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Versions of Andalusia

Myth and history blend together under the blazing sun of southern Spain. Liam Lacey tours some of the region’s more contentious sites in an attempt to untangle the truth

A panoramic view of the famous Alhambra de Granada, Andalusia, Spain. (bluejayphoto / iStockphoto)

Because I took the wrong train from Malaga’s Costa del Sol Airport, west instead of east, I found myself at the stop for Torremolinos and the name immediately evoked a kind of audible hallucination: Eric Idle’s nasal sneer, from the vintage Monty Python travel-shop sketch, railing against the British package tourist set on the Spanish coast:

“And, once a week, there’s an excursion to the local Roman ruins where you can buy Cherryade and melted ice-cream and bleeding Watney’s Red Barrel and one night they take you to a local restaurant … and you sit next to a party from Rhyl who keep singing Torremolinos, Torremolinos …”

Can we ever see a new place except through the filters of our preconceptions? In Andalusia, a mountainous region south of Spain on the Mediterranean coast, the vines of myth and history are particularly difficult to entangle: Much of what is recognized as Spanish, from bullfighting and flamenco, to hordes of British beach tourists – are predominantly Andalusian in origin.

Take that most Andalusian of stereotypes, the Gypsy temptress Carmen from the opera by Georges Bizet, a Frenchman who never set foot across the Pyrenees. Not Spanish, right? Not so fast. In the wake of the heroic Andalusian two-and-a-half-year resistance to Napoleon’s troops at Cadiz, all of Europe became fascinated with Andalusian culture. As cultural anthropologist William Washabaugh explains in the book Flamenco on the Global Stage: “Spaniards themselves from all across the peninsula began taking pride in their raggle-taggle lifestyle, bullfighting became the rage across Spain, and flamenco took Europe by storm. This trend culminated in Carmen.” The femme fatale became “Spain’s own tragic identity marker.”

As I take the train back to Malaga, I’m thinking about the Andalusian progression, a characteristic flamenco four-chord sequence, descending from a yearning minor to a defiant major. You can hear it in Chanson Boheme from Carmen, but also in pop songs, such as Hit the Road, Jack. My Andalusian progression will take me from the new cultural capital of Malaga to the Alhambra palace in Granada and the Great Mosque Cathedral of Cordoba. Along the way, I vow to try my best to separate the Andalusian from Anda-illusion.

Malaga: Gateway or stop and stay a while?

The opening of a major Picasso museum in 2003 helped transform Malaga from pit stop to cultural destination. (Sean Pavone / iStockphoto)

As home to the major airport in southern Spain, Malaga is often dubbed “gateway to the Costa del Sol,” the travel brochure name for the narrow 300-kilometre strip of resort towns, both posh and budget, that sprawls along the Mediterranean coast. “A good place to pass through,” said American travel guru Rick Steves on his television show a few years ago.

Today, Malaga has another reputation: Cultural hub, a city of more than 30 museums, with the best art viewing in Spain outside of Barcelona and Madrid. You can credit the change, indirectly, to the long brush of the 20th century’s most famous painter, Pablo Picasso, even if he left the city at the age of 10.

“The city centre is unrecognizable from what it was 15 years ago,” my tour guide, Alejandro Perez-Malumbres Landa, says as we have lunch on the rooftop terrace of the AC Hotel Malaga Palacio, overlooking two of the city’s most improved areas: The Old Town, with the cathedral with its egg-domed tower and buzzing, café-lined plazas, and to the south, the renovated port with its covered promenade.

When Museo Picasso Malaga opened in 2003, its effect was transformative. The city’s long-time mayor, Francisco de la Torre Prados, put culture on top of an economic renewal plan. After all, it worked in Bilbao following the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum there in 1997.

The entrance of the Pablo Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain. (iStockphoto)

The Picasso museum includes 233 works in the permanent collection, with another 43 on temporary loan. The bulk were donated by the artist’s daughter-in-law, Christine Ruiz Picasso, and her son, Bernard. It is a fraction of the artist’s more than 45,000 works, but it’s a uniquely personal collection covering eight decades of work, focusing on family and his women muses, from childhood to the months before his death at 91.

The same year the museum opened, the town centre was designated a pedestrian and historical area. A Roman theatre, uncovered during a building excavation in the 1950s, was restored as a working performance space. More museums followed, notably the contemporary art museum and the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Malaga, focusing on 19th century Spanish painting. Last year, Malaga raised its culture status with the opening of a satellite of Paris’s famous Centre Pompidou: The Centre Pompidou of Malaga sits beneath a coloured glass cube near the port, where about 750,000 visitors a year arrive on cruise ships. Last year saw the opening of another European branch museum, the State Russian Museum St. Petersburg, known as the Coleccion del Museuo Ruso, which is in an old tobacco factory.

