Portugal Road Trip – Part 2: For the Love of Guardrails

To misquote RWE, “It’s the journey, but an interesting destination helps.” We left Tomar, destined for Piodão, one of the 27 Aldeias do Xisto, Schist villages, in the mountainous central part of Portugal. Only two and a half hours from Tomar, we rarely passed another car as we drove. Our route quickly transitioned to serpentine roads traversing rolling hills covered in eucalyptus and pine forest. Then the higher above the tree line we drove, an expansive vista of shrublands fielding heather, broom, carqueja and rosemary were revealed. Hair raising, twisting and turning roads would truthfully be a better description, made all the more unsettling because there seemed to have been a transportation department budget crisis, as in, they forgot to install guardrails on most of those mountainous roads! My wife’s knuckles were white from tightly grasping the “Oh Jesus” handle above her door. With all the gorgeous panoramas, they could have planned more miradouros for folks to safely enjoy the views from.

We are not novice mountain drivers, having taken many switchback roads to remote places on several continents, which has reinforced or belief in and appreciation for a nice sturdy guardrail when we see one.

This was also the day our moody rent-a-wreck of a car went psychotic, every warning light on the dashboard blinking violently in Portuguese, requiring us to pull over to check the vehicle. Reluctant to turn off the engine in such a remote area, we listened closely for any sounds of motor distress. The car sounded fine. We drove on. With a quick, blind left turn and an “Oh God!” we descended a steep single lane road on the far side of the village that eventually led us across terraced slopes to Casa da Padaria for the night.

With warm greetings and help with our bags Gorete, the innkeeper, showed us to our room. For many years, decades before its renovation, the inn served as the town’s bakery run by Gorete’s father in-law. She and her husband returned to the village and remodeled the original building into a small four-bedroom guesthouse. The bakery’s large brick oven still takes up one whole wall of the breakfast room, which also displays a huge dough trough and long wooden bread peels used to take the loaves out of the wood fired oven.

Schist, schist, schist, everywhere schist! Walls, roofs, cobbled lanes, terraces, everything in the village is built with this durable brown and grayish stone, from a distance giving it the appearance that it has grown organically from the earth of the box canyon that shelters cradles it.  Everyone’s blue doors and window frames are not the result of superstition to ward off demons or to bring good fortune, but a shop keeper buying many years’ worth of paint in only one color. It became tradition.  

Channeled narrow rivulets of cold mountain water run quickly between homes, under doorsteps and along the edges of walkways before cascading downhill into irrigation trenches for the terraced crops below the village.  Small fountains throughout the hamlet offer spring water for drinking and washing for some of the older homes that still might not have plumbing.   

Slowly exploring the village, we made our way to its central plaza for dinner at O Solar dos Pachecos and enjoyed delicious bowls of Moelas Guisadas a Portuguesa, stewed chicken gizzards. This dish might not be for everyone, but it is truly one of Portugal’s culinary treasures. The owner enthusiastically shared tidbits of information and pointed across the way to the only mailbox in this unique village for the 120 full-time residents left here. Pity the poor postman otherwise trying to figure out the twist, turns and stairways of the hamlet’s ancient lanes. Surely everyone gets to know one another this way with the mailbox strapped to a tree on the main square in front of the village’s only white-washed building, the church.  Before leaving he suggested we enjoy some of the hiking trails the area is known for with a short trek through the valley to Praia Fluvial de Foz d’Égua, a scenic spot with a suspension bridge over a stream that widens into a natural swimming hole. Later for coffee and dessert we watched part of a soccer game on the TV above the bar at O Fontinha.

Piodão owes its unadulterated charm to the fact that it was pretty much forgotten and slowly abandoned until the 1970’s when the donkey and horse trails leading to the village were replaced with roads carved into the isolating mountains of the Serra do Açor that surround it. It is located not far from Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela and continental Portugal’s highest peak, Torre at 6,539ft. Difficult terrain lured fugitives, seeking to escape justice, to the isolated villages of the area. Allegedly one of the assassins of D. Inês de Castro, the mistress of Pedro l, sought refuge here in the late 1300s. Other than that interesting historical footnote and mention in a 1529 census, folks got by on a subsistence economy of farming, grazing sheep and goats, along with wood and stone cutting for centuries.

Its rediscovery and revitalization in the 1980’s brought the isolated village built with the abundant local schist stone recognition as one of the “most Portuguese villages of Portugal,” with a Galo de Prata “silver rooster” award.  

Waking during the night to close the window against the mountain chill, I observed a full moon illuminating a single arched stone bridge over a babbling brook at the bottom of the valley. The mountain songbirds were loud enough to encourage an early wakening as the sun rose over the ridge behind the village. The next morning Gorete’s homemade jams, pastries and a neighbor’s artisanal cheese nourished us before we explored the village and moved on.

The drive to Praia Fluvial de Foz d’Égua was through forest thick with oak, chestnut and laurel cherry and arbutus trees. Arriving, we understood immediately why this beautiful area is such an out of the way tourist magnet. Traveling during the fall shoulder season, we were fortunate to experience the tranquility of this serene spot in solitude.

Continuing the next day, we headed north to Ucanha for its old Roman bridge with fortified tower that spans the Rio Varosa. In the off-season not as many restaurants are open, but we were fortunate to find Casa da Eira near the bridge still welcoming folks for a splendid meal.

The walk to it was down a lane bounded with high walls draped with bunches of grapes dangling beneath, the vines sporting brilliant fall foliage. Just before reaching the restaurant, we peeked through the broken shutters of a long-abandoned church, its wedding cake altar and walls stripped of any religious embellishments.

After lunch we strolled across the bridge and under its tower which served as a toll booth for travelers crossing the river and gateway to the vast land holdings of the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Salzedas in the 1400s, and further on to the Portuguese frontier.  

The bridge we crossed is thought to have replaced an earlier Roman structure from the first century AD. Through the tower’s archway we followed the lane up to the village’s parish church, Igreja de S. João Evangelist, that dates from 17th century.

It was surprising to learn about the ancient Roman presence here in central Portugal, but we had already noticed signs for the old Roman route as we drove through the area and tried to find two ancient bridges nearby, the Ponte Românica de Vila Pouca de Salzedas and Ponte Romana without any success while on our way to Salzedas. In searching for them, we did however thoroughly enjoy an afternoon ride through tiny hamlets, vineyards, olive groves, and apple orchards, where the tastiest apples were plucked from a tree within reach of our car window.

Reaching Salzedas we parked and walked towards the monastery across a small bridge over a dry riverbed. Stopping across from the monastery to take a photo, we spotted the most unusual statue along the watercourse’s retaining wall: a carved stone sculpture of a naked man sitting with a huge serpent-head phallus bursting forth from between his legs. Its location across from the monastery was all the more bewildering, but we had to laugh. Odd, just really odd, some of the things you discover when you travel.

