I love travelling. I love travelling by train in particular. I'm making my way across Europe in train after train, with the odd flight inbetween.
My travel methodology is never the same. Just as happy in a hostel with my trusty backpack as I am in a luxury hotel with Louis Vuitton trunks (if I owned any), on my own or with friends, no journey fits a template. It makes it exciting.
I moved to Spain to write my first book, a travelogue, City Chronicles: A Tale of Nine Cities. I have self-published and I am still enjoying Spain and have written aand published the second of the trilogy, City Chronicles: A Little Bit of Italy. I blog about my travels, writing, and life in general.
I am excited by the research that accompanies my books as well. With the knowledge that a degree in Humanities brings (literature, history and Classical Studies as specialities in my case) and an enquiring mind, I'm out to find the old, new and different in the world. Architecture, history and art adds colour to the different cultures I encounter.
Córdoba sits on the River Guadalquivir in the north of the Spanish province of Andalucía and is filled with the remnants of its rich history, a good portion of which can be found in La Judería - the Jewish Quarter.
The site to which most tourists flock to when first arriving in Córdoba is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Mosque/Cathedral and its surrounding streets. We made our way from our cheap and cheerful hotel on the far side of the river, across the much renovated Roman Bridge, past the statue of San Rafael in its centre, towards the the Jewish Quarter. To our left-hand side was the Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs, the Martos Water Mill and the Royal Stables, but swimming with the tourist tide we made our way to the Cathedral.
We jumped stream and dipped into the sixteenth century Palace of Congress. Currently a congress and exhibition centre, for two hundred years it had been the city's only health centre, the hospital of San Sebastian. Arriving two days after Christmas we were treated to a living Belén (nativity). Mary and Joseph had upped sticks and left Baby Jesus swaddled in his manger (not a real child I hasten to add) but the centre of the courtyard was alive with donkeys, sheep and lambs and ducks and turkeys. Having swept a few children to one side Stefano was soon waving a piece of hay in the direction of the lambs and was rewarded with the chance to tickle one under the chin. We then re-joined the flow around the side of the cathedral to enter the only 'mosque to cathedral' conversion in Spain and what had been the third largest mosque in the world.
We avoided the queues by purchasing our tickets from the machines (8€ each) then into the barely lit cathedral. It is indeed a huge building built on the site of the basilica of San Vicente and a previous, more primitive mosque with work starting in 785 under Ab'd al-Rahman I. Work continued over the coming two centuries with extensions by Ab'd al-Rahman II and III, Al-Hakam II and Almanzor. The striped arches of the mosque stretched away before our eyes, optical illusions created at every turn of the head and I found the initial view quite inspiring. But this is a very large building and after a while one can tire of the same look. Around the edges of the building are the Catholic shrines and chapels, many of them poorly lit, making viewing the details within very difficult. Our first lap of the site took us criss-crossing across the building so that we missed the cathedral built within the mosque. In the 16th century, Bishop Manrique convinced Carlos V to give him permission to build inside the mosque with the agreement that Alhaken II's extension should not be touched. The cathedral building spans nearly two centuries of changing architectural styles. The design of the cathedral is in the shape of a Latin cross and includes Gothic vaulting together with other Proto-Baroque vaults and a Renaissance cupola. The main altarpiece was sculpted in marble and finished in the 17th century, and the magnificent 18th century pulpits on either side of the main arch are in marble and mahogany, by the sculptor Miguel Verdiguer. From the same period come the impressive choir stalls, by Sevillan master sculptor Pedro Duque Cornejo, where almost every square inch of mahogany is carved with a wide range of images. As work took place on both aspects of the building over centuries the change in architectural styles, both Muslim and Western can be seen.
Back under the blue Andalucían sky we took to wandering around the streets of the La Judería peeking into some of Córdoba's renowned patios, which I have no doubt will look incredible when the flowers are in bloom, and eyeing up the prices of the menu del día advertised outside various restaurants. At prices between €8 and €10 for three courses and a drink we were pleasantly spoiled for choice.
On our wanders we stopped at the Mudejar House whose gateway dominates the facade at the end of the street in which it stands. Emerging from the winding streets we passed the Caliphal baths and headed towards the Alcázar. Once a Roman fortress, the castle became the residence of the Christian kings from whence the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom and the journey which led to the discovery of America were planned. Climbing the towers affords wonderful views across the Jewish Quarter, along the river, of the Royal Stables next door and the Moorish designed gardens with their water features. Inside the Mosaics Room are wonderful Roman mosaics from the second and third centuries AD mounted on the walls. A peek from the window of the Mosaics Room showed the excavated Roman Baths. Closer examination showed broken wooden walkways so I doubt that anyone will be able to walk above them in the near future and get a closer glimpse of how the baths were laid out. Mid-afternoon and the sun was at its zenith in a clear blue sky - a perfect day for enjoying the gardens of the Alcázar.
The water sparkled, the trees were laden with ripening oranges and the carp chased each other around the ponds rising up to pluck insects from the water's surface. Moorish gardens were modelled on the effects of irrigation in an otherwise dead, dry world. The vast green blanket of cropland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers served as an example of what was possible when water was added. Early Islamic gardens were an idealization of this agricultural land; these small oases were crossed with water channels and filled with shade trees, uncommon features in a desert region. The Alcázar was no exception and sitting on a bench between tall evergreens watching the water spouts catch the sunlight was a relaxing experience. If you can ever find a quiet moment in the public Moorish gardens take advantage of it - the soothing sound of water and shade from the sun takes you far from the madding crowd and everyday pressures.
