost all the way to the high ceiling, jam-packed with scenes from the life of Christ. The audioguide remarked that the thing can be thought of as a gigantic visual theological treatise, though perhaps calling it a visual Gospel would be more accurate. So big was it, that probably several hours would be necessary to properly examine the whole thing. As it was, I could only gape stupidly at the big hunk of finely decorated gold for five minutes before moving on.
We also, of course, paid a visit to the cathedral’s treasury. Apparently, every major cathedral in Spain has a room dedicated to housing its sizeable collection of gold and silver artifacts. These are crucifixes, diadems, and other religious objects I do not rightly understand. Some are massive, the size of small automobiles, designed to be carried around during major religious festivals; I can only image how heavy they are. Also hard to fathom is the value of so much gold and silver—especially for such historically important objects. As I gazed at a massive, bejeweled crucifix, sitting behind what I imagined to be bulletproof glass, I wondered if everything in this room, taken together, might be worth more than some small countries’ economies. It struck me as possible, at least.
The tour ended in the courtyard of the oranges, which, as the name implies, is a courtyard full of orange trees. This is typical of Seville: there are orange trees everywhere, in every park and alongside every street. Several times I considered plucking one of these oranges, but thought better of it when I noticed that nobody else was doing so. Perhaps there’s an obscure sevillano law forbidding it. Regardless, I’ve never seen fruit trees just sitting around a town like that, completely laden with ripe fruit. Don’t the oranges eventually rot and fall into the street? Do they have government employees dedicated to cleaning up all the fallen oranges? Are they ever harvested? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
In a rare spasm of foresight, I did a bit of research and bought tickets to a flamenco show before arriving in Seville. Andalusia is known for its flamenco; and being a longtime fan of Paco de Lucía, I simply had to see a show.
So after a stroll around the city, across two bridges which spanned the Guadalquivir river, we found ourselves in a cozy room filled with folding chairs—not more than thirty, I’d say—the walls covered in sundry Spanish guitars, sitting before a stage. The show was about to begin.
The lights dimmed; the stage lights were turned on; a young Spanish woman made her way through the audience to the front. First, she made an announcement in Spanish—and I was very pleased with myself for understanding nearly all of it. Then, she switched to English and made the same announcement; and after that, she repeated the announcement in French. These damned Europeans make languages look so easy.
This done, the woman retired to the back again, and a young man with a full black beard, dressed from head to foot in plain black clothes, climbed onto the stage and sat down. He was the guitarist.
I hope you will forgive me for the following description. It is said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and perhaps that’s true. Nonetheless, I will try.
As soon as the guitarist began, I could tell that he was excellent. Like all flamenco guitarists, he played with his fingers, not a pick. The nails on his right thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger were filed into impressive knife-blades, with which he plucked, strummed, tapped, and flicked the guitar. Most of the interesting guitar-work in flamenco is done with this hand. The guitarist picked out complex arpeggios and sustained notes with a rabid tremolo, his fingers so precise that they seemed more like machines than human appendages.
But there was nothing mechanical about the music. The first song was in a free rhythm; it began in a whisper, and ended in a roar. The harmonies used in flamenco are not the sweet and dulcet harmonies often heard in, say, classical guitar. Rather, they use (among other things) a lot of parallel octaves and fifths, which gives the chords a strong, striking, and slightly sour sound.
Partly as a consequence, there is a certain emotional flavor associate with flamenco music that I find hard to put into words. The music is not happy, not melancholic, not nostalgic or contemplative; nor is it ironic or rebellious or suave. Perhaps the best word I can choose is melodramatic. There’s something grandiose, even ostentatious, about flamenco; it is as if one must puff oneself up with pride before performing. There is a strong possibility that this is all rubbish; I am no expert, after all. However, I suspect that everyone of us, laypeople and musicians alike, attempts to match specific musical styles with specific moods, which is why I think it behooves me to at least attempt to articulate the certain feeling I associate with flamenco.
