Andalusia aboard Al Andalus

Hopefully, we were saving the best until last - a week-long train trip around Andalusia. So Bill and I headed off to the Alfonso XIII Hotel to check in, which was a bit of a Spanish free-for-all, but the process was completed in time for the English-speaking troupe to head off on the walking tour of Sevilla, armed with umbrellas in case of the forecast rain.

First stop: the former tobacco factory, read cigar-making shop, which, at its peak, employed ten thousand women wearing split skirts so they could roll the cigars on the inside of their thighs, or so it's said. Apparently Prosper Merimee was so excited by this spectacle that he wrote the novella Carmen, later transmogrified by Bizet into that well-known bodice-ripper opera (and several crapulous film adaptations).

A stroll through the pretty gardens housing a lovely fountain celebrating Christopher Columbus's exploits; a tour of the cathedral, then I steeled myself and headed skyward to the top of the Giralda tower for panoramic views of the city, along with a couple of hundred other hardy fools.

At the check-in, we'd immediately scanned our fellow travellers. A large pair of US citizens gained the top spot on the 'Alarm, Alert, Avoid' list. Lunch was back at the spiffing hotel, so we joined a quartet of Seattle folks, only to be set upon immediately by the two horrors. The hideous huge chap with half a head of hair pulled back in a pony-tail thumped into the adjacent seat and proclaimed loudly "I'm Chuck" (I was sorely tempted to quote Noel Coward's reply of "of course you are", on accosted with "Hi, I'm Chuck Connors" ). This Chuck introduced his scruffy, large wife sporting dirty hair and shoes, but, failing to register the greeting, I named her 'Heave'. Chuck proceeded to bore the table with his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Roman, plus Malthusian population theory. But his knowledge was boundless, and continued when the lamb main course hit the table. Of course his father owned a sheep farm half the size of Wyoming.

Bill and I made our escape with plans to never share another moment with Chuck and Heave if humanly possible. The afternoon treat was an hour's 'free time' wandering the ridiculous confection called Plaza Espana, a semi-circle of lavishly tiled, apparently useless buildings fronted by a moat full of Japanese attempting to row little boats aimlessly while taking selfies.

We got to board our train at about 6pm. Our standard cabins were fine for singles, but certainly tight quarters for couples! There are 12 standard cabins in two coaches, and 20 superior cabins in 5 cars. And guess what, Chuck and Heave are in the next cabin to me! Oh joy, but luckily, only our bathrooms abutted, so it was OK.

The train hit the tracks and we zipped off to Jerez to overnight. Somehow, we managed to luck into meeting up with Dick and Judith from Kent, which happily made us a table of four, and a fine time was had by all over dinner.

Next morning, first up, a visit to Bodegas Gonzales Byass, producers of Tio Pepe sherry among other things. Our guide was a bit of a card, so it was a fun tour, starting with an original shed designed by Gustav Eiffel, then through the cellars, which hold 80,000 barrels, each containing 500L, so I figure that's 40m litres of booze. In summer, the temperature tops 40C, but the vine-covered walkways keep the heat to 24C.

Through the cellars there are 'celebrity' barrels, including one signed "Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor" (not sure how that works, claiming Rex-hood post abdication, but I guess it's in the same vein as all former US Presidents being entitled to call themselves Mr President, despite being has-beens). Then 'Philip' - in his typical 'cop this' scrawl, aka the Duke of Edinburgh; some Hollywood heavies, and my old favourite, scrawled 'Keith Floyd'!

But the 'yippee' moment came when I asked our guide about the mice that I understood inhabit the cellar and are given a nip of sherry every night. I'd seen this on a UK TV program at least 20 years ago (Wicker's World?) with the mice running up a teeny ladder to take a tipple every evening, and sometimes another mouse would be waiting impatiently, then rocking the ladder to make the glutton at the trough fall off. Cuteness squared. And the tradition continues, but not at 10:30am, unfortunately. But we had a tasting of a couple of sherries in the very slick visitor centre before being shunted to the bus, via the shop (of course).



Next stop, the Equestrian School. Performing horses (torture, in my view) are not to my taste,

but the carriage and dressage bits were impressive.

Lunch was a surprise. We drove to the large inlet from the Atlantic Ocean to a little town called Sanlucar de Barrameda, destination the Casa Bigote restaurant. This town is actually the home of my favourite sherry, the slightly salty Manzanilla, served chilled.

