Highlights of Andalucia: Gypsies, Caves and the Inquisition
My nomadic nature finally got the better of me. After living for several years in Turkey, I recently folded up tent and moved to the south of Spain. My choice wasn’t so much motivated by paella, 300 days of sunshine per year and lovely beaches, but rather by the prospect of exploring a part of Spain crammed full with history, culture and wild nature.
500 years of Moorish rule, Jewish influences, Gypsy influences, monuments, castles, museums, ravines, horses and snow covered mountains – in short, a traveler’s dream.
I unpacked, settled in my new home and off I went on my first trips. To my delight I discovered a travel agency which offers day trips to many of my favorite destinations at incredibly low prices. Even better, you have a choice to either join the guided tour (no) or go off on your own, being back in time for the return journey (yes,yes)
My first daytrip was to Granada. With fabulous views of the snow covered Sierra Nevada along the way, I said good bye to my fellow travelers once we arrived, caught a local bus and went up one of the seven hills Granada is built on to explore Sacromonte, the hill facing the Alhambra.
In the 19th century, many Romani families came to Granada and settled in cave dwelling on Sacromonte.
They still live there, in caves which are spacious, quite luxurious and a far cry from the Flintstones. Cool in summer, warm in winter, with fireplaces and TV they wouldn’t want to move to any other kind of home. More importantly though, Sacromonte and the gypsies are who invented the most Spanish of all dances, the Flamenco. A mixture of Spanish and Romani music it’s full of passion and fire.
Many regard Sacromonte as a tourist trap because ‘tablao’ after ‘tablao’ line the winding cobbled streets where performances are given every night and tourists are plied with cheap red wine. I wouldn’t know, because my ‘trick’ as to visit during the day.
As soon as I got off my local bus, I could already hear the clapping, stamping and long drawn out vocals of Flamenco songs. The night performers practice during the day, but they also sing and dance for their own pleasure; they can’t help it, it’s in their blood.
I poked my nose around the first open door I came to and was greeted with enthusiasm and treated to the real thing. No costumes, no wine, just the people sitting around, dancing, singing and playing the guitar. They threw me a red carnation and asked me to join in, to much laughter at my clumsy steps.
All that dancing made hungry and my new gypsy friends urged me to try a specialty: Tortilla Sacromonte. The ingredients: eggs, potatoes, green and red peppers, chorizo and..finely chopped bull’s testicles! If you don’t think too much about what you are eating it tastes quite good.
A direct road leads from Sacromonte downhill right to Plaza Nueva in the center of Granada. The beauty of this rather steep road is, that it runs along the river Guanil and allows spectacular views of the Alhambra to your left. Two days later, my next trip was scheduled.
The caves of Nerja
Once again, the tour bus picked me up right at my door step and we were on our way to Nerja, a pretty coastal town about 50 miles east of Malaga. Worth a visit but not all that spectacular, Nerja’s great attraction are the caves, which number among the biggest and most important in Europe.
Discovered by chance in 1959 when five guys from a nearby village were kicking a football around which suddenly disappeared into a hole in the ground, the caves leave you in awe.Descending comfortable wooden steps into the netherworld I found myself in fairy tale land. A lot of the magical effect comes from clever lighting which brings out the shapes of the massive stalactites and stalagmites and inspired me to see faces, trees, ghosts and angels.
Stretching for close to 4 miles, only a small part of the caves are currently open to the public, divided into 5 galleries with names like ‘waterfalls’, ‘fantasy’ ‘organ’ etc. A well indicated path leads you from gallery to gallery, with the highlight being the world’s biggest stalagmite which measures 25 meters across.
Close to the entrance, the cave widens out to a natural auditorium with brilliant acoustics, which is why concerts are being held here. It’s also the venue for the yearly International Festival of Dance and Music in July. Sadly, it’s very difficult to obtain tickets.
I was so fascinated by the caves that I went around three times, every time discovering yet more shapes and marvels proving again that nature is indeed the greatest artist of all.
Cordoba beyond the Mesquita
I have to admit that I’m becoming addicted to these day trips. Only a few days later, I went to Cordoba. Ok, yes, I did pay a visit to the world famous Mesquita, how could I not, but when I sat down in a Café on a little square to have a coffee, my eyes were drawn to a museum just across from me. It is located in a very elegant town house and I went to investigate because from a distance it wasn’t clear to me what it was all about.
The sign read Casa Museo Arte Sobre Piel, which means Villa museum of art on leather. Talking to the ladyat reception, it turned out that I had stumbled on the only museum and work shop in the world which is dedicated to reproducing the art of embossing leather in gold, silver and vivid colors.
The artist who is a member of the Garcia Romero family who own the house and the exhibits, recreates a design and techniques dating back to the 10th century and known as Guadameci, developed by Islamic artists during the Omeyan period of the Caliphate of Cordoba.
My eyes widened in admiration as I wandered through five rooms, containing not only richly decorated objects but also huge paintings which I could only describe as Persian carpets but made from leather. Photography is not allowed in the museum, but when I explained to the lady what I do for a living, she took pity on me and graciously permitted me to take just one photo with the flash off.
We talked for nearly an hour about this particular art, the history of Cordoba and the tapas trail as well as the patio flower competition in the month of May. All reasons for a return visit.
Leaving the museum, I made my way to take a look at the old Jewish quarters, when my eyes caught on a black entrance, framed by a blood red velvet curtain and a knight in armor standing guard.
My feet turned in of their own volition and, yet again, I happened upon a museum of a very different kind. The Museum of the Inquisition documents one of the darkest periods in Spanish history, the persecution and torture of presumed heretics, witches and sorcerers during the Middle Ages.
On display were not only paintings which depict the burning of witches on the stakes but also the most cruel and gruesome torture instruments. What made me break out in goose bumps and a cold sweat was the fact, that these instruments were not replicas but originals which had actually been used on real people. The museum is not for the faint hearted, but on the other hand, it’s history and one cannot close ones eyes to historical facts.
No museum without a shop and this one is no exception. To my dismay, I noticed that miniature torture instruments and iron maidens were for sale as souvenirs. How tasteless can you get? I asked the shop assistant if people actually buy these things to which she replied with a wicked grin: ‘Oh yes, to give to their mother- in- law!!’. I swear, I didn’t make this up!
Three wonderful trips later I have only scratched the surface of what Andalucía has to offer. Shortly, I’ll be off again.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD who recently moved from Turkey to Spain. She writes a daily blog and her travel stories are published in many travel websites. Read more of her stories on GoNOMAD.
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