Spain, although a common destination and residence for retired Brits, due primarily to proximity and economical lifestyle, is barely on the radar for vacationing Americans. Preferring instead the glitz and glamour of Paris, Prague’s medieval origins and design, and the charm of Rome and Venice, American travel to Europe tends to focus on the time-tested, conventional locations.
In the late 1990s, my husband and I were fortunate to travel to Spain, spending time in the north, Madrid and festive Barcelona, as well as the Andalusian region in the south, including the Mediterranean city of Malaga, captivating and historically rich Granada, and the Flamenco municipal of Seville. More recently the draw to Spain was reconnecting with expatriate British friends from the Gulf region who had retired and relocated to the Costa Blanca (“white coast”) of Spain. Flying into Madrid airport, and making our way through immigration where we were simply waved through, and baggage claim, I peeked over a glass barrier and contemplated a sunlit cafe below with travellers languishing amongst oversized green potted plants and stylish black and white tiles, sipping café con leches, and knew this would be a satisfying trip.
Renting the prevailing manual and miniscule economy car at the Avis counter and driving along the cobblestone alleyways of the old walled-in city of Toledo our first afternoon in Spain reinforced the perception that this would be a relaxed holiday. Spain is more “old world” Europe with a heavy dose of Eastern world influence in the form of Arabic architecture, way of life, and language. Toledo, itself, is characterized as a “City of Three Cultures, due to the historical blending of peoples from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, although the Spanish Inquisition reversed this tolerance for a period of time. In present day, the Arab impact remains palpable in this medieval town, with the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, formerly a mosque, retaining the Moorish style from an ancient time, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo (World Heritage designation) constructed on the site of the Grand Mosque. Toledo has also been called “the soul of Spain,” and during multiple visits to the Cathedral of Saint Mary, including a self-guided tour and Holy Thursday Mass, and a procession of religious devotion through the narrow streets, a profound sense of connectedness to a deeper and higher spiritual plane claimed me; a particularly poignant time, as our dearest friend would lose her battle to pancreatic cancer during our Toledo visit. The loss of our treasured friend colored much of the remainder of our trip.
Our stay at Toledo’s Hotel Santa Isabel – small, clean, inexpensive, and comfortable – located in the heart of the old district, and bordering a convent and the majestic Cathedral of Saint Mary buttressed the theme of an uncomplicated foray through the Iberian Peninsula. Most everything is on a smaller scale in Toledo, and much of greater Spain with thin roads, diminutive shops and eateries, however, a significant fundamental, and seemingly unconscious, emphasis on living fully is pervasive.
Breakfast, our first morning, saw us sampling our first café con leche of the trip along with freshly squeezed orange juice, hearty apples, kiwis, and traditional ham and cheese on bread; a server with gruff edges and intentions to ensure we were satisfied guests, at the ready.
Trips to the neighboring convent where craftsmen worked earnestly at shaping classically embellished Spanish jewelry, the “feet washing” ceremony at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday evening, and animated family-owned cafes cramped along slender stony streets cast a light and sublime tone over our Toledo visit.
Our drive from Toledo to Costa Blanco, Spain’s Mediterranean coast, highly populated with transplanted English and Europeans, ushered us through a small town just outside Toledo where we were approached by a cheery, wobbly patron in a pub who had imbibed one too many, but who was nonetheless only too happy to assist this funny-speaking lost couple with directions to the city of Valencia by way of Tomelloso. An impromptu Good Friday lunch along the way allowed us to “people watch” the smartly dressed town residents savoring substantial meals and family and friends.
A stopover in Javea, a medium-sized town on the Mediterranean within the province of Alicante, abounding with contemporary cafes and fashionable retail establishments found us meeting up with our long-time British friends. Rekindling our expatriate friendship and connection to Spain developed so many years before, we wholly appreciated drives along the coastline and through the lush and granite topped Alicante Mountains, including the beautiful homes perched along hillsides near Moraira, reminding us of Sausalito, California; the loud and raucous street festival adjacent to the Javean Catholic church that carries strong ties to the townspeople; and unfettered open air seaside dancing with all ages entertained by a lone singer crooning Spanish tunes.