Shorter opening hours are one of the disadvantages of travel during the shoulder season as by the time we were done exploring the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Salzedas the small cathedral next to it was closed. Having paid fully for our entry tickets, we were startled by the guard’s request request for coins. “Do you have any foreign coins? I don’t travel, it’s my hobby and I ask all the foreign visitors if they don’t mind sharing.”  Having collected foreign money ourselves we could relate to this desire to touch something of the outside world. “We have some somewhere in our suitcase. I’ll check before we go,” I replied. The attendant replied with a subtly disappointed, “okay.” We were sure he thought we were just giving an excuse as we climbed the stairs to the exhibition.

From its placement in 1155 near the Torno River, in keeping with the sect’s requirements that its buildings be near watercourses, this was one of the largest and wealthiest Cistercian monasteries in Portugal, having been gifted extensive land holdings, by a royal patron, with the express duty of exploiting the land for profit. A century later it was consecrated after the monastic complex was finished. Over the centuries it continued to be financed by various members of succeeding royal dynasties, perhaps seeking divine intervention or to influence the politics of the almighty Catholic church. Like all things old, it underwent several significant renovations during the 16th and 17th centuries. The addition of a second larger cloister in the 18th century left the façade of the monastery we saw today.

“Enough is enough, we’ve had enough,” could have been the chant of the Liberal government after their victory over the Absolutists at the end of the Portuguese Civil War, 1828 -1834, a war fought for basic human rights and to reverse centuries of disenfranchisement from autocratic monarchies and their allies, namely the Catholic church. Reforms started by the enlightened Marquês de Pombal in the mid-1700s to restrict the powers of old aristocratic families and the church with the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Portuguese Empire had stalled. In 1834 the new minister of justice, Joaquim António de Aguiar, enacted a law, The Extinction of the Religious Orders, requiring the dissolution of “all monasteries, convents, colleges, hospices and any other houses of the regular religious orders.” Their properties and moveable assets were to be nationalized and sold, the profits to be entered into the National Exchequer. Convents were allowed to stay open until the last nun died. Joaquim António de Aguiar earned the nickname, O Mata-Frades, “The Friar-Killer,” because of the anti-ecclesiastical spirit of this law. Over 500 monasteries were closed. Urban buildings were easily sold and repurposed, but many monasteries and convents in the rural areas were abandoned. Their religious art and iconography was redistributed to local parish churches, sold into private collections or “lost.” The Santa Maria de Salezadas Monastery sat abandoned and left to ruin for over 160 years until renovation work started in 2002 and culminated in the reopening of the cloisters in 2011 as a museum with displays of the monastery’s medieval and renaissance religious art and treasures recollected from afar.

With a wave and “thank you,” we left the monastery and headed to our car. “Wait, I’ve got to find those coins for you to take him.” Returning to the car with a smile on her face, Donna relayed that he was delighted that we remembered. A small connection.

It’s the journey. We headed to the Douro Valley. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Portugal Road Trip – Part 1: Searching for Templar Castles

“It’s okay, you can just ignore that caution light on the dashboard. It never goes off.” “Do you have another car?” “No.” All rental cars appear equally perfect when you are making comparisons and a final selection from a website. Staying within our budget, we chose an off-airport car rental agency with good reviews, that picked us up at the arrivals terminal and sped us away to our awaiting wheels, for €12.50 a day.  The Fiat Panda assigned to us had been driven hard and put away wet, you might say. Reviewing the preexisting body blemishes with the rental agent resulted in a cartoon of the car that looked like it had been ambushed in a gangster movie and sprayed with machine-gun fire, including the roof. Nevertheless, the engine sounded fine, and our twelve-day journey began, driving in a large figure-eight, north to south route, around Portugal. Our first destination – Castelo de Almourol, before arriving in Tomar. But by the afternoon of day three we were referring to our car as the Portuguese version of the American rent-a-wreck concept. When driving through the mountains, on the way to a schist village, every warning light on the dashboard started blinking violently in Portuguese. If we had been flying an airplane, we would have donned parachutes and bailed out.  The engine sounded fine, so we flew on.

Not being sure what is open during the week in the off season, we headed for the Miradouro do Almourol, an overlook above the island that the castle commands. Located on the south side of the Tagus River, it’s not particularly easy to get to. But my wife and I enjoy the off the beaten track routes that take us through less traveled countryside. Crossing the Tagus River, we followed the N118 north into the Alentejo (beyond the Tagus) Region through flat farmlands and wine estates dating back to the 1700’s. The red wines of the area vinted with the Portuguese varietals Castelão, Trincadeira, and Touriga Nacional are acquiring international recognition now, as are the regions white wines made with Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Fernão Pires grapes.

The drive was slowed occasionally by tremendously large John Deere combines, the width of the entire road, as farmers drove them between different fields waiting to be harvested. Seasonal spring floods that replenish the soil have made this river plain an important area for cereal crops and wheat since the Roman times. Our walk a little then café philosophy quickly transformed into drive a little then café when we did our first U-turn of the trip as we passed a small place that had a tractor parked in front. Our espressos only €.70 each. It was nice to be back in Portugal.

The wetlands of the Tagus River valley are ideal for bird watchers looking for black-winged stilt, marsh harrier, purple heron, pratincole and Kentish plover. Occasionally we spotted storks atop centuries-old chimneys of abandoned homes, resting in new nests that were stacked like pancakes atop older ones before continuing their winter migration south to Africa. Quiet lanes, faded sun-bleached pastels, and centuries old weather-worn buildings dotted the landscape. Bullrings, Praça de Touros, still stand in Chamusca and Salvaterra de Magos, and the latter’s traffic circle has a large sculpture of a cavaleiro and bull to celebrate the tradition. Though interest in bullfighting has been waning since Queen Maria II of Portugal banned the spectacle in 1836 with the argument that it was “unbefitting for a civilised nation,” it regained popularity in the Alentejo region after the fights were reinstated in 1921, and the climatic killing of the bull was outlawed in 1928.

Before we reached the castle, we stopped for lunch along the riverfront in Arripiado at the ABC Bar Café. It was a tranquil spot with a boardwalk that had a view of the Tagus River and the small village of Tancos across the water. Small boats offer rides to Almourol Castle from the Arripiado riverbank here.

With its striking island location, just below the junction of the Zezere and Tagus rivers at Constância, Almourol Castle is one of the most picturesque medieval fortresses in Portugal.

Constância was once an important fishing village during the Middle Ages where it was said the rivers there were “two-thirds fish and one-third water.”

As with most things ancient on the Iberia Peninsula, the castle’s history started with an early tribe. The Lusitanians built a small fortress on the island as protection against the Romans in the first century B.C.E. Visgoths, Vandals, Alans and Moors followed until it was captured by the Portuguese during the Reconquista in 1129 and subsequently entrusted to the Knights Templar to rebuild for defense of the frontier border at the time.  It eventually lost its strategic relevance and was consequently abandoned. Various phases of reconstruction began in the mid-1900s. 

Train service to Tancos, Castelo de Almourol and the hilltop village of Constância is available from the Santa Apolónia Station in Lisbon. The trip takes about an hour and a half.   

We arrived in Tomar just as the late autumn sun was low in the sky and beginning to cast lengthening shadows on the forested slope that led to the jewel that crowns this quaint village.  We followed the winding cobbled lane to Castelo de Tomar and only got a brief glimpse of the castle through its outer gate as the heavy wooden door was closed for the day with an echoing clang. The castle combined seamlessly with the Convento de Cristo next to it and creates an immense structure that’s best observed from a distance to appreciate its scale. Admiring the expansive view from the miradouro in front of the castle, we made plans to return the next day via a tuk-tuk taxi, from the town square.

