Thursday, June 24, 2010


June 23 - Ubeda

Instead of the acres and acres of sunflowers, during this part of the drive, the major crop we saw were hill after hill of olive trees. Olive trees as far as the eyes could see.  I’m pretty sure we were in the heart of Spain’s olive production area.

When we got to Ubeda, we followed the signs to our hotel and found it all too easily. I think we're getting better at navigating these small yet tricky Spanish towns.

Ubeda, is a walled city on a hilltop, one which was taken back from the Moors in the 13th century. It has some Baroque and Gothic buildings left over from the Visigoths and Moors. Otherwise, it is a quiet town with panoramic views. Additionally, it does have the distinction of being the home town of Paco Tito, a world renowned ceramics artist.

We stayed at Hotel Afan de Rivera, an ancient building composed of old thick walls of brick and mortar (that unfortunately prevented the wi-fi system from transmitting throughout the hotel).

We spent the latter part of the afternoon visiting some of the local sights and the next morning headed off to Paco’s studio. When we got to it, he was standing on the sidewalk saying good-bye to a friend - Diane recognized him from photos she had seen. 

We had a tremendous visit with Paco. He showed us all around his studio and showroom. What amazed us most, were the ceramic pieces he had done of people, some near life-sized, with lots of detail. Diane ended up buying a couple of pieces of which one he signed for her. Got a couple of pics of he and Diane too.

In the afternoon we drove to the nearby town of Baeza. It was smaller than Ubeda and had a prominent Gothic cathedral, an old university and a number of (small) palaces that have since been converted to hotels, restaurants and other functions. After a quick tour, we headed back home to Ubeda.

Next we go to the Cazorla National Park.


June 21 - Cordoba

Once outside of the city, it only took a little over an hour to drive to Cordoba often times passing huge fields of sun flowers. In Cordoba, we followed the same procedure that we had done in Seville - park the car at the first convenient parking lot and walk the rest of the way to the hotel. The narrow alleyways are simply to difficult to navigate.

We were staying at Hotel Lola, situated within the walled section of town. We first visited the main mosque -  the Mezquita. It was exquisite. One enters the mosque through a large gated doorway that leads into a spacious courtyard filled with orange trees. Once inside the mosque, one sees numerous arches in every direction as far as you can see. But when you look in the center, oddly enough, there is  a massive cathedral. On the periphery of the mosque there are rows of small and unique chapels.

There’s also a nook that’s acoustically designed where from the imam calls the prayer. It was explained to us that it was built not unlike a guitar, so as to amplify the imam’s voice to his followers, who would number in the thousands, just outside the nook in the main hall of the mosque. It must have been quite a sight. By the way, I use the word “nook” very loosely. In the Moslem world, there surely is a word for that very area.

Some of the pillars holding up the building were very interesting. On one side they consisted of the original rough rock. But as you looked around the pillar, it graduated to a worked stone to the point where on the other side it evolved into a smooth, marble-like pillar containing colorful, inlaid stones. And to think this was done over a thousand years ago.

Yet to us, the most intriguing aspect of the building remained as to how it was converted from what was a beautiful mosque to a cathedral within a mosque. To the untrained eye (us), it didn’t look totally perverted. But to Emperor Charles V, who had ordered the building of the cathedral, afterwards, he is said to have lamented “the destruction of something unique to build something commonplace”.

Later that night, we had dinner at El Cabajo Rojo restaurant. We had been told about a strange dish they may have to offer - jelly fish (Medusa in Spanish). But thank goodness, they didn‘t have it. I might have been tempted. Instead, I had a tasty rabbit stew.

Before leaving in the morning, we visited the Alcazar (a Moorish fort from the 12th century). The front quad, is composed of a peculiarly colored golden-yellow sand, with which the green trees offer a desert-like contrast. The color can also be seen in the composition of the brick and mortar in the buildings. 

The Alcazar was a bit stark, but the gardens and ponds on the inside were lush and beautiful. It was a perfect end to our visit to Cordoba.  

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


June 18 - Arcos de la Frontera to Sevilla

The next day, we packed up and headed for Sevilla. We took the super-highway, which has a speed limit of 120 kph. But many cars travel at 160 kph or more. I tend to drive somewhere in between. It took less than two hours to get there.

We had reservations in the old part of Sevilla at the Hotel Las Casas de los Mercadores (House of Merchants). We gave up trying to find the hotel by car because of the one-way, narrow streets. We aimed for as close as we could get to the hotel found a parking garage and walked the rest of the way.

After checking in we found that we were very near the main square, the cathedral and the Giralda. One thing we noticed walking around was all the orange trees that lined the streets. Unfortunately, none seemed eatable because they probably don’t get much water.

We visited several sights around the city. The cathedral was unique. Built over the course of a hundred years (1402-1506),  it’s a massive and ornate Gothic building with gargoyles, spires and numerous arches. (It’s advertised to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.)

Within the perimeter of the cathedral is the Giralda, which used to be a minaret of a mosque that once was on the very site. (In this area of Spain where the Moors once reigned, apparently, mosques were converted to cathedrals, once the Catholic Kings re-took the region. (I suppose, that’s better than destroying these marvelous works.) It’s quite a hike up to the top of the Giralda, but it’s a marvelous panoramic view of the city. Huge bells hang all around the top - this is not a place to be at noon!