The restaurant is rather large, and we were shown upstairs, by which time most of the gannets had secured all the tables within viewing distance of the sea. Along with Dick and Judith, we sought refuge at a table, set for lunch for six, just beyond the main hoard. Rosa, the train chief organiser, did a marvellous job of successfully convincing the management that we should be allowed to stay put. Immediately, a wine bucket was plonked by our table containing a large bottle of manzanilla and the same of white wine. So Judith and I were very happy pixies.

Next, our nice chappie came tableside with a platter of 'white prawns a la plancha' (smallish whole prawns, grilled with flaked sea salt). He delivered a slide of eight/person to Dick, Judith and me before he ran out, but immediately came with a new large platter and loaded Bill's plate with a dozen! Now normally, Bill would say 'no, no, that's enough', but in this case, he gazed toward the Azores as his plate was loaded until the server thought he'd left the room!


Fifteen minutes later, Bill commented, OOOH - you've all finished! Well of course we had, because YOU didn't offer US any of your bounty! Totally unapologetic and completely without shame,had the nerve to giggle! This act of treachery will not be easily forgiven, nor forgotten!

The next course was a fillet of groper, oiled, grilled with straw potatoes and garnished with jamon and sherry. Divine.

The main course was simply described as fish stew with rice. Knockout. I had a second serve, as did Dick.

Finally, a crema catalan type dessert with raisin icecream, plus limoncello and coffee. Rating for the casual meal? 10/10 - Perfecta.

Back to Sevilla for dinner on the train (also very good, including garlic and almond soup and confit duck), and so ends day 2.

Day 3, and the train is still moored at Jerez de la Frontera station. Onto the bus again, bound for Cadiz. First, a panoramic tour of the city, followed by a walking tour with a good guide. Cadiz is besotted with the legend of Hercules pushing the continents of Europe and Africa apart to form his pillars and the straights of Gibraltar, creating a ribbon of water between the two high points. Together, the pillars and the ribbon are supposedly the origin of the dollar sign design.

The town hall is of the Isabellina style, and the facade sports replicas of Phoenician coins discovered on site, including coins with fish (tuna) designs representing their value. The annual quota of tuna that can be fished by Cadiz is 100,000 tons (poor buggers come into the Mediterranean to spawn in Spring, and leave in Autumn, so they're easy picking in the straits).

Cadiz is currently playing host to a Henry Moore exhibition, with several large amorphous sculptures plonked in the main square.

After the guided tour, we checked out the fish market, which was stunning, including the aforementioned tuna in huge cross-sections and all manner of other unidentifiable fishy substances. The red gambas and langoustines looked particularly toothsome.

Then, a surprise. The delightful Norwegian quartet knew about a small 'church' - 'The Oratory of the Santa Cueva' (holy cave), with its two chapels - the Penitential and the Eucharist - an extraordinary monument in the history of Spanish art and the most important Cadiz neoclassicism work.

The story of its creation goes something like this. Santa Cueva is linked to the fraternity of La Madre Antigua (the Old Mother), which met every Thursday at dusk to meditate, and later moved to the Rosario (street) parish church. Twenty years later, a subterranean cave was discovered, was excavated, and the fraternity was renamed the Brotherhood of the Santa Cueva.

In 1771, a priest named Don Jose Saenz de Santamaria became boss cocky and undertook, at his expense, the renovation of the Oratory. He was born in Veracruz (Mexico), second child of the fabulously wealthy Marquis of Valde-Inigo. Father Santamaria commissioned the architect and scholar Torcuato Cayon (master builder of the new Cadiz cathedral) to enlarge the Rosario church. A couple of years after its completion, Santamaria's father dropped off the twig, closely followed by his first son and heir, so the priest's ship came in, big time, and he decided to add a high chapel, dedicated to the cult of the Holy Sacrament, to the primitive building.

The high chapel, with its splendiferous wealth of materials and ornamentation, is a total contrast to the lovely, austere low chapel. It sports six Corinthian columns, silver on the inside and jasper on the outside; eight addorsed Ionic columns, also of jasper. A spectacular dome, using plaster reliefs for optical effect, by Antonio Cavellini. Five lunette paintings, by Goya and Velasquez. Oh, and Haydn was commissioned to write the piece (translation -Christ's last seven words on the cross) first played here on Good Friday in 1783. I could go on, but suffice to say, Father Santamaria's corner of the religious art world is a masterpiece.