This beguiling medieval village with its narrow lanes and tranquil riverside location discreetly hides its outsized contribution to the history of Portugal.

It starts with those mysterious Knights Templar when in 1159 the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, granted land to Gualdim Pais, the fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Portugal as reward for their military prowess and religious zeal during the Portuguese wars for independence and the subsequent Reconquista. When the town was first founded, the population was so minuscule, most of the villagers lived behind the castle’s defensive walls.

In 1160 Gualdim Pais order the construction of a monastery and fortified citadel that would be known as the Convent of Christ, a combination of a fortress and a monastery, that is sometimes referred to as the Convent of Christ Castle. The convent’s most interesting feature is a round sanctuary with an ornate ceiling soaring over a central altar, its design said to be influenced by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  Legend states that the knights attended mass on horseback here, the open circular design facilitating the horse’s easy entrance and exit. Famously in 1190, outnumbered Templars defeated a larger Muslim army after their six day siege of Castelo Tomar failed.

Founded in 1118 and slowly gaining recognition from their vowed mission to protect pilgrims journeying to the Holy Lands, the Knights received Papal endorsement in 1139. Pope Innocent II’s Papal Bull sanctioned the Templars as “an army of God,” and provided them special rights that included exemption from paying taxes, allowed them to build their own oratories, immunity from local laws, freedom to cross borders, and obedience only to the Pope. With this blessing Pope Innocent ll made the first papal monetary gift to the Templars. Now a church-endorsed charity, they began receiving land, money, businesses and young nobles from wealthy families who were enthusiastic to find glory in the crusades and willingly donated their assets in order to take the vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience.

Today the Templars most likely would have been charged with running a racketeering enterprise which forced pilgrims and others to pay for protection services they have not requested. This protection was usually from the very people who were demanding the money in the first place.

Things were going well for the Templars across Europe until 1307 when King Philip lV, heavily indebted to the Templars from a war against England, lobbied the Holy Church to disband the Knights Templar as it was a state within a state with its own military, preached heresy and practiced idolatry.

The Templars’ fatal day (eerie music, please) was Friday, the 13th of October 1307. Early that morning all the Templars in France were arrested as enemies of God. Upon torture many falsely confessed and were burned at the stake.  A month later Pope Clement V, a relative of King Philip, decreed that the rest of the Catholic kingdoms in Europe should arrest the remaining Templars and seize their properties. All complied except Portugal!

King Dinis of Portugal did not believe the charges leveled against the Templars, remembering instead their service to a fledging country, and offered sanctuary to knights that had escaped capture.  He then persuaded Pope Clement to support the creation of a new organization, the Order of Christ, into which he transferred all the Templars’ wealth and holdings. The new Order’s mission was now the liberation of the Iberian Peninsular from the Moors and wars against Islam in Africa.

Same group with a new name, but to ensure that the deception of the Pope succeeded, the headquarters of the new order were established, almost in exile, 210 miles away in Castro Marim, a frontier town on the Guadiana River, that serves as the border with Spain.

One hundred years later Dom Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, allowed the Templars/Order of Christ to return to their former seat of influence in Tomar.  Here they now helped Prince Henry the Navigator establish a medieval think tank: a research institute dedicated to developing navigational tools for a ship to determine its accurate position at sea, relying on the Arabic studies of astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry, which were farther advanced than European knowledge at the time.

The Order of Christ succeeded the Knights Templars as the country’s banker and financed building the fleets of ships needed at the beginning of Portugal’s nautical age of discovery. As rewards, fleets of caravels with white billowing sails boldly embellished with the distinctive red cross of the Order (perhaps the first attempt at global branding) carried explorers down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean in 1487. Portugal’s age as an expanding empire had begun!

Wandering the cobbled lanes of the old town in mid-October, we seemed to have the whole village to ourselves. Later, as the day was perfect, we walked along the Nabao River, crossing a small footbridge in Parque do Mouchão. The view back toward the village was sublime with ducks slowly trailing ripples through the mirrored reflections of the buildings in the water.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lodging: Casa dos Ofícios Hotel

Dining: Restaurant Beira Rio and Sabores ao Rubro

Havana, Cuba: Beautiful in neglect

The amber glow of sunrise warmed the waterfront as our ship docked.  Its upper deck provided us a view of the port as if we were seagulls soaring above the first commuter ferries of the day crossing the harbor.  Along the water, buildings wore a tired facade of montage color and aged textures. Beautiful in neglect. These were our first impressions of Havana. The few buildings under renovation were easy to spot with their fresh coats of paint. The domes of the Russian Catedral Ortodoxa Nuestra Señora de Kazán, built to celebrate Soviet – Cuban friendship glistened in the sunrise, its onion shaped domes an odd juxtaposition, accented the balmy Caribbean skyline.  We’d be spending two full days in Havana.

By the time Nevada legalized gaming in 1931, Havana, once nicknamed “the Paris of the Caribbean” was already a well-established tropical get-away for gambling, especially if you lived in the wintry northern parts of the United States.  Havana’s balmy weather and swaying palms contrasted nicely against Las Vegas’ dusty strip in the desert where tumbleweeds blew across the sidewalks. In the 1950s, fifty dollars could purchase a three-day package tour to a Havana casino that included airfare, entertainment, food and hotel. Cruises to Havana from Miami were also possible aboard ships like the 725 passenger S.S. Florida for $46.00. For an additional $35.00 you could take your car along if you wanted to explore the “700 miles of Cuban highways,” a travel brochure from the time advertised. Cruise ships arriving at night were occasionally treated to displays of fireworks over the centuries old Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro and the highrise apartments along the Malecon as they entered the harbor. It was city of Jazz clubs, high rollers, zoot suits, large finned Cadillacs and mobsters. Headliners like Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt, and Nat King Cole drew folks to the casinos controlled by New York, Chicago, and Miami crime syndicates.

Mafia payoffs to the rampantly corrupt regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and his associates allowed their casinos, brothels and drug running operations to flourish unimpeded. As flashy as the casinos were, the sugar industry dominated ninety percent of the rural Cuban economy for decades and was the largest employer in the countryside until sugar prices collapsed.  That along with government policies that ignored its impoverished citizenry bred increased discontent as the disparity of wealth between the rural poor and the Havana elite grew intolerable. The jungled mountains of the islands’ interior sheltered Fidel Castro and his armed revolutionaries. 1959 was their year. Batista and his cronies fled to the Dominican Republic. Afterwards all homes, properties, businesses, and cars were nationalized.  An exodus of the Cuban middle class followed with approximately 1.4 million people heading to the United States to reestablish their lives.

While Europeans and Canadians have long traveled to Cuban government-run tourists’ resorts along the coast, we were visiting the island on a cruise during that first window of opportunity which opened to Americans between 2016 – 2019, before access was unfortunately tightened again.  Recently the travel restrictions to Cuba have once again been loosened.