The show went on. The guitarist shifted to a faster tune, showing off his rhythmic chops. A man joined him on stage for this song, wearing leather shoes with high heels, who stomped and clapped as accompaniment to the guitarist. But in addition to being the drummer of sorts, this man was the singer; and for the next song he stood up, walked to a corner of the stage, and raised his chin into the air as he prepared to sing.
His voice was incredibly loud—almost painfully so. The flamenco vocal style, at least so far as I’m acquainted with it, is far removed from the singing I’m used to. The goal is neither melodic flourishes nor sweetness of tone, but intensity. To this end, the singing is done with the back of the throat, producing a thick, husky timbre, surging with energy. The result is extremely expressive; it is as if you are not merely hearing the sound, but being pummeled with it. Unfortunately, I could not understand any of the lyrics of the songs; the words are so drawn out and the pronunciation so dramatic that I cannot recognize them. But simply hearing the man sing was enough.
Next came the dancer. She was a young woman, wearing a bright dress. Before she began, she arched her shoulders back and looked straight out across the audience, her face scrunched up in an expression of both pain and contempt of pain. She seemed somehow too large, too grand, for that tiny room and that miniscule stage. Her squinted eyes looked passed audience and even the walls, penetrating far beyond.
The dancing began. She was wearing high-heeled shoes similar to the singer’s, which allowed her to use her feet as drumsticks to pound on the floor. It was staggering how quickly she could move her feet, sounding like a snare drum as she crossed the stage from right to left, left to right, creating a sound so tremendously loud that I contemplated plugging my ears with my fingers. This was hardly dancing; this was percussion.
It wasn’t long before I was completely absorbed. I find this experience of being absorbed in music quite interesting from a psychological perspective; it’s difficult to put into words. First, when we’re entranced by music, our sense of time disappears; we are so involved in the sound, our entire attention focused the little details of timbre and ornament, that no concentration is left for anything else. We forget even basic things, like where we are, who we are, what we’ve just eaten for lunch—our mind so awash in notes and rhythms that, for all we know, our whole life up until that point might have been a silly dream.
To be sure, something similar happens when we contemplate a painting or lose ourselves in a novel. Music, however, is special for its abstractness. Listening to music is the only time in most people’s lives when we are wholly absorbed in something purely abstract. Portraits, still lifes, landscapes, novels, short stories, and even poems—these artistic forms are usually (but not always) representational, portraying something familiar. Music, on the other hand, portrays nothing; it is a thing in itself. It is curious that, when a modern artist creates a work consisting of splotches of color, the majority of people don’t like it; but when a guitarist takes a solo, people love it. Yet are they not equally impressionistic?
But let me return to the experience. By now, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, my feet tapping of their own accord, my heart thumping, my skin covered in goosebumps, the hair on my arms and legs standing on end. The singing was so loud, the rhythm so fast, the guitar playing so intricate, that the whole effect was rather overwhelming. It became as physical as it was mental, as if the sounds were reaching across the room and shaking me in my seat.
At times like these, with the agreeable thrill of adrenalin running through my body, my mind starts to race. It is a bit hard to describe: it is as if I am thinking of two things at once. Part of me is hooked onto the music; and yet another part of me is flying in every direction. Thoughts pop in and out of my head, new thoughts, strange thoughts, memories, hopes, dreams, fears, vague longings, all colored with ecstatic shades of excitement. I feel timeless and invincible; I feel that nobody has ever been so inspired or so creative. The world around me takes on a new tint, as if I’m seeing and hearing everything for the first time. Confidence surges through me; I’m sure I can do anything.
And then the music ends, my heart rate slows, and I am tired and groggy, like I just woke up from a troubled sleep. The sense of fantasy slows fades until I am merely tired. I walk from the venue into the cool night air, which brings me back to my senses. The show is over; time to go.
We had only one more day in Seville (we’d taken some time to visit Córdoba, but that’s another story), and lots of things to do.
