There’s probably no greater example of how religion inspires monuments and artwork (and bloodshed) on a grand scale than in Spain’s south, where hybrid monuments from the Muslim and Catholic dynasties of the past millennium stand as timeless reminders of what faith can inspire.
I’ve done pretty well with hotels along this trip thanks to sites like destinia and expedia, and being able to do a virtual inspection of places before booking meant I could get a good idea of what to expect on my arrival (anywhere without photos was ruled out immediately). On there you can easily find good, cheap, newly renovated one or two star hotels that offer as much or more than some of the older four and five star hotels.
In Granada I scored an ok 3-star hotel, though it came with a powerful, nose-hair singeing chemical smell to greet me when I opened the door to my room. Despite ventilating the room for hours, the acidic air barely dissipated, and it was only as I got into bed that I realised it was coming from the bed linen. The smell was obviously from some industrial bleach they used to remove all the bacteria from the sheets, and, as it turned out, skin cells from any exposed parts of your body. The chemical skin peel aside, it wasn’t too bad a stay, though I had more run-ins with Spanish street systems when I went into Granada proper to try and get something to eat.
The trip down from Madrid was enthralling, to say the least. With the wild weather still lurking, low clouds surrounded the highland plateau on which Madrid sits. As I pushed south, I passed numerous fields with tiny stone farmer’s cottages nestled against solitary deciduous trees bursting with autumn colour amidst the grey gloom of the sky. At one point, I passed a small mountain that had several wind turbines on its summit, however much of the mountain, and the stands holding the turbines, was obscured by cloud, giving it a surreal setting.
In the Parque Natural de Despeñaperros, the terrain changed suddenly to be as dramatic as that around Durango or Pancorbo. The road sluiced between peaks, following a river valley as it wound and buckled. The traffic continued moving quickly…to a point, when I suddenly found myself stopped halfway up a rise, backed up behind two lanes of traffic that stretched along the valley and around a bend, and none of it was moving. Some minutes later, a police 4WD came past, heading in the wrong direction with lights and sirens blaring. I was starting to see myself making a late arrival in Granada, despite having made good time to this point, and silently wished I’d stopped at those photo opportunities on the way out of Madrid.
After a time, drivers began getting out of their vehicles. The truckies urinated on the side of the road, a number of others locked their cars and walked up to the bend where the traffic disappeared. For a time, I contemplated going up to take a look myself, but as I was preparing to leave the car, people started running back. It had to be one of two things, something dangerous was around the corner, or the traffic was about to start moving again. Fortunately it was the latter, and when I eventually got around the corner, the blockage became apparent. In the slippery conditions, a truck had jack-knifed and blocked both lanes, but they’d been able to re-position it to open up one of the lanes and let the traffic get past. From there, the drive got boring.
I’ve read plenty about the Alhambra in Granada, including ogling at numerous photos, and a few students in my Spanish classes had visited it and spoke very highly of the place. One thing is for certain; no pictures, or eloquent speeches, can describe how amazing the place is. A massive recreational palace built by the Sultans during the time the Muslims ruled the peninsula; the Alhambra is divine inspiration at its grandest. The intricately decorated cathedrals of the north impressed me, but in all honesty, they seemed a bit undisciplined in their design when compared to this. Everything is well proportioned, it flows from one section to the next, and nothing feels out of place.
The intricate stone carvings look like they’ve been molded from soft clay; and large, flat pools of water have been used extensively, which when combined with the lush vegetation, makes it difficult to imagine you’re in the middle of an arid zone. Despite the masses of tourists crawling over it, I still managed to fill my CF cards and even had to begin some selective editing to create more space.
Some of the tourists were laughable though, and unfortunately it was the English speakers that drew my attention most. Brits especially. Whilst preparing to leave the castle, an ex-hippy (distinguished by shoulder length, frizzy, thinning hair), with white-rimmed Elvis style glasses came loping in with a family in tow that for now, is best described as making him look like a fashion icon. He looked at the ruins of the soldiers’ barracks and without bothering to consult the information plaque, pointed at the crumbling walls and exclaimed “Oh look! A maayyyz!”.
I stifled a laugh and scampered past him.
That theme of balanced space, and cool, vast interiors has been corrupted a little at the Mezquita in Córdoba, where the original floor plan has had the centre of the mosque demolished to make way for a cathedral to built in the very centre, and on the perimeter, a number of traditional catholic chapels and alcoves have been created for small-time/private worship. I know that buildings get modified over time, but the way in which the Christian re-conquest sought to vandalise such beautiful architecture is scandalous.
Whilst an intriguing place, it’s not as photogenic as the Alhambra, especially when you don’t take a tripod with you (it’s quite dark inside). After being told on numerous occasions in the north of the country that tripods were not permitted inside, I ultimately decided not to bother lugging it in there with me. Pity, I could’ve got some far better images had I been bothered.
On leaving the Mezquita, I went to get some lunch. You can tell when you’re in a touristy spot in Spain, because you have vendors hanging around you like flies, all trying to convince you their restaurant/souvenir shop/good luck charm is the one you want. I did a lap of the Mezquita, thinking there had to be some half-decent places to eat nearby, given the amount of foot traffic that comes through here on a regular basis. Most of the half-decent places didn’t have half-decent prices (€20 for a daily menu?), so I ended up in a place that seemed ok.
From lunch, I was soon back on the road to Madrid. The south is typified by one thing really, miles and miles of Olive groves. It doesn’t really matter what direction you look, there’s nothing but olive trees covering every hillside and ridge. Well, there are the occasional stands of eucalypt, which came as something of a surprise. These, together with the swarms of Lorikeets in Barcelona, were unexpected connections to home.
At this point, my imminent departure from Spain was becoming unavoidable, and I just wanted to keep driving, go somewhere else I hadn’t seen, lay low and hide for a year or two. It wouldn’t matter if I missed my flight out, there’d be another sooner or later. One thing was for certain, no-one would notice I was still here, and even fewer would care I was staying past my visa limit.
The problem was, I just wasn’t going to get a job staying illegally, and already I knew, there would be little prospect of my finances holding out beyond the New Year. Still, my heart sank a little with every sign I passed that directed me back to Madrid, as there was a strong sense of inevitability about it all.
My job opportunities have dried up. My money is almost gone. My visa is about to expire.
Soon, I’ll be back in Australia.