Rush hour in Havana happens whenever the cruise ships disgorge their passengers onto the waterfront to walk into the city center, catch their bus tours or to snag a ride in one of those classic cars from the late 1950s. There are literally thousands of antique cars still on the roads in Cuba, jury-rigged to keep running and often repainted with house paint that reflects the bright ambience of the Caribbean. 

Depending on where you are in the disembarking queue these beautiful classics, especially the convertibles, might already be tooting around Havana with other tourists and you might have to opt for a coco taxi.  These entertaining rickshaw type taxis are covered in a bright yellow, fiberglass shell and have seating for three across the rear axle. When it rains, you are going to get soaked as we did when we got caught in a downpour. The return ride was definitely more comfortable after several Cuba Libre cocktails. 

Down the side streets of the city, it wasn’t unusual to see these vintage cars raised on cinderblocks, their hoods open as amateur mechanics tinkered away to keep their classic beauties running. There are about 60,000 old American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most date from the 1950s, but there are still Packards, Cadillacs, Dodges, Chevys, Studebakers and Fords from the 1940s and 30s that are still road worthy.  This is an amazing testament to the talent of Cuban mechanics that have been “MacGyvering” the repairs with makeshift parts since the revolution ended in 1959, when the U.S. trade embargo began and Cuba banned the import of American products. While some cars look to be in mint condition, often the interiors are taped together, door handles are missing, and the windows don’t roll up. Engines don’t last forever and it’s not uncommon to swap engines between the American makes and models. Sometimes even the motors from Russian Volgas and Ladas work their way under the hood of Fords and Chevys. Fiats and Peugeots were imported after the revolution but proved to be not as durable as the American models. 

With the nationalization of property in 1959 the nicer cars of the wealthy who fled were assigned to government officials, doctors, renown celebrities and famous athletes. Regulations prohibiting the ownership of cars were eventually changed to allow Cubans to freely purchase older cars brought to the island before the revolution. Often cars are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation, with fathers teaching sons the intricacies of keeping the cars running. It’s extremely rare to find new automobiles in Cuba as the government imposes very high taxes on car imports, rendering them highly unaffordable for the vast majority of Cubans.

The ingenuity of Cuban mechanics can surely teach us a thing or two about sustainability. Wonderfully many of these resourceful home mechanics have kept these automotive treasures alive and have created an income for their family by offering rides in their classic cars to tourists. “There are no junkyards in Cuba; everything is still driven.”

Flagging down a Cadillac convertible, we took a ride along the Malecon seafront before breakfast at a paladare recommended on TripAdvisor.  Paladares are small privately run restaurants, usually operated out of the chef’s home, that have been allowed to open as Cuba relaxes its ban on private enterprise in the country.  Typically, their menus change daily depending on what is available at the markets.

After breakfast, our original plan was to walk to Havana’s Central Park to join a tour of the city with a Guruwalk guide. Unfortunately, we arrived late and missed the group. Unfazed, we decided to wander on our own around the city.

Parque Central is the nucleus of a daily classic car show with the old cars neatly lined up for tourists to choose which nostalgic Ford or Chevy they want to cruise around the city in.  Length of the trip and price can be bargained for with each driver.

Across from the park, sparkling from the completion of a recent renovation, the ornate baroque façade of the Gran Teatro de La Havana drew our attention. Built in 1838, it’s a cavernous structure that can seat 1,500 people and is home to the Cuban National Ballet Company.  President Obama addressed the Cuban people from its stage in 2016 and the biennial International Ballet Festival of Havana is hosted here.

While many hotels and historic public buildings immediately surrounding Havana’s Central Park have been pristinely renovated, you need only to walk a half block down any side street and it’s obvious that the maintenance of the city has been neglected for decades. With many of the buildings in central Havana dating from the 1800’s, most are severely showing their age. Signs of structural neglect were endemic.

This quote I found sums up concisely the housing situation. “In Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time and if a building is ‘collectively-owned’, it’s understood that the State is the one responsible, but the government doesn’t have the resources for maintenance.”

We worked our way towards Real Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas, a historic cigar shop and factory dating to 1845, located behind the Capitolio Nacional de Cuba, a near replica of the United States’ capital building, only larger and with a higher dome. A tour of the cigar factory, where 500 people sort, grade and roll tobacco leaves into world famous habanos, cigars, was not available the day we visited, but we were able to watch a cigar rolling demonstration.

Asking for a recommendation for a place to eat enroute back to the harbor the salesman at the cigar shop suggested Tablao de Pancho, Grupo El Guajirito. Along the way a pleasant young woman, sensing we might be lost, spoke to us in excellent English and offered to guide us to the restaurant. She declined a tip for her assistance, so we asked her to join us for lunch instead. She quietly saved half her meal to take home to her child, because her ration card did not provide for enough food.

Life and business are conducted on the streets of the neighborhood with most doorways and shallow balconies harboring tenants trying to stay cool. A mattress maker refurbished rusted bedsprings on the sidewalk. Vegetable cart vendors pushed their wagons around the blocks. The scarcity of some the smallest luxuries and basic necessities is visible and there was a sense of waiting, but what for was difficult to determine. The hardships of life that the residents of the city endure under a failed socialist revolution are still very much in evidence in the forgotten, gritty side streets of the capital.

The cigar chomping aficionado in our group was determined to purchase the legal limit of Cuban habanas that were permissible to bring back to the states at the time, so three of us crammed into a coco taxi, a not particularly macho ride to cruise in along the Malecon.

Our destination was the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for a smoke and a glass of rum. A historic 1930s hotel and casino, before the revolution it attracted American celebrities like Erroll Flynn, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, and Walt Disney. Now the hotel annually hosts the Festival de Cine Nuevo Iberoamericano and claims Michael Keaton, Francis Ford Coppola, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Steven Spielberg as past attendees.

Later that afternoon, behind the 1500s era Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a star shaped fortress that protected the colonial harbor, we wandered through the Old Havana district, still lively since the days when treasure laden Spanish galleons from the New World stopped in Havana before voyaging back to Spain.

Latin music filled Obispo Street and Calle O’Reilly, the two main boulevards, the later named to honor Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irish born soldier who fought for Spain during the British siege of Havana in 1762. This neighborhood is alive with street buskers and has an entrepreneurial spirit that’s visible in many the restaurants, galleries and shops that line the sidewalks here.

Our ship listed heavily as gale force winds churned the sea as we left the shelter of the harbor and passed the solid stone walls of the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.

Across the water large waves crashed against the seawall that protects the Malecon from collapsing into the sea.

It’s all too easy to romanticize poverty in an exotic destination that’s veiled by swaying palm trees and a pristine Caribbean sky.  The people of Cuba deserve better from their government. Watching the skyline of Havana fade in the twilight we wondered if Cuba’s sea change was coming.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Cienfuegos, Cuba – A Caribbean Time Capsule 

The sun was still below the horizon as men rowed small wooden fishing boats, laden with nets and poles, against the waves as we entered the narrow channel that would eventually widen into the Bahia de Cienfuegos, Cienfuegos Bay. Not much appears to have changed since the old man battled his Marlin in Hemingway’s 1951 novella. Farther along, listing boats were tied to beaten docks in front of weathered homes, their pastel colors muted in the predawn. They faced the inlet under the battlements of Castillo de Jagua, a stone fortress that has guarded this stretch of water leading to the bay since 1745.

