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.

Seville Part 4 – Convents, Cookies, and la Macarena

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 Vinos a 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.

Make plans, enjoy your travels!

¡Hasta luego!

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Seville Part 3 – Walk a Little then Café

Parts of this ancient city with its labyrinth of cobbled lanes feel more akin to a small village with an earth toned, sun drenched patina. Vibrant traditions and a youthful vitality along with numerous historic sites scattered across the city all contribute to make Seville a walker’s delight. There’s no correct way to explore the city. How you do it depends on the amount of time you have to indulge yourself in the history and atmosphere of this beautiful city. Strolling through the city is the finest way to discover its character. Immersing ourselves into the city for six weeks, we walked the familiar cobbled lanes multiple times with many variations and sporadic detours that we hope you find interesting.  Seville never ceased to charm us. 

The routes we favored most webbed out from behind the Cathedral of Seville’s Patio de los Naranjos on Calle de Placentines, around the corner from the Palacio Arzobispal on Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, and wandered through the Alfalfa, Centro and La Macarena districts.

An old-world fabric store bedecked with selections of gold embroidered trim, ribbons, and tassels hanging from worn wooden cabinets enticed us inside.  Further on the display window of a religious goods store fascinated us with its selection of all things sacred. Before crossing into the Plaza Jesus de la Pasion, the savory window display at Confiteria La Despensa De Palacio stopped us dead in our tracks. Lovingly run by generations of the Santaella family, the shop has been Seville’s premiere chocolatier and pastelería for over 250 years. The pastries were sumptuous!

Across the street the Plaza Jesus de la Pasion widens to reveal a wonderful example of 19th century Andalusian architecture. The far end of the square features a façade of red brick framing Azulejos tiles and Moroccan influenced, pointed arched windows.  The plaza also seems to be a favored place for a protest or political rally as we came across several, over the weeks we spent there.

At this point it’s possible to head one block over to visit the Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador, on the plaza of the same name. This is a very popular square with many restaurants and outdoor tables along with buskers providing entertainment.

The Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador is the second most important church in Seville after the main cathedral and features a monumental and intricately carved 18th century Baroque altar. The beautiful piece was created by the Andulasian altarpiece architect and sculptor Cayetano de Acosta, who contributed works to numerous churches across southern Spain.

Returning to Plaza Jesus de la Pasion, the far end of the square funnels into the very cosmopolitan C. Puente y Pellon. Lined with a wide variety of shops, we found the most interesting to be the Zapaterias, shoe cobblers, and the dress shops, their windows filled with colorfully clad mannequins displaying tight fitting and frilly dresses called traje de flamenco or traje de gitana, for the upcoming Seville Fair (La Feria De Abril).

Here we found what we regard as the best bread bakery in Seville, Crustum Panem Bridge and Pellón, https://www.crustum.es/ sandwiched between window displays featuring towering pyramids of tasty Bocadillo de jamón, the ultimate hoagie lunch para llevar, to carry away, for an inexpensive picnic. The bakery offered a wide assortment of breads and empanadas. Our favorite though was a very dense bread made with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit which they sold by the slice and weight.  We returned often.

A little further on the Setas de Sevilla loomed over us as we left the alley.  The Setas is a massive, multi-story, Lego-like freeform sculpture with a viewing deck atop it. Constructed entirely of wood, it nearly covers a full city block. It’s an iconic symbol of modern Seville that the locals lovingly call The Mushroom because of its shape. 

For over 150 years this plaza was the true center of the city for Sevillianos when 400 market stalls of the Mercado de la Encarnación occupied the land above the ruins of the medieval Convento de la Encarnación, from which the plaza took its name.  The market operated until 1973 when the building was demolished for structural reasons and the remaining ninety vendors were housed in temporary facilities for what was hoped to be three years.  Inaction by the city left the site closed for 31 years and the area around the plaza became blighted, until the local government sponsored an international design competition in 2004 for ideas to revitalize the plaza and return it to its former prominence. 

Jürgen Mayer, a German architect, won with a concept called Metropol Parasol, constructed with sustainable wood. At 490 feet long by 230 feet wide and just under 100 feet tall, it is the largest wooden structure in the world made with laminated Finnish pine. Its unique design features 3500 sections attached together with 16 million nuts and bolts. The interior of the Setas now hosts a daily market with 38 vendors offering fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, poultry, and cheese. The base of the monument and plaza is ringed with restaurants that have excellent outdoor seating in the shade of the mammoth structure. Inside by the market stalls are several traditional luncheonettes that offer inexpensive daily specials.

