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 was a delight to explore by wandering, its cityscape a web of ancient alleys that with every twist and turn slowly revealed the heart of this very old city to us. While the historic center of the city is a relatively condensed area that orbits around the Cathedral of Seville, the Royal Alcázar and the bullring, every bario in the ancient metropolois was fascinating to wander through. Spanish maps of the city from the 16th century hint at what’s to be found. In the 12th century, expanding upon an older Roman defensive wall from the first century AD, Seville’s Moorish rulers totally enclosed the growing town with a new and larger fortified wall.
It started at the Torre del Oro and ran north along the Guadalquivir River until it turned and headed inland in a huge arc that reconnected back at the tower. The old city walls originally had fifteen gates allowing entry into the city and were named for their function. Coal was brought into the city through Puerta del Carbon, while olive oil merchants used Postigo del Aceite to bring their product to town. Puerta de Jerez and Puerta de Cordoba were the gateways through which travelers from those towns entered Seville. Puerta Real was built for the exclusive use of the Spanish royals.
The walls stood until a modernization of the city in 1868 required all the gates except for three be demolished. Today only the Puerta de la Macarena, Puerta de Cordoba, and the Postigo del Aceite remain. Several small sections of the crenellated wall still stand along the ring road, Ronda de Capuchinos, that now follows the ancient edge of the city. Other parts turn up randomly across the city, where they were incorporated into the walls of newer 19th century buildings.
Roughly following the ring road, we would zig and zag our way through the old neighborhoods of the city that were once shielded behind its ancient wall. Starting in the old Jewish quarter, now Santa Cruz, we followed the wall topped with an aqueduct along Calle Aqua and peered through locked gates, spying the lush shaded courtyards of the traditional homes. Buildings along this calle that back to the Jardines de Murillo use the old defensive wall as part of their structure. Veering into the center of the old Juderia we found some of the narrowest lanes in Seville. The thinnest being Calle Reinoso which leads off Plaza Venerables and is affectionately nicknamed “Calle de los Besos,” the Street of Kisses to visualize how intimate the passageway potentially can be.
After the Moors were defeated in 1248 every mosque in Seville was converted to a church. A similar policy ensued in 1492 when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille issued the Alhambra Decree, expelling all of Spain’s Jewish population. But a century before the Spanish Inquisition began a rioting mob in 1391 was incited by the hateful rhetoric of a Christian Archdeacon, Ferdinand Martinez, blocked the exits from the Seville ghetto and set the Juderia ablaze. It was once a thriving community that hosted three large synagogues and twenty lesser ones. Four thousand people died that March 15th. Survivors fled the city, or were forced to convert to Catholicism. The abandoned properties were redistributed by King Henry lll to Christian nobles. The Iglesia de Santa María la Blanca is a notable conversion of a synagogue built in the 13th century. Its stunningly ornate plaster work ceiling veils its tragic history. A block away where Puerta de la Carne once stood, the street is now lined with umbrellaed tables in front of a mouthwatering assortment of eateries.
Blindfolded or throwing darts at the map, any direction you randomly choose in Seville reveals fascinating layers of history. We never passed the chance to explore a church if its doors were open. Admittedly that’s a huge number in Seville. And some visits are more rewarding than others, we learned upon entering the chapel of the Convento Santa María de Jesús. The gilded 16th century baroque interior was beautiful. What we found just as intriguing (you get a little numb by the huge amount of gold-leaf in Seville,) though, was that the nuns, of the non-sequestered order of the Poor Clares, bake “Las Dulces,” cookies and pastries, in order to financially support themselves. They sell the tasty creations derived from centuries old, secret recipes from behind an iron barred window.
A half block away the Casa de Pilatos was a marvelous example of a 16th century Andalusian Palace that rivaled the workmanship of Real Alcazar.
It displays a unique juxtaposition of Mudéjar, Gothic, Renaissance and Romantic architectural styles that seamlessly blend into a kaleidoscope of color, shape and texture.
There are also Roman and Greek antiquities on display that were collected by an early patriarch of the family when he served as Viceroy of Naples in the mid-1500s. It has amazingly stayed in the same aristocratic family for 500 years and today the 20thDuchess of Medinacelli still has a private residence there. Admission is free on Mondays after 3pm, but there can be a long queue.
Continuing down the street toward the main boulevard we found Sevilla Vinosa small shop that specializes in local Andalusian wines and sherries. You can purchase wine here by the bottle or you can bring your empty bottles back to be refilled from large casks like the local folks do.
Farther along, the Almazen café was the closest we could find to an internet café in Seville aside from Starbucks. But what’s the fun of that when you can find a neighborhood gem instead. Mostly, taking your laptop computer to work in a public space just isn’t done in Europe from our experience. It seems to break the cherished protocol of separating work from pleasure, a refreshing practice here.
Out on Calle Maria Auxilidora we walked along the ring road to the Jardines del Valle where a long stretch of fortress wall separates the park from the barrio behind it. That Sunday a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the park to cheer on the runners in the annual Seville Marathon.
Farther down the avenue the arched door of the Moorish influenced tower-gate Puerta de Cordoba stands attached to the Church of San Hermenegildo. A legend from the 6th century tells us Hermenegildo was a young Visgoth Prince, son of King Leovigildo who followed a branch of Christianity, Arianism, that did not believe in the holy trinity. Upon marrying a Frankish Catholic Princess, Hermenegildo converted to Catholicism against his father’s wishes. He was eventually imprisoned in the Cordoba tower-gate and beheaded there on Easter Day in 585AD when he refused holy communion from an Arian bishop. The relic of his severed head was passed for centuries between numerous monasteries and convents on the Iberian Peninsula before finding its final resting spot at the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid. He was canonized on the thousandth anniversary of his death. During the renaissance on the saint’s feast day, April 13th, the Brotherhood of San Hermenegildo would host jousts in front of the defensive wall that still stands next to the church.