The bay was encountered by Christopher Columbus while on his second voyage to the new world in 1494 and noted as a spectacular natural harbor, located at the end of a long narrow inlet, a perfect sheltered anchorage to weather the gales and hurricanes that blow across the Caribbean. However, closer to the gold of the new world, Havanna, on Cuba’s north coast, became the island’s dominant harbor and city. Mostly, Cienfuegos Bay was a forgotten backwater, without a permanent settlement, on the south coast of Cuba, a perfect location for the notorious British pirates Francis Drake and Henry Morgan to launch their raids on the Spanish Main and plunder the treasure fleets that voyaged from Havanna back to Seville, until the fortress ruined a good pirating gig.

The area grew slowly until the early 1800’s when an influx of French migrants fleeing the slave revolt in Haiti founded the city in 1819. Flattened during an 1825 hurricane, the city was rebuilt with a modern cosmopolitan grid pattern. The fertile region surrounding Cienfuegos supported prosperous tobacco, coffee and sugar plantations and continued to attract French immigrants from Louisiana, Bordeaux and Quebec. By the mid-1800s, a railway funneled goods from across the region to the port for export, and a steamship line connected Cienfuegos to Charleston and New York City. The city’s prosperity was reflected in its stately mansions, elegant civic architecture, wide boulevards and parks reminiscent of New Orleans and Paris, earning it the nickname “La Perla del Sur,” the Pearl of the South.

The Cuba of the 2020s still looks very much like it did during Hemingway’s life, as if it was stuck in time, a perpetual movie set. This is a result of the political decisions made during the 50-year reign of the country’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro, who ruled from the revolution in 1959 until 2008, and other communist leaders since then.  Consequently, the United States imposed and still maintains a trade embargo against the Cuban government that visually appears to have frozen the country in the 1960s.

Europeans and Canadians have long traveled to the government-run tourist resorts along the pristine coast. Previously, an inland tourism infrastructure didn’t exist, but with the introduction of the internet to the country and encouraging private enterprise reforms things are slowly beginning to change. We were visiting Cuba on a cruise during that first window of opportunity that was open to Americans between 2016 – 2019, before access was unfortunately tightened again.  Recently the travel restrictions to Cuba have been loosened again.

Across from the pier a horse drawn cart with several wooden benches, car tires for wheels and a sun bleached canopy stood idle. It wasn’t meant for the tourist trade, but instead was the cheapest mode of transportation for local folks to use to move about town. And it was our introduction to how self-reliant Cubans are and how slowly change happens in Cuba. Then we noticed the cars.

Earlier an email confirmed our rendezvous, “Ten is good. Meet at the statue of Benny Moré, a beloved Cuban singer, songwriter and band leader, at the intersection of Paseo El Prado and the pedestrian only San Fernando. Ciao.”

We had decided to skip any ship organized tours of Cienfuegos and instead opted for a tour of the city with a Guruwalk guide we found online.

With introductions made, our small group of four followed our guide through Cienfuegos as they pointed out various sites and their significance. Other stops included the government shoe store where the limited styles were only available in black, and a government bodega.

Here food is acquired with the use of La Libreta, a government issued ration book used to tally your monthly allocation. allowance or allotment Typically the monthly allowance per person is 5 eggs, 1 liter of cooking oil, 1 pound of spaghetti, 3 pounds of refined or white sugar, 3 pounds of unrefined or dark sugar, 6 pounds of white rice, 20 ounces of black beans, 2 packets of “mixed coffee”, daily bread (dinner rolls). Fresh produce not available at the government bodegas is sold at state sponsored farmers markets.

Stopping at a large print shop, we watched the printer set lead type by hand as he assembled each word and sentence for the document he was preparing from a large tray of metal vowels, consonants and punctuation marks. There were not any computers, laser printers or copy machines in sight, only the shop’s heavy German Heidelberg printing presses, which have been meticulously maintained since 1959.

From the top of Hotel La Union, the highest point in the city’s center, we surveyed Cienfuegos, today a sprawling city of 150,000. 

“So, you’ve noticed the old cars on the street?” Our guide turned the talk at lunch away from any political questions we were eager to ask about life in a communist country.

There are about 60,000 old American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most date from the 1950s, but there are still Consuls, Packards, Cadillacs, Dodges, Chevys, Studebakers and Fords from the 1940s and 30s that are still road worthy.  This is an amazing testament to the talent of Cuban mechanics that have been “MacGyvering” the repairs with makeshift parts since the revolution ended in 1959, when the U.S. trade embargo began, and Cuba banned the import of American products. While some cars look to be in mint condition, often the interiors are taped together, door handles are missing, and the windows don’t roll up.

Engines don’t last forever and its not uncommon to swap engines between the American makes and models. Sometimes even the motors from Russian Volgas and Ladas work their way under the hood of Fords and Chevys. Fiats and Peugeots were imported after the revolution but proved to be not as durable as the American models.  With the nationalization of property in 1959 the nicer cars of the wealthy who fled were assigned to government officials, doctors, renown celebrities and famous athletes. Regulations prohibiting the ownership of cars was eventually changed to allow Cubans to freely purchase older cars brought to the island before the revolution. Since then, often cars are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation. Fathers teaching sons the intricacies of keeping the cars running. It’s extremely rare to find late model cars on the roads as the government imposes very high taxes on new car imports, making them highly unaffordable for the majority of Cubans.

“There are no junkyards in Cuba, everything is still driven.” The ingenuity of Cuban mechanics can surely teach us a thing or two about sustainability. Wonderfully many of these resourceful home mechanics have kept these automotive treasures alive and have created an income for their family by offering rides in their classic cars to tourists.

After lunch we watched dancers rehearse in an old colonial building now used as a community center, and we stopped in several art galleries along the park that featured many talented Cuban artists.  With the government tightly controlling the economy along with the print and electronic media in the country, creative self-expression through art, dance and music are treasured venues as long as the views expressed don’t “run counter to the objectives of the socialist society.”

While the center of the city is well maintained, and many of the old mansions and civic edifices recently renovated. The homes and buildings along the side streets show decades of neglect from a failed socialist system.

Pride in ownership is a difficult concept in Cuba, and since wages are so very low, buying paint is the last thing anyone is thinking about. Low wages necessitate most families to spend any extra funds at the free markets to buy the goods that aren’t covered with the La Libreta rations card.

This quote I found sums up concisely the housing situation. “In Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time and if a building is “collectively-owned”, it’s understood that the State is the one responsible, but the goverment can’t afford the maintenance.”

Down the side streets, past glories are now sadly intriguing in their neglect, the homes and buildings wearing a texture carved from storms and hot unrelenting sunshine, revealing ancient layers of paint that gives the neighborhoods a weathered patina, a faded elegance.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Seville Part 4 – Road trip to Olvera & Setenil de las Bodegas

The countryside on the way to Olvera was more verdant than the earth toned landscape we traversed on our way to Zahara de la Sierra at the beginning of our road trip.  Now the hillsides were a mosaic of greens, light and soft, dark and vibrant, signaling the arrival of spring. 

