Andalucia: A Flea Market and a Dinner Party


THE WELL-PLANNED ITINERARY for my four-week trip to Spain, France and Italy has already come undone, and I’m only on Day 5. I stayed an extra day with friends in Andalucia, and a jam-packed day it was. I’d never heard of Nerja before this week; it’s a popular holiday destination for Brits, in particular, some of whom were sunbathing today on the quintessentially Mediterranean beach: crescent-shaped bay, aquamarine water, dramatic rock formations.

It being Sunday, we checked out Nerja’s weekly flea market, which was like flea markets everywhere: Thai jewelry, African wood carvings, loads of crap. I took photos of fancy flamenco dresses and things that seemed a bit more indigenous, and enjoyed the classical Spanish guitar played by two young men.


We strolled along the Balcon de Europa, a tiled promenade with a clifftop view of the sea, walked along the beachfront for a bit, and had some tapas before wending our way back into the hills.


Late in the afternoon, there was a small dinner party down the road from my hosts, at the home of a Dutch-American couple who own two adjoining properties that they operate as vacation rentals. Called Cortijo El Carligto, one villa is compact and modern, the other rambling (4 bedrooms) and more traditional; Both are impeccably designed, decorated and landscaped, with swimming pools, outdoor kitchens, terraces and views unmarred by so much as a telephone wire.


Dinner was largely vegetarian and much to my liking, including pizzas baked in a wood-burning oven, and the company more than congenial.


As if to herald my departure tomorrow from this glorious place, the sunset was especially radiant as we walked the quarter-mile home.



Mucho Gusto, Andalucia


EN EL CAMPO (“in the fields”)… that’s where I am. My monthlong European rail trip is well and truly underway. On Thursday I took an AVE train — Spain’s high-speed rail service — from Madrid to Malaga (2-1/2 hours), then caught a local bus and rode an hour east. For the past couple of days, I have been visiting friends deep in the mountains of Andalucia, in the Axarquia region of Malaga province, a part of Spain that feels so ancient you can easily imagine the narrow roads, even now barely paved in parts, plied by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on horse- and donkey-back. Rows of olive trees dot the hillsides. as they have for centuries. The Alhambra, the greatest architectural masterwork of the Muslim rulers of Spain during their 800-year reign, is some 75km distant, beyond the cleft in the rock, above.

My friends, Sylvia and Anton, below, are among the many Northern Europeans who have chosen to live in this sunny, relaxed, affordable region. They’re full-time residents here, as are most of their Dutch and British neighbors.

Syl Anton 1A

Their house, below, began as a cortijo, or farmhouse, with thick stone walls, beamed ceilings, and an entry courtyard, and has since been converted to a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a luxury kitchen, a long rear terrace, and views that challenge my supply of superlatives. Breathtaking is an under-statement. Spectacular barely cuts it.



They’re surrounded by some rustic ruins and some newly built or recently renovated homes, owned mostly by ex-pats.


The nearest village is Canillas de Aceituno, below, where we went yesterday for the small produce market and some errands. Turns out Canillas is known for its Mudejar architecture — the arched doorways and stucco houses built by Hispanic non-Muslims after the Christian re-conquest in 1487. It’s a pretty, house-proud village whose inhabitants decorate their exterior walls with glazed ceramic tiles and potted plants.


Today, Saturday, we drove half an hour down to the coast for a look at the Mediterranean. Lunch was a long, leisurely affair at Berebere, a beachfront restaurant with a Moroccan feel, in the resort town of Torre del Mar.


We’ve been walking the hills, playing with the dogs, eating and drinking well. (That’s Sylvia’s paella, below.)


All is good, with the possible exception of the fact that my Visa cards don’t seem to work here. I’ll figure that out on Monday. Right now, life couldn’t be better.


SPAIN – Day 7: Glimpse of Cordoba


CORDOBA LOOKS LIKE A VERY INTRIGUING PLACE – at least it did in the few hours we had to explore it on Friday. That was the biggest planning error of our trip, IMO — not leaving enough time for Cordoba. By the time we arrived from Granada, three hours away by train, waited for our hotel rooms to be ready, and had some lunch, the day was nearly gone.

There was just enough time to meet our guide, Isabel Martinez Richter, and dash over to the whitewashed Jewish quarter, where the streets are even narrower and zig-zaggier than Seville’s, and peek into the sweet small chapel, that is the only synagogue remaining in Andalusia from the time before the Jews were expelled in 1492. It dates from the 1350s, and was rediscovered and restored in the late 19th century – a high-ceilinged room with clerestory windows, and clear Hebrew Bible inscriptions below later Moorish arches and decoration.


A bronze statue of Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philospher/physician and author of the wonderfully-titled Guide for the Perplexed, stands in the center of the quarter. Cordoba’s golden age was two centuries earlier, when the city thrived under a tolerant Muslim caliph and had a cosmopolitan population of one million (today it’s 1/3 that).


We raced, literally, from there to the mighty Mezquita, the oldest part of which dates to 785. Isabel begged the guards to let us in for the final 15 minutes, but we weren’t allowed to stray past the entrance and had to view the forest of 856 marble columns, topped by candy-striped arches, from a stationary spot near the door.


We contented ourselves taking pictures of the mosque’s magnificent Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges), which may be the oldest continuously gardened site in Europe.


