Monday, November 9, 2009

Cordoba - A Sample from Spain, Year Two.

It might seem odd to post something from book two when book one doesn't even have representation yet, but I wanted to have something up here besides more rambles and I just don't have time to compose something recent. Nor do I want to post anything else from book one. (The two Provence chapters are both high-larious, but I need to save a lot for the book right? I can't just publish everything to the blog.)

New rule : If you like something I've posted, you have to click an ad link. I think you'll like this one.

Cordoba 5/9/08

Today we are heading to Cordoba for the terrace festival. It is essentially a way for people to show off their pretty terraces and because Spaniards will invent any reason so that they can have a fiesta. There will be lots and lots of flowers, some gardens, maybe a koi pond or two. We’re very excited.

Okay, Wendy is very excited; me, not so much.

Today we’re taking the Ave and about that I am very excited. Atocha train station is only ten minutes from our house and no security checks. Soon, we’ll be smoothly zipping along at three hundred kilometers an hour. But first, some lunch.

At the opposite end of the turtles in the jungle portion (described in book one of Spanish travels) of the station is a great restaurant called “Samarkanda.” (Wikipedia tells me Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan and is as old as Rome.) Wendy has heard they have great steak tartar, something I have never tried but have always wanted to. We get a seat on the terrace overlooking the jungle and have some pate, a nice bottle of wine and some steak tartar. Just so you know steak tartar is very heavy. It is a confluence of flavors that are very rich combining garlic, Worcestershire sauce, onions, mustard, Tabasco, black pepper and more. In future visits we get one steak tartar and one other dish and share them so as not to be overwhelmed.

We are running late for our train when we finish and dash across the train station with mere minutes to go. But, there are no problems with boarding, no line, no strip searches, just hand them the tickets and get on. All this and no stomach lurching turbulence and no danger of falling out of the sky We have a nice view of the cafeteria car and soon people are walking past us with bad food and wine.

“We should have saved our appetite for the hot dogs and chips” Wendy says.

“I don’t think so.”

I get us a couple single serving bottles of wine and we look out the window and talk.

The difference between heading south out of the city instead of north is the fact that we are outside of the city in about five minutes and looking out over the green fields of Spain.

Another good thing about the Ave is that when riding it with friends, you can sit facing each other so the four of you can talk. A bad thing about the Ave is, if you’re not traveling with friends, you’re staring complete strangers in the face. Today we are staring at a matronly old woman traveling with what at first appears to be her granddaughter, braces and all. But on further inspection we find out that the granddaughter is actually just a tiny mature woman who appears to have had a hard city life. Her eyes are sunken into her thin head and she falls asleep just outside the city and leans her head against her mother and soon is drooling spit. The longer we travel the more her head falls to the side until it’s hanging at a grotesque broken angle. An hour into the trip her cell phone rings and she wakes up, chats on the phone a bit then talks with what I assume is her mother, while staring straight ahead.

At me.

I’m trying to read my book at this point but I can’t help glancing at her. Her eyes have dark black hollows under them, like a ghoul that has been awake all day waiting for the feast to start. I begin to fear what will happen if we go through a tunnel. Pretty soon I start to wonder how I can politely say “Can you go back to sleep, because you’re really starting to freak me out.”

The first things we do when we get to Cordoba is check into our hotel, get rid of our bags and check out the bed, which is awesome. I can put up with endless rows of flowers for this.

Now very happy, we head out into the streets to try and find some terraces. Since it’s mid- afternoon, siesta time, we rapidly find out that most of the terraces are closed, not to open up again until seven o’clock. We do find some nice balconies covered with flowers but nothing spectacular. Maybe if I was deeply into flowers I might enjoy them more, but, I’m not. If you’re into flowers though, this is the festival for you!

Since none of the terraces are open we do what everyone in Spain does at this point. We find a nice little bar, grab a couple glasses of wine, some food and talk.

As usual, we decide it’s a great idea to follow your dreams. Wendy was living in NY when the offer to move to Spain came up. Sure it was a lot of work and a lot of risk. It took a lot of work to box up and ship all her stuff over here, live in a hostel until she found an apartment, completely repair and paint the trashed apartment and turn it into the beautiful place it is today. Then the unimaginably hard task of starting up the business, cold call people and run a sales pitch. All of it very hard, but she can’t imagine still being in NY, still unhappy with her job but still in a comfort zone. Leaving that comfort zone brought her all her dreams.