As the road curved, Olvera’s Castle and the belltowers of the town’s church broke the horizon. We are never quite sure where to park in small villages.  Worried about getting fined for a parking violation, we always opt to play it safe and find a car lot.  But the parking in Olvera was at the bottom of a steep incline below the historic castle and we just didn’t have the oomph that morning to walk from there uphill and then continue higher to the top of the tower.  With some persistence we navigated the town’s labyrinth of narrow one-way lanes into the Plaza de la Iglesia. At the apex of the village, the plaza straddles the area between Olvera’s citadel and the town’s majestic church, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish.  Since it was still the off-season, we were in luck and found the last, barely viable parking spot on the plaza. It was a narrow space that required the driver’s side door to be parked tightly against a wall. Fortunately, I’m still limber enough to climb over the car’s center console and stick shift, with a limited amount of grunting and moaning.

The view from the mirador at the edge of the plaza was wonderful.  Incredibly, the views across the village continued to get better and better as we climbed the different levels to the top of the Castillo de Olvera, perched atop a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 2000 feet. The climax was a spectacular view of the cathedral and panorama of whitewashed homes with red tiled roofs backed by a shimmering sea of silver green foiliage. Outside the village, the surrounding olive groves harbor nearly two million trees.

Constructed in the 12th century, the castle was part of a line of signal towers along the Moorish frontier in southern Spain. The castle was expanded in the 14th century when it was captured by King Alfonso XI during the Reconquista. The castilo is one of five in proximity to each other on The Castles Route, Witnesses of the Spanish Reconquest through the Moorish Strip, a no-man’s land that separated the ancient Christian Andalusia frontier from the Arab Kingdom of Granada. The other castles on the circuit are Castillo de las Aguzaderas, Castillo de Cote, Castillo de Morón de la Frontera, and the Castillo del Hierro.

With its size and architectural presence, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish looks more like a cathedral than just a church. The neoclassical church was started in 1823 on the foundation of an earlier dismantled, gothic- mudéjar style church and dramatically counterbalances the castle on ridge above the village.  Ordered built by The Dukes of Osuna, the feudal lords over Olvera, the vaulted interior is lined with marble imported from Italy and has many interesting religious icons. To fulfill this extravagance the Dukes diverted the town’s taxes, away from improving the village, to pay for it.  They were the last feudal lords over Olvera and declared bankruptcy in 1843 when the church was completed. Then fled, never to be seen again.

A cloudless morning in Olvera turned overcast by the time we arrived in Setenil de las Bodegas only thirty minutes later. While considered a pueblo blanco, it’s totally different from Olvera and Zahara de la Sierra where the homes ascend the steep slopes under their town’s hilltop fortress.  In Setenil de las Bodegas, whitewashed homes front caves under large stone overhangs which line both sides of a gorge, created eons ago from the erosion caused by the swift moving water.

The homes along the gorge use the mammoth natural stone ledge as their roofs. The once raging Rio Trejo is now a quiet stream in the narrow gorge, which widens into a shallow ravine where an ancient Moorish castle still guards the approach to the village.  When the Romans colonized the area two thousand years ago folks had already been dwelling in the natural caves along the gorge for several millennia. Over the centuries the cave fronts were enclosed to create the unique village that still survives.

Before touring the village, we checked into the Hotel El Almendra to drop our bags, just oustside the historic district, with the intent of driving back and finding parking closer to the gorge.  We were just about to pull out of the hotel parking lot when a group of police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing roared past. A slower patrol car parked and blocked the hotel driveway. Folks were beginning to gather on the sidewalk. We had no idea why until a motorcycle carrying a cameraman facing backward led the first wave of bicycle racers that were a blur of pedaling color as they sped by. A continual surge of racers crested the knoll of the road and coursed downhill towards the village. The race was one leg of the annual Vuelta a Andalucia – Ruta del Sol. A five-day, 500 mile cross-country cycling event that summits 17 mountain passes in the region and attracts 600 riders. Leaving the car at the hotel, we decided to walk the half mile into the village.

By the time we reached Cuevas del Sol, Caves of the Sun, the narrow one-way road through the gorge lined with small taverns and inns, the sun was brightly shining again.  Even though the road is open to cars, it was filled with folks walking and was almost pinched closed by tables from the restaurants narrowing its width.  We found a table and enjoyed both the lunch and the warmth of the February sun.

Afterwards we walked the length of the lane through the deep chasm until a set of stairs led to the Mirador del Carmen and the small 18th century chapel Ermita de Ntra. Sra. Del Carmen.  The view from the overlook encompassed a sweeping vista of the valley filled with whitewashed pueblos stacked atop one another filling the valley to its rim. 

The Nazari Castle, the town’s 12th century Moorish fortress, still stands vigilantly on the edge of the valley, the invaders now camera-wielding tourists.  Across from it the Gothic style Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation, itself an imposing fortress-like structure, was ordered built by the Spanish Crown. It was constructed in 1505, above the town’s previous mosque, to celebrate the liberation of the village from centuries of Arab rule.  We walked back to our hotel along a lane above the gorge lined with newer buildings. 

Heading back to Seville before sunrise the next morning we stopped high above the village on the road that followed the ridge opposite the Cuevas del Sol, in one last attempt to capture the iconic pueblos of the village as dawn cast its first rays of light across the gorge.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS. Our 226-mile weekend roundtrip from Seville only used slightly more than a half tank of gasoline.

Seville Part 4 – The Pueblos Blancos – Olvera & Setenil de las Bodegas

The countryside on the way to Olvera was more verdant than the earth toned landscape we traversed on our way to Zahara de la Sierra at the beginning of our road trip.  Now the hillsides were a mosaic of greens, light and soft, dark and vibrant, signaling the arrival of spring. 

As the road curved, Olvera’s Castle and the belltowers of the town’s church broke the horizon. We are never quite sure where to park in small villages.  Worried about getting fined for a parking violation, we always opt to play it safe and find a car lot.  But the parking in Olvera was at the bottom of a steep incline below the historic castle and we just didn’t have the oomph that morning to walk from there uphill and then continue higher to the top of the tower.  With some persistence we navigated the town’s labyrinth of narrow one-way lanes into the Plaza de la Iglesia. At the apex of the village, the plaza straddles the area between Olvera’s citadel and the town’s majestic church, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish.  Since it was still the off-season, we were in luck and found the last, barely viable parking spot on the plaza. It was a narrow space that required the driver’s side door to be parked tightly against a wall. Fortunately, I’m still limber enough to climb over the car’s center console and stick shift, with a limited amount of grunting and moaning.

The view from the mirador at the edge of the plaza was wonderful.  Incredibly, the views across the village continued to get better and better as we climbed the different levels to the top of the Castillo de Olvera, perched atop a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 2000 feet. The climax was a spectacular view of the cathedral and panorama of whitewashed homes with red tiled roofs backed by a shimmering sea of silver green foiliage. Outside the village, the surrounding olive groves harbor nearly two million trees.