With the afternoon creeping on we re-entered the winding streets and headed past the synagogue (sadly closed) and the Sepharad House nearly missing the entrance to the Casa Andalusí - and that would have been a travesty. A 12th century house it has been renovated to showcase the Hispano-Islamic houses of Andalucía and does so very well. The intimate courtyards and rooms exhibit coins, books and a model of the first paper-making machines to arrive in the the West, with a description of how the process worked. Muslim art, decorative tiles and arches combined with the scent of lemons and incense-sticks and soothing Islamic music make this a serene experience. The cellar is not to be missed either. Past the utensils and wooden buckets is a Visigoth mosaic. This is a small but perfectly formed museum and was my personal highlight of the trip.
With a few miles under our belts (we had also walked from the train station to our hotel which the man at the Tourist office had told us was 'muy lejos' but we ignored him and carried on regardless) a fortifying drink was required. Just up from the Casa Andalusí was Bodega Guzman, a bar frequented by locals - my kind of watering hole. With a small glass of wine for a solitary €, served in what looked like a sherry schooner (the wine was local though it was not a sherry) we sat in a room decorated with bull-fighting memorabilia and soaked up the atmosphere as well as the wine. The men sat around the tables with their schooners and tapas of jamon and queso talking about the daily affairs of home and state.
The beauty of this part of Córdoba is that you can happily wile away the hours just wandering the twisting alleyways enjoying the architecture, the patios glimpsed through doorways, dipping into teterias to sip on mint tea or a bodega for a stronger tipple. And that is what we did until weariness took its toll and we headed back to the hotel. We re-emerged when the moon was climbing through the skies and the bridge and city was lit up.
The Marche region of Italy has a lot to offer in terms of small towns with medieval architecture and perfectly proportioned piazzas. Ascoli Piceno is no exception.
We had taken the train from Grottammare to Ascoli Piceno on a Friday morning as students made their way back from the university at Macerata to home for the weekend; some with pets in travel cages, all with a week's worth of laundry in their bags. The train stations were small, many unmanned and usually covered in graffiti as we trundled along the coast before turning inland.
From the train station the modern town leads uninspiringly past the Porta Maggiore, the town's mascot - the woodpecker - and a statue of Cecco but once you squeeze along the narrow cobbled streets and into one of the old town's squares you are transported. There are signs of modern life - cars zip along streets not much wider than themselves and helpful brown tourist plaques are stuck on walls - but the feeling is definitely of past times. First for us, and for any who wish to get information on the town was the Piazza Arringo, so named as the square held public assemblies after the founding of the free city-state. The tourist information office is through a driveway, which in turn leads to a pretty courtyard up the stairs from which is the Pinacoteca Civica.
The Pinacoteca is home to a number of art works from thirteenth century triptychs to nineteenth century secular pieces as well as sculptures. My favourite saint, Sebastian (who I adopted during my journey from Venice to Rome), was much in evidence and it was interesting to see how his depiction - particularly his hairstyle - changed through the ages. The sculpture of the Sleeping Shepherd in the Shepherd's Room was incredible. Not since I'd first met Bernini in the Piazza Navona had I been so struck by the detailing created in marble. The shepherd boy's belt looked as if it had just been tightened, the loose ends curving over his waist. The lacings and soles of the footwear were realistically tied around socks that gaped baggily at the knee. The boy's slightly open mouth seemed more than capable of gentle snoring as he slept. The softness of the boy contrasted with the harder elements of his clothing reflecting the harsh reality of shepherding work for such a young child - no wonder he slept.
We had purchased a three part ticket which covered the Pinacoteca, the Museum of Ceramics and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Our route took us through the Piazza del Popolo, one of the best proportioned piazzas in the central part of Italy. The piazza took on its rectangular appearance during the 1500s when the porticos were added to keep the artisan shops out of sight. I have little doubt that the proportions are pleasing and that the colonnades, church, Palazzo dei Capitani and Caffe Meletti go to create a wonderful ambience but sadly these were lost to me amidst the construction of an ice-rink. This made photographing equally difficult despite the boyfriend climbing as high as he could.
At one time Ascoli had two hundred patrician towers in its environs. King Frederic II ordered the destruction of ninety of them in 1252. Around fifty remain though many have been absorbed into other buildings or turned into bell towers. The Torres Gemelle (twin towers) in the Plaza S. Agostino are a perfectly preserved example of how the many towers would have been. Twenty-five metres high and with a slight lean to them (must be an Italian trait) they are annexed to the house of the Merli family.
The Ceramics Museum is a place to be enjoyed by those with a specific interest in said art. There are few exhibits and I was disappointed with the selection, but then my interest does not lie there. The most interesting display I found was that which consisted of modern work designed to celebrate the 150 years of Italy's unification. One piece in particular I thought summed up how the rest of the world sees Italy...