Which is more than I can say for our lunch, at a thoroughly pretentious restaurant, which we collectively rated as the worst of the trip. And the Norwegians were getting snappy by this stage, as our train hadn't moved for two days, but once back in Jerez we were on our way, taking a circuitous rail route to Ronda through the beautiful rural landscape of Andalusia - olive groves, grapes, pueblos blancos and mountain ranges on a warm evening.


Is Ronda the most prettily sited town ever? It certainly comes close. The geographical setting of the town is glorious, with mountains surrounding at a goodly distance (the name 'Ronda' comes from the Moorish name 'arunda', i.e. surrounded (by mountains)). But the site was originally settled by Celts, then Romans, and gained 'city' status during Julius Caesar's time, followed by the Moors several centuries later.

So we went on a walking tour of the Moorish labyrinthine streets - unchanged since the C14th. I love the Moorish culture of having very simple exteriors - white plaster (swabbed twice annually), with very narrow streets (cool, the sun doesn't get into the deep alleyways), metal grates on windows (swing open to get the cool evening air), star jasmine climbing on outdoor walls (anti-mosquito). All buildings have the same austere exteriors - the difference between rich and poor digs is only evident on the inside.


We then came upon a beautiful central park - this is apparently where the tradition of bullfighting started. The original sport was simply one of training newbies in the art of war. So the pre-soldiers jumped on a horse (think both Christians and Arabs) and did the boy-thing of rounding up animals, humans, whatever. Then the Christians reconquered Ronda but kept on scooting around the main circular park for the entertainment of the locals.

The 'sport' continued after the expulsion of the Moors 1492, as a rich man's hobby. But one day, a horse stumbled and threw his rider to the ground. A brave chap in the crowd took off his coat, jumped in front of the bull and diverted the bull to school 101 of bullfighting! Well, I believe it, and it's the the prettiest park imaginable, so who cares?

There's a series of misnamed bridges here: the Roman bridge is not Roman (it was built by the Moors on the site of a bridge destroyed by earthquake). The Arab bridge is not Arab (built by the Christians on the site of the Moorish bridge), and the new bridge is not new (built in the C16th as a replacement for an old bridge).

Our final tour stop was the original (and circular) bullring, and a fine structure it is, too. Then, some free time, so Judith and I could scoot cross the bridge to the old city to buy lovely tablecloths and handbags (yes, I know) before I scooted halfway down to the river take photos of the lovely bridge from below, while Bill, Dick and Judith lazed in the shade of the park above. On the way back to the parador, we stepped into a lovely courtyard for a look at the gorge below. When we turned to leave, the patron was angrily slamming shut the door to the street. Dick apologised, whereupon the patron snapped the Spanish equivalent of 'I don't care/not interested/get stuffed and get lost'! Whoops.


After lunch of roast guinea fowl and other goodies, we reboarded Al Andalus for our afternoon trip over the mountains to Granada. We spent the next morning, firstly in the Generalife gardens, then the Alhambra. The tourist infrastructure has been smicked-up somewhat since I was here ten years ago, but the palace and gardens are as beautiful as ever, despite the crowds.

Lunch on the train turned into an hilarious affair, then it was back into Granada to witness a tawdy flamenco performance with all the usual squawking and foot-thumping by sweaty gypsy imposters. Done well, flamenco is almost elegant - romantic and balletic. This wasn't, with the girl managing to rip her plastic lace skirt and the chap taking a thousand steps to get nowhere. The guitar playing was adequate.

Dinner was upstairs in a lovely, converted convent with a beautiful central courtyard. So we joined the Norwegians at a table for eight. Jan and Britt own a pad in Marbella, Bjorn and Camilla a house in the mountains, so they all holiday at each others’ retreats. Jan and Britt's house in Oslo looks onto Munch's garden, so Britt's studio is a fine place to paint in her spare time, i.e. when not optometristing. Jan owns a business designing and manufacturing scientific industrial equipment when he's not playing with mergers and acquisitions. Bjorn recently sold his business of waterless concrete and Camilla is a lawyer and high-end real estate operator. Dick was born in Poland, to a Jewish father. During the war, his father and nice brothers lived in the forest and his mother would meet him at the edge of the town to provide them with food. Only Dick's father and one brother survived the Nazi extermination machine. After the war, the family moved to Israel, then the Netherlands, before finally settling in Britain. He and Judith (a teacher) have a house in the Vendee and have been married for 40 years, as have both the Norwegian couples, so it was 'anniversary city' at our table!