Constructed in the 12th century, the castle was part of a line of signal towers along the Moorish frontier in southern Spain. The castle was expanded in the 14th century when it was captured by King Alfonso XI during the Reconquista. The castilo is one of five in proximity to each other on The Castles Route, Witnesses of the Spanish Reconquest through the Moorish Strip, a no-man’s land that separated the ancient Christian Andalusia frontier from the Arab Kingdom of Granada. The other castles on the circuit are Castillo de las Aguzaderas, Castillo de Cote, Castillo de Morón de la Frontera, and the Castillo del Hierro.

With its size and architectural presence, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish looks more like a cathedral than just a church. The neoclassical church was started in 1823 on the foundation of an earlier dismantled, gothic- mudéjar style church and dramatically counterbalances the castle on ridge above the village.  Ordered built by The Dukes of Osuna, the feudal lords over Olvera, the vaulted interior is lined with marble imported from Italy and has many interesting religious icons. To fulfill this extravagance the Dukes diverted the town’s taxes, away from improving the village, to pay for it.  They were the last feudal lords over Olvera and declared bankruptcy in 1843 when the church was completed. Then fled, never to be seen again.

A cloudless morning in Olvera turned overcast by the time we arrived in Setenil de las Bodegas only thirty minutes later. While considered a pueblo blanco, it’s totally different from Olvera and Zahara de la Sierra where the homes ascend the steep slopes under their town’s hilltop fortress.  In Setenil de las Bodegas, whitewashed homes front caves under large stone overhangs which line both sides of a gorge, created eons ago from the erosion caused by the swift moving water.

The homes along the gorge use the mammoth natural stone ledge as their roofs. The once raging Rio Trejo is now a quiet stream in the narrow gorge, which widens into a shallow ravine where an ancient Moorish castle still guards the approach to the village.  When the Romans colonized the area two thousand years ago folks had already been dwelling in the natural caves along the gorge for several millennia. Over the centuries the cave fronts were enclosed to create the unique village that still survives.

Before touring the village, we checked into the Hotel El Almendra to drop our bags, just oustside the historic district, with the intent of driving back and finding parking closer to the gorge.  We were just about to pull out of the hotel parking lot when a group of police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing roared past. A slower patrol car parked and blocked the hotel driveway. Folks were beginning to gather on the sidewalk. We had no idea why until a motorcycle carrying a cameraman facing backward led the first wave of bicycle racers that were a blur of pedaling color as they sped by. A continual surge of racers crested the knoll of the road and coursed downhill towards the village. The race was one leg of the annual Vuelta a Andalucia – Ruta del Sol. A five-day, 500 mile cross-country cycling event that summits 17 mountain passes in the region and attracts 600 riders. Leaving the car at the hotel, we decided to walk the half mile into the village.

By the time we reached Cuevas del Sol, Caves of the Sun, the narrow one-way road through the gorge lined with small taverns and inns, the sun was brightly shining again.  Even though the road is open to cars, it was filled with folks walking and was almost pinched closed by tables from the restaurants narrowing its width.  We found a table and enjoyed both the lunch and the warmth of the February sun.

Afterwards we walked the length of the lane through the deep chasm until a set of stairs led to the Mirador del Carmen and the small 18th century chapel Ermita de Ntra. Sra. Del Carmen.  The view from the overlook encompassed a sweeping vista of the valley filled with whitewashed pueblos stacked atop one another filling the valley to its rim. 

The Nazari Castle, the town’s 12th century Moorish fortress, still stands vigilantly on the edge of the valley, the invaders now camera-wielding tourists.  Across from it the Gothic style Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation, itself an imposing fortress-like structure, was ordered built by the Spanish Crown. It was constructed in 1505, above the town’s previous mosque, to celebrate the liberation of the village from centuries of Arab rule.  We walked back to our hotel along a lane above the gorge lined with newer buildings. 

Heading back to Seville before sunrise the next morning we stopped high above the village on the road that followed the ridge opposite the Cuevas del Sol, in one last attempt to capture the iconic pueblos of the village as dawn cast its first rays of light across the gorge.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS. Our 226-mile weekend roundtrip from Seville only used slightly more than a half tank of gasoline.

Cordoba & Granada – Location, Location, Location

The view from the train window was a blur of greenery, a vast landscape of undulating hills dotted sporadically with small villages and the remnants of ancient fortresses crowning the hilltops, set amidst a sea of olive trees, that seemed to spread from the wake of the speeding train to the horizon. Seventy million olive trees, 24 different varieties, covering over three million acres in Andalusia produce 900,000 tons of olive oil and 380,000 tons of table olives annually. No wonder we’ve been enjoying Spain so much – the olives are so good!

We were nearing the end of our stay in Seville, but there were still destinations outside the city we wanted to explore before we departed Spain. Being so close to the ancient Moorish cities of Cordoba and Granada, how could we not visit? Plans were made to catch an early train from Seville and spend the day exploring the major sites in Cordoba, before continuing to an Airbnb rental in Granada for three days. There were always debates about budgeting, wanting to do it all and affording it are issues we continually faced during our two-year journey, fortunately the highly discounted rate we received for booking an apartment in Seville during the shoulder season made this side trip financially reasonable.

It was 152 BC when Pliny the Realtor, standing on the bank of the Guadalquivir River, toga blowing in the wind, turned to General Claudio Marcelo, the founder of Roman Cordoba, and with the swoop of his arm across the grand vista before them proclaimed future realtors’ favorite adage, “location, location, location!”

Situated along the last navigable section of the river, Granada prospered as a river port, exporting grain, wine and olives down the river to the Atlantic Ocean, where the goods were then sailed around the Rock of Gibralta into the Mediterranean Sea, eventually reaching ancient Rome. In the 1st century BC Roman engineers built a graceful, sixteen arch stone bridge that spanned 820ft across the Guadalquivir River and has been in continual use, with renovations of course, for two-thousand years.

The city continued to flourish for centuries under Visigoth rule and later Muslim conquest. In the year 1000 the city was estimated to have an enlightened and tolerant population of 450,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews, surpassing Constantinople, making it the largest city in Europe. The intellectuals of the city were renown throughout Europe for their contributions to the advancement of astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and mathematics.

Cordoba slowly lost its significance as a riverport trading center after the reconquest when the waterway eventually silted up and navigation to the city became impossible. By the 1700s its prosperity had diminished, and its population reduced to only 20,000.

Our first stop was Córdoba’s Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Castle of the Christian Kings, a royal residence and fortress built in the Mudéjar-style on the site of a former Muslim Fortress. While the castle is interesting, the exquisite formal gardens were a splendid oasis, wonderfully colorful even in early March. Here Christopher Columbus initiated his negotiations with Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon to finance his voyage of discovery in 1492.

The city’s most famous landmark, the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, was a short walk from the Alcazar. It’s an enormous structure occupying the equivalent of a New York City office block, part of which features an enclosed courtyard with a central fountain surrounded by an orange grove. The worn exterior was fascinating with its elaborate brickwork, and Moorish arches around the windows. The ancient doors into the space are offset by horseshoe shaped arches, a design influence copied from Visigoth architecture. Construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba started in 786 AD and lasted for three-centuries as it was continually expanded.