I was not, therefore, holding out much hope for the Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea (Gallery of Contemporary Art) and to start with it felt as if my fears were going to be met. Then we turned a corner, literally, and met with Ernesto Ercolani. Humour abounds in his work and it made the visit to the gallery worthwhile. A native of Ascoli, Ercolani was also the curator of the Pinacoteca for twenty years but his work is quite removed from that you would find there. Ercolani's work is a humourous look at some of life's events and type of people. 'Poet with Blue Dog' was amusing but the large 'Welcome' had so much going on that we could have stood there for hours continually finding new nuances.
Weaving our way back through the town we returned to the Piazza Arringo and entered the Cathedral which dominates one end of the square. Saint Emidio, after whom the cathedral is named, was a native of Trier in Germany and the first bishop of Ascoli. Emidio was beheaded by the Romans, too effective in his preaching by all accounts, but the miracle attested to him is that he picked up his head and carried it off for proper burial. Whatever the circumstance, Emidio is the patron of the town and protector against earthquakes. In 1703 earthquakes destroyed many cities in central Italy but Ascoli Piceno remained untouched. There is further 'proof' of Emidio's protectorship in the story of the earthquake that caused fleeing Germans to leave the town before they had finished destroying all the bridges in the town, at the end of World War II. The highlights of the Cathedral that bears this saint's name are the the crypt and the baldacchio over the altar. I found the crypt too well-lit to provide any atmosphere, and the statue of Emidio and some other areas were undergoing restoration work but it was an interesting chapel with burial chambers leading off of it. The golden baldacchio was also well-lit and so shone brilliantly making it a focal point of the church. At times the lighting overpowered areas and it was only afterwards, when looking at pictures that I realised how well decorated the area above the altar was.
I left Ascoli Piceno with a feeling of contentment. I had seen some wonderful art and a beautiful old town that had retained its Medieval and Renaissance architecture whilst not seeming like a living museum. As we neared the train station with the sun setting and the chill creeping upon us I had made my first successful and enjoyable foray into the Marche region of Italy.
In the hills above Grottammare is the town of Ripatransone. With breath-taking views of the Adriatic it is not only a pretty town with museums, churches and art gallery but also home to the claim of narrowest alley in Italy.
I must admit that the alleyway was our primary reason for going to Ripatransone, to see whether we could easily walk through a gap between two houses that was no wider than 43 cms (I'd seen videos on Youtube of slim people making the passage with apparent ease - I was not convinced I would do the same).
We arrived at 13.00, the start of siesta, the only people in the streets were the children going home from school. The smell of cooking and log fires wafted into the Marche air, but there was little visible sign of life. We wandered the streets, all cobbled, each exuding a different charm, until we came upon the square, Piazza Donna Bianca de Tharolis, with its war memorial and cannon. The cannon was an interesting artefact from WWI with seats and foot rests either side of the barrel. Not a seat I would like to fill.
From there we followed the plaques to the narrowest alley. As we wound our way down I thought we had found the alleyway. A pathway that looked too small, with steps going down between two buildings, met all the criteria except I could walk down it normally. At the bottom another brown sign pointed us in the right direction but if it had not been for the fact that I was looking for it, I would have missed it. The 43 cms relates to the point at which an average man's shoulders would pass through, further up it narrows to about 38 cm. So preoccupied were we with making our way down and taking pictures of Stefano trying to prise me out of the alley at the bottom (I promise I wasn't really stuck) that I neglected to take a picture of the alley itself!
We continued our wanderings around the town which remained as dead as a town of that size can be. All the buildings, even the churches remained resolutely shut - a reminder if one was needed that Italy shuts for lunch. That did mean, however, that we could enjoy the town for its architecture and ambience without interruption. We passed out of the town via the lower roads, beyond the medieval walls towards Le Fonti.
The buildings around the water source (Le Fonti) were created in the fourteenth century outside the boundary walls. The fountains were used as wash houses with the rinse cycle in one area, the soaping in another. Wonderfully they are still being used today; we found recently washed laundry hanging up to dry under the roof of one the wash houses. Above the fountains is an amphitheatre which is used for outside concerts and stage performances.
We wound round the edge of the town, along its medieval walls and headed back down towards the sea. We had been unable to see the museums and art galleries due to being pressed for time but the town was worth the trip for its look and the fun of making it through the narrowest alley in Italy.
With unerring lack of timing we arrived in Fermo just as everything started to shut. We did manage to slide into the tourist office before the key was turned and ascertained that 3.30pm was re-opening time. Just 3 hours to wait then! Fortunately the winter sun was high in a blue sky, a food market was in evidence and stone benches leaned against the Piazza del Popolo's colonnaded sides.
Food from across Italy was on offer - award winning salami, oranges from Sicily, cheeses from Sardinia, olives from all over and fresh from the fryer a local food, olive and meat fried balls. I did not stop with the local delicacy but tried the mozzarella and cremini (cream) versions as well. A tad pricey at 5 euros a pop but very tasty, though you need a sweet tooth for the cream version.
In between olives and fried balls we slowly roamed the streets of Fermo. Situated on the top of a hill the old town of Fermo is similar to many of the hill-top towns of central Italy. Within the town's walls are narrow winding streets that open up into pretty piazzas. Dark doorways lead into atmospheric churches, a glance up and you see pretty balconies and weathered statues whilst a peek down an alleyway can award the viewer with a pleasing view across the countryside - and so we passed some of the time.