Whereupon we ducked into a crafts market called Zoco (Spanish for ‘souk’) and several artists’ workshops, where we watched Jesus Rey sculpt modernistic human and animal figures of clay, and his cousin, in another old storefront nearby, work embossed leather in the technique that gave “cordovan” leather its name. Cordoba turned out to be a boon for purposes of my upcoming Budget Travel story on inexpensive but worthy souvenirs.


We stopped briefly in a cobblestone plaza for a peek at Cordoba’s archaeological museum, chock full of Roman statues, fine mosaics, and other artifacts dug up locally. There’s a substantial site in the center of the town where a whole temple’s worth of columns still stands from the 1st century A.D.

When Irvina, my travel partner, and I went out again at 9:30PM (having acclimated ourselves by this point to the late Spanish dinner hour), our walk to dinner took us through an incredible, intact 17th century square, Plaza de la Corredera, which happened to be thronged with families attending Cordoba’s annual three-day medieval fair. Under colorful flag-draped tents and wearing turbans, scarves, harem pants, and caftans, folks were purveying food products, soaps, jewelry and leather craft, and other obviously vetted material in what looked like a high-quality and very popular, even raucous, event. There was also an exhibit of rusted iron torture instruments I walked quickly past.

The medieval fair is not the only famous fair in Cordoba. There’s also the Festival de los Patios for 10 days each May, when 70 or so private courtyards typical of the city (dating from Muslim times, when women used them to get sunshine and fresh air without being seen) are decked out in flowers and open to the public. Homeowners compete for cash prizes that Isabel told us engender heated rivalry. We also passed by old-fashioned shops selling hats for bullfighting and business, fabrics and trims, copperware and antiques, but all were sadly closed.


Dinner at Bodegos Campos, an atmospheric, legendary restaurant that is all you would expect of Spanish restaurant decor (thick stucco walls painted rose red, arched windows, heavy wooden doors, wrought iron lighting, beamed ceilings, framed photos and posters), was not very successful. We shared a rice and vegetable dish that was healthy-tasting, but not in a particularly good way.

We left Cordoba early Saturday morning to catch an 8:03 high-speed AVE train back to Madrid (less than two hours; about 70 euros), in order to make the flight back to New York. I tore myself away from Cordoba regretful and unfulfilled. My list for a return visit: more gardens, including the Medina Alzahara, a 10th century caliph’s palace on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, and the Palacio de Viana, which has a dozen planted courtyards.

No, a day in Cordoba, or a week in Andalusia for that matter, is just not enough.


SPAIN – Days 3 & 4: The Blogger of Seville

IMG_0837CITY OF ORANGES, Roman arches, and Moorish tiles, of churches and towers and labyrinthine streets (the better to foil invaders without street maps) under ever-changing Andalusian skies.

But mostly of oranges. Charming beyond belief, colorful, civilized, I am in love with Seville, and it’s harvest time. The trees are laden with beautiful but bitter-tasting oranges that the city will export to Britain, where they’re used to make marmalade. There are orange trees everywhere — on the streets, in courtyard pots, in front of the Casa de Pilatos, below, an early 16th century palazzo in High Italian Renaissance style.


Behind the dazzling domed and decorated halls of Real Alcazar, below, 14th century home of Muslim rulers, there are mandarins, too, and grapefruit, and yellow trumpet flowers in bloom, and orange clivia.


Andalusian gardens are so structured, outdoor room after outdoor room, linked by archways and laid out on axes with fountains where they cross, and the climate is so temperate, that it hardly matters that it’s January. One totally gets the idea, though the magnolias and bougainvillea and jasmine climbing the walls won’t flower until spring, when it must be even more breathtaking.

The sunken gardens in the inner courtyard of the Real Alcazar, above, were designed so that fruit could be picked from the trees without having to reach — a notion derived from a Koran passage, our guide told us.

Centuries later, the gardens were re-done in the formal French style, and so they remain, with hedges of myrtle and oleander enclosing acanthus and agapanthus, jacaranda, date palms, and other (to us) exotics, like the Argentinian ombu, or elephant tree.

As I threaded my way today through Seville’s narrow streets (I mean narrow – see below),


I peeked through wrought iron gates into the courtyards within nearly every house, where I saw gargantuan versions of the same common houseplants I’ve struggled to keep in dry, dark city apartments — ferns, spider plants, philodendron — thriving en masse in terra cotta pots, giving me renewed inspiration for this summer’s containers.

I’m in a hotel I can recommend without reservation (but do make reservations, should you come to Seville). The Casas de la Juderia, in the city’s onetime Jewish quarter, is a patchwork of townhouses as early as the 16th century. Below, one of the hotel’s many arched and tile-bedecked inner courtyards.


The hotel’s central courtyard, below, has been enclosed and furnished in livable Victorian style, with a grand piano, oriental rugs, doily-draped armchairs, urns on pedestals, maps in gilded frames — and, not to worry, WiFi.


My Sevillian home for two nights is Room 21, below, a high-ceilinged suite with cheery yellow walls, where I am comfortable and very happy.

My drink of choice here is fino, the crisp, dry Andalusian sherry that goes down very easily with garlicky grilled shrimp and tortillas potatas (a potato and egg pie), which is what Irvina and I ate last night in a bull-themed tapas bar that in another season might be filled with tourists, but in mid-winter was just us and the locals.