At around seven we make our way back out into the streets and find some terraces open. Again, not that impressive… The problem with a lot of these homes is that they aren’t doing anything with the flowers. There is very little design. It is just lots and lots of flowers, usually petunias, sometimes fifty of them, hanging off the walls. Wendy and I have petunias. They don’t need much work. You plant them, water them, they get some sun and then they explode in growth and color.

We do find the city is beautiful though as we wander around and attempt to get lost. There is a lot of Muslim influence, like most of the cities to the south, with the usual almost worship of water. In the parks there are mile long concrete streams running through and everywhere we go there are lots of little pools of water and constructed little waterfalls.

We finally find a home with a terrace that is a level of quality above the rest. The entrance starts with two red and white painted archways. While there is still the similar theme of more is better, it’s really designed in a thoughtful way. There is a beautiful fountain in the middle of the room and then on the right hand side there is huge, leafy, bushy almost otherworldly plant. It appears to be nothing but palm branches coming out of the ground and ascending ten feet high in all directions. To the right of that in a little alcove are roses, cherubs, golden chalices and a shrine that contains a small statuette of Mary holding a dead Jesus in her arms. One entire wall is covered with intertwined roses. There are beautiful paintings along different walls surrounded by flowers. Looking up I see a massive bougainvillea that makes a complete roof of leaves and flowers. The floor of the place is river-tile, which is black flat stones arranged in a pattern and set in concrete to make a flower.

Now I’m impressed.

(Note: this is not a picture of that terrace. Sadly, those pictures turned out bad. This is just one terrace that also looked nice as an example.)
The next day we make our way inside the Mezquita.

The Mezquita was originally a roman temple. On that same spot was then built a Christian church. When the Muslims took over the area Emir Abd ar-Rahman converted the church into the second largest mosque in the world. In 1236, Cordoba was recaptured from the Muslim army by King Ferdinand and was again converted, this time building a massive Christian church inside the center of the mosque.

In his excellent book “Iberia” James Michener finds it fascinating. I find it nothing but blasphemous.

Like other massive cathedrals we have been in, the outside walls are ringed by small rooms with statues and murals of historic figures of Christian faith but none of them are as impressive as things we have seen elsewhere. Now, the Muslim faith doesn’t allow humans or animals to be depicted in its artwork, much less a mosque. Similarly, the one thousand arches that support the roof of the mosque are made up of the jasper, onyx, marble, and granite of the Roman temple that stood here before it.

In Toledo we saw a beautiful melding of the three religions into a common building. Here, the ruling powers have made no attempt to meld the religions, it is more of an "in-your-face" desecration attitude to the other religions.

The other thing that adds to my feeling of blasphemy and desecration is, oddly, there are five tour groups in the Mezquita, loudly being told what each corner represents, snapping pictures and noisily talking amongst themselves. There is none of the silent reverence that was observed in the other cathedrals we have been in. It’s like a mall of faiths in here there are so many people and so much noise. I follow Wendy around and we look at most of it, but honestly, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

We get some lunch and then head over to the birthplace, site of his death and museum of Julio Romero de Torres.
This is Wendy at the entrance.
His paintings are quite different than the ones we’ve seen in the Prado or even the Louvre. In one guide book its description begins with “Depending on how you feel about black velvet paintings…”

I guess I like them.

I’m a bit of a boorish art person. I like art that shows me something or moves me in some way, like a poem. Having just visited the Prado and seen painting after painting of Spanish royalty blankly staring at the artist while wearing nice clothes and not moving, this museum was a relief.

While utilizing a lot of very dark colors in his work, I didn’t find the paintings reminiscent of black velvet Elvis or Jesus at all.

Most of the paintings are of women with a scene from Cordoba or the imagination behind them. Usually the women are standing in a doorway or lying in front of a window and a scene plays out behind them.

“La Gracia” shows three nuns cradling and supporting the waist, head and feet of a half-naked woman. To the right of them a woman is crying. Behind them are a few buildings of Cordoba and the river Guadalquivir.

“El Pecado” which is “sin” in Spanish has a naked woman lying on a bed looking at herself in the mirror, her back to the viewer. The mirror is held by a crone dressed all in black including a head scarf. As if debating with her, two other old women are gesturing and talking to the woman holding the mirror. To the left of all of them is a middle-aged earthy woman holding out a golden apple cupped in both hands and behind them all, a window showing a typical Cordoba building. What does it mean? The vanity of youth? The three crones deciding a woman’s fate? A "Sleeping Beauty" reference?