The stallholders congregated on the sunny side of the square as trade slowed to a barely perceptible pulse and regaled each other with tales of mad cousins, aging grandmothers and alcohol-induced happenings. We watched the street cleaner armed with his broom and spade carefully sweep up invisible detritus as the hands of the clock slowly turned.
At 3.30 we were at the Tourist Information office's door filled with pent up enthusiasm. 3 part tickets purchased - Roman Cisterns, Pinacoteca and the Villa Vitali - we hastened next door for a 25 minute dash around the Palazzo dei Priori. This was not enough time to do the palace justice as it houses not only the Archaeology Museum on the first floor but the Pinacoteca and the Sala de Mappamondo upstairs (the police station is housed in the ground floor).
We skipped through the archaeological artefacts as our preference lay in the art upstairs. It is an impressive display considering we had already been spoiled by the Pinacoteca in Ascoli Piceno. The minatures telling the life-story of Saint Lucy are exquisite but when we walked into one of the rooms there was one picture that was head and shoulders above the rest, and we thought that before we realised it was a Rubens; but for me the best was yet to come...
When the attendant unlocked the heavy dark doors I was not ready for the assault on my senses - tears pricked my eyes. The scent of aging manuscripts and books filled my nostrils and I looked around a room that was filled from floor to ceiling with books. To one side stood a large globe made in 1713 by the Abbot Amanzio Moroncelli from strips of paper - a similar one stands in the Vatican and has been somewhat botched by previous years' attempts at restoration. I could quite happily have sat in the middle of the small roped area that we were confined to and inhaled the scent of centuries of writing for the remainder of the day. My enthusiasm must have been noticed by the attendant as she smiled for the first time as I gabbled away questions that Stefano translated into sensible Italian. I would have given anything to hold one of the manuscripts in my hands but instead made do with the digitalised copies that can be viewed on a large screen outside the room. As we looked at the rich colours and ornate decorations of an 11th century prayerbook we were called away to our next appointment.
Churches are not just places of spiritual contemplation, they reflect the architectural preferences of the times in which they were designed, built and often re-built. Sofia has a plethora of churches that range from the Roman times to the early twentieth century. I made what could be described as a valiant effort to see as many as possible in one day without boring my companions (or myself for that matter) or to the detriment of other Sofia sights. We managed by taking a route that led us from hotel to churches, a market and a lovely bar on a warm and sunny day that belied the previous day's greyness.
From our hotel we turned onto Bulevard Knyaginya Mariya Luiza and toward Sveta Nedelya church which stands on a plaza around which the traffic flowed. The snow on the mountains twinkled in the sun that was making a welcome appearance and the slush no longer stained our boots as we made our way to the church. We were at the hub of the historical Sofia with trams rattling past which we successfully managed to dodge.
Sveta Nedelya Church
Attribution: Plamen Agov • studiolemontree.com
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Sveta Nedelya stands on the site of a medieval church and has been damaged and rebuilt a number of times. At one time the body of the Serbian king Stefan Mulitin lay within its walls, but now only relics remain. In 1925 Communist insurgents tried to murder Tsar Boris III and his cabinet at a funeral mass but succeeded only in killing 123 others. This Saturday there was an altogether happier affair taking place as a wedding was in progress. The church is second only to the Aleksandar Nevsky Memorial church in its importance as a place to worship in Sofia. The wedding prevented our entrance and so we made our way to an altogether smaller building.
Sveta Petka of the Saddlers
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As we crossed the roads amongst bulldozers and men in day-glo waistcoats we could see the roof of the building of St Petka of the Saddlers situated below us. How to reach it was a different matter. We finally discovered the way in was via a subway and we entered what turned out to be the most arresting of all the churches in the city. Dark and atmospheric, with its vaulted apse and crypt it was in constant use by Sofian women in headscarves praying in front of saints. The unusual name arises from Petka being adopted as the patron saint of the Saddlers Guild who used the church for its rituals in the Middle Ages. The mural paintings are dark and brooding. It is definitely worth a look around this most spiritual of surroundings.
St George Rotunda
Photo in the public domain
Our next stop was the Rotunda of Sveti Georgi which is hidden behind the Sheraton Hotel.The hotel provides a contrasting backdrop to the round red brick of the fourth century church which holds incandescent frescoes under its small dome. Due to our arrival at the tail end of winter the church was not open for internal inspection, donations for heating are requested during the variable opening times. (Summer has fixed opening times).
It was a day of weddings; as we passed the Russian church a happy couple emerged into the afternoon sunshine. We left them to their celebrations and made our way to the park by the Aleksandar Nevsky Memorial Church. A market was in full swing selling everything from modern art, Nazi and Cold War memorabilia and silver jewellery. The good thing about backpacking is the disinclination to carry more than necessary and this prevented wanted but not needed purchases. Salvation from temptation came in the form of the Aleksandar Nevsky church which seems to have taken the best of Sofia's church architecture and created a masterpiece.
Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral
Started in 1882 the majority of the construction was carried out between 1912 and 1914. The larger domes of the basilica form a cross and are mirrored in the smaller domes on the building. Some, including the main dome, shone bright gold whilst the others contrasted in green. Aleksandar Nevsky to whom the church is dedicated was a Russian prince in the thirteenth century who was cannonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in the sixteenth century. The church was financed by public subscription though who decided that God should glower down on the congregation below I could not find out. It is a cavernous church that is large enough to hold 5000 worshippers at one time most of whom stand or kneel. Royal visitors could have sat on what looked to be very uncomfortable marble thrones guarded by marble lions.