The first was to visit the Alcázar of Seville. As I’m now learning, there are alcázars all over Spain; I’ve visited three already. This word (as do many Spanish words that begin with “al-”) comes from Arabic; I believe it means “the castle.” (“al-” is just the word for “the”, and “cázar” comes from “qasr”, meaning palace, castle, or fort. I’m getting this from Wikipedia, by the way.) After the Moors were kicked out of Spain, several impressive castles and forts were left behind, which the Spanish Catholics happily repurposed. The Alcázar in Seville is one of the most famous of these, and justly so.
After a long line that thankfully moved quickly, we had passed through the front gate—the Puerta del León, named for the painting of a grotesque lion, wearing a crown and holding a cross, which sits over the entrance—and had arrived inside. Owing to our bad experience with the audioguide in the cathedral, we elected to skip it here. This saved us some money; but the unfortunate consequence was that I learned close to nothing about the history of the place.
This hardly matter, however, as the monument needed no explanation to appreciate. The intricate Moorish architecture, with its finely carved floral designs, its sweet blues and subdued sand-colored walls, its elaborate wooden and gilded ceilings, gave the structure a gentle nobility far removed from the ostentatious grandeur of gothic architecture. Every surface of every wall was covered with complex designs; crescent-shaped archways separated chamber from chamber; and within was a courtyard, the Courtyard of the Maidens, containing a rectangular pool of sky-blue water.
I do not wish to lapse into Orientalizing fantasy, but it was hard for me to resist the feeling that I had been transported in time from Christian Spain to the high point of Moorish al-Andalus. What a fascinating history Spain has! In what other country can you find Roman ruins, Moorish castles, and gothic cathedrals?—and sometimes all in the same city! It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Soon I had passed through the palace and had entered the gardens. These were just as marvelous. Tiled walkways cut through enclosures of big-leafed shrubs; tiny aqueducts led from fountain to lazily bubbling fountain; palm trees jutted into the air, towering high up above. But most impressive, perhaps, was simply the size of the gardens. I couldn’t believe how big they were. I quickly lost track of my friend and got lost myself. Thankfully, the gardens were an exceedingly pleasant place to lose oneself. Suddenly, one wasn’t in the heart of Seville, surrounded by tourists and street performers, but someplace far away, someplace quiet and green. It was lovely.
But we couldn’t stop and smell the palm trees; our time was running short. So, after just a half hour, we pulled ourselves from the garden and made our way to the Plaza de España.
This plaza lies in the heart of the Parque de María Luisa, which is a lovely park that we unfortunately didn’t have the time to appreciate. The plaza itself is massive; it was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition; and as befitting for a World’s Fair, it’s an impressive place.
A fountain sits at the center of the large open space, spraying water into the air. But the highlight is undoubtedly the edifice which partially surrounds the circular plaza. The structure was built in the Neo-Mudéjar (Moorish-Revival) style, and consists of a central building with two towers on either end, connected by curved wings. Separating the fountain area from the building is a moat, spanned by several bridges; and if you pay a price, you can rent a little row-boat and row around this artificial river. I didn’t do this myself, but the rowboats certainly added to the charm of the place.
One I crossed one of these bridges, I noticed that the building has rows of elaborately decorated seats attached to the front. Upon closer inspection, I saw that each seat was dedicated to a specific Spanish city, and had a famous historical event depicted in colorful marble on the back. The cities were arranged alphabetically, making the Plaza de España a true celebration of Spain and all its history.
“Let’s take a picture in front of one of these,” my friend said. Well, perhaps I should admit that she’s my girlfriend. The truth is out.
“Fine,” I said, and began to sulk. For whatever reason, I loathe the idea of bothering strangers to take a picture of me. First, I think it’s a silly reason to interrupt someone else’s vacation; and second, I have this reoccurring fantasy that as soon as my phone is handed over, they’ll just bolt.
My girlfriend approached an older gentleman, and said:
“¿Puedes tocar un foto?”
“Yes, certainly,” he responded. “I’m from England by the way.”
I sat down in front of one of the elaborate seats, and twisted my mouth into a smile. The photo taken, the man, who was there with his wife, asked us to return the favor.
“Say cheese!” my girlfriend said as she snapped the picture.
