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Tales from the Alhambra

It was a colourful and vibrant Spain that left MAITHREYI NANDAKUMAR and her family with a feeling of ... slight disorientation when they headed back home ... .



Cordoba was a seat of high learning... a statue of Maimonides, the Jewish sage and philosopher.

OUR Spanish safari started in Malaga, southern Spain where we stopped merely to catch the train to Sevilla on Good Friday (April 18, 2003). Mountains bright red and craggy rose vertically out of deep blue lakes — as if out of a movie set (could it be that its me that's El Stupido each time I get surprised when life seems to imitate art, when something's actually been that way for donkey's years?).

We were in Sevilla (pronounced Sevizha, Spanish for the more well-known Seville) for the biggest event of the year — the "Easter parade" and the spectacular display of religious fervour, European style. It brought to mind the utsavams of Triplicane, Kanchipuram and Tiruvendipuram that were so much a part of my childhood. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a teardrop in her face lunged back and forth to the huge Cathedral in the centre of Spain's cultural capital. She was on a golden carriage lit with about a hundred long and slender candlesticks, and perfect bouquets of white roses. She was carried below by about 30 men, who were under the carriage doing their religious duty. The band playing sombre music as if out of "Godfather"(!) and everyone walked behind solemnly.

The whole of Seville was out on the streets (and the visitors from all over Spain) dressed smartly in suits. Many of the girls were dressed in white gowns and the boys in ceremonial robes as young priests. The "penitent ones" as I read in my Spanish holiday novel (Benjamin Prado, Not only Fire) were those dressed in what we thought Halloween costumes — all in purple, conical hats, sticks in their hand, just slits for their eyes marching behind everyone else.

Eating Spanish tortillas (an omelette made with potatoes) in a bread roll wrapped in cling film, sitting on the Cathedral steps wasn't exactly drinking tender coconut on a hot day sitting on a stone elephant outside Parthasarathy temple, but it felt like it I can tell you! Of course this was a lot more formal, less sweaty and more alcohol. Not that anyone got drunk — it was all most civilised.

Children with their parents and grand parents were sitting around tables in the many "tapas" bars, as we walked back to the bus stop at 12 o'clock at night — we told ourselves we'd do that properly the next day. But we couldn't avoid the parade again on Saturday — this time it was a statue of a skeleton (presumably Jesus dead) and one of Jesus on the crucifix and the Virgin Mary. Again the entire city was on the streets enjoying itself solemnly (a woman from Madrid sitting next to me on the train afterwards asked me ... didn't I think it was all very emotive? She told me of how she cried the first time she came to Seville, not wanting to go back!).

After the impressive display of Catholic ceremony, we decided to check out Spain's best kept secret — its Moorish past. The Alcazar palace in Seville (near the Cathedral) is one of a few still remaining palaces the Caliphs built between the Ninth and 13th Centuries, all over Spain. The open courtyards, the flowing water fountains, and the intricate marble architecture and the breathtaking gardens with orange groves and cypress trees, were truly romantic. Suddenly it felt as if I was visiting a Mughal monument in the north of India — maybe Shah Jahan got his inspiration from this Ninth Century work of art?

What we couldn't get over here and later on in Cordoba and at the Alhambra was how the Christian conquerors went round erecting idols of the Virgin Mary inside these Moorish monuments and making it quite out of sync with the tone of the place. Columbus is supposed to have got his papers at the Alcazar to leave for America, and a painting from the time shows Mother Mary with two wings protecting the sailors as the ships set sail on that famous voyage.

Nothing could be more relaxing than spending an entire afternoon eating tapas in a Seville bar, drinking Spanish beer — but sadly our quest for live flamenco was thwarted by the Real Madrid versus Barcelona football game when life came to a standstill. No show would start before midnight and our 10-year-old was desperate to sleep! Seville is also famous for its April Fair two weeks after Easter as well for its bull fights — thankfully there weren't any when we were there!