But by far and away my favourite church that we entered was the Russian Church. With the final vestiges of the wedding swept away I could appreciate the wacky architecture and colouring of the church with its green roofed porch, gilded pinnacles and emerald spire against the brilliant white of the main building. It is like a very elaborate wedding cake. Officially known as the church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (Blessed) the interior is in stark contrast to the outside. The inside of the church is smoke blackened and the smell of candle-wax and incense made for a heady scent. The murals were hard to make out as a result of the smoke damage so we headed into the crypt to see the tomb of Archbishop Serafim who was a much revered leader of the city's anti-Bolshevik, Russian emigre congregations. The contrast between the interior and exterior of the church was marked and added to its mysticism making it my favourite of all the churches we visited.
There are a good many more churches within Sofia, including the churches of St. Sofia, Sveti Sedmochislentski and the chapel of Sveta Petka Paraskeva which is not to be confused with the other Sveta Petka, which is difficult as they are both accessed from below street level and close to each other, but it wuld be remiss to miss out on them altogether.
Nestled into the foothills of the Sierra de Mijas is one of Andalucía's well-known pueblos blancos or white villages. Just 8 kilometres from Fuengirola the village of Mijas has become a popular tourist destination.
There was a settlement on the site of modern Mijas in prehistoric times. It became known as Tamisa during the Roman occupation and was a stopping point on the trade route between Málaga and Cádiz. Later Mijas came under the rule of the Moors and resisted the Catholic Kings attempts to remove the Moors from the peninsula and restore the country to Catholicism during the siege of Málaga in 1487. Eventually surrendering, and with many of the inhabitants sold as slaves, the village changed its allegiance and stayed loyal to the crown earning the title of 'Muy Leal' (very loyal) during the Revolt of the Comuneros a few years later. Evidence of all these parts of Mijas' history are still there to be enjoyed along with the more modern industries of papermaking and of course tourism.
Dropped off at the entrance to the village we passed through a garishly decorated turreted arch that was a leftover from the village's fería of the week before when the patron saint, Virgen de la Peña, was celebrated with flamenco, music and a party atmosphere. It was to her shrine that we made our way, past the burro (donkey) taxis. As with all legends there is conflict over the dates of discovery, miracles and attendant acts concerned with the shrine but the general consensus is that for five centuries an image of the Virgin Mary was hidden within the outcrop/hermitage/tower only being discovered when two shepherd boys were led there by a dove. It is now an intimate place of worship.
When tourism first hit the village of Mijas the men who returned from work on their burros were often stopped to have their photograph taken and the tips were generous compared to the daily wage they were earning at the time. With an entrepreneurial spirit they set up the Donkey Taxis which have become a tourist favourite. In recent years, after complaints of sick and maltreated donkeys the Refugio del Burrito (Donkey Sanctuary) have become involved and now monitor the well-being of the donkeys. I am all for seeing working animals worked so long as they are well-cared for.
Past the Miniature Museum, which houses a collection of miniatures once owned by a hypnotist known as Professor Max, we reached the Plaza de la Constitucíon. The fountain and benches were created from marble rocks that were deposited in the village after the flood of 1884. Restaurants and shops line the edge and walking through the shopping area we were stood at one of the viewing points of the village. The panaroma of the town and port of Fuengirola below with the Mediterranean Sea stretching out before us is worth taking the camera for. Sadly it was a rather hazy day on the coast so our pictures were not as effective as they could have been.
I made a fatal mistake as far as my waistline is concerned by stopping in the chocolate factory, Mayan Monkey Mijas, which sits in the Constitution Square. Eli, the proprietress is knowledgeable and enthusiastic and as well as chocolates (of which you must try) there are smoothies and ice-creams and other chocolate influenced products to enjoy. If you want to avoid the sun for any time there are also short courses where you can make your very own chocolates that you get to take home; an interesting alternative to some of the more run of the mill activities on the Costa. With taste bids tingling from a ginger and chilli chocolate we climbed up the slope to the Plaza del Toros.
Built in 1900 the bullring is a rather cosy affair and boasts of being unusual in having an oval form rather than the standard round ones. Fights are still staged there (I shall not get into a discussion of the whys and wherefores of bullfighting here, that is for another day) with tickets available for sol (sun) or ssombra (shade), and attached to the ring is a similarly small museum of bullfighting. Looking at the size of the matadors costumes these chaps are also on the small side. The view from the president's seat in the bullring takes in the village rooftops, the Shrine of the Calvario which is on the side of the mountain and reached by a walk through thick woodland and the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the old defensive walls that sit next to the ring.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception is the Parish Church of Mijas and was built on the site of the Moorish castle. Three naves are supported by columns at the top of which are what looked at first glance to be copies of pictures stuck on as added decoration but are in fact frescoes of the apostles dating back to approximately 1632, a year after the church was completed. The frescoes were re-discovered during renovation works in the 1990s. We took lunch by the fountains outside the church in the shade of the trees. The central fountain has a changing display which made for a pretty spectacle with the dappled light dancing off of the water spumes. A bird poo-ed on us as we ate which, despite meaning I had to forego some of my pate on toast, I took to be a sign of good luck (which indeed it was as only a water pump had to be replaced on my car rather than a whole engine which was feared).
