Travels in Andalusia
Sunshine, fine food — and so much more — whet the appetite for history
Tomas, a charming young man with an infectious sense of humour, has taken the group on a full tour of the Olive and Olive Oil Visitor Centre in Úbeda, Jaén province, Spain. He’s patiently explained both old and new methods of growing olives and extracting the “juice,” proper care and storing, and how to identify a good olive from a “less good” one: a fresh grassy taste in the mouth, peppery flavour in the throat.
Now it’s late, almost an hour after the 8pm closing, and the questions just won’t stop. “Yes, it’s a perfect cooking oil. Keep the temperature under 180°C and I’ll bet anyone €5 it’ll never smoke.” Should you go by the date on the bottle? “No, go by the taste.” Can you use olive oil as a shampoo? “Ask my friend downstairs. He knows all about beauty care. He’ll sell you something for your face and your hair. And here’s another idea. It’s time for dinner.”
This Andalusian traveller’s tale starts in the middle. I began in Málaga a few days ago, visited Granada and will end back on the coast three days from now after calling in at nearby Baeza and a stop in Córdoba. Jaén is chock-a-block with World Heritage castles, churches and forts, and still has room for the largest protected natural area in Spain — and 65 million olive trees. Spain produces twice as much olive oil as Italy and accounts for 40 percent of the world’s supply.
But now it’s time to eat. You could be forgiven for assuming Cantina la Estación (cantinalaestacion.com) is just another tapas bar. You could even be forgiven for thinking it’s not in Úbeda at all. The dining room resembles a 19th-century dining car on a train — estación means “station” in Spanish. Curtains line each side of the narrow room and are drawn back to reveal large “windows” —LCD screens that play videos of what you’d see from an express train speeding through the Spanish countryside. Quite an effect!
The creativity extends to the menu. There’s been a food revolution in Spain over the last decade. Spanish chefs are among the most innovative on the planet and Montserrat Nieto Torre, the owner and head chef, is one of them. The food is glorious from traditional paper-thin jamón to innovative hummus and red peppers, and on through vegetables, seafood, beef and pork dishes prepared using olive oil and local herbs. Each dish is melt in the mouth delicious.
Úbeda and nearby Baeza are World Heritage Sites noted for their Muslim-Jewish-Christian history and the magnificent Renaissance architecture of native son Andrés de Vandelvira. Another local, Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, became secretary to Carlos I, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella who expelled the last of the Arabs from Europe in 1497. In the same year, the royal couple financed Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the “New World” which soon made the country the wealthiest in the world.
De los Cobos is said to have received one percent of all the gold and silver shipped back from the Americas. He established a family fortune which, through a foundation, still funds his private mausoleum, the magnificent Chapel of El Salvador. It’s just one of the historic buildings on the central Plaza de Santa Maria which it shares with the remarkable 16th-century Palace de las Cadenas.
The square also houses a parador (parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-ubeda), an intriguing place to stay while you’re in town. For cozier accommodation, book into the Hotel Nueve Leyendas (hotelnueveleyendas.com) down the street. The owners are huge fans of Gordon Lightfoot!
This is scarcely dipping into the glories of the area, but if you fancy dipping into some truly special water, visit the old synagogue around the block. It was rediscovered three years ago during the renovation of a small apartment building. In the basement workers broke through a floor that covered seven steps down to a deep pool of water, a mikeva, which, scholars believe, was used by Jewish women as a cleansing pool prior to the Jews 16th-century expulsion. On the spring equinox, a beam of light streams in from a concealed opening to illuminate the pool. The effect is magical.
A tangled history
This part of Spain has a long and complicated history. Here’s an extremely brief summary to help to get your bearings.
After the long erosion of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths crossed the Rhine in 410 and occupied the Iberian Peninsula frequently duking it out with local fiefdoms until the Arabs invaded in 711. They crossed from North Africa a little more than a century after the beginning of Islam in Medina and Mecca. With significant support from the Berbers, they established themselves in Andalusia where they tolerated Christians and Jews though they didn’t much care for the Visigoths.
