Beyond the tapas and city skylines, Moorish Spain has remained undeniably authentic in a country elsewhere overwhelmed by tourism. History remains omnipresent in cities like Granada and Seville, in some ways taking visitors on a journey to the 14th century.
IT’S HARD TO SAY HOW LONG the six of us had been sitting in silence on the rooftop terrace of RADIO ME Madrid, but it seemed like we were lost together in the beauty of the moment. Overlooking the city, the sky appeared to be on fire, with colours of red, orange and yellow melding together like plasma over Plaza Santa Ana. The sun set slowly, as if putting on one last show specifically for our hedonistic pleasure.
If you spend a few days in the South of Spain, you can’t help but notice how time seems to slow down; not the actual ticking of a clock or the intense feeling of nostalgia over a missed sight from a packed itinerary. I’m talking about an omnipresence of history that this place seems to have held onto over hundreds of years.
Our group of instant friends began our journey on G Adventures’ Discover Moorish Spain tour in Madrid, Spain – a seemingly modern city, though with plentiful reminders of its past. As we ventured towards Mercado de Sans Miguel, a market that had been around for decades, we stumbled upon rows of merchants squeezed behind fruit stands, all overflowing with troves of sweet-smelling oranges, lemons and olives. We made our way through the open courtyard and collectively agreed that this must be the best spot in town for sampling traditional Spanish dishes.
One vendor specialized in arugula and prosciutto wraps served in true tapas style. Another coaxed us strictly with mozzarella – bocconcino, nodino, stracciatella and burrata. But then there was smoked salmon in one direction and Idiazábal cheese croquette in another. How was one to choose? Turns out, you don’t – instead, I decided to have one of each before washing it all down with the tartest glass of lemonade I’ll likely ever drink. It wouldn’t have been hard to imagine the atmosphere there in the 1800s, with Spanish locals following the same Mercado routine as those who passed by us in that moment.
Greta Schölderle Møller
This same pull to the past was just as evident in Toledo, which sits on a hill overlooking the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, awash in terracotta clay and brick, her ancient charm on full display. The city’s architecture is medieval, with arches and columns that curve outward slightly, like a shapely woman. Its roads weave up and down with streets so narrow, you have to stand tight to the walls to avoid being swiped by a Mini Cooper’s side mirror. But it is the confluence of three religions that makes the city a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stylings from Arab, Jewish and Christian backgrounds stand complementary among one another, reflected in many buildings, but especially in the architecture of the Synagogue Santa Maria La Blanca – a structure that is very unique in that it was built under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use.
Our private guide, Maria Fernandez, took us through the walled city and explained that up until the 1490s, people of all three religions co-existed peacefully.
“It was the greatest period of our history,” she explained.
But the Jewish community was then exiled, forced to leave their homes and possessions to the Catholic monarchs. Today, the Jewish quarter is marked with distinct hand painted tiles leading the way through the open-air museum that stands in its place. The Spanish government recently announced their decision to introduce a law offering citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492. The area has since seen a rebirth of multiculturalism.
The antiquity of Toledo carries through to Córdoba, especially at the Mosque of Córdoba which is known to be a highlight of the destination, though it has many names: The Great Mosque of Córdoba,The Mezquita, The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, and the list goes on. It has been renamed as many times as it has been conquered by different rulers throughout history, so stepping insideis like being transported back through the centuries; moving throughout, the architecture moves through time too – from Roman temple, to mosque, to Christian cathedral.
The same could be said of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. The name of the castle itself means “The Red,” which is probably derived from the colour of the tapia (rammed earth), from which the outer walls were built, though some say it refers to the blood of the slaves who built it.
Lalo Garcia, who is a CEO with G Adventures (chief experience officer), guided us through the fallen city, which we got the sense was haunted by ghosts from times passed. Still, the city’s beauty was staggering and felt like a creation from an old story-book, miraculously brought to life.
“The Alhambra is considered one of the greatest accomplishments of Islamic art and architecture,” Lalo explained – and it wasn’t hard to see why. Decorated with colourful, ornate stucco and scalloped windows, one could get lost in the labyrinth of gardens or spend a whole day listening to the babbling fountains. I was surprised by the pristine condition of the grounds, ready to welcome the return of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel at any moment. They loved this castle so much that it is their final resting place, and visitors can view their elaborately carved Renaissance-style tombs in the Royal Chapel.
The royal tour continued into Seville, where the Alcázar of Seville stands. Built for the Christian king, Peter of Castile, the beauty and grandeur almost compares to that of the Alhambra but distinctly differs in its Mudéjar design. While the modern-day visitor may recognize the property as Dorne from the popular television series Game of Thrones, it is still a working castle. We were surprised to learn Lalo had arranged a private tour of the royal residence, a special privilege given to few – and certainly a highlight for all the history junkies on our tour, myself included.
On our final night in Spain, heads filled with the history of Moorish culture, we gathered once again on a rooftop, this time overlooking the glowing La Giralda Tower in Seville. With a round of cheers and clinks of pink gin goblets, I could feel it happening again; the slowing of time.
When You Go
What to do:
With a culture as rich as the Andalusian’s, try your hand – er, feet – at an authentic flamenco class. Feel the passion of the music in an underground gypsy cave in the historic district of Sacromonte in Granada. For those who love to shop, the hidden boutique of Casa Hernanz in Madrid is a must-see with a rainbow of handmade espadrilles on offer. These experiences and others mentioned in this piece are all available on G Adventures' Discover Moorish Spain tour. (Editor’s note: Thanks to G Adventures for hosting Canadian Traveller on this experience).
Where to stay:
For a hip and local spot, opt for Madfor Hotel in Madrid. With a subway station directly across the street and a complimentary breakfast spread that will leave you wanting more, it’s the perfect escape from the busyness of Spain’s capital city. For a unique experience, check into Granada Five Senses Rooms & Suites. Each floor is assigned a different sense – smell, touch, etc., and provides a sensory experience to match.
What to eat:
There is no better spot to feast in Córdoba than hip Regadera. With glass walls for an immersive chef experience and touches of bohemian décor, visitors are in for a treat. Offering a modern take on classic Spanish dishes, try the garlic soup, duck risotto, tuna tartare and the lemon smash for dessert. For something more upscale, Eslava is famous in Seville for its modern gastronomic creations. But be forewarned: reservations fill up fast, so book as far in advance as possible.