The other place we really enjoyed in Sevilla was the Plaza de Espana. We were surprised they didn’t charge to get in. Beautiful architecture, the building consists of a half circle. Around it, each of the provinces of Spain are represented, all done in exquisitely colorful tiles with geographical depictions of each region. People from a particular province will come and hang out on their spot and want their picture taken with the name of their province. 

We had drinks in the Barrio de Santa Cruz (Juderia) - it’s quite the lively spot with lots of narrow walkways, bars, restaurants and stores. Apparently, the Jews and the Moslems got along just fine way back then. Jews held many positions in local government and were lawyers and judges.

On one of the evenings we went to a Flamenco  performance at a small venue down the street from the hotel. As much as we knew of Flamenco, it seemed to be a marginal performance. The singer was obese, the guitarist a bit young yet capable enough, the female dancer, aging but could still kick up her heels while the male dancer was the most impressive. It seemed like an odd match up of performers. Of course, the primary concept about Flamenco is that one needs to appreciate the sad, anguished, wailing cries of the woman singing. Other than that, we loved it.  

The following day, driving out of Sevilla to Cordoba was a snap - we had managed to get detailed instructions from the hotel clerk before leaving!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Arcos and Jerez de la Frontera

June 17 - Arcos de la Frontera

After Zahara, our destination was Arcos de la Frontera. We had detailed instructions on how to get to our hotel, but the narrow, tiny and winding streets proved even a challenge to my master navigator, Diane. We ended up looping around the city center a couple of times until we literally would drive a couple of hundred yards and ask for further instructions to zero in on the hotel. Some of the streets were so narrow that we pulled in the outside mirrors! Finally we found our hotel and parked the car atop the hill, at the Plaza de Espana, next to the cathedral. Our hotel, El Convento, was right down the street. The hotel is a converted convent. From the balcony of our room, we had a beautiful view of the Guadalete River far down below and a panoramic view of the entire valley.

June 18 - Day Trip to Jerez de la Frontera

We took off relatively early in the morning for Jerez. The city is known primarily for its sherry bodegas and its equestrian school. Because we wanted to do both some sherry tastings and to see the school, we had to get there a little early since most things close down somewhere between 1-3pm only to reopen in the late afternoon.

Our first stop was at the Fundacion Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre. That’s a mouthfull for the place they train horses. Oddly enough, in spite of wanting to show off their school, they were very secretive of their techniques, so no photos were allowed.

We toured the stables, the arena where they train the horses, on-going training by horse trainers and a museum. The original training came from the strategic role that horses and horse riding played in war. Better horsemen prevailed. Hence, teaching horse and man to be perfectly compatible and in unison.

Next we visited the Sandman Bodega conveniently located next door to the equestrian school. We got an informative, half-hour tour of the facility, the history of sherry and how it is made. Afterwards, we were offered ample tastes.

A few of the more interesting things we learned were that 1) sherry is made of only three white grape varietals, including Moscatel; 2) they age the wine in American oak, leaving room in each barrel for air and oxidation to occur; 3) they stack the barrels on top of each other, typically around four rows high. The bottom row contains the oldest sherry of which they draw out about one-third for that year’s sherry. They replace the one-third with the sherry from the next row up barrel and also draw from one-third from that row to produce a slightly younger sherry. They follow that principle all the way up to the top row filling those barrels with the newly produced sherry. They term they use for this process is called “Soleras Criaderas”.

We sampled sherries from the very dry to sweet. The medium sweet sherries were our favorite. The oxidized sharpness of the dry sherry was a negative for me. We left Sandman with the intention of finding another bodega. But by the time we got to another one, it was closed. Time for a siesta. Darn! We drove back home to Arcos.

Aside from its uniqueness of being situated so daringly on a mountain peak, its charming, narrow streets and a couple of ancient cathedrals, there wasn’t much more to Arcos. On one evening we spent an hour walking around looking for a restaurant. Most of the places are tapas bars and offer little variety. Still, we were glad to have stopped to experience Arcos.

The Pueblos Blancos

June 17 - The Pueblos Blancos

We drove out of Ronda after a leisurely breakfast overlooking the gorge and watching the swallows flying around. We took the back roads instead of the highway so we could see the Pueblos Blancos - white-washed towns and villages, often on steep hillsides with ancient cathedrals and castles.

Setenil was our first stop. This town was unusual because some of the homes and shops were built right into the rocky cliffs. The streets in the village were extremely narrow - I’m glad we were driving a small car. Next we went to Olvera, with a castle and a surrounding cemetery at the very top of the hill. We got there in the mid-afternoon during siesta time - the town was like a ghost town.

The last Pueblos Blanco we visited was Zahara, situated along a lake-reservoir on a mountain ridge. Zahara was a stronghold against the kingdom of Granada during the Moorish occupation. We hiked up to the castle and had a spectacular view of the entire area. On our walk back we stopped at one of the local hangouts hugging the cliff. We got a snack and washed it down with a cerveza. Needless to say, the view was striking.