From the pleasing and slow-paced lifestyle of Costa Blanca, we drove nearly four and a half hours in a southerly direction to reach the celebrated Andalusian city of Granada where Bishara spent a transformative several months in his late teens fleeing the civil war in Lebanon. Although we were told the popular Pájaro Loco (“Crazy Bird”) bar frequented by Bishara and his Spanish compatriots in those early days had closed some years ago, we thoroughly enjoyed this aesthetic Moorish city set alongside the striking Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our accommodations, Five Senses, modern and moderately priced, was just steps away from a square holding the historic and imposing Catedral Granada, Placeta de Castillejos and Plaza Isabel La Catolica. Wandering further along stone alleys, we entered the Albayzin district steeped in a Medieval Arab past, and encountered colorful ceramic dishware and ornamented lanterns in Arabic-themed shops and sedu-style seating filled with sheesha smoking clientele lolling in comfy cafes.
Our visit to Andalusia granted us the delight of binging on Gazpacho soup originating in the region, and observing the dedication and professionalism of Spanish waiters at established eateries. We were struck by a particular visit to Carmela restaurant, near our hotel, where the chaos of a filled restaurant rocking with conversation, laughter, and special food requests was met with utter aplomb, efficiency, and cordiality by devoted waiters apparently more on a career track than filling a provisional employment need. Even off highway dining spots, linked to service stations, are many and varied, with white tablecloths, cloth napkins and formally attired waiters available at higher-end venues, the occasional chess players and spectators huddled at a corner table.
Continuing through Andalusia for the remainder of our holiday, we made our way to Cadiz via diverse and urban Malaga, birthplace of Pablo Picasso, on the Costa del Sol. Cadiz, set on the Atlantic Ocean and within close proximity of the Strait of Gilbraltor, is an enchanting labyrinth of slim passageways corralling extensive small and inviting shops and cafes. Thankfully, we happened upon the reasonably priced Francia y Paris hotel in the charming, and out of the way, Plaza San Francisco. After the best night’s sleep of our trip, we yearned for our staple veggie omelets rather than the customary and caloric hams, cheeses, and bread. A nearby restaurant in a large square managed by two men whose informality suggested familial ties pointed out their pre-cooked eggs with potatoes, quiche-style. Close enough for our tastes, we sat on bar stools at a small round table enjoying our eggs, café con leches, freshly squeezed orange juice, and “local color” as the proprietors and diners chattered away, non-stop, with watchful side glances in our direction likely viewing us as an oddity in this homespun domicile.
Monument to the Constitution of 1812 (Cadiz)
The highlight of our time in Cadiz was attending a Flamenco performance, endemic to Andalusia, at Cava Bar, a spartan and intimate saloon filled to the brim. A tapas meal of fresh ham, pork, bread and olives nicely complemented the soulful guitar strumming, vocal harmony, and choral outbursts that accompanied the provocative tapping and angular movements of the vibrant and deliberate dancers.
Following our rejuvenating time in Cadiz, we drove the short hour and a half distance through plush rolling hills to exquisite Seville. If for just a few hours, we soaked up the treats of Seville by horse-drawn carriage – Cathedral of Seville, Giralda Bell Tower, Torre del Oro, Maria Luisa Park, Plaza de Espana, and small bars with singing Spaniards on our way to Cordoba, the former medieval Islamic capital of Spain.
Cordoba was an unanticipated delight. A stopover our first morning at a hair salon demonstrated, again, the strong sense of community evident throughout Spain when we met a Cordoban middle-aged lady with her adult daughter having her hair done, and restive rescue dog, all engaging in freewheeling warm and familiar banter with the stylists and other customers – more like the setting of a family home than a salon. Bishara, of course, took the opportunity to declare how much we loved Spain; the lady proudly declared, “Cordoba is the best city in Spain.”
From the hair salon, we continued to the Guadalquivir River, and past the outdoor cafes stuffed with locals and tourists relishing food, drink, and chuckles, and stopped in the old sector at the site of the magnificent Mezquita de Cordoba (Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba) dating back to 711 AD, an impressive structure containing resplendent candy caned arcades atop marble pillars, intricately carved mosaics, and the ornate mihrab with chapels ensconced throughout.
Uncalculated meanderings along the winding paths of Cordoba brought us to prevalent and historic garden courtyards tucked away behind street shops that accommodated appealing cafes and a bounty of greenery and vivid flowers. A visit to Los Patios, a garden courtyard cafe near the Great Mosque permitted us to not only partake in a deliciously cheesy pizza, but to also view a procession of women attired in elaborate traditional garb of the region escorted by a solemn black-clad marching band on horns and drums. The cortege was punctuated with breaks of unrestrained revelry – dancing, singing, and drinking – in public squares. Mesmerized by this cultural exhibition, we succumbed to the spirit of the festivities and swayed and hummed in rapport with our Spanish cohorts.
The following day, we reluctantly returned to Madrid for our flight home after a delightful brush with Spanish and Andalusian culture, history, and society, vowing to return in the not-too-distant future.