Sunday, February 15, 2009

Alhambra, Evening Light

Why write the name of your lover on every orange in Seville, or make promises about spring and the cherry trees when, as the day wants to pass into tomorrow, you might walk unknowingly into bliss up the narrow hill roads of the Albayzin to the Mirador San Nicholás to gaze upon a beauty nothing else can match?

You reach the little view point near Mezquita Mayor de Granada, the new mosque serving Granada’s re-surging Muslim population, and there, before you, the Alhambra in evening light all along La Sabika hill, and in the far-off nearby, the Sierra Nevada, its snows fresh from last night’s storm. The air is cool but not cold, with lovely freshets rising off the green valley and the river Darro. The view point is filled with people, dogs, babies, and traveling hippies selling handmade jewelry. You don’t need any handmade jewelry, but you have a look anyway because it’s all part of the scene. And as the sun drops lower, the light on the palace walls drops too, a brighter yellow gone all ruddy warm. You stand at the edge of it, needing nothing else to feed you, imagining the colorful, silk-draped world the Muslims created in southern Spain long ago, and you decide that it was good.

That was the moment I had been hoping for, the moment to end my suffering after an oh-so-ordinary tour of the Alhambra. What, with 6,000 people passing through each day, each one required to follow a guide, for better or for worse, and that guide speaking whatever language you speak, her eye on you so that you don’t wander off to a quiet corner and enjoy yourself, wander off to feel the place as Irving felt it, alone, in the dark, his body a pile of tender bones upon the cold, hard invulnerable floors. No. You won’t get any such luxury here, and certainly little enjoyment, trapped inside a sea of people, group after group, wave after wave, the click and whir of countless little cameras, the swish-swishing of fat legs meeting in the middle, the plastic bag sound of a million square yards of Gortex, all of it, all of them together a tired mass of writhing eels, and you, yourself, the worst little eel of all.

The Alhambra, to say something of its history, dates from the 9th century, when it was built as a hilltop fortress by the Muslim rulers of the day. Over the next few hundred years, it was expanded into a fortress palace. Then in 1492, Abu Abd Allah, the last Muslim king of Granada, handed over the keys to Ferdinand and Isabella. Various obscenities followed—the razing of the mosque for construction of a Catholic church, destruction of part of the Palacio Nazaries for the Palacio de Carlos V, and the eventual closure of the bath. Later, the fortress was abandoned and forgotten and occupied by beggars and thieves. During Napoleon’s little Narcissism, the great Alhambra was used as a barracks and livestock stable. Washington Irving took up residence here in 1829, and wrote down the stories from the palace’s history in his famed Tales of the Alhambra. That book helped illuminate the obvious need to restore and preserve the palace, which Spain did and so, much later, garnered the honor of UNESCO World Heritage status.

All that really is just history, because the Alhambra is a live thing, a glorious thing, a beauty beyond compare when you gaze into its future from across the river with your friends. The light falls against it, and a little brown bird goes whiffling by. A dog barks at a puppy asleep on its master’s discarded sweater. In the mountains there, the high clouds come down to cover them.

That’s just about as much beauty as you can take. On the way back down the hill, you are careful to avoid speeding cars, wrong turns, and excrement in the road.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Viva Itálica

The first trip I made out of Sevilla after arriving on January 4, 2009 was to Itálica, the first Roman colony in southern Spain.

Established in 206 BC, Rome was still a burgeoning empire. After defeating the famed Hannibal of Carthage, the Romans claimed rule over most of Iberia. Maybe you remember this bit of history, because it was the staging for Russell Crowe’s first appearance in the coliseum of Rome in Gladiator. (These days, it’s OK to admit that you really love that movie, no matter how well-read you are.) The story goes that veterans of this Second Punic War settled in Itálica, and the city rose up around them.

Interesting fact: did you know that Caesar, the original, was one of “the great fornicators [of] antiquity?”

It is but an eight kilometer bus ride from Seville (both spellings seem acceptable) to the ruins of this once great city and its impressive ampitheater, theater, and lovely mosaic floors which characterized the homes of wealthy Romans.

Walking among the ruins, you would believe that the city was carved out of the very Earth, so dense and rough-shod are the worn walls and tunnels. I love stone—“as God intended,” a friend once said—and prefer it to two-by-fours and dry wall. I announced suddenly that I wouldn’t mind to have lived during Roman times.

“I wouldn’t mind to have lived during Roman times,” I said, suddenly.

“Are you kidding,” said Dr. Inglis, the TTU Center site director. “As a historian, I love to look at it, but I don’t want any part of it. How old are you?” he asked.

I told him.

“See, if you had been a slave or a servant, you’d have been dead 15 years. If you had been rich, maybe 10 years ago, five if you’re lucky.”

Five or ten, what would it matter once you were dead? Anyhow, “Gee,” I said. “I get your point.”

