Parts one and two, for those coming in late.

Travel around Andalucía for long and you’ll climb a lot of hills. Every second village seems to be built on one, with a castle at its peak. The horizon in the countryside is a sine wave broken by blips of blocky square waves.

There’s a reason for it, of course: for a thousand years this was one of the most contested territories on earth. A few centuries of Visigoth rule gave way to half a millennium of the Moors, who in turn were pushed back over the centuries by the Christian reconquista.

It takes a special brand of righteousness to see the displacement of a civilisation three times as old as the U.S. as an elaborate undo command, but then there are those today who would have the past half-millennium of Catholic history replaced by a new al-Andalus: Spain as blackboard, wiped clean again and again, with traces of old chalk showing through.

The traces of Islamic Spain certainly are glorious. Seeing them, it’s impossible not to dwell on what once was, and what must have been lost. But it’s important to keep these treasures in perspective: they’re noticable because there’s so much of the new around them. The “uninspiring outer suburbs” the guidebooks complain about around every historic centre simply didn’t exist a few centuries or even decades ago. There just weren’t as many people.

Similarly, the survival of the Alcázar, Mezquita and Alhambra need not imply the loss of dozens of their equals. These buildings were the most important of their time, with more work devoted to their creation than any other. And they’re still here; parts have been damaged, it’s true, and a lot else has been lost, but these have survived, and they’re the equal of any monument in the world.

The wider landscape, too, is still full of hidden treasures. We detoured to Baños de la Encina on impulse, on the basis of a single sentence in a guidebook, and it was one of my favourite sights in Andalucía: its Moorish castle a golden-red archetype of castleness, its houses a tumble of white walls and red roofs downhill.

Baeza and Ubeda were covered in elaborate Renaissance carvings. Jane’s anagram namesake of Jaen, when we approached it from Ubeda, was set against a castle on a hill with mountains behind, too steep to climb to from the city centre itself. And the central valley of the Alpujarras south of Granada was an amazing sight, with the villages of Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira dotted up the hillside ahead of us.

But Granada itself was the peak our trip was climbing towards. Overlooking it is the Alhambra, the castle-walled complex of palaces and gardens built by the Nasrid dynasty and left remarkably intact by their Christian conquerors. We started out in the dark hours of the morning and five degree temperatures to walk uphill to its ticket office, to be early enough to score some of the limited tickets available each day. It seemed liked overkill, but half an hour after the Nasrid Palaces opened they were as full as a blockbuster exhibition.

Later in the day we visited Granada’s cathedral, its airy white walls and ceiling offering relief from the bleeding Jesuses in every alcove. Every church in Spain is full of gilded and polychrome statues and retablos of Christ’s infancy and agony, with a special emphasis on his wounds. Every interior is a Mel Gibson storyboard.

In the royal chapel next door, the king and queen who launched a thousand bleeding wounds lay beneath their marble effigies in lead coffins, safe from admirers, x-rays and kryptonite. At the end of two weeks in the ancient land of the Moors, it was hard to see Fernando and Isabel (as the Spanish call Ferdinand and Isabella) as superheroes. They and their successors kicked out the people who made Andalucía’s wonders—not only the Moors, but also the Jews—and used their loot to send Cristobal Colón to the new world, to start a colonic on its wonders as well. Even more disturbingly, as their own polychrome statues revealed, the two of them were the exact image of Donny and Marie Osmond.

But they’re history now, and their history is an inextricable part of what has made Spain, and especially this part of it, such a fascinating place.

At the end of our stay in Granada I found the perfect ten-cent postcard of the Alhambra: backed by snow-capped mountains, with a cut-out figure from a Catholic retablo superimposed on the sky. I bought one to send to a friend, and wrote:

To my mind, nothing sums up better the rich and complex history of Andalucia, with its long years of Moorish rule followed by final Christian re-conquest, than this image of the Virgin Mary hovering like a UFO above the defenceless Alhambra.

You can find Baños, Baeza, and the defenceless Alhambra in this third and final set of Andalucía photos.

20-27 March 2004

Here’s what people said about this entry.

mwahahha... it will be hard to find a better postcard that one :)

really enjoyed those posts, great stuff! (especially liked the mel gibson line!)

Added by shauna on a Sunday in March.