This is the longest stretch of ancient city wall still standing. It runs parallel to the ring road for seven blocks between the Church of San Hermenegildo and the monumental Arco de la Macarena, which stands next to the church of the same name. The last vestiges of a moat added in the 18th century are still visible here. During the Spanish Civil War firing squads executed people against this arch. It’s believed this entrance was built by the Moors over one of the three original gates to the city constructed by Julius Caesar when he governed Andalusia in the first century AD. The origin of the gate’s name is disputed with some historians speculating that it was named after a wealthy Roman property owner. Others think it bears the name of a Moor princess who lived next to the wall when the Arabs controlled the city. Popular belief is it was named in tribute to Macaria, daughter of Hercules, who is the mythological founder of Seville.
We stopped to see the Virgin of Hope, a venerated wooden statue draped in a gold embroidered robe covered with precious stones at Hermandad de la Macarena, and found her fascinating. Entering the basilica is free, but there is a small fee to view, up close, the exquisite craftsmanship of the robe of the Virgen de la Esperanza de Macarena de Sevilla, (say that ten times fast!) from behind the altar. The Virgin of Hope is the patroness of bullfighters and was famously re-dressed only once in a black robe to mourn the death, in 1920, of the famous Sevillano bullfighter, José Gómez Ortega, who was loved across Spain.
To prevent looting of the icons during the Spanish Civil War, a caretaker secretly took the statue home and pretended he was caring for a bedridden sister. Later he pretended to be a stone mason and secreted the statue in the city cemetery within the ornate tomb of the bullfighter Ortega for several months to protect it.
Heading back into the city through the arch we eventually came to the ornately figured baroque façade of Iglesia San Luis de los Franceses. This was a refreshing change from other baroque churches in Seville that hid their opulent interiors behind plain, almost barren exteriors that benefit from the phrase – “Don’t judge a church by its exterior.” This was clearly not the case with the Iglesia San Luis de los Franceses; it broadcast “notice me!” as if the exquisite stone figures were the 18th century mason’s version of a neon sign. The church was built at the beginning of the 1700s for the Jesuits to use as a novitiate, but they were only able to use this elegant building for thirty years before the order was expelled from Spain and the rest of the Spanish empire. Later it was used as a Franciscan seminary and convent, then factory, theatre, hospital for venerated priests and hospice. Eventually it was deconsecrated before being shuttered for many decades. After a ten-year renovation sponsored by the Provincial Council of Seville the still deconsecrated church is now a museum and local government office. Its four gilded baroque altars with their sixteen spiraling, solomonic columns that support the dome above are spectacular and in our opinion it’s one of the finest church interiors in the city.
Associating convents with cookies led to a little misadventure one afternoon. We entered the side door of the Convent of Santa Isabel, located next to the Iglesia de San Marcos, and met a nun talking with a parishioner. Looks of confusion crossed everyone’s face and heads shook, no, when I asked in very poor Spanish “Los dulces por favor.” A few moments after leaving empty handed, the gentleman the sister was conversing with called to us and to our surprise presented two simple sandwiches. We suddenly realized we had approached the convent’s food bank and they thought we were asking for something to eat. We thanked him and made a donation which brought a huge smile to his face and ours.
In this part of the city there seemed to be a church or convent on every block, and we had surely far exceeded the number of visitations to religious institutions to keep thunder and lightning at bay. Just wandering through the neighborhoods without a particular destination in mind was very enjoyable and let us follow any whim spontaneously, whether it was a flash of light from the journeyman knife sharpener as he held the blade to his grinding stone attached to the back of his scooter, or music emanating from an alley as a marching band rehearsed, or the cacophony created by the brotherhoods practicing with their weighted floats prior to Holy Week.
The farther we were away from the historic center of Seville the fewer tourists we encountered and prices in the barrio eateries dropped considerably. Los Coloniales was one such tavern located on a corner across from Plaza Cristo de Burgos. At the beginning of March the days were sunny and warm in the afternoon so dining outside was delightful, though sometimes it required a wait. Leaving our name with the hostess we waited in the shaded park across the street until she loudly bellowed, “Craig & Donna!” We felt like locals as we hurried over. The tapas and the ambiance of the setting were very enjoyable.
One afternoon as we walked back to the apartment from a late lunch, luckily I noticed a single black and white flyer tacked high on a tall double-wide door, while Donna had stopped way down the block to take a photo. Hundreds of years old, the door had a smaller single door built into which was open. I don’t recall seeing a placard on the wall identifying the building, but the flyer had a picture of a tray of cookies! By the time I turned around and got Donna’s attention the door had quietly been shut and locked to our disappointment. Finding it on a map we established that it was the Convento de Santa Inés. Allegedly they baked bolletos, little round cookie balls with sesame and honey-glazed pestiños – dough flavored with orange zest, aniseed, olive oil, and wine, then fried. Determined, we returned earlier several days later and stepped over the ancient threshold into a spartan courtyard with no sign of activity or arrows to follow. But in the far back corner under a small portico there was a plain wooden cabinet built into the wall surrounded by a fading spiritual fresco and Azulejo tiles. Taped to its door was the price sheet for the available, “Las Dulces.” The cabinet is called a torno and when you open the door there is a lazy Susan style turntable that allows the cloistered nuns to receive your payment and provide your cookies while remaining unseen. Over the centuries, convent tornos were also sadly used to anonymously drop-off unwanted infants in hopes the child would have a better life. Three decades ago, there were forty cloistered convents in Seville, today only a dozen remains, hosting an ever dwindling number of nuns. Not all of them bake “Las Dulces,” but knowing now we wish we had searched for the others that still do.
