Sunday, July 2, 2017

June 2017: Cadiz, Sevilla & Ronda

Cadiz is a Port City with Many Park Areas
We spent just a single night in Arcos and headed out Tuesday morning, backtracking a bit south and further west to the coastal town of Cadiz.  This large city is mostly notable as a deep water port on Spain’s southwest coast (and thus is a handy stopover point when the weather in the Gibraltar Straits is nasty), but we wanted to check it out.  So we wandered around a bit – very pretty parks – had a coffee and juice in one of the sidewalk plaza cafes, and headed back north for Sevilla (aka Seville), another two hours of driving.

There are a couple of notable sights one will notice when driving the winding mountain roads of southern Spain.  The first is the number of large wind farms consisting of dozens of large – over 90 meters tall (300 feet) – power-generating wind turbines; there is always a breeze here and Spain has been one of the leaders in their deployment and use, currently ranked fifth in the world.  Also noticeable are the large, expansive fields of yellow sunflowers; the government long ago began encouraging their growth here to produce sunflower seed oil to compete with the more expensive olive oils that were in an oversupply state throughout the Mediterranean countries.  Spaniards are adaptive.
Not Your Don Quixote Windmills...These Turbines Produce
Prodigious Amounts of Electricity

The drive to Sevilla reminded us how lucky we were to have GPS and Google Maps available to us – we’re not at all certain we would have found any of the places for which we were searching without those aids. And when in the townships, if you can’t navigate the numerous roundabouts here, you will find yourself in an accidentally perpetual holding pattern.  As for the art or science of finding a place to park – we have not figured out that part yet.  When we arrived in “old” Sevilla and supposedly within a few hundred meters of our hotel, where once again many streets were the perfect width for an undernourished horse, we had to give up.  We found a garage about a klick away and walked with our luggage in tow to the hotel.
Our Room at Las Casas de la Juderia

But it was worth it.  Our hotel was a tourist destination all on its own.  The Hotel Las Casas de la Judería de Sevilla is comprised of 27 traditional houses and it has 134 different rooms which are linked through 40 patios, gardens and a labyrinth of small passageways.  It’s best to bring something to make a breadcrumb trail if you go wandering, as Chelle accidentally discovered.  She wrote the following that night in an email to her mum:

We were unable to successfully order a cheese platter from room service so I ventured out while Rick continued to work on boat contracts/negotiations.  I found my way out (yay).  Walked across the street to tapas bar, bought a bottle of wine and 2 tapas to go.  Then walked back to our hotel restaurant for a glass of ice for Rick’s scotch.  Tried an exit and staircase back to our room but got lost.  Backtracked to the restaurant, found the office again and the way to our elevator, found our floor then lost again.  Oh yeah, back outdoors (thru a tiny windowed door), across a rooftop terrace to our room – found it!  It’s an absolute maze.  We rec’d a map of the hotel which is as hard to decipher as a city map!  The room is really cool (big & funky, loft-like) but Rick’s bound to walk into a rafter or 2 before we leave.

Another Cafe & More Tapas
That last statement turned out to be painfully prophetic, but we still loved the room. That evening we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through some of these historic streets of the old town section, and helped out the local economy by consuming more tapas and drinks to wrap up another fine day.

Chelle had booked one of Sevilla’s walking tours that come highly recommended in Rick Steves’ guides, so after a light breakfast of coffee and croissants we headed out at 1000 to meet our guide, Alphonso, in a nearby town square.  The square was coincidentally the site of a protest by sanitation workers (which would turn out to be slightly foreshadowing), reminding us that left-leaning unions are an integral part of Spain’s current culture with an approximate 20% density (about twice that of the U.S.). While peaceful, the demonstration was very noisy, so we had to re-start our tour a block or so away.

For the next two hours, however, we were thoroughly entertained as well as educated.  Alphonso’s English was quite good, as was his sense of humor, irony and history.  Once again we were treated to architectural and cultural reflections of Sevilla’s checkered history, from Carthaginians and the Roman Empire in the early period; then the Visigoths and Christians eras; followed by the Moorish Muslim conquest and ultimately the retaking of Spain by Christian King Ferdinand III circa mid 1200’s.  Alphonso also made it a point to show us how to find some of the more interesting areas of the city on our own after the tour.
Somewhere Underneath There's More to the Arches & Columns

At various points along our tour Alphonso also pointed out some recurring themes and symbols; for instance the oddly short look of the columns and arches….which are indeed at least a meter shorter than they were originally before sediment over the centuries built up and the resilient people of Sevilla began building on top of them.

An then there is the fairly prominent repetition of an anagram that reads “NO8DO” appearing on sewer lids, facades, service vehicles, the city’s coat of arms, and a number of other inauspicious places.  Our guide slyly observed that American author Dan Brown would have all sorts of fun with it, and that a number of attributions and legends exist. 

The NO8DO Anagram Appears Frequently in Sevilla
But the most popular is that it’s basically a pun, combining two Spanish syllables (NO and DO) and a drawing in between of the figure "8"; the figure represents a skein of yarn, or in Spanish, a madeja. When read aloud, "No madeja do" sounds like "No me ha dejado", which means "It has not abandoned me".  And that apparently is in reference to the retaking of Sevilla by Ferdinand III from the Muslim (Moors) in 1248.