A fast train took us to Cordoba from Seville in less than an hour. Cordoba was where the Muslims of the West met the Christians of the East! Twelfth Century Cordoba was a seat of high learning — Maimonides, the Jewish sage and philosopher and author of the Guide for Lost Souls, Averroes, whose Arabic interpretation of Aristotle is still considered to be one of the best and Alfonso X, the most tolerant of Christian kings, so tolerant that he was to be killed by his own subjects, were all living there at the same time. Ibn Arabi, the mystic luminary of Islam, author of the sublime phrase heralding modern science "Man is the eye of God", also dwelt there. They all preached the same message. "knowledge (in its fullest sense) should be accessible to all men whatever their origin, their faith, their attachments, their richness or poverty". These wise men, from out of their diversity, and yet in agreement over the essential, conceived the early beginnings of Human Rights. The Tower museum at the end of the bridge narrates this history incredibly well.



The jewel in the crown of Andalucia, the legendary Alhambra.

The showpiece of this town is the Mezquita, Spanish for mosque — but in actual fact it houses a Cathedral inside! It was originally built by the Abd-ur-rehman dynasty around 780 A.D. The seemingly endless Marble arches are still there but have all been Christianised (by the invasions in the 13th Century) with many shrines, a huge altar and many Christian paintings, distinctly at odds with the original theme. But the central point or the Mihrab is well preserved and is an amazing work of intricate art with Arabic inscriptions. Apparently there were 3,000 mosques in Cordoba and only this one remains.

Onto Granada the heart of Andalucia where artists like Paco de Lucia (flamenco guitar maestro) and the fantastic modern flamenco band Radio Tarifa come from. With the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background (still snow capped) we went in search of the jewel in the crown of Andalucia, the legendary Alhambra!

The place is obviously such a major attraction that you need to book a place in advance — we were told we didn't stand a chance, but we decided to get up at 6 a.m. to be there at 7 a.m. After three hours we got in! It's a sprawling fortress and palace built by the Nasirid dynasty after the fall of Crodoba, in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Its existence was discovered by an American traveller called Washington Irving in the 1830's who was enthralled by this place. Our audio guide had an actor playing him, guiding us through the magical chambers and lovingly designed gardens.

It was also where the gypsies were first seen when Irving travelled there — they were presumed to be Egyptian when in fact they were Indian with many gestures and expressions in their dance that was Eastern but they became Gypsies for short! Our hotel had a beautiful painting of a gypsy reading the palm of a princess dressed in white in a room of the Alhambra — looked lovely.

When Charles the Fifth conquered Spain he came to the Alhambra and built a Renaissance inspired palace in the middle of the Alhambra — where concerts take place even now. But it's the Nasirid Palace that's worth the price of your ticket — yet another fantastic masterpiece of architectural beauty. It is a World Heritage sight now — loads of little school kids were there too, so it's a living monument in many ways.

Driving back to catch the plane, we stopped at a motorway services — a truly old fashioned restaurant with home made biscuits, strong coffee, wine (Fino, a Spanish sherry and Manzanilla, a famous white wine from Andalucia) and olives — quite a contrast to the ones in Britain — that are merely functional rest stops — antiseptic and soulless. The beaches in southern Spain are more popular for the typical family holiday — we did spend an afternoon on the beach en route to Granada, but it was the cultural significance of this part of the world that captivated us.

We headed back home with a feeling of slight disorientation of what we'd seen — the road signs that were written in Arabic in many places and the unmistakably dominating Catholic zeal. To the casual tourist, it seemed as if there were no obvious signs of youthful rebellion. Reading Benjamin Prado, I was convinced otherwise — it would seem that the modern Spanish family is as dysfunctional and desperate as its other western or even universal counterparts! At the airport, the Immigration officer let our son through only after he swore his allegiance to Real Madrid! If you're still reading this, don't forget to buy Cruzando El Rio, the latest album of Radio Tarifa — you will love it. Adios!

The writer is with BBC in Bristol.

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