Dessert was celebrated, back on our apartment’s rooftop, with a glass of sherry and the cookies from the Convento de Santa Inés, as we sat with our backs to the laundry billowing gently on a warm Spring breeze and waited for the sun to set. This was unfortunately one of our last adventures in Seville before the city entered its first lockdown of the pandemic in March 2020 and all tourists were ordered to leave Spain. We were sitting on the steps of the pillar at Plaza del Triunfo late one afternoon, amazed by the emptiness of the square. There weren’t any horse-drawn carriages or lines of tourists waiting for entry into the cathedral or the Alcázar. Two policemen approached. “The city is closed, you must go home.” It was a shocking eviction notice.
We thoroughly enjoyed our immersion into the nuances of living in Seville and would definitely recommend the city for anyone considering a long-term stay. The city simultaneously manages to be intriguingly historic and contemporary. There were many different ways to enjoy the city and aside from the moderately high price of museum admissions, the cost of living in Seville and dining out was very reasonable. We walked mostly, but on occasion used the rideshare Uber which operated very well across the city. The weather was splendid in February and March, with cool mornings warming into delightful sunny afternoons.
Needing a break from city life we rented a car at the Santa Justa train station and within minutes we were out of Seville heading south to Ronda, one of Andalucia’s many “Pueblos Blancos,” the white villages, so called because of their uniformly whitewashed houses. Although it was less than two hours from Seville, it took us all day due to the number of planned stops and spontaneous detours we made.
Lime paint was introduced to the region when Rome controlled the Iberian peninsular. Its use was greatly expanded during the mid-1300’s when a bubonic plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean countries. Residents of villages were required yearly to cover the outside and the interiors of their homes and churches with a limewash, known for its natural anti-bacterial and insecticidal properties, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease. Community inspections were done, and folks were fined for noncompliance. This mandated conformity was eventually appreciated as an aesthetically pleasing look and a symbol of meticulous tidiness. Fortunately, the custom stayed and has become an iconic signature of southern Andalusia.
Cresting a low hill on the A-375, we spotted a small castle with crenellated walls and towers in a shallow valley not far from the road. Turning towards it we followed a dirt track through farmland not yet ploughed for the Spring planting to a small intersection where the castle stood next to a narrow, babbling brook. The history of the Castillo de Las Aguzaderas isn’t really known, but it is thought to have been built in the 1300’s by the Moors as they retreated from advancing territorial gains made by the Spanish during the Reconquista.
Of Spain’s 2500 castles this is the only one that does not sit atop the high ground of a hill or mountain to command the surrounding terrain, but according to its historical placard, stands in a hollow to protect the spring that emerges from the earth outside its wall. With no attendant and an open gate, we were free to scramble around the walls and climb stairs in a terrible state of disrepair to the top of the castle keep for views all around. In the distance an ancient stone watchtower, Torre del Bollo, dominated a hill.
From afar the whitewashed casas of Zahara de la Sierra brilliantly reflected the sunlight like polished marble. The homes, stacked like building blocks, rose up the hillside until they met a sheer butte. A square tower crowned the butte’s summit.
We followed the long ring road that circles the mount through the village and decided to have lunch at Meson Oñate where we were drawn to the outdoor patio that overlooks the Zahara-El Gastor Reservoir and the rolling farmland that surrounds it.
After lunch, to work off our delicous meal, we hiked to the Castillo de Zahara, which crowns the mountaintop above the village. It was a well paved steep path at the start, but soon the slope decreased to a manageable incline that zigzagged up the mountain. For our effort we were rewarded with stunning bird’s eye views over the red tiled roofs of the village and to the distant lake below. A tower is all that is left of a larger Moorish castle from the 13th century that was built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement that once called the mountaintop home. Barely accessible, it provided a safe haven during times of trouble. The castle had a turbulent history with its control passing back and forth several times between the Moors and Spanish. Even French troops once commanded its summit through Napoleon’s conquest of Spain during the Peninsular War that raged in the early 1800’s.
With a last-minute decision to take a longer route to Ronda, we headed into the mountains outside of Zahara de la Sierra on CA-9104, a serpentine road with steep slopes that took us into the Sendero La Garganta Verde, a rugged and wild scenic area that is known for its population of Griffon vultures, and Monte Prieto. The wind was insanely whipping around us when we parked the car at the Puerto de las Palomas (4500ft above sea level) mountain pass and walked to an observation deck in hope of viewing some vultures. Griffons are large birds of prey that have wing spans up to nine feet across. We were fortunate to spot some, far off in the distance before we ran back to the car, chilled to the bone.
The sun sets early when you are on the eastern side of the steep Sierra del Pinar mountain range. The last rays of sunlight still illuminated Grazalema as we drove into the village, but the temperature dropped along with the vanishing light of a February afternoon.
