Wednesday, November 14, 2007



Granada, a picturesque city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is known as the jewel of Andalucia. Granada is the Arabic name for the pomegranate, the reddish fruit with many seeds, which is very common in the area--think Grenadine.

Granada is most famous for the Alhambra, which was the Sultan's palace and is the most popular tourist attraction in Spain. We arrived in the late afternoon and stayed at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, down the street from the famous palace. We weren't scheduled to tour it until the next morning--you have to reserve times. So we caught a public bus to go across town to St. Nicholas Church, originally built as a fort, and now a popular spot where people gather to watch the sunset over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This place was a hippie haven, a throwback to the 1960's wich the small of pot wafting through the air and people in tie-dyed clothes carrying guitars and other instruments. We sat with a Japanese movie crew filming the sunset and the Alhambra, a few miles away, across the river valley.

Early the next morning, we visited the Alhambra Palace. Alhambra, in Arabic, means "red hill" for the red clay composition of its walls. The outside is somewhat mundane, but the inside is magnificent. The Moors' policy was to incorporate the beauty on the inside of their structures, but not the outside. This Moorish castle took 200 years to build, even without the necessity of government permits, and was completed in the 1200's. An examination of the detail in the floors, walls and ceilings makes it evident that it couldn't be completed overnight. One cannot capture the essence of the decorations in mere words, you must see it to appreciate it. The Moorish architecture incorporates stylized designs such as 5 and 6 pointed stars, Arabic calligraphy and flowers. No people are depicted, except in later additions constructed by the Christians after the fifteenth century. The palace has hundreds of rooms and covers 30 acres, including the grounds.

Adjacent to the Alhambra is the Generalife gardens dating from the 1800's, with beautiful arched hedges of cedar, and numerous varieties of flowers. The gardens were used and enjoyed by the royal family.

Jim and Liz from Arizona. Liz grew up a "cheesehead" in Platteville, Wisconsin, and met Jim, a Boeing executive. A second marriage for both, they moved around the country--Seattle, Philadelphia, Arizona. Both are retired now. Jim is a very caring and gentle man, and Liz is a boisterous and gregarious lady who gave us light hearted fun at our parties and dinners. Liz had some difficulty walking over the cobblestones and uneven surfacts in the ancient cities we toured, and she will be having knee replacements in the near future. We spent a lot of time with them over drinks in the hotel lobbies. Liz celebrated her birthday with the tour group in Madrid, and Joe, the tour director, provided a cake.


Cordoba was a great center of learning and culture during the Middle Ages. It once was the largest city in Western Europe with over 600,000 people. Today, the population is less than half that. The former glory of Cordoba is evident in and around the old, walled city where one finds 3 statues of the great philosophers native to Cordoba, representing the 3 major religions. The Arab poet Ibn Hazam (994-1064), the Christian philosopher and jurist Averroes (1126-1198), and the Jewish theologian and physician, Moses ben Maimon, a/k/a Maimonides (1135-1204), who has streets and hotels named after him. Actually Maimonides and his family had to flee the country to avoid persecution at the hands of fanatics. He went to Fez, in Morocco, and then to Egypt where he eventually became personal physician to the sultan Saladin.

Although there are few, if any, Jews in Cordoba today, the city celebrates its Jewish history and maintains one of the three medieval synagogues in Spain today. The Jewish Quarter in the walled city is a major attraction. The Jews were ordered to leave Spain in 1492, during the Inquisition, and some trickled back in relatively recent times. I was told there are 4 synagogues in Gibraltar and another 4 in Malaga, on the Costa del Sol.

The tour guids emphasized that the Spanish people and government encourage Jews to return to Spain, but few have done so. The Cordoba synagogue ("la sinagoga"), a small unassuming building on a narrow street, remains empty except for a small menorah which apparently was placed as an afterthought. The inside of the building is Moorish style with arches and tiled multicolored inlaid walls. It contains a balcony where the women would sit during the services.

