October 11, 2017
Breakfast was in a nice, but not exotic, room in the lower level, with a wide selection of standard breakfast items, plus a lot of desserts. People came and went as they chose, and we were all assembled in the entry courtyard when our guide Luis arrived promptly at 9:30. After a brief introduction to the history of the area, we set off wandering the narrow, meandering streets of the old city, learning about various buildings and other things we passed, such as the bronze markers set into the stones of the streets denoting the Jewish quarters, one of two mosques in the old city, and the old Arab bath, sis. We headed down Calleja de las Flores (“Flower Alley”), with blue flower pots hung on the whitewashed walls of the narrow street (but not much in bloom at this time of year, but still charming) and a nicely framed narrow view of the mosque-cathedral tower and ducked through the Meryan Leathercraft factory and its several courtyard patios with central fountains to the next street over.
Our main destination was the Mezquita, the cathedral built from the former mosque, so it incorporates both Islamic and Christian building styles and decorative features. We looked at the impressive building while Luis went to pick up our tickets, and then he led us through the large courtyard planted with lots of trimmed up orange trees and some date palms (with lots of small stone channels for irrigation – not the original ones) to go inside. Although interesting from the exterior, it wasn’t until we went inside that we were really amazed, with beautiful music emanating from one of two large pipe organs inside the church. Columns topped with double arches (this structural feature taken from Roman designs provides a lot of strength permitting higher ceilings than would otherwise be possible) in alternating bands of red brick and cream sandstone stretched as far as the eye could see in regular rows and ranks (there are 846 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite made from pieces of the Roman temple which had occupied the site previously, as well as from other destroyed Roman buildings). Construction of the Great Mosque began in 784, was later expanded by different Muslim rulers, was converted to a Roman Catholic church in 1236, and the Renaissance cathedral nave in the middle was added in the 16th century. It was cool and comfortable inside as we followed Luis around to learn about the different periods and details of decoration. The stained glass windows, Moorish arches, mirrored tiles, inscriptions in Castilian and Arabic, chapels with statues of saints, text from the Quran, styles from Islamic, Medieval, Gothic, and Baroque periods all mingled in this serene and spacious space. We stopped to look at a few of the different columns, learned about some of the side chapels, learned about the richly gilded Islamic prayer niche or mihrab with geometric and flowing designs of plants, saw some of the displays of religious artifacts, reproductions of the artists’ signatures carved on the columns and other elements, learned about some of the tombs inside, and walked by the main altar and the choir stalls. After a group picture under the colorful arches, we went back out into the warm sunshine to follow Luis in the maze of narrow streets in this whitewashed city, stopping briefly in a few small plazas, the huge Plaza de la Corredera, went through the market district full of produce shops, by San Andres church, and down more narrow lanes to get to our next main stop.
We went to Palacio Viana to get an introduction to the courtyards of Andalusia, an essential part of any house or palace. We first watched a short introductory video (while Luis got our tickets) to explain some of the features we would see of this historic Renaissance palace occupied by the aristocratic Marqueses de Viana until 1980. We then toured through a series of more than a dozen courtyards from many time periods (a new courtyard for every addition, and there were several) that are excellent examples of the different styles and functions of courtyards over time. The plants in each were listed in the brochure so we could identify any unusual specimens. We went from courtyard to courtyard to appreciate the cool spaces after walking through open gardens or walkways in the hot sun. One had a central date palm, it’s branches forming a feathery umbrella over the stone mosaic floor and containers below; the Patio de Los Gatos had dozens of pots on a wall near the kitchen, but none of the namesake felines that used to hang around hoping for food; others had citrus and a pond, one a small central fountain surrounded by pots of grasses and mums and silver cinerareas on pedestals; a single white statue inside sheared cypress filled the Courtyard of the Madama, while the swimming pool and working greenhouse in La Alberca were not accessible to tourists. We had another group photo taken in Patio del Pozo under a huge purple bougainvillea, and eventually made our way to the restful chapel courtyard, intended as a place for silent meditation, filled only with green foliage.
We then made our way back to the crooked, narrow streets of the old city to walk over to the modern city hall and the ancient Roman ruins next to it, partially restored, walked through some of the commercial district to get to Plaza de Las Tendillas filled with fountains and statues, and surrounded by large historic buildings, and then made our way back toward the Mezquita.
We were back to the hotel at 12:50, said our thanks to Luis, then had the rest of the afternoon free. Several of us sat around waiting for people to congregate to go out for a light lunch and/or shopping, and 6 of us finally left at1:30. Marta, Hannah, and Charlene – who was feeling better after resting for the morning – went in search of food while Linda, Susan and Dan went to find the leather shop we’d walked through that morning (where we made some nice purchases), and then stopped in the little food court up the street from the hotel to get some Mexican takeout before returning to the hotel. People hung out in the courtyards, or took a dip in the pretty but chilly swimming pool, or relaxed in their rooms until it was time to go off for dinner.
We met in the entry courtyard at 7:25 to walk the very short distance to the local restaurant Casa Mazal to sample cuisine using recipes and ingredients influenced by the Sephardic Jewish culture in Medieval Spain. We walked up one street, decided we’d gone too far, so turned around and returned to the hotel to take the other street, and soon found the restaurant down a narrow corridor off the street. We were shown across what once was the courtyard of the 14th century house to a room with a long table set for our group. The space had a dark wood ceiling, one maroon wall with a pair of cutout brass medallions on one end and a pair of painted portraits of a man and a woman in colorful wound cloth headdresses, and the narrower end looked like original stone, with a niche containing a silver menorah illuminated by a light. We were quickly served bottles of water, and baskets of large round soft but crusty rolls and tiny pretzel-shaped biscuits with a smoky, spicy flavor. Some people ordered different wines, as we shared starters of traditional hummus with carrot and cucumber slices; zucchini carpaccio (very thin slices of the raw vegetable) with honey-mustard vinaigrette and topped with walnuts and raisins; and falafel with pita bread, served with two sweet sauces: mustard sauce and tomato with five spices. As we were eating a pair of musicians began to play instrumental compositions on guitar and cello, permeating the small restaurant with haunting melodies. Then everyone was given their own bowl of creamy pumpkin soup garnished with fried cassava chips and dusted with coriander. The main dish was a halved eggplant stuffed with Sephardic veal and topped with almond béchamel, accompanied by mixed summer vegetables and a rice pilaf. For dessert platters of small Sephardic cookies were served, with lemon poppyseed shortbread cut into six-pointed Jewish stars and small rolls filled with date paste. Once the bill for the drinks was settled, we left the restaurant (Tom and Janice had departed earlier to try to find a pharmacy to purchase cold meds for him) to walk the short distance back to the hotel. A few of us took the short walk back up the other street to view the Mezquita lit up at night before going back to our rooms for the night.