Cañas, Caves & Cathedrals

This story starts, as it must, on a soggy Sunday night in a cave in the Sacromonte. While I saw many amazing things in the days and hours leading up to this point, the cave stands out as all wonderfully unexpected experiences do.

The morning started with a stroll around Granada with the Joneses. My fraternity brother Jem had traveled with his lovely wife from Henley-in-Arden to meet us. We milled around the baroque cathedral for a bit before engaging in the now familiar routine: find a spot, order four cañas of cerveza, eat tapas, repeat. Tapas are one of humankind's great conceptions- for every round of drinks one orders, the kitchen serves up a tasty treat. The more one drinks, the better one eats. On this afternoon we had dogfish, boquerones, squid, ibérico ham, croquettes, and I ordered a portion of callos (tripe). This session was what hipster brunch wants to be when it grows up. Although I could have continued along this track for the rest of the day, we had things to see.

Callos. AKA the best tripe dish on the planet.
By this time, we were playing with house money. Two days prior, the missus and I got to see the Mezquita de Córdoba- truly one of the architectural wonders of the world. A thousand years ago, Córdoba was the intellectual center of western Europe and its most populous city. At the time it was under the rule of Muslims who were tolerant of the Jewish and Christian minorities. The great mosque was constructed and expanded over the course of several centuries. When the Christians conquered Córdoba during the reconquista, a cathedral was constructed square in the middle of the mosque as a sign of the triumph of Christianity over Islam. The result is an interior that is a curious mix of Christian and Islamic symbolism and architectural vocabulary. This was one of the two buildings that I was dying to see, and it did not disappoint.

Fueled by cerveza and tapas, the crew was ready to take on the other architectural marvel on my list. The Alhambra is a magnificent fortified Moorish palace on the Sabika hill in Granada. The walk up the hill, through the forest was quite nice and a fitting procession to the complex. I lack the time and vocabulary to do the Alhambra justice. It is a rich and complex mixture of muscularity, delicacy, and sumptuousness. The Nasrid palaces are described as one of the most beautiful places ever created by the hand of man. It is one of the rare of places that actually lives up to such hype. The bit of incongruity on the site is (once again) due to a Christian intervention. The Palace of Charles V, a renaissance addition within the walls of the compound, is another not-so-subtle monument to the triumph of Christianity over Islam. Charles’ work notwithstanding, the whole of the experience was amazing, and in the end they had to kick us out at closing time. As afternoon gave way to evening, there was only one thing to do…tapear.

Our hotel was in the Albayzín, a medieval neighborhood built up the side of a hill opposite the Alhambra. The agglomeration of buildings creates labyrinthine, cobbled streets not much wider than my outstretched arms. These occasionally give way to small plazas. There is no resisting the charm of the place, but walking up and down the hill to the city center on precariously paved paths is a pain in the ass. After a day walking the Alhambra, we decided to stay up in the Albayzín for the night. This proved to be a wise decision as we had possibly our best tapas experience at a random dive on the top of the hill. Football (soccer) on the tele, cerveza in hand, and tapas on the table- repeat. After a long day of walking, drinking and eating, I was ready for bed. The Englishman, however, had another idea.

Flamenco? Bullshit, said I. Having been raised by a mother and stepfather who both danced and taught ballet, I have some level of appreciation for the art. Despite that appreciation, the idea of going to cave inhabited by gypsies to watch Flamenco did not appeal to me in the least. In the end I was game (largely in part because the restaurant closed, it was 11:00pm on a Sunday, and the caves provided the last hope for vino tinto.) As one might suspect, late Sunday nights are not exactly prime time for performance. Our smooth talking Englishman was able to coax a group of performers to do one last show for us (no doubt on the strength of the pound sterling). We were ushered into the space, a cave with whitewashed walls just wide enough for a row of chairs along each wall with a narrow space to pass between them. For the next hour, the four of us watched five dancers, three guitarists, two singers and a drummer pour their soul into a performance. The cacophony of instruments, voices, handclaps, finger snaps, and foot stamps was stunning, beautiful, and not at all what I expected. The Mosque and the Alhambra were the reasons we traveled to Andalucía, and they did not disappoint. The flamenco, however, was one of those great moments in life when beauty is experienced without the weight of expectation.

Spain is in the books, and its back to work in the Scenic City. 2014 was a great year and I’m thankful for all of the blessings that have come my way. 2015 is shaping up to be a big one, although not without the aforementioned weight of expectation. More on that in a couple of weeks…

In the meantime, have a very merry Christmas and/or a spectacular holiday season!

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