We sat in the plaza and had café across the sidewalk from an interesting statue of a bull being roped. The statue commemorates the ancient practice of hunting wild bulls. The tradition continued through the Romans and Arabs and was Christianized by the church into the feast of the bull to celebrate the Virgen del Carmen. During the festival, three times a day, a bull is released to run through the village for an hour with the men chasing after, in hopes of roping it. The beginning and end of each bull’s run is announced with fireworks throughout the day. Sections of an old Roman road that led up into the village are still visible from the mirador on the edge of town.
Enjoying the freedom and spontaneity a rental car offers is a big plus when developing itineraries. Finding convenient and affordable hotels that have free or inexpensive onsite parking was another whole issue. It was dark by the time we reached Ronda and we were having difficulty finding the hotel’s parking. With one last call to the hotel receptionist the garage door to their secret lair, that was our parking space, was magically revealed to us on a back alley, under the Hotel Plaza de Toros. Only big enough for six cars, our tiny Fiat 500 easily fit in its tight confines.
The next morning revealed that the hotel was in an excellent location, just a block from the town’s famous bullring, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, built in 1784. Aside from bullfights it has been used as an armory and calvary training grounds by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a noble order of horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The promenade next to bullring is dedicated to famous literary talents who were enamored with the “Ciudad Sońada” or “Dreamed City,” as Ronda is also called. While Don Quixote didn’t tilt at any windmills in Ronda, his creator Miguel de Cervantes certainly drew inspiration from the area as he traveled between villages for his day job as Royal Tax Collector. Washington Irving found inspiration in the rugged landscape of southern Spain when he traveled through Ronda in 1828 prompting him to write, “There is something in the austere presence of this Spanish landscape that wounds the soul with a feeling close to the sublime.” He also romanticized the brigands, who some saw as Robin Hood figures that lived in the mountainous terrain surrounding Ronda, and Irving was disappointed in not encountering any on his journey through Andalusia, ignoring the poverty and repressive feudal system that forced many into a life of crime. Ernst Hemingway was drawn to the machismo and pageantry of bullfighting in Ronda, where the sword and red muleta cape were first introduced into the ring by the legendary matador Francisco Romero in 1726. Orson Welles explained bullfighting as “an unjustifiable yet irresistible, three-act tragedy.” Wells was so fascinated with this quintessential Andalusian village that he chose to be buried here on the hacienda of a bullfighter friend – “A man does not belong to the place he was born in, but to the place he chooses to die.” Spanish poet, José Agustín Goytisolo summed it up best for us with, “We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.”
The mirador beyond the park overlooked olive groves and spring fields still dormant. Past them distant mountains faded into the horizon. The path through the mirador led to the Puente Nuevo bridge that connects the younger old town to the ancient village across the steep sided El Tajo (The Deep Cut) gorge, carved out eons ago by the rushing waters of the Rio Guadalevín. Finished in 1793 after 34 years of construction, the new bridge isn’t so new anymore, but it was an engineering feat when it was constructed across the shear 390ft deep chasm that divided the village. It replaced a poorly built 1735 bridge that tragically collapsed after only six years’ use, killing fifty people.
Ronda is a fabulous city for walking and as we continued across the bridge into La Ciudad, Ronda’s old-town quarter, we stopped in awe, to photograph the iconic whitewashed houses that are tenuously perched atop the walls of the gorge. Precarious to the point that if their front door slammed too hard the back of the house might fall into the gorge!
We worked our way to Plaza Duquesa de Parcent in the center of the historic district for lunch. Passing architectural details from Ronda’s Moorish and Spanish past still evident on some of the ancient buildings.
In the off-season not all of the restaurants were open, but it was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind waiting for a table in the fascinating historical surroundings. A few minutes later we were seated at a table in the sun, caddy corner between the Convento de Clarisas de Santa Isabel de los Ángeles and the Convento De La Caridad, both built in the 16th century. The classic symmetry of Ronda’s Town Hall with its two-tier colonnade anchored the far side of the plaza.
Adjacent to the town hall the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is the real draw to this side of the historic district. With two rows of covered balconies next to an adjoining former minaret turned belltower, it’s a unique façade for a church and it’s built on the foundation of a 14th century mosque. Ronda and Granada were the last Moorish strongholds in Andalusia, and the mosque was ordered destroyed after Ronda surrendered in 1485. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel immediately ordered that a Gothic church be built upon the spot.
The balconies on the front were added during the reign of King Felipe II in the 1500s for the well-to-do and nobles of the city to watch maestranza tournaments in the plaza, before the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda was built. A century later the church was partially destroyed in an earthquake and the rebuilding over the next two centuries embraced a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that sends architectural purists into a frenzy of “how could they.” Though smaller than the churches in Seville, we found the Iglesia very refreshing with its lofty interior and fabulous religious art.
Just inside one of the side entrances, a worn stone stairwell led up to a walled catwalk that wrapped around the side and back of the building. The views from it over the red tiled roofs of the old quarter seemed not to have changed for centuries.
Later that evening we explored the new town and found Grabados Somera, Shallow Engravings, a wonderful workshop and gallery filled with etchings of matadors, senoritas and Ronda, all the creations of master printmaker engraver Pedro Somera Abad. Writing this now we regret not purchasing a print as a souvenir of our time in Spain.
We eventually came across La Casa de Jamon, a gourmet store and Iberian Ham bar that will leave any carnivorous epicure salivating. Here a leg of the best jamon to take back to your casa will dent your wallet an extravagant 600€. We never realized those acorn fed porkers could command such a price. Along with jamon, they have locally sourced sausages, wine and cheese from the Andalusia region. We decided to order a charcuterie board for dinner and we were not dissappointed with the tasty assortment presented.