Our train left Granada at 6am, bound for Linares and our visit to Ubeda and Baeza in Jaen province. Jaen is olive oil central, the countryside is peppered with 66 million olive trees (of the buttery-peppery Picual variety), producing 20% of the world's olive oil.

The small cities of Ubeda (population:36,000) and Baeza (16,000) host 18 national sites between them. The urban morphology dates from the Moorish C9th and the Reconquita of the C13th, happily enhanced with fabulous, public and private architectural ensembles courtesy of the emergence of the Renaissance in the 16th, and associated judicious town planning. These little gems are worth the journey.

In Ubeda, what appears to be a rather large church, is in fact a private mausoleum. Jan's family also has a mausoleum, and, after seeing this one, reckons his mob are going to have to lift their game.


Our scholarly guide for the morning is also the director of the recently discovered and excavated synagogue, which lies beneath a corner building which is next to a former Inquisitor's house (marked by the Inquisition coat of arms above the door). The corner building used to house seven families and several shops, including a ladies' hairdresser. Several years ago, the complex was bought by a developer with the intention of creating high end apartments, but once the work started some weird and wonderful architectural remains were unearthed, the end result of which was the discovery of a synagogue, complete with a subterranean Mikvah (a ritual bath, fed by Spring water), into which the sun shines directly on the summer solstice. This Sinagoga del Agua also had an intact ladies balcony, which had been incorporated into the former hair salon!

During the Inquisition, Jews were required to make an unhappy choice - convert to Catholicism or be exiled, forsaking all worldly goods. Needless to say, once the exiles had debunked, the Christians happily moved in to their vacated properties.

Baeza, the other half of the architectural equation, boasts a rare and beautiful Romanesque church, which faces a wonderful Flemish-Isabellina style university building with fabulous exterior diamond-shaped studs, pineapples and other unlikely embellishments. The buildings' exteriors are smattered with red-inked, coded, political messages - the genesis of graffiti.


During lunch on board, Al Andalus hurtled on to Cordoba, for late dinner at the famous (and very average) El Bandolero restaurant on a balmy evening, followed by a hilarious farewell party on board with the Spanish folks in full festa flight - what fun!

Next morning we toured the monumental mosque-cathedral, with a chequered history. In the mid-C6th, it was Visigoth basilica, then, in the 760's, the Arabs used the base for their Umayyad mosque, for which they used the basilica's columns, topped them with red brick and limestone arches (nicked from the Roman aquaduct design and construct), the sides of the mosque were open, in the tradition of Arab tents, and the floor was of pressed earth. The floor plan includes 11 naves perpendicular to the Qibla wall, which doesn't face Mecca, instead it faces south. In the mid ninth century, eight south-facing naves were added, then a 40m minaret was added a century later. By 962 another twelve south-facing sections were added.


1031 saw the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba, then the Christians were faced with a quandary of how to turn the gigantic mosque into a church. They solved the problem by cutting a hole in the centre of the mosque and dropping in a church, and consecrating the entire edifice.

There are two ways of looking at this act of vandalism. I'm of the (art critic) Andrew Graham-Dixon club. The church/cathedral is an utterly hideous travesty. On the other hand, if the Catholics hadn't come up with this solution, they would have felt obliged to destroy the mosque, which is what they did everywhere else in Moorish Spain, and that would have been a tragedy.

As a monument, the Mosque-Cathedral is peerless, gigantic and wonderful. Just go.

We four declined to visit the Roman ruins in Linares (Bill and I saw enough in Turkey in 2014 to last a lifetime), but of course everyone heard all about it from the ghastly Chuck, who led the taxied expedition. A very liquid lunch on board our train, headed for Seville, completed our festivities and farewells. Bill and I topped off our Spanish sojourn with Seville's Real Alcazar, which I last visited in 1996, before he headed home via Madrid, and I via London.

October 2016


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