We wandered along the old walls past numerous scraggy cats afflicted with all sorts of mange, back through the Plaza de la Constitucíon and to San Sebastian church and the surrounding streets. The streets are cobbled and narrow giving a true feeling of the village as it would have been. With little time to spare as we needed to catch the bus and get back to the garage for a diagnosis on the car we were unable to view the Caves of the Old Forge or the Casa Museo (Folk Museum) both of which give an insight into the Mijas of old.
We caught the bus from opposite the town's Ayuntamiento (town hall) back to Fuengirola, they also go to Benalmádena and Torremolinos, for the very reasonable sum of €1.45 each. I enjoyed returning to Mijas, a village that continues to embrace new ventures whilst still retaining some of its old world charm. There is something for everyone here and if the timing is right you can enjoy free Flamenco dances in the Plaza Virgen de la Peña (usually on a Tuesday) or purchase some of the local pottery and leather goods that are available in many of the shops. It is a pleasant change from the beach and more obvious tourist traps of the coast.
Pine trees gripped onto the orange boulder-strewn sides as we curled up the mountain. The sea, once a hazy ribbon, became a memory hidden behind the peaks. As we snaked around the valleys into the Serranía Ronda the trees thinned to be replaced by shrubs amongst which could be seen the odd sheep grazing. The rocks took on a greyer hue as we neared the town of Ronda in the Andalucían province of Málaga, with areas of flat land dressed with weathered rocks. Life became more evident with a few small hotels and restaurants grouped at crossroads as we approached the outcrop of rock on which Ronda sits.
A billy goat chewed nonchalantly on a shrub next to a shrine, impassive as the bus sailed past him. Then in front of us the sprawling white town of Ronda, larger than I remembered from previous visits, sat perched as if a spaceship had landed and remained. On the outskirts a huge hospital is being built, or at least the shell is there but no workmen were evident and I wonder whether there is money enough to finish it, and housing estates have sprung up like mushrooms. The other side of the road remained farmland with farmsteads dotted about the land.
Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with origins in Prehistory. The caves of Pileta are one of the most significant monuments from prehistory with its Stone Age art whilst other megalithic monuments are scattered about. Closer in history are the Roman remains which can be found dotted around the area including the town of Acinipo. There was not time enough, restricted as we were by bus timetables, to hire a taxi to take us to the town but there are the remains of the theatre that make it a worthwhile excursion if already in the Ronda area. It was under the Moorish influence that Ronda attained its status and some of its most impressive architecture. Ronda became one of the capitals of the five coras of Al-Andalus.
The walk from the bus station took us through the new part of the town past the seventeenth century Church of La Merced which is said to house the 'incorrupt hand' of St. Theresa de Jesus and to the 19th century Alameda del Tajo Park. Consisting of tree-lined avenues the views from the balconies are worth a look. Along one avenue there is a celebration of 75 years of the Sur newspaper. It was interesting to see the front page coverages of the end of the Second World War, man landing on the moon and Franco's funeral. From there it was only a few yards to one of the greatest symbols of the romantic era of Ronda – the Plaza de Toros.
The bullring has been recognised as the first purpose-built spaces for the fighting of bulls in the world. The first bullfight took place in 1785 in the ring that is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of Tuscan columns. The bullring also hosts museums of Antique firearms, harness and livery collections as well as to bullfighting and the riding school and stables of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda. The bull is not forgotten. A sculpture of the magnificent beast stands outside one of the puertas. Next to the bull was a chap with his horse (which looked bored beyond belief) ready to take money from tourists willing to shell out €2 to sit on his horse, waving his hat in the air, whilst their travelling companions took a photo. He did a relatively good trade during the early hours but when we returned in the early afternoon sun, when most sensible people were sat in the shade or taking lunch, both he and the horse looked as if they would rather be anywhere else.
The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most recognisable of the Ronda monuments as it spans the depth of the gorge. It is quite an extraordinary feat of engineering. The first attempt at a crossing at this part of the gorge, there were already two earlier bridges one from Arab times and the second from the seventeenth century (the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge), was begun in 1735. It consisted of one large arch and took eight months to build but only lasted for six years. The second and remaining attempt was started in 1758 and was finally completed in 1787. The opening of the bridge changed the nature of the city with the Muslim medina being replaced by the modern Mercadillo with life revolving around the Plaza de España which sits next to the Puente Nuevo. For €2 you enter the bridge where there are displays on the history of the bridge and the birds that live in and around it. It is also good to get another view from the bridge though understandably one is not allowed to open the windows to take a picture.
Over the Puente Nuevo and a cobbled street leads down towards the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King), the Arab Baths, and the Old and Arab bridges. The Casa del Rey Moro was described on our tourist map as containing "Impressive Islamic work" which I took to be tiles, arches and decoration as well as the stylish gardens that one can see at palaces like the Alhambra in Granada and Alcazaba in Málaga. I was disappointed. The casa has fallen into serious disrepair with foliage growing out of the roof, the majority of the windows smashed and broken and little sign of anything remotely Islamic from the outside. This is because it is a fraud. It had never been the home to a Moorish king having been constructed in the eighteenth century when the time of the Moorish kings was but a distant memory. The gardens are even more modern having been designed by the Frenchman Forestier in 1912 along Moorish lines. They are quiet gardens offering shade in which it is pleasant to take a rest from the hot sun but the whole affair is tired and crumbling. The part of the gardens which is truly Moorish is La Mina Secreta but it requires lungs and legs that do not mind descending and then ascending a steep winding staircase of uneven steps that is poorly lit. One lady who was catching her breath at the top informed us that there were 194 steps to the bottom. I took her word for it as I concentrated on not breaking my neck as I made my descent (I am not goat-like in surety of foot).