Using 850 recycled Roman columns, topped with two tiers of arches, the Great Mosque of Cordoba’s prayer hall is a dazzling space with rows and isles of geometrically precise columns that seem to recede to infinity, in every direction. It was one of the largest mosques in the Muslim world when it was built.

Fortunately, in 1236 when Ferdinand III, king of Castile and León, captured the city, he was enamored with the mosque’s magnificent architecture, and he chose to leave it totally intact including the mihrab, an elaborate prayer niche in a wall that faces Mecca.

For a time, Muslims and Christians were allowed to pray in the same space. This lasted to 1499 when Muslims were expelled or forced to convert if they wished to stay in Spain. The original mosque remained unchanged until the mid-1500s when a towering high altar and choir loft were built in the center and numerous side altars were added along the exterior walls. The old minaret was finally incased within a magnificent, squared belltower.

Afterwards we wandered through the narrow alleys adjacent to the cathedral, peeking into verdant courtyards that looked so lovely we were tempted to invite ourselves in, but did not.  The only thing missing were flowers in bloom. The sun was not yet high enough in the March sky to warm the cold stones and prompt the first blossoms of spring.

Later that evening upon our arrival in Granada we took an Uber from the train station to our rental in the Albaicín district, on Cta. de Alhacaba, a steep cobbled lane just down from Plaza Larga. It was an attractively gentrified apartment in an older traditional Spanish home, with a center courtyard, that had been divided into several units. Looking out from our window the next morning, we could see on a ridge above us the ruins of an extensive fortress wall, built during the 11th century Zirid kingdom.

Getting our day underway, we walked uphill to Plaza Larga and ventured into the traditional colmados, a small grocery store where you tell the shop clerk everything you need and they pull it from the shelf behind the counter for you. Our Spanish was minimally up to the task.

A few steps from the shop a limited section of the citadel wall containing the Arco de las Pesas has been renovated. Known as the Arch of Weights, this was an important entrance into the city where merchants had their goods weighed and taxed. Its distinctive zigzag tunnel was designed to slow and throw off balance any attacking enemy who had breached its door. The passageway’s vaulted ceiling now provides perfect acoustics for buskers. Crossing through we headed toward the Mirador de San Nicolás.

There are several overlooks on Albaicín hill, but the view of the Alhambra from San Nicolás Plaza was sublime. We stopped here several times as we explored this hilltop across the valley from the Alhambra. We enjoyed lunch and sangria on the terrace at El Huerto de Juan Ranas or dangled our legs over the edge of the mirador as the sun arced across the sky.

We watched the play of light change the shadows and the intensity of the red walls from which al-qal’a al-hamra, in Arabic the red fortress, takes its name.  The palace is dramatically situated on a hill, with the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and Mt. Mulhacén, the Iberian peninsula’s highest peak in the background.

For centuries since the Muslim time, continuing into the 1950s, muleteers ran mule trains laden with fresh produce, fish, and merchandise from the coast up over the Sierra Mountains along a vast network of trails to Granada.  Much of this 8-12 hour journey was done at night to take advantage of the cooler evening temperatures to ensure the quick arrival of perishable food.  The mountains also provided sanctuary to the maquis, resistance fighters, in the 1940s and 50s who opposed the dictatorship of General Franco after the Spanish Civil War.

The historic Albaicín district is extremely hilly, think San Francisco hilly, a severe contrast compared to the flatness of Seville and Cordoba, but the labyrinth of narrow alleys that twist up and down the ancient hillside was intriguing. The Palacio de Dar al-Horra, “Home of the Honest Lady”- the mother of the last Emir of Granada, was an interesting example of 14th century Moorish domestic architecture, with its intricate Alfarje, carved wood ceilings, verandas, and courtyard.

Nearby we accidentally stumbled upon the 16th century Royal Convent of Saint Isabel and entered the courtyard in hope that its church was open. Unfortunately it wasn’t, but as we wandered we discovered the “cookie door.”  Actually, it is a cabinet built into the wall of the convent with a door on each side that separates the cloistered nuns from the public. Ring the bell above the door, speak your order when someone answers and place your money in the cabinet and close the door.  You will hear the other door open and then close when your dulces have been placed inside.  It’s a sweet centuries old tradition which helps the nuns support their convent. 

We were enjoying our stroll through the whitewashed alleys as we headed down the hillside toward Plaza Nueva, when “Splat Splat!” Honestly it felt like we had been shat upon by a flock of tourist hating birds. Something akin to the Spanish version of the Hitchcock movie classic. And the smell was awful! We don’t remember exactly what was said, but quickly a well-dressed middle-aged couple guided us into an empty plaza and pulled a huge roll of paper towels out of their bag and proceeded to “help,” clean the mess off our jackets as they patted us down and attempted to pickpocket us. I wish I had been quick witted enough to yell, I KNOW KARATE!, with an intimidating scowl. At least my wife would have burst into laughter and perhaps that would have broken their concentration. It was over in a flash and they vanished.  Fortunately, we keep all our valuables under our clothing, not in any exterior pockets.  Rattled, we continued on. A beautiful city, good tapas and sangria helped our mood rebound.  Later that evening when I was reviewing the photos taken during the day, I spotted them in the lower corner of a picture taken moments before that encounter.

Bar los Diamantes and La Gran Taberna, located next to each other on Plaza Nueva, were excellent places to dine, and we tried them on separate days. At home in the states now we are making tapas inspired from dishes we tasted at both places.

Afterwards we walked along the thin ribbon of road that follows the Darro River through this section of the old town. It’s lined with numerous historical sites and bridges that cross the river; the ambience was wonderful.

After a long day we couldn’t muster the strength to walk the steep uphill back to our apartment and opted to use the local bus. The routes in the historic section use micro-buses to navigate the ancient parts of Granada and took us pretty close to where we needed to go.

Only a limited number of people are allowed to visit the Alhambra each day, so we made reservations for a group tour early the next morning. 

As we were leaving our rental the next morning, we couldn’t extract the key from the interior lock on the front door. We can’t recall how many doors we’ve unlocked during our travels, but this was a first! Apartment doors in Europe are intriguing, especially if they are in newly renovated buildings.  The trend seems to be to install a very sturdy door with numerous deadbolts that insert into the door frame with the turn of single key.  They appear to be designed to thwart any home invasions or resist the battering ram of a S.W.A.T team. The rental agent asked us to stay at the apartment until a locksmith arrived, without offering a time.  That was unacceptable and we asked them to have the door repaired by the end of the day.  We took the key to the courtyard with us and hoped for the best. 

The Alhambra is massive and originally served as a fortress for many centuries before Mohammed ben Al-Hamar, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty arrived in the 13th century and established it as his royal residence. Each subsequent Muslim ruler continued to add and beautifully renovate every interior surface lavishly adorned yesería, intricately carved or cast stucco featuring arabesque, geometric and calligraphic designs.  Later the Christian monarchs would introduce mudejar tiles and Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque techniques to various building sprees. 

The most significant Spanish contribution to the Alhambra was the Palace of Charles the V. It is an immense renaissance style building with a two tiered colonnaded balcony surrounding a circular courtyard at its center.