We angled across the ampitheater floor and had a look into its underbelly, the passageways where gladiators and various wild beasts awaited pain and slaughter to delight the crowd. Then into one of the gateways and under the ancient grandstands. Here we admired the replica of the iron plate posted on the wall—the credo of the gladiator. Spock reminds us to “Live long and prosper,” but the message here is rather the opposite: your life is brief, and generally meaningless, so you might as well die valiantly to make the crowd happy.

Despite the dark reality of a short life, rich or poor, have you ever considered that the Roman’s got it right? In their day, the well-educated were the elite, and were likely wealthy. Professional athletes were slaves, and died for sport in the coliseum. (Except Russell Crowe, of course, bless his heart.)

Two thousand years later, professional athletes enjoy god-like status, and make millions, while over-educated teachers scratch a living out of shadows and dust. In fact, a sure route to poverty is to go to graduate school, evidenced by the extreme glut of out-of-work PhDs. Alas.

Does Tiger Woods deserve millions? Or your daughter’s third grade teacher? You decide.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Up in Ronda

Maria, the seven year-old daughter of my traveling companions—Carmen Pereira of Vigo, Spain and John Beusterien of Detroit—makes a list over lunch of all the careers she plans to try before making her choice. Astronaut. Poet. Pet sitter. Ballerina. Food critic. She loves food, especially meat. But never, she announces, will she be a translator. This, despite the fact that she’s already fluent in Spanish and English, as are her parents, and she plans to pick up a few more languages along the way.

“I want to learn Portuguese next,” Maria says. “Then French, German, Chinese, Japanese . . .”

“How about this creamy vegetable soup?” I ask. “How would you rate it, on a scale from one to ten?”

“Four,” she says, without hesitation. “Daddy. I’ll swap you for your salad,” she says.

The next course arrives, the lomo (pork) in heavy gravy with a spread of greasy French fries.

“And this,” I ask. “On a scale from one to ten?”

“Mmm,” Maria says. “Seven.”

We’re in the mountains south of Seville, up from the broad, flat valley of the Quadalquivir. Ronda is a village of 35,000 people bisected by the dramatic El Tajo gorge. On the south side is the old Muslim city, on the north the modern Christian town with its famous bullring, the oldest dedicated bullfight arena in Spain. Hemingway loved this little town, and you’ll find a walkway dedicated to him, as did Orson Wells and Alexander Dumas. Ronda is home to three generations of Romeros, who collectively gave shape to modern bullfighting. Pedro, the youngest and most famous, was inspiration for a bullfighter by the same name in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was also inspired by the Puente Nuevo, the new bridge (1793) spanning the gorge, and turned it into Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But you can find this information in any reasonable guidebook, enough texture at least to decide on a visit or no.

We catch a taxi out to the Hotel el Horcajo, a country Inn in the bottom of a little valley. We stow our bags, and set out for a refreshing walk in the hills.

Making our way up the old road, we arrive at a gate near the pig barn. John and Carmen, both overly-curious professor types, dash inside as 100 little black piggies come running out. These are the famous black pigs that eat only acorns from the cork forests all over Andalucía, and are the source of the delicious jamón Ibérico (not to be confused with jamón serrano), made by slowly salt curing the back leg. In almost every bar in every town in the region you find a sea of pig legs hanging from the ceiling.

“I don’t care much for pigs,” I say, as we climb the hill behind the barn. The valley is a vibrant green from all the recent rain, and the ground is wet and soft.

“I thought you were a naturalist?” says Carmen.

“Just because it’s an animal doesn’t mean I have to like it,” I say. “Besides, pigs have tiny brains and they’re dirty. What’s to like about a pig?”

“What? No! Pigs are smarter than dogs,” protests Professor Beusterien.

“And pigs are really clean. They love the water,” says Professor Pereira. “They’re dirty only when confined by human beings.”

We come across yet another black devil rooting up the ground with its nose, and snorting hideously.

“Look! How cute,” Carmen says. “A pig in its natural environment.”

But Maria and I agree—pigs might taste good, but they’re icky and scary. I can only understand Carmen and John’s pig-defense by chalking it up to a hyper-developed sense of fair play, often a primary psychological feature during parenthood.

“But I think horses are beautiful,” says Maria.

Finally someone gets it right.

At dinner, we decide only to order a few plates and share them around, so monstrous was our 3:00 pm lunch. Plates are flying about the table like whirligigs from a copse of maple trees. Maria devours everything that once went on four legs, and then tucks into a dessert of quince and cheese.

“How is that?” I ask, noticing how she is hording the plate from the rest of us. “On a scale from one to ten.”

“It’s wonderful!” she exclaims. “Ten!”

Later, she will give the same mark to a cup of hot chocolate after a long day in Ronda walking in the rain. But don’t think of that hot cocoa you know in the States made with a synthetic powdery mix. This is a cup of chocolate, melted and heated for drinking. Again, Maria knows best.

But it’s not her fault she’s smart and speaks two languages. She’s got worldly parents, and they’ve made a point of taking her traveling. Some people just have a head start on the world.