The next morning we walked through the Jardines De Cuenca along a walled path that traced the course of the Rio Guadalevín through El Tajo gorge far below. Across the chasm the hanging gardens of the old palatial homes that lined the cliff edge were redolent with color. The path through the park slowly descended to the Puente Viejo; built in 1616, it is the oldest stone bridge over the river.
Across the bridge the route split to go back into La Ciudad, the old town, through the Renaissance era Puerta de Carlos V, where taxes were once levied on the wares merchants brought into the city. Or we could go downhill to the impressive arched ruins of the Baños Arabes, a 13th century Moorish bathhouse on the outskirts of the city, that provided heated water, an impressive feat 800 years ago.
Along the river that supplied water to the Arab baths, grist mills once stood just inside Ronda’s double ring of fortress walls that protected this side of La Ciudad. The mills ground wheat harvested from the surrounding countryside. The stones of the outer wall were repurposed long ago. Now only remnants of the massive inner wall, the last line of defense before entering the city still stands, causing us to pause and imagine its former glory. Walking under the last vestiges of Ronda’s mighty defenses, we headed back.
It was lightly raining as we strolled along Carrera Espinel in search of an interesting place for dinner. Most of the inside tables at the restaurants we passed were taken with diners escaping the damp evening chill. But the aroma of savory clams drew us to an outside table at Restaurante Las Maravillas, where the waiter was attentive and refueled the tower heater next to our table to help keep us warm. The dinner and wine were delicious.
Plans to visit Olvera and Setenil de las Bodegas the next day were made over dessert and coffee. It had been a long satisfying day, our “walk a little then café” evolved to “walk a little more, then bed.”
One of the tenets of slow travel is the ability to revisit a place many times to savor the changes in its ambience. The Plaza de España in Parque de María Luisa was one such lively spot that we enjoyed and returned to several times.
It is an iconic landmark for Seville with its eclectic mix of Baroque, Renaissance and Moorish architectural styles embellished with hand painted Mudéjar tiles created across the Guadalquivir River, in the Triana barrio.
Along with an expansive plaza, signature horseshoe colonnade, and boating moat, it has been a popular destination since it was constructed for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. It, along with the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and the Archeological Museum of Seville in Parque de María Luisa, are hubs of activity on the weekends when they fill with friends and families looking for more elbow room.
Several other architecturally interesting buildings were constructed in the park and along Paseo de la Delicias at this time to host exhibitions from countries that were formerly part of the Spanish Empire and which would later be used as consulate building.
On the way to the park one morning, we stopped for café along the edge of Jardines de Murillo and unsuccessfully tried to order cappuccinos from a brusque waiter who replied, “No,” just no and without any further explanation turned and walked away. Confounded, we left. This happened again several days later when we were early for a dermatologist appointment, for an overdue skin cancer screening at Hospital Fátima, a private hospital in Seville that facilitates multi-lingual medical tourism services for travelers. We used TripMedic to arrange our appointments.
We found the small café, Bar Puerto Chico, on the block behind the hospital. It was full of folks on the way to work, having the traditional Andalusian breakfast that consists of tostada, soft Mollette bread, perfectly toasted to a golden brown and drizzled with olive oil, a smear of crushed tomatoes and maybe a slice of jamon, along with coffee and zumo natural, fresh squeezed Spanish oranges. “Dos capuchinos por favor.” The barman smiled this time when he responded with a “No,” but seemed to be delighted that two foreigners had found his establishment, when he explained that they only serve espresso or café con leche. In some local bars cappuccinos just aren’t done. Mystery solved.
Heading back into the city center, the sidewalk along Paseo de la Delicias eventually dips down, near the Escuela de Mareantes (School of Navigation) and widens to a scenic esplanade for bicyclists and walkers, that parallels the Guadalquivir River through Seville for several miles.
Speckled with buskers, sculptures, and benches, there are plenty of excuses to saunter slowly and savour the view. The river is popular with numerous kayaking and sculling clubs that launch miles upstream and then race down the river.
The waterway on the weekends was always bustling, but even during the week there were a good number of paddlers and rowers on the water, from sunrise to sunset.
It’s also an historic stretch of river that was the Port of Seville, where galleons returning from the Spanish colonies in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries unloaded cargo and registered their treasure of gold and silver bullion at the Torre del Oro, tower of gold bullion. The 118 ft tall tower dates from the 1100s and was part of the Moorish defensive wall that once encircled the entirety of ancient Seville and was the anchor point for a heavy chain that was stretched across to the Triana side of the river to control shipping.
Ferdinand Magellan launched the first circumnavigation of the world from this quay in 1519. For the 500th anniversary of this tremendous feat the city commissioned a full-size replica of his ship, the Nao Victoria, to be moored on the river. A small vessel by today’s standards, it made us wonder how they ever succeeded in sailing around the world.
Nearing sundown, the quay along the river fills with folks waiting to watch the sky erupt with color as the sun sets behind the bridge and Triana.
At the base of the bridge stands the lofty, wrought-iron and glass Mercado Lonja del Barranco, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1883. It functioned as the city’s fish market for several decades before it was re-envisioned in 2014 as an upscale food hall with a contemporary, architecturally beautiful interior. It’s definitely a fun foodie destination; it is a savory gauntlet of display cases offering the full spectrum of Spanish cuisine prepared by twenty different restautrants. There is something delicous for everyone available here.
Aside from the completion of the Puente de Triana bridge in 1852, which replaced a well maintained 700 hundred year old Arab-designed pontoon bridge, it’s alleged that the Triana riverfront looks unchanged since Columbus recruited his sailors from the barrio.