After our tour concluded we had yet another leisurely lunch at yet another sidewalk café, accompanied by what Alphonso recommended as the best “local” beer, Cruzcampo. (Which, by the way, is actually Heineken’s premier brand in Spain.)  He also taught us that the locals drink it in small portions – not out of any sense of restraint, but because they prefer their brews very cold….so they end up eventually ordering several.
It's Easy to Find Several Centuries of Different Architectures
in a Single Complex in Sevilla

That led Rick right into a quality siesta time back at the room.  And of course Chelle went walking and shopping.

Our goal the following day was to complete the drive and a visit to Ronda, another of the “White Hill Towns” in the Andalusia region.  Graced with another late checkout time (Rick was really digging on the “Spanish time” sensibilities) we meandered to the front desk to check out and, since we had managed to park our rental vehicle quite a distance away, hire a taxi vs. hauling our four bags across a chunk of the city.  That led to this exchange:

Rick:  Englais, par favor…we need a taxi.
Front desk:  Lo siento, senor…no taxis today….on strike, just today…from 9 until 3 o’clock.
Rick:  A labor strike….just here….only today?
Front desk:  Si
Rick:  Pardone….you’re just pushing my buttons…right?
Notice the Shade Coverings in Sevilla....It Gets
Hot Here in the Summers

Surprisingly all three of the friendly hotel staff at the front desk seemed to comprehend that very American idiomatic phrase as they all laughed and shrugged apologetically.  We chuckled with them, grabbed our bags and walked to the parking garage.

Driving the approach to Ronda was very similar to what we had experienced getting up to Arcos….twisting and steadily ascending two lane roads, terminating in another quaint mountain-top town perched on some interesting cliffs.  Our selected hotel here was a bit different in that it was more of a modern Spanish resort, plus it actually had its own parking lot with space available.  But its views were nonetheless yet another treat.

Another Hotel with Stunning Views in Ronda
While Ronda doesn’t have all the character of Arcos it still retains a lot of old world charm, with plenty of shops, cafes, restaurants, churches, convents and basilicas.  It seems to draw more tourist traffic than does Arcos, and part of that might be due to the newer resorts that cater to that, along with its famous and picturesque gorge.

The El Tajo Gorge is a gigantic gash in the ground, about 120 meters deep (nearly 400 feet) and formed by eons of natural erosion.  The current bridge spanning that river and gorge, connecting the “old” and “new” settlements of Ronda, was started in 1759 and took 34 years to build. The one previous to that had fallen down after only six years, so presumably they learned a lot in that process.
The El Tajo Gorge and the Bridge That Spans the "New"
and "Old" Town Sections

Ronda is also home to the oldest bull ring stadium in Spain, the Plaza del Toros, built in the 18th century (started in 1761 and completed in 1783) and still in use today.  While bullfighting has historical roots that date back to ancient Greece and Rome, its popularity as a competitive blood sport really only goes back to the 1700’s when Spanish Royalty popularized it via theatrically costumed displays that drew both commoner and privileged attention as entertainment and aspirational value.

It’s also easy to find social events here in Ronda that feature the famous Flamenco dance.  We didn’t have to look far or hard, as our hotel had musicians and a dancer performing in their open air courtyard when we returned from our touring for the day.

Some Flamenco Dancer Action at Our Ronda Hotel
We slept in, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the hotel restaurant (a quality buffet of local dishes), then jumped back into the rental car for the drive back to Malaga. (Dropping the car in Malaga was not our preference in the beginning, but leaving it in a different location was amazingly pricey; and dropping in Lisbon, our original preference, would have been well over a thousand Euros.  Rick tried to explain that we did not want to buy the damned thing, we just wanted to borrow it for a few days…but to no avail.)

While only 102 km away, it took nearly two hours for the drive to Malaga as the roads were largely two lane and winding through the picturesque foothills. Passing slower autos on some of the blind switch-backs seemed to be a daredevil sport to those Spaniards with the higher end vehicles. We dropped the rental car back at the airport, grabbed a taxi there for the short ride to our hotel, the Barcelo Malaga.  It was a comfortable modern place and immediately adjacent to the Zambrano rail station, where we planned to catch a train to Madrid the following afternoon.
Malaga Doesn't Have the Charm But it Has the Shopping

Malaga isn’t normally a recommended stop in southern Spain except as a transportation hub, as that’s about the only consistent thing going for it.  But if you need to catch a flight or train to just about anywhere else in western Europe, it will serve that purpose well enough. Chelle was certain, however, that Malaga had more to offer, so off she went hunting the big city streets for something more redeeming than a few overcrowded beaches, and some planes and trains….while Rick enjoyed another siesta before tending to more administrative business that still beckoned from back home.

Whole Grouper Prepared at the Table....It Was Quite Good
Ultimately she did find a city center area that was clean, inviting and quite vibrant – large crowds of locals and tourists meandering walkways both wide and narrow – the wide ones mostly had modern retail storefronts, the narrow ones were lined with the (equally new and modern) tapas cafes and restaurants.  It was a better place to spend the evening than the hotel.  While lacking the old time charm that we so enjoyed in Sevilla, Arcos and Ronda, the service was still excellent and so was the food.  We split a bottle of wine and a whole grouper (e.g., it still had the head and tail); but our waiter was meticulous about preparing it at our table for easy consumption.  And in true Spanish style we didn’t complete our meal until around 2230 (10.30pm).