A detour to the Guadalquivir River and Triana can be easily made here by following Calle Imagen west. This walk took us past many older buildings with interesting architectural details, and the 14th century Iglesia de San Antonio Abad which hosts the Brotherhood of Silence, the oldest brotherhood in Seville.

A block away the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans drew us into Elhombre Pez, where you can only purchase bags of whole or ground coffee beans. Their coffee beans are definitely worth the purchase if you have an apartment stay in the city.

The Seville Museum of Fine Arts, set in a former 17th century palace, is also in this direction and is an intriguing detour with its extensive collection of Spanish masterpieces.

Several blocks farther the Real Parroquia de Santa María Magdalena was an interesting discovery. Built in 1691, this Baroque church has a fascinating interior.  The small bar on the corner, Casa Murillo, was a reliable spot for café and lunch. Across the street Churreria San Pablo always seemed to have a line waiting for its sweet treats.

Calle Regina directly behind the Setas de Sevilla begins to funnel folks away from the bustling historic district and into a more residential area, though it’s still lined with a variety of shops and eateries. And if you share our belief that the food is always better and more affordable two blocks away from a popular tourist attraction, you will like this neighborhood. On this stretch Mr. Cake Sevilla with its artfully prepared and tasty offerings is a nice place to rest.

The Iglesia de San Juan de la Palma stands at the crossroad to our favorite tapas bar in Seville, the Bodega La Plazoleta. The gothic portal of the church is one of its few remaining original features. Compared to other churches in Seville its relatively small, but it features three interesting side chapels devoted to the Brotherhoods of Bitterness, the Virgin of the Head, and Our Lady of Montemayor.

The restaurant is on a small square, to the right of the church, that was far enough off the main path that it didn’t attract many tourists. Over our six-week stay in Seville this was our go to bodega for its excellent food, relaxing atmosphere and chocolate cake! The restored 15th century Palacio de las Dueñas is nearby, but let’s face it, it’s impossible to do everything and we needed to save some ideas for future visits to this wonderful city.

If you make a left at this crossroad, it’s a simple detour to the Alameda de Hércules. The origins of this large park date to 1574 and it is believed to be the oldest public garden with tree lined promenades in Europe.  The park takes its name from a statue of Hercules, the mythical founder of Seville, excavated from the ruins of a nearby ancient Roman wall.  This part of the city now has a younger hipster atmosphere and is known for its nightlife and club scene as well as its array of restaurants offering a variety of international cuisine. In this barrio the Basílica de Jesús del Gran Poder is an unusual church with its circular sanctuary which is surprisingly hidden within the church’s traditional façade.

Back at the crossroads: Thursdays are, as the name Mercadillo Histórico del Jueves suggests, the best day for this final leg of the walk. Legend says that this street market has been a feature of the city since the Moors ruled Seville.  Every Thursday several blocks of Calle Feria are closed to traffic, and it becomes a pedestrian mall lined with vendors now selling antiques and flea-market type items.  The market is a popular destination, and occasionally we felt like we were in a conga-line weaving through a sardine can.  We did find a small, folkloric style painting of Seville’s La Feria de Abril that just fit into our suitcase.

It was quite a walk from our apartment on Plaza de Doña Elvira, but our favorite local food market in Seville was the Mercado de la Feria, several blocks past the mercadillo histórico.  The market had a very authentic feel to it, being in a neighborhood that is far away from the tourist center of the city. It had a wonderful fish monger, cheese shop and fresh pasta maker. Accustomed to their neighborhood clientele, the vendors seemed surprised with our purchases which indicated that we actually cook for ourselves.  This is also a great destination for lunch as there are a number of small restaurants that ring the market.

Next to the market – It’s not always open, but if the door under the 13th century pointed Gothic arch of the Real Parroquia de Omnium Sanctorum is ajar, it’s worth stopping to investigate – is one of the oldest churches in Seville. It has gone through many incarnations over the centuries, most notably after a 1355 earthquake, and arson attack in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

At this point in the walk, you can choose to head back towards the Alameda de Hércules or continue on towards the towers of the Puente del Alamillo bridge, which you’ve probably already spotted, that spans the northern part of the Guadalquivir River. Head to the river. There is a wonderful pedestrian foot/bike path that follows the course of the river. This stretch of the river is also popular with anglers using traditional long poles and line gear to catch fish from its bank.

It is a long but pleasant walk south along the river back towards the bustle of Seville.  Mid span on the Puente del Cachorro is a great vantage point for photos of the historic Triana waterfront with kayakers and scullers enjoying the river.

If its late in the day and you want to catch a movie, the Centro Comercial Plaza de Armas is only two blocks inland from here, in the restored 19th century Old Cordoba Train Station.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Ronda Road Trip – The Pueblos Blancos or Blinded by the Light

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.”

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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