While it still retains its authentic character, some wonderful alterations have been implemented, starting with the pedestrian only Calle San Jacinto that starts at the foot of the bridge on the Triana side. It is a lively stretch of outdoor cafes that offer an array of different cuisines.
The ruined dungeons of Castillo de San Jorge castle, located under the Mercado de Triana, are now a museum and Interpretation Center for the 300 year terror known as the Spanish Inquisition. Nearby a short alley leading up from the river, the “Paseo de la Inquisición,” was the last walk of freedom for many before the prison door slammed behind them.
The mercado is a thriving, lively spot that draws locals for the seafood, meat, cheese and vegetable vendors, along with a slew of always busy restaurants. We caught a lesson in buying fresh fish while waiting in line at a fish monger’s stand. “Always look at the inside color of the gills, they should be very bright,” is what we gathered as he showed several large whole fish to the customer in front of us as we waited to purchase a filet of tuna to cook back at our apartment.
One stall, which we dubbed the olive porn store, only sold decadent large olives garnished with all sorts of delicious extras. Another booth offered artfully decorated puff pastries, which were as tasty as they were visually stunning. The mercado was a long walk from our apartment, but one of our favorite traditional markets to shop at, which we returned to several times during our six-week immersion in Seville.
We were on the Triana side of the river one late February morning and came across a crew of city workers with ladders and buckets harvesting all the softball size Seville oranges from the trees that were lining the street. The fruit was brought to the city by the Arabs in the 9th century and Seville now, unbelievably, has 46,000 bitter orange trees that produce close to six million tons of fruit annually. Most of it is sold to be used to make marmalade, but it is also an ingredient in Cointreau, Curacao, Grand Marnier and Triple Sec liquors. Oil from the bitter orange skin is used for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps. Recently the city started using the unsold oranges in an innovative Biogas program, where the methane gas created by the decomposing oranges is used to make “clean electricity” to run a water purification plant.
Before continuing our day, we stopped for coffee at one of the cafes that line the riverfront on Calle Betis. From our previous experiences we believed it was impossible to get a bad cup of coffee in Europe. All of it is usually made to order on one of those fancy deluxe espresso machines that you see behind the bars. My wife is more the coffee connoisseur than me as I’ve been known to make a mug of coffee last all day. But that day we both had the worst cup of coffee ever and couldn’t drink it beyond our first sips. It must have been the last pot of drip coffee from the day before that was left on the burner overnight. It’s amazing how waiters can vanish; perhaps ours did from embarrassment, but this could explain the beginning of the inquisition. Bad coffee leading to misplaced aggression, we all know what happens without that caffeine. Sympathetically the second waiter understood when we explained the situation and he didn’t request payment.
Triana was also famous for the ceramic workshops that painted and then fired in massive kilns the Azulejo and colorful Mudéjar style tiles that adorn many of the historic buildings in Seville. Along with sailors, Triana has cultivated many famous flamenco dancers, guitarists and bullfighters. The most admired matador was Juan Belmonte who stood famously close to the bulls and was gored several times over a career that spanned 109 bullfights. His statue stands in the plaza across from the Triana Mercado and if you follow his gaze you’ll see Seville’s beloved bullring, Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, often simply called the Maestranza, across the river. It has been holding corridas in the same ring since 1761.
Many of the taverns surrounding the bullring are full of corrida memorabilia. Our favorite was Bar Baratillo on Calle Adriano which is also full of shops catering to the Andalusian equestrian tradition. La Feria de Abril is a colorful weeklong festival that celebrates this Andalusian equestrian tradition with the women wearing traditional traje de gitana or faralaes (flamenco style dress), while the men wear a cordobes hat along with a fitted short jacket, riding trousers and riding boots, refered to as traje corto. Every midday during the festival a parade of carriages and riders, called the paseo de caballos, heads to the bullring to watch the best matadores on Seville’s bullfighting calendar perform. Bullfighting season in Seville starts at the end of Semana Santa, Holy Week, on Easter Day.
Farther behind the bullring the Hospital de la Caridad, founded by the Holy Charity brotherhood in the 1600s, still follows its mission to help the poor and infirm. Its beautiful baroque chapel is now a museum filled with art.
Also, in this neighborhood in Casa Morales, we found one of Seville’s oldest abacerías, a small grocery store with a small tavern in the back, on the corner of Garcia de Vinuesa and Castillejo that is still run by the same family since its opening in 1850. The bodeguita retains its original atmosphere with antique cabinetry in the store and tall, large earthen wine vats lining tavern’s walls. It’s definitely worth a stop here to try their traditional tapas or montaditos, small sandwiches.
Just off Calle Adriano one Saturday in the weeks prior to Semana Santa we came upon a Christian brotherhood training to carry their float for the holy week processional. With military marching precision, the muscular team turned the weighted float around a tight corner and continued down the block in synchronized step.
We followed the marching band that accompanied them to a fundraiser for the brotherhood. Very much like a church bake sale, the only difference was they surprisingly sold bottles of various liquors.
We smiled, bought one and saluted Seville’s spirit later that evening.
Our host had given us instructions to make our way to the Jardines de Murillo, past the historic monument commemorating Columbus’ discovery of the new world and then cross the park entering the Santa Cruz barrio through an old gate, under an elaborate balcony. It’s believed this balcony was the inspiration for a scene in Rossini’s comedic opera, The Barber of Seville, where Lindoro and his band of troubadours played a serenade below the window of the stunning Rosina. We’d pass through this relaxing park many times during our time in Seville while heading out to explore the city or shop at the closest Supermercados MAS. An excellent small grocery store with bakery, meat, cheese, and fish departments. We signed up for their shopper’s club card!