It wasn’t long before we were introducing ourselves and started chatting. The man was, as he said, from England; but he had left England for Spain when he was 17, and was now living in Germany with his wife, who was Bavarian. His accent, interestingly enough, didn’t sound at all English, but was an odd hodgepodge of different countries, perhaps a consequence of his many years traveling Europe.
“Now, this is only my opinion,” he said to me. “But these Spanish have no idea how to take care of their heritage. Look at this!” he said, as he gestured towards one of the seats. I looked and noticed that it was, indeed, quite dirty. “Just have some bloke with a power-washer come every morning to spray these off, that’d be enough!”
“You wouldn’t believe how they do business here,” he went on. “Everything is under the table. It’s crazy! For example, me and my wife just went to a restaurant, and the waiter just wrote down our check on a chalkboard. No record of the transaction—nothing. Poof!”
I gave a polite chuckle.
“But, take it from me, young man. There is no country on earth where there is no corruption. Think there isn’t corruption in Germany? Yes, they have some tighter controls there, but it still exists. It’s everywhere. And nowadays, with the internet! Don’t get me started. You can do anything you want, absolutely anything. Who’s going to stop you?”
The man had evidently gotten onto one of his pet subjects, for he began speaking quickly and excitedly.
“Let me tell you, young man. Say, you go to a bar. Sometimes, the bartenders will empty out a bottle of vodka and fill it with water. You’ll never know! And make sure, if you ever go to Egypt and order water at a restaurant, make them open the bottle at the table. Otherwise, they can just keep filling and refilling the bottle with tap water without your knowing. Oh, there’s a black economy, young man, a black economy any place you look. Ah, but I’m corrupting you!” he said, as he tapped me with a rolled up piece of paper.
What any of this had to do with me or with Spain, I couldn’t guess. But I had no course of action available besides standing and nodding.
Finally, the conversation was over, and we parted ways.
“Man, the guy was nice and everything,” I said to my girlfriend once we left. “But he spent a lot of time talking about the black market.”
“Wow, weird,” she said. “His wife did, too.”
Our next stop was the Metropol Parasol. This is a gigantic wooden structure—apparently, the largest wooden structure in the world—which looks like a bunch of mushrooms sticking out of the ground in downtown Seville. It is certainly not a pretty site; words which come more readily to mind are bizarre and perhaps freakish. But a nice American chap had recommended the place to us, and we duly went.
After another line (the omnipresent plague of holiday-makers), a three-euro fare, and a ride in a snazzy elevator, we were up at the top of the thing. A twisty passageway led from the elevator to the main platform. The view here was excellent, nearly as fine as the view from the Giralda. The sun was just setting, lighting up the horizon in a faint carmine glow, while the rest of the overcast sky was a dull bluish gray, hanging lazily above us. A nearby church tower split the view of the city into halves; and beyond we could see the cathedral, standing proudly over the city streets. And as I looked out over the city of Seville, I could not help feeling the faint tug of melancholy, for our wonderful weekend had come to a close.
Will I ever come here again? Perhaps one day. But when? Will it be the same city? I hope so. But will I be the same person?
At times like these, I am reminded of a quote from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is talking about why he enjoys visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York:
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus made a similar point when he said that it’s impossible to step into the same stream twice, since the stream is always changing. It is likewise impossible to have the same experience twice, since your every experience changes you. This basic but often forgotten fact—that every passing moment is irretrievable and unique—is the key to the tragedy and beauty of life. It is why we are often reminded to “live in the moment,” since this moment is all we have, and sometimes we don’t even have that.
Our trip ended at a restaurant, on the Guadalquivir river, eating tapas and watching the ferries go by. The lights from the boats and the bridges shimmered off the water, making the ground and sky melt into one another. Our waiter happily welcomed us to our seats, and then promptly forgot us—which is so typical of Spanish waiters. I sat and sipped my wine, watching a couple of children play on the fences nearby—and this is also typical of Spain, where parents take their young kids out to bars at night. In short, everything was perfect. There is, indeed, something special about Andalusia.