At the bottom of the steps is part of the river Guadelevin which barely flows but resembles a small lagoon from the bent and rickety metal platform upon which you stand. The water has a green turquoise hue to it with fish and crayfish living in its shallows and only the calls of the birds nesting in the gorge's walls to disturb a time of quiet contemplation. Here you dream of a Moorish harem enjoying the cool waters or a princess enjoying time away from the court but the reality would have been something different. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Ronda was caught in the crossfire between the Christians of Sevilla and the Moors of Granada and was frequently besieged. In the hot mountains of Andalucía the first target would have been the water supply. It is rumoured that the Moorish king Abolmelic used Christian slaves to cut the original steps down to the gorge in order that water could be brought up. The name La Mina Secreta, Secret Mine, would intimate that the stairway was a secret but as the Christians were known to say that "In Ronda you die carrying water skins" it must have been a very open secret.
We passed by a number of chambers built adjacent to the stairway including the Sala de Secretos (Room of Secrets), Terraza de la Conquista (Terrace of the Conquest) and Sala de las Armas (Armoury Room). Sadly I did not know at the time that the Sala de Secretos, which had formerly been another well, is a room in which a whisper made in one corner can be heard in the opposite corner but not by anybody stood in the middle; I like to try these things out for myself! The reason for not knowing: the only leaflets available were those in French and German and as between the two of us we can speak four languages we were rather unfortunate to be stuck with the only leaflets we could not understand.
Down the hill to the arch of Philipe V and the Arab Baths we walked on a cobbled street so worn that the stones shone. Cars sped up the hill which they had no option to do as stopping would not be a wise move on a hill so steep, beeping at the corners to give tourists time to move out of the way. Incredibly a Learner driver was being initiated in the 'driving with foot to the floor' style of motoring, and unfortunately for her when she failed on the lower part of the hill to maintain momentum, on hill-start motoring as well. The learner smiled broadly as her instructor encouraged more power and an abandonment that would send UK instructors to the nearest asylum.
The Arab Baths were not worth their €3 entrance fee. 90% of the baths could be photographed from the road, informative signs were almost non-existent and the garden area that I assume was meant to resemble a Moorish garden was a forlorn example of horticulture with a couple of sad young almond trees, a few thriving rosemary bushes and plethora of dried and dying weeds filling the spaces between the pathways. A screen was playing a history lesson on bathing culture in one the rooms. The couple who stayed to watch it for a second time must have determined that they were going to get their money's worth as well as take respite from the now beating sun.
Climbing the gorge, having crossed over the Puente Viejo, we were able to see the full extent of the dilapidation of the Moorish King's house. I find it sad to see once elegant buildings fall into disrepair especially when money is coming into the coffers in some form or another. Having reached the Puente Nuevo once again we crossed over but this time made a right turn towards the Mondragón Palace past the Casa de Don Bosco. Our luck was in as it was a free entrance day into the palace which houses the headquarters of the Museum of Ronda.
The building is an example of the Mudéjar style of architecture. Mudéjar is a symbiosis of Muslim and Christian cultures that is shown in architectural ways. The buildings were mainly of brick and interpreted Christian styles with an Islamic influence. The courtyards with their arches and galleries link the different areas of the palace and lead out into the gardens which also offer views across the plains and the gorge. The museum has displays on the history of the area, funeral rites and the Roman town of Ancipio. It is an informative and attractive palace to visit.
As the time drew near for us to start our walk back to the bus station we took the scenic route via Saint Mary's Church. Dating from the fifteenth century it had been the principal mosque before being converted into a church by Fernando 'El Catolico'. The only remaining element of that time is the arch of Mirhab and part of its walls which is hidden behind the tabernacle's altar. Part of the Gothic style of the original church is retained through the columns and arches (part of the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1580). We did not feel inclined to pay €4 each to enter the church and so missed the ostentatious altar of the Virgin that I remember from previous visits as being blindingly golden.
My thirst from walking up and down the sides of Ronda was suitably quenched as we neared the bus station and dipped into 'El Purto' bar. Clean, with good service and free from tourist prices (only €1 for a bottle of beer) with tapas available, I would highly recommend it to the weary day tripper.
Ronda has a lot to offer and we did not see many of the places open to us, so if you are tied down by the number of visiting hours available to you, select wisely and be aware that most sites charge at least €2 and you may not get to see very much for your money. A good pair of shoes is essential especially if descending into the gorge or walking up and down the cobbled streets that line its side.
It had been over a decade since I last visited Marbella and my memory of the town was hazy to say the least. I could have saved myself the bus fare and let it remain a soft-focused snap from my mental travel album.
Only the day before, the biggest fire in Andalucía for twenty years had been extinguished after it had spread throughout the campo (countryside) from Fuengirola to Marbella and inland to Ojén, Monda and Coín. The hillsides to the north of the dual carriageway were blackened from the ravages of the fire whilst in stark contrast the firebreaks and country tracks were highlighted a dusty ochre, a sombre setting as we motored towards Marbella.