The building of the great mosque in Córdoba began in 785, but was not to be a peaceful kingdom. A long succession of rulers, some with allegiance to Damascus, others nominally subservient to Bagdad, fought among themselves. Not a year went by without skirmishes, battles and, among the ruling classes, assassinations and murders. Nor did the Europeans go quietly into that good night. The Arab conquest created the conditions for a state of virtually permanent warfare in the Iberian Peninsula.
In scale and intensity, this exceeded anything to be found elsewhere in Western Europe. Writes Roger Collins in Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031: “Visigoths, Franks and Vikings staged endless raids from the north occupying territory on the Iberian Peninsula for a month or two or a few years only to be overthrown. And let’s not forget the Crusades.” Córdoba fell to the Christians in 1236 as part of the first re-conquest. A church, which was replaced with a nave in the 16th century, was built in the centre of the mosque. Muslims have been forbidden to pray there ever since. It remains a place of exclusive Christian worship today.
This may seem a long way around but a bit of history would have been a bit of a help to me when I first entered the magnificent building. Over 800 red and white carved stone columns and arches stretch off in the spiritually-evocative dim light. Despite the many visitors, there is a palpable hush in the enormous hall. People have been praying here daily for 800 years. That said, the cathedral plunked down in the middle and punched through the roof comes as a bit of a shock. There’s an elegance to the Moorish stones that the festooned and gilded Renaissance structure simply cannot achieve. The cultural clash between the two civilizations could not be more arresting — or more poignant.
Córdoba has been a large and vibrant city for over 1300 years so there’s lots to see. Continuing on the religious theme, Jews will want to visit the old quarter where Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher, was born. Another reason to explore the twisting streets and shops of this part of town is the excellent Restaurant Churrasco (elchurrasco.es). Select your seafood from the case in the lobby, they’ll serve it to you cooked to perfection in one of the upstairs rooms.
Málaga where it all began
Travels in Andalusia these days begin in Málaga on that portion of the western Mediterranean called the Alboran Sea. It’s a city that has transformed itself since the death of Franco in 1975 with a huge boost coming when Spain joined the EU. What was once a work-a-day port, albeit with a history pre-dating Roman times, is, today, a glittering place of elegant plazas, marble by-ways, peaceful parks and one of the finest seaside esplanades in Europe.
Begin with the big sites, the Alcazaba, the old Moorish fort, and the Gibralfaro castle with its overflowing gardens. In the city centre take a gander at the vast Renaissance cathedral locals call La Manquita, or the one-armed woman, in reference to its missing south tower.
Next the museums; there are now more than two dozen to visit. The coloured glass cube of the Pompidou Centre (centrepompidou-malaga.eu), the first so named outside France, sits conveniently on the harbour.
One absolute must-see is the Picasso Museum (museopicassomalaga.org) on a small plaza beside the artist’s childhood home. The restored palace offers well-curated selections of paintings, sculptures and ceramics that don’t overwhelm with too many works as they often do in bigger Picasso shows.
If you have the time and inclination call in at the new Collection of the Russian Museum (coleccionmuseoruso.es) affiliated with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Bored with high art? There’s an Auto Museum (museoautomovilmalaga.com) next door.
For the rest of your time here take a couple of days to wander about. The shopping is varied and interesting especially for Spanish-made leather goods to chess sets to fashion-forward clothing. For a glimpse of the huge variety of food grown in this southern European cornucopia call in at the Mercado Atarazanas.
Start the morning with churros (fried pastry), fruit and coffee, go on to tapas for lunch and, once the sun goes down, head for the big terrace of El Pimpi (elpimpi.com), adjacent to the recently uncovered Roman Amphitheatre. Delicious food is kept coming by a squad of white-shirted waiters. Plan to spend your last night here to catch the full flavour of the city. Every night is party night, one that often ends on the beach, a short stroll away across the park, where the big cruise ships all come in. If you’re lucky, there’ll be fireworks.
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