“Years ago, all the tourists would turn right as they left the airport, heading directly to the Costa del Sol,” the mayor boasted to the Guardian last year. “Now they stop in Malaga.”

The port of Malaga, Spain. (Liam Lacey)

Malaga’s decision to look to history for its future is a reminder that Malaga has been a stopping point for a long time. Founded in 770 BC by seafaring Phoenicians from the Mideast, this is one of the world’s oldest cities, an archeological lasagna of Celtic, Greek, Byzantine, Roman and North African inhabitants. Two years ago, actor Antonio Banderas, another native son, bought a penthouse overlooking the old Roman theatre at the foot of the hill that holds the well-preserved Moorish citadel, the Alcabaza.

A pathway takes you to the ruins of the 14th-century castle, the Gibralfaro, with the best vantage in town to watch the latest waves of invaders arrive from the cruise ships, and sweep through the town.

Granada, a psychedelic puzzle

Granada was briefly home to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 – the same year they sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World. (LuisMascoPH / iStockphoto)

The association of Moorish culture and sensual indulgence runs deep in Andalusia. The direct inspiration is the fortress-castle of Alhambra, which looms behind red, crenelated walls, overlooking the city of Granada. Here, in 1492, the last Arabic dynasty, the Nasrids, surrendered to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who claimed it as their trophy and briefly lived here. The same year, they sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World, and Spain became the richest empire in the world.

Alhambra’s own fortunes fell – it became a hospital, a debtors’ prison, a munitions dump – until it was rediscovered by late 18th- and early 19th-century literary travellers.

“Such is the Alhambra,” wrote Washington Irving, who spent the summer of 1829 living here. “A modern pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away.”

A garden in Alhambra. (iStockphoto)

How brave and elegant the Nasrids were is debatable – seven of the first nine of the sultans were assassinated – but the romantic reputation endures. Today, Alhambra is one of Spain’s major attractions, drawing 2.5-million visitors a year, though what exactly they are seeing is hard to define.

In his book on Alhambra, Richard Irwin writes: “There is uncertainty and dispute about every single feature of the Alhambra – its architecture, chronology, iconography, nomenclature and the way it was originally occupied. We are dealing not so much with a body of knowledge as a body of wild guesses.”

Walking through the chambers of the palaces is, literally, entrancing. Buildings and hedges are doubled in watery reflection, honeycombed ceilings seem to sway like pearl-and-lace wedding dresses, and the complex tile patterns make the walls dance. It’s no surprise that the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, inspired by visits to Alhambra, was enthusiastically embraced by the hippie generation as psychedelic.

Walking through the Alhambra. (Liam Lacey)

Authenticity is a trickier question. Alhambra could be seen as less a Moorish artifact than a 500-year-long restoration project, what one writer calls “a stepchild of history.” The construction materials – ceramics, wood, stucco – are fragile, and much of it is restored. A once famous mosque was razed, buildings that were separate were connected. In the 16th century, Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, Charles V, plunked a vast half-finished palace in the Alhambra, which now serves as an outdoor music venue. Even the splendid gardens around the Alhambra and the Generalife summer residence, are recreations from the last century.

An average of more than 6,000 people a day make their way through the Alhambra, but the place is quiet, almost reverent. During my visit to the Court of the Myrtles, an excited murmur passed through the crowd: The glassy perfection of the pond had broken into ripples when an orange cat, the current sultan of the palace, scooped a goldfish from the water and took it back to the myrtle hedge to eat. A minute later, it was back at his post, staring through its reflection for a fresh victim.

Inside the Alhambra. (Consulate General of Spain)

From the walls of the Alhambra, you can look down on the Albayzin neighbourhood, the old Muslim quarter. In the past 30 years, the narrow streets have been inhabited by Moroccan merchants, whose narrow shops selling leather goods and ceramics make the area resemble an Arab market again.

In 2003, Granada saw the opening of its first mosque in more than 500 years. Nowadays, instead of merchant caravans, lines of tourists on Segway tours roll through the medieval streets.

Cordoba: Praying for peace

Though currently a catholic church, the Mezquita has a rich and complex history as both a Christian and Islamic holy site. (Liam Lacey)

We arrive in Cordoba, on a typical 36 C summer day, clutching our water bottles and ready to see the best the 10th century had to offer. Here, the Umayyad Dynasty, who had settled in Spain after being deposed from Damascus, declared a new caliphate, the spiritual leaders of the Muslim world. Not just a city, Cordoba, like Jerusalem or Athens, is a symbolic city: A place where, according to one version of history, Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed and, collectively, excelled in philosophy, science and the arts. The idea of La Convivencia, or “co-existence” of the three Abrahamic faiths, is often alluded to in Spanish tourist materials, an alternative to the cruelty of the Inquisition or the Franco years. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a 2009 speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University, held up Cordoba as proof of Islam’s historic tolerance.

The Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain. (Consulate General of Spain)

But the Cordoba mythology is politically contentious, distorted by Middle East animosities and the aftermath of 9/11. In 2010, the name “Cordoba House,” was dropped from the proposed Islamic cultural centre near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. Critics such as conservative politician Newt Gingrich argued that Cordoba was no model society, but a place where Christians and Jews were subjugated by their Muslim overlords. Princeton historian Mark R. Cohen, who has written a couple of Huffington Post columns on the subject, says the truth lies somewhere in the middle. No doubt Jews and Christians in Cordoba were second-class citizens – but they enjoyed more religious and economic autonomy than non-Christians in the rest of medieval Europe.

A visit to the famous building known as the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, or the Great Mosque of Cordoba, is a peculiar exercise in cultural whiplash. Inside the old mosque prayer hall, about the size of three football fields, there is a forest of more than 850 candy-striped red-and-white columns, supporting arches, holding up higher arches.

A medieval Arab visitor compared them to palm trees at an oasis, though the impression today is more like a grand long-abandoned railway station, where the tourists, with their guide maps, suggest passengers checking their schedules: Last train for Paradise.

The Moorish architecture of the praying hall in the Mezquita. (Jose Ignacio Soto / iStockphoto)

Then, you pass through an arch and abruptly find you have stepped into a 16th-century Renaissance-Baroque cathedral, Our Lady of the Assumption. The soaring nave was created by knocking a hole in the mosque’s roof. The Islamic abstraction gives way to representation of living figures: paintings and statues of holy figures, including a statue of the legendary hero of the Christian reconquest, St. James the Moorslayer, sword aloft, with a couple of Moorish heads rolling under his horse’s hooves. When Charles V saw the renovation that he had approved from afar, he reportedly regretted that the mosque had been so altered: “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”

The Barrio Judera (Jewish Quarter) in Cordoba, Spain. (Consulate General of Spain)

Harmony does not yet reign on this doubly sacred site. In recent years, Spanish Muslims have unsuccessfully petitioned the Catholic Church for permission to pray in the mosque again. In April, the Cordoba city council overturned the local diocese’s attempt to register ownership of the building, a UNESCO heritage site since the eighties.

“Religious consecration is not the way to acquire property,” admonished the report. Instead, the hybrid religious site belongs to “each and every citizen of the world from whatever epoch and regardless of people, nature, culture or race.”

Malaga: Back to beginning

The cathedral in the centre of Malaga’s Old Town is one of the iconic scenes of the ancient – and recently revitalized – city. (Consulate General of Spain)

Midnight, back in Malaga, and the festival of San Juan, marking eve of St. John the Baptist’s birthday and the summer solstice, is in full swing. Groups of friends and families in bathing suits make their way to the shore, carrying coolers of food and drinks, and stake out spots on the man-made beach called La Malagueta. Dozens of bonfires are burning around the horseshoe-shaped port. Some people are sending flaming lanterns up into the sky over the Mediterranean, keeping light alive through the shortest night of the year.

Here, with my toes in the ocean in the flickering light and smoke, my progression ends and I reach an Andalusian conclusion: History comes and goes; myths live on. These solstice bonfire festivals have continued to take place throughout Europe for centuries, perhaps fading embers of celebrations to an ancient Celtic sun god. The thought makes me think more charitably of the tourists who flock in droves to the Costa del Sol each summer: They are worshippers of the ancient people of the Sun King, their scorched skin a burnt offering, celebrating with libations of Cherryade and Watney’s Red Barrel beer.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourspain and the Andalusian Tourism Board. They did not review or approve the article.


A courtyard in the Alhambra. (Liam Lacey)

If you go

Air Transat offers direct flights from Montreal to Malaga. If you’re including it in a European itinerary, the popular airport has daily links to more than 100 cities in Europe, led by visitors from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

As a relaxing alternative, the AVE high-speed trains from Madrid take only about two hours to Cordoba or two hours and 20 minutes to Malaga.

Where to Stay

Malaga: AC Hotel Malaga Palacio has a perfect location for close-up views of the Malaga Catedral and the port, next door to the Old Town and the Picasso Museum. Atico, the bar and restaurant on the 15th floor, provides great views as well as a swimming pool. Rooms from $142. Calle Cortina del Muelle, 1,

Granada: The comfortably old-fashioned Hotel Hesperia Granada, with 68 rooms around an interior courtyard, is in the heart of the historic district. Close by is the Royal Chapel, burial site of the Kings Ferdinand and Isabella, the old Moorish district, the Albacin and the Plaza Nueve, shuttles can transport you to the Alhambra if the 20-minute uphill walk is too daunting. Rooms from $87. Plaza de Gamboa,

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the city of Granada in Spain as “Grenada”.