“Continue down Calle Agua,” so called for the ancient aqueduct that ran atop the high wall that parallels its length and supplied water to Royal Alcázar of Seville, a former Moorish palace before the reconquest of Seville in the 13th century by the Castilians. “It turns and becomes Calle Vida.” A few steps down the lane Calle Judería veered off, a reminder that this was once the old Jewish quarter when the Moors ruled the city and continued until 1492 when King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella decreed that all Hebrews be expelled from Spain.
We continued straight as the high walls of the lane narrowed to a point where walking single file was required, and the clickety-clack of our suitcases reverberated off the shadowed stone walls. With a broad smile and “Hola!” a sample of freshly toasted snacks was enthusiastically offered to us by an energetic saleswoman. It appeared that her mission was to have every tourist who passed her station sample the tasty treats created at Sabor a Espana, the shop that anchored a corner on Plaza de Doña Elvira, our final destination. Centered with a tiled fountain and surrounded by fragrant Seville orange trees, the intimate plaza was an oasis of greenery amidst the ancient stones of the old town.
Our host was waiting as promised with keys and an orientation of the apartment which we would call home for the next six weeks. It was the smallest apartment we had rented during our travels, but it had wonderful rooftop access with a super view of the plaza below and the Royal Alcázar, which was close enough for Seville football star Jesus Navas to kick a soccer ball into, if he were so inclined.
We will be the first to admit that our travels have not been in an orderly systematic approach to working our way slowly around the world. Instead, we seemed to have adopted a hybrid pinballer approach for ricochet shots to select our destinations across the globe. We wanted a location that offered a warm winter but eliminated any coastal towns for concern that a February/March stay would be too cold or damp along the oceanfront. We opted for Seville, with a population of 700,000, as an affordable alternative to staying in Madrid or Barcelona. The city was the ideal choice for an extended stay with near perfect weather and loads of interesting things to do and see within minutes of our apartment in the center of the historic district. This would have been totally prohibitive with our budget if we had booked this during the high season, but traveling in Spain during the shoulder season was very budget friendly and allowed us to immerse ourselves into the city’s cycle of activity.
A wonderful daily ritual soon emerged, with greetings exchanged with the shop attendant as she swept the cobblestones every morning or was offering samples later in the day when we passed. Of course, we shopped there; the sweet aroma was too enticing to resist and the snacks were delicious. “We’ll walk it off,” we laughed. Then there were the tapas! Two favorite spots were La Fresquita, a tiny standing room only bar, uniquely devoted to “all things Semana Santa.” This included the playing of classical church music and the occasional wave of a smoky incense-filled censer over the countertop. The other was Las Teresas, an old school tavern decked with polished wood and whole legs of Jamon Iberico dangling above the bar. We walked everywhere in Seville; it was the perfect city to explore by foot. Every direction proved rewarding with interesting discoveries.
Small plazas held cafés. With their tables set in deep shade, they dotted the historic center and provided a quiet spot to just sit back and enjoy the old-world ambiance of this foreign city, with an intriguing mix of Moorish and Spanish architecture. Our “walk a little then café, then walk a little more,” approach allowed ample opportunities to enjoy the sunny days.
Minutes from our door an arched passage under dwellings in the old Jewish quarter opened onto the Patio de Banderas. It was once a courtyard for a tenth century Moorish palace. In the 1700s the buildings that lined it were used as an armory. Later the square was planted with orange trees and converted to a riding ring for the local gentry to use. At the far end another arched gate framed the La Giralda belltower of the Catedral de Sevilla as we exited onto the Plaza del Triunfo. Built in the twelfth century during the Almohades dynasty when the Andalusian region was still part of Muslim Spain, the tower was originally a minaret.
Its square design is based on the Moorish architecture of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. The interior does not have a traditional set of stairs for the muezzin to climb to the top for the call to prayer. Instead, it was built with a ramp wide enough for the muezzin to ride a donkey to the summit of its 167ft height. I imagine they would have had a high muezzin turnover rate if this accommodation wasn’t made to facilitate the five times a day call to prayer. After a sixteen-month siege that ended in November 1248, the Muslim forces in Seville surrendered and originally wanted to destroy the minaret before their forced relocation from the city, to prevent its repurposing for another religion. Upon hearing this ing Ferdinand III of Castile included in the terms of surrender a passage that threatened “they would all be put the sword” if the beautiful minaret were defiled in any way. In the sixteenth century a new top third was added with renaissance architectural influences that expanded its height to 337ft and included space for its array of 24 bells. Giralda, “she who turns,” is the name given to the weathervane atop the belltower, with the heroic female statue representing the triumph of Christianity. The exterior of the tower blends Islamic decorative relief sculpture, featuring floral forms, intricate geometric shapes and stylized calligraphy, with Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. This is referred to as Mudéjar style and is prevalent in many of the historic buildings in Seville and throughout Andalusia. It is an enchanting blending of cultures and a signature of the region.
The lower part of the belltower and the Mudéjar style Puerta del Perdón gate into the Patio de los Naranjos courtyard filled with perfuming oranges is all that remains of the grand mosque that was repurposed as Seville’s first Christian cathedral after the reconquest. The old building stood until 1401 when construction started on the Catedral De Sevilla, https://www.catedraldesevilla.es/cultural-visit/ with the mission to illustrate the city’s emerging importance and wealth as a trading center on the last navigable stretch of the Guadalquivir River. The church elders offered the following inspirational instructions to the builders: “let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad.”
