Rediscovering the Past

An article kindly written by one of Hidden Cultures' clients who used to live and work in Spain, but decided to hop onto one of our trips to see if there was anything he'd missed.

Having spent much of my formative and working life in Spain I reckoned that I was a relative expert on the country – I certainly classify myself as a real aficionado and appreciate many of the finer points of the culture, history and geography that so shapes the character of the Spaniard. So, the prospect of a week in Andalusia under the aegis of Hidden Cultures filled me with pleasurable anticipation, and I was confident that the vibrant, sunny disposition of the locals would recharge batteries left seriously depleted by a diet of Brexit and too many gloomy, dank winter months. Whilst confident that I wouldn’t learn much that I didn’t already know, my wife and I embarked on our EasyJet flight in good spirits and looking forward to a few days of relaxation, sun, vino and camaraderie with some like-minded individuals in my second home.

We landed in Malaga airport, which is much like any other airport anywhere in Europe. Grey, efficient and anodyne. In a few short minutes our comfortable little coach had taken us through Malaga’s uninspiring outskirts into the centre of the city and deposited us at our trendy little hotel, where we all met on the roof terrace for a welcoming drink before heading off, en masse, towards the older and more interesting historical centre for a bit of a bite.

The tour proper started at a civilised hour the next day. We were decanted into our comfortable coach and transported up through the mountains to Ronda. I had remembered this beautiful little gem from before, rather superficially I now realise; I recalled the town’s situation well, atop a craggy outcrop with commanding views. However, our local guide proceeded to give us an absolutely fascinating tour that threw real light on the many gems on offer, all of which had passed me by until then. The famous bull ring merits special mention as it was something that I had certainly been aware of but whose significance and splendour had been lost on me until this visit, which was rather galling.

Suitably re-educated and fed, we headed off towards Seville through the scenic countryside left uncharacteristically green and verdant after the previous week’s torrential rain. The region’s iconic white villages were dotted liberally around, and we even had time to explore one of the more picturesque ones for a couple of hours. I had ‘known’ that the whiteness was to reflect the daunting summer heat but hadn’t appreciated that the local white limestone, rather more importantly, acted as an integral antiseptic that kept the townsfolk in better health than might otherwise been the case in ages past.

I’d been to Seville on countless occasions, but only ever for business meetings that impressed with modern offices, acres of corporate glass, leather and the obligatory blingy chrome. The millennia of history had been mere reflections in these harsh commercial structures so the following days’ well-judged mix of culture, history, free time, and a captivating cookery course, were something of a revelation. The Mudejar palace, where Moorish influences mixed with Christian flourishes, the massive cathedral which had grown out of the original mosque, the ancient town with its alleyways and evocative plazas and myriad of points thick with religious, political and historical content made much more of an impression and left us all wanting to return to study things in more depth. Our cookery course was a morning of discovery too, and great fun. We left replete with what we had prepared and cooked; we also left feeling rather healthier than if we had just stopped off for a pork pie and pint. And, did you know that the local staple, Solomillo al Whisky, has not a drop of scotch in it, anywhere?

This theme of discovery followed us undimmed into Cordoba the next day, but not before an educational morning in an olive farm. After 3 short hours in the dappled shade of olive groves we had all been converted into insufferable olive oil snobs and are now prone to preach its health benefits to any poor sole who comes within earshot. This visit classifies as an absolute ‘must’.

We reached Cordoba in time for a gentle open-air lunch to fortify us for a guided tour of the ancient mosque/cathedral. Here Moorish Islamic grandeur and baroque Catholicism intermingled seamlessly, if improbably, and I was reminded of what a weird city Cordoba was and will ever be. The mix of Arab and European cultures is evident here and serves as a constant reminder that a latineate language such as Castilian Spanish is as much curious mix of Moorish etymology as it is a Roman construct.

The following day took us through kilometres of rolling olive groves all the way to Granada. My last visit had coincided with ‘teenagerdom’ but, despite constant hunger pangs and a pervading disinterest in anything, I recall The Alhambra being really rather special. I had forgotten the marvellous spectacle of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada acting as a backdrop to the Alhambra, and the picturesque old town had completely escaped my untutored eye too. And I had passed over the wonders of the Moorish architecture and clever earthworks demanded by Islamic custom and all too vital fortifications beforehand too, so the captivating detail explained by our French guide (so many of our marvellous guides were in fact French!) whetted my appetite for more in-depth learning at some stage in the future. Talking of food again, we even enjoyed our light meal in the flamenco cave one of our evenings, where the dancing was as Flamenco was supposed to be, a spontaneous eruption of vitality; all very different from the ‘received’ academic strictures as practised in Madrid, and much the more authentic and enjoyable for it too.

The two nights in Granada brought our tour to an effective end, and all the group left for home greatly rested but hankering for more. Hidden Cultures had revealed more gaps in my knowledge than I like to recognise, and to my chagrin I now realise I need to delve beyond the Spanish surface more if I am to regard myself as a true Hispanofile.