His most famous painting is called “Naranjas y Limones” (oranges and lemons) which again shows a woman half-stripped to the waist but wearing a white skirt. She has black hair and soulful eyes. She is holding five oranges just beneath her breasts. Her left breast actually seems to be supported by the oranges. I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but on first glance, I thought he was making a joke and calling her breast a lemon, but on closer inspection I can see a lemon tree in the background.

His largest series of work takes up one entire wall and is called “Forma de Cordoba.” Consisting of “Cordoba Guerra”, “Cordoba Judea,” “Cordoba Barroca” “Codoba Torrera,” “Cordoba Christiana,” “Cordoba Romana” and “Cordoba Religioso.” All are lined up next to each other and of course, depict different aspects of Cordoba architecture and people. There is Cordoba in times of war, a Jewish woman, a bull, a Christian woman, the religious quarter, etc.

The flamenco paintings are the most complex and stunning. My favorite of these is “Conte Hondo” which depicts a number of scenes in one painting. In the center is a man kneeling over a woman he has clearly just killed. She is lying with her eyes open, a pool of blood spreading beneath her. Above her is a woman standing on an alter stripped to the waist and holding a guitar. Behind her is a large dog. Elsewhere there is a woman in a coffin, a man mourning next to it; a women with one breast exposed passionately kissing a man, to the left of them another pair, the man lying on the ground dead or drunk while a woman looks down at him as if watching over him. Framing all of this is the typical Cordoba scenery.

My favorite museum ever.

We spend the rest of the day wandering around looking at patios. And… as cool as they are, they’re not really something I’m into. Each one is slightly varied. And green. And filled with plants. Lots of plants. Big plants. Big, green plants. Eventually, with rare exception, they start to blur together for me.

For dinner we head to a mildly famous restaurant called “El Churrasco” which we think means a pork chop seasoned with Moroccan spices.

A cute little old man greets us and asks if we have a reservation. We tell him no and he says “no problem, we still have a few spaces left” and leads us upstairs to a quaint little room and a table.

What happens next is unique to my experiences in Spain.

The entire staff acts as if they live in a tip-driven business. Which they don’t.

Two glasses of sherry are poured for us before we even order anything. What Rioja is to the north and center of Spain, Sherry is to the south. In Madrid, you never see someone drinking sherry, but here, it is the drink of choice and we’ve seen people drinking it in bars all day.

For an appetizer we order a bowl of fish soup and the waiter tells us he will divide up one bowl for the two of us so we don’t have to share. What happens next is the best service I have ever received in any part of the world. We have five waiters attending to our every need. From clearing plates, to opening the wine, to refilling glasses of wine or water, to serving the food, there is always someone on hand for the slightest whim, cheerfully carried out. To top it off, the fish soup is phenomenal with a rich buttery taste, large pieces of fish and whole mussels, clams and shrimp.

We each finish off only half of our half bowl because we need to save room for our main course.

Completely atypical of Spain, three waiters in five minutes come over and ask us “Is there something wrong with the soup?” They ask us this in both Spanish and English and with true concern in their voice. It’s so wonderful! We quickly explain that no, the soup is fantastic; we are just saving room for the churrasco. We are feeling very dumb right about now. The food and service here is fantastic, and we are not able to take advantage of it because we’ve been eating cheap bad food all day.

The churrasco comes and despite the fact that their napkins show a huge chop and the guidebook we followed here told us it was a huge chop, we are not presented with a huge chop. Something we were both looking forward to… It is instead a pork loin. A delicious, perfectly seasoned roll of meat, but still, not the huge bone I was hoping to pick up and gnaw on.

Neither of us can finish it thanks to earlier excesses and again, the waiters are crushed.

The following morning the streets are packed with tourists. It is wall to wall humanity when we emerge from our hotel. We make our way through the crush to a foul little café that is the evil opposite of the place we ate last night. “Café Bar Mezquita” is the name, but that won’t help you find or avoid it. There are a dozen places with that name in Cordoba. Of course, we don’t know it’s a horrible place when we sit down. They have a nice little terrace in the sun and don’t look too busy.

They have “pan con tomate” (bread covered with a tomato-y juicy sauce, olive oil and salt) for Wendy and I get coffee and a donut. The problem, as usual, is both the typical Spanish service and the typical Spanish attitude. There are three women behind the counter and none of them is in the mood to serve anyone. They would much rather chat with each other, smoke while preparing food, avoid eye contact and act drunk and surly when asked for something.

In Spanish I ask : “Can I get a donut please?”


“A Donut! It’s the same fucking word in English as it is in Spanish so don’t act like you don’t understand me.”


“A donut! For the love of God, I just want a donut!”

In the book, this entry goes on another ten pages, but you get the idea. :-)

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