The inside of the of the church, also known as Santa Maria de la Sede, is cavernous with eighty side chapels and a ceiling that soars 138ft high. It is the third largest Christian cathedral in the world. The grandiose Gothic woodcarving of the Retablo Mayor, altar piece, is the life work of one artisan, Pierre Dancart, and gilded with an amazing amount of gold from the then newly discovered Americas.
Statues representing four kings of Spain from Aragon, Castile, Leon and Navarra are pole bearers for Columbus’ tomb, belatedly acknowledging that the explorer, who died in poverty, had made a major contribution to the Spanish Empire.
Always up for a climb, we signed on for a rooftop tour of the cathedral. Following our guide, we climbed stairs worn smooth over the centuries through ancient passageways hidden in the walls and towers to the top of the church for a beautiful view across Seville. We were grateful that we didn’t pass up a chance to walk amid the Gothic spires, flying buttresses and gargoyles that adorn the inspirational structure.
When the tour ended, we rested across from the church, on the steps of the Monumento a la Inmaculada Concepción in Plaza del Triunfo. It seems to be a rite of passage for visitors to Seville, to sit here in the heart of the historic district and soak in the ambiance of this beautiful city.
We let your minds imagine life in Seville centuries ago as horse drawn carriages, filled with tourists now, clattered across the cobblestoned square in front of the Royal Alcazar of Seville. Despite the fact that we were visiting in February, every day the queue for the Royal Alcázar of Seville was always exceptionally long, so we opted to buy our tickets and reserve an entry time online. The same option is available for the Catedral De Sevilla.
The Plaza del Triunfo sits on what was once Seville’s ancient river port until the 900’s when the area was filled, and the Caliph of Cordoba ordered the building, adjacent to it, of the Royal Alcázar of Seville to accommodate offices of the Muslim government and the Caliph’s residence.
It’s been expanded and renovated numerous times over the centuries by both Muslim and Christian rulers. But surprisingly each successive regime savored an appreciation of the previous ruler’s Islamic architecture, intricate wall and ceiling decorations and quiet, lush oasis-like gardens. All are designed to create a sense of wonder, a key element of Islamic art. The Spanish Kings and Queens continued to admire the Muslim architectural style and imported Mudéjar craftsmen from Toledo and Granada to enhance their newer constructions which favored European Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architectural styles.
The importance of the Alcázar evolved significantly as Spain’s colonization of the Americas saw the country grow into the world’s first global empire, all of it directed from this seat of power in Seville. It’s an amazing place is the best way to sum it up. Today the Alcázar of Seville is still occasionally used as a royal residence by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.
Flamenco is synonymous with Seville and one of most enjoyable ways to watch it was to find a street dancer or group busking. Our favorite dancer was Charli La Tornillo. She entertained crowds many afternoons with a passionate, fiery routine near the fountain in Puerta de Jerez Square, located on the tram line not far from the Alcázar. The Jardines de Murillo and the Plaza de España were also reliable spots to find Flamenco dancers.
One Saturday morning we decided to take the tram from the Prado De San Sebastian metro station into Plaza Nueva to start our morning, a relatively short trip in a modern coach through the pedestrian only historic center on a route lined with ancient stone and fin-de-siècle buildings.
It passed Seville’s 15th-century Exchange that now houses the Archivo de Indias, which contains centuries worth of records pertaining to Spain’s colonies in the new world. We first noticed a group of elegantly attired women wearing unique fashionable hats called tocados, or fascinators, walking along Av. de la Constitución, not far from city hall, our final stop. Saturday mornings, it turns out, are when civil weddings are performed in Seville.
It was an interesting morning watching the various fancifully dressed wedding groups queue in the plaza before their assigned time. Unlike civil ceremonies in the states, which usually are lowkey events, civil weddings in Spain are occasions for fashionistas to dress to the hilt.
After the ceremonies, friends and families escorted the bride and groom to nearby restaurants to continue the celebrations.
Seville is also a popular destination for joyful, outlandishly boisterous hen parties. Participants parade through the streets, dressed in quirky outfits, to celebrate their friend and bride to be.
Seville packs a lot into a small space and every direction we headed offered something interesting. The Hospital los Venerables was just a few steps away from our front door, down the narrow Calle Gloria that opens to the aptly named Plaza Venerables.
It was built in the 1600s as a retirement home for poor, elderly or disabled priests. The very austere exterior deceitfully hides a wonderfully ornate Baroque chapel and interior, as well as various tranquil courtyards. Today the building is used as a museum dedicated to the Sevillian born (1599) artist Diego Velázquez. A collection of paintings by 17th century artists Francisco Pacheco, Murillo and Bartolomeo Cavarozzi are also on display.
There was an amazing amount to see in Seville as we wandered all over the city. We’ll share our walks across this intriguing city in a number of future blogs.
“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time toBelize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.” As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida. Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises. Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.
On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see. It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502. Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.
The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.
Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico. Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize. Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.
The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood. Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot.
Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood. After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats. In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean. The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning. By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles. Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize.
In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.
Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief, his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied. In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872. Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.
Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”
Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture. English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.
The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reefwhich is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site. Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.
We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy.
In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless. Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael. It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany. The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.
Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.
Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks. Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.
The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents. A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there. Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.
For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye. The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico. But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay. The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.
We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.