We left the bus on Marbella's main street, Avenida Ramon y Cajal, and walked up San Lazaro into the Old Town. A jumble of narrow streets that open into small plazas, the Old Town tries to retain some of its charm whilst the rest of Marbella is taken over by high rise hotels, shops and bars. It is a battle that it is barely winning. The Plaza de la Victoria is a shaded plaza with a fountain and only a few cafès jostling for the attention of the tourist crowd but a short walk along Estacion and the Plaza de los Naranjos is a different story. A rectangular plaza it takes its name from the orange trees that grow in the centre of the plaza and offer respite from the Mediterranean sun. Sadly, unless you are willing to pay inflated prices for a cup of coffee or standard fare you cannot take advantage of the trees – the centre is scarred with tables that spill out from the restaurants and bars that hog three sides of the plaza. The architecture is hidden behind parasols, boards advertising food and platoons of waiters. In its current form it was not a place I wished to linger in.
Heading round to the Plaza Iglesia we passed shops selling Italian linen and a busker playing a Hang drum, not the most Andalucían experience imaginable. The Plaza Iglesia is an uninspiring plaza with only the church on one side and the remains of the castle wall on the other to recommend it. The church did not have any particular iconography or stylistic architecture to place it above any other. From the church, up a staircase and we were headed to the remains of the town's castle. I should have done my homework because disappointment followed disappointment as I discovered that the castle remains were purely the walls and there was nothing to explore within.
We wandered through the smaller winding streets of the town where some of the Andalucían charm became more evident with bougainvillea cascading down walls and old ladies sitting in the shade by their open windows whilst the men sat on benches below discussing the tribulations and joys of living in modern Spain. A hot chocolate in El Reloj gave me sufficient impetus to walk along Ancha to the Plaza San Cristobel past small side streets and old buildings in various states of disrepair that have a quaintness to them that can allow you to forget the commercial bustle that fills Marbella.
The Plaza San Cristobel, with its small chapel which is viewable through iron grates but only open for the celebration of Mass, is a three-sided affair with a small fountain within which we saw a man shuffling around looking for coins. A sign of the economic crisis that Spain is facing, or an old habit? He was watched silently from the side-lines by an aged man on a bench and an old lady who sat Miss Haversham like behind her shrouded window.
We wound our way back through the town towards the sea as the tables in the Plaza de los Naranjos filled with those willing to shell out a small fortune for their food. Through the small park where shaded benches were occupied predominantly by men reading books or watching the world pass them by we arrived at the top of the Avenida del Mar. Along its length, which ends with the Playa de la Venus (Venus Beach), are sculptures by Salvador Dali which provide a wonderfully surreal and interesting walk. Comparing the sculpture of the elephant on the beach with Dali's 'elefante cosmico' (which is referred to as a rhinoceros in many write-ups and you can see why, particularly knowing Dali's penchant for rhinceros horn shapes in his work)is one way to pass a few minutes.
If the mood had taken us we could have strolled along the Golden Mile to Puerto Banus to gaze at the yachts of the wealthy if not famous and stare into the windows of the boutiques that fill the narrow streets behind the port. However, the plethora of high rise hotels was off-putting and with almost miraculously good timing we boarded the bus and headed back towards another tourist resort – Fuengirola.
I love Málaga, but it is sadly under-rated. Its name is synonymous with the airport destination for drunken Brits who scatter themselves - generally westwards - along the Costa del Sol. But it shouldn't be. Málaga is one of the oldest cities in the world; its culture and history date back to the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC. It is an elegant, vibrant and interesting city.
Málaga has been the home and birthplace of many famous people including Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas. It is home to art galleries - Picasso Museum, Carmen Thyssen Museum, CAC - museums and excellent shopping. There is far less of the tacky sombrero souvenir shopping than many expect. From the bus and train stations it is an easy meander to the tree-lined Avenida de Andalucïa and down to the port and the main attractions.
The port has just been refurbished, finishing touches are still being added to the 'Palmeral de las Sorpresas', a palm filled garden that runs along Wharf 2, with children's playground and quiet seating areas. The wharf takes you to the bars and restaurants, the lighthouse and, further round, the chiringuito-lined beaches. It is a pleasant place to sit - the sea on the one hand, skyline of the city on the other.
The skyline reflects Málaga's long and diverse history. Renaissance and Art-Deco buildings sit opposite the Paseo del Parque - a palm-shaded avenue that runs parallel to the port with botanical garden and quiet fountains. The walls of the Moorish palace Alcazaba, wind up towards the Castel Gibralfaro on top of the hill. The walk to the castle offers views across the city, and the port towards Africa. You can peek into the bullring from on high, as you rest against the bouganvillia lined walls. At the base of the Alcazaba is the Roman Theatre from where buildings of the sixteenth to twentieth centuries subtly blend as you wend through cool narrow streets to the Cathedral. The Cathedral's soaring, dark interior with fine sculptures and intricately carved choir stall is inspiring.
I could go on listing the marvels of Málaga, but the best thing to do is to experience it for yourself. I want people to recognise the city of Málaga for what it is - beautiful, interesting, lively - one of the best places to visit in Andalucía.