We walked through the narrow, winding streets that see little sunlight. The reason for that it that the weather is extremely hot in summer, and the architects attempted to create as much shade as possible. Inside, the houses have shaded courtyards.

The other major attraction is the Great Mosque, which is now, under the Catholics, called the Mezquita Cathedral. This is the second largest mosque in the world, covering 6 acres, slightly larger than a Super WalMart. This building is renowned world wide for hundreds of its characteristic red and white striped arches and towering ceilings. The Great Mosque was built on the site of a former Roman temple. It became a Cathedral in 1239, shortly after the Christians conquered the city, and part of the inside was remodeled, with intricate polished wood carvings, to accommodate the Cathedral.

In Cordoba, we stayed at the Hesperia Hotel, right across the street from the ancient Roman Bridge, which is closed, undergoing major repairs. We had a fine dinner at the Caballo Rojo (red horse) restaurant, about 2 blocks from the hotel as the crow flies, but a $10 cab ride to take the long way avoiding the bridge. We ate with John and Diane from Connecticut and our Chicago friends, Richard and Tessa. John, being a college professor, did the research and informed us that the Frommer's Guide rated it the best restaurant in town.

I had Sefardic salad, which consisted of roast asparagus with mushrooms, tuna and roasted red peppers. The waiter didn't speak English, so we weren't sure what we were getting. Tessa had fried eggplant in honey which was delicious. I had sea bream, which is a type of bony fish. It was tasty, but had too many bones. Richard and John had roast venison, which tasted like steak. Diane had duck with artichokes in sauce. This was a very fine meal, quite expensive, but the company was great.


An hour or two north of Cordoba we stopped at a roadside restaurant in which the owner was a big fan of Generalissimo Franco, the long time dictator of Spain who died in 1975. Several members of our tour were offended by Franco and wouldn't buy anything. History gives Franco mixed reviews. Like much of the media in America today, when things were bad, Franco blamed the Republicans. In the Spanish Civil War (1935-39), however, the Republicans were the leftists, supported by the Soviet Union, while Franco, supported by the Fascist Germans and Italians, made many enemies in the West when he brutally crushed the leftist opposition.

I pointed out to those incredulous members of our tour that, although Franco had some odious friends like Hitler and Mussolini, he did save thousands of European Jews (expecially Hungarian Jews, but also Jews from Greece, Bulgaria and Romania) during World War II by issuing them Spanish passports and allowing them safe passage through Spain;. Also, he refused, despite the pleas of his "friends", to persecute those Jews living in Spain at that time. In fact, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee operated openly in Barcelona. Well known Orthodox Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Sinai Heritage Director, pointed out "Spain under Franco helped save more Jews than any other country during the war; anyone who could make to Spain or one of its embassies survived. This is a fact."

Marshia & George, from Philadelphia. Marshia was widowed several years ago, and she met George while building a Habitat for Humanity house with her church in Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina. She learned to hang drywall with the best of them. George is a park ranger at a state park, essentially a rural cop enforcing the drug laws in the parks. Marshia is an avid Phillies fan and season ticket holder with eternal hope despite the Phils' 10,000 losses. After the tour, they stayed on for a extra day in Madrid, and toured the Palacio Real with us. We shared a delicious paella lunch with them at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.


In this small town, we stayed in the historic Parador, formerly a Franciscan monastery, which was the most rustic accommodations of our entire trip. Although it was reasonably comfortable, it was Spartan living for us, with rough hewn wood walls, floors, and paneling. Our tour director, Joe, led a walk to the historic town plaza where we went shopping at a store which made frilly lace. We watched those artisans creating those lacy designs and bought some lace pillow cases.


While the windmills don't look anything like the windmill farms of today, they are a prized part of Spanish history. We arrived on this hill on a cold, windy morning with a hint of rain, and relived the story of Cervantes' fearless knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, who jousted with the windmills. Joe broke out several bottles of local wine and we toasted the brave knight, and then took many photographs.

Next: Toledo--meet "The Greek"; and Madrid, the Geographic center of Iberia and the magnificent capital of Spain.



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