Despite the lack of cultural equivalency for the significance of a twenty first birthday in Spain, I reasoned mine still warranted a celebration. With my program (the first excursion I’ve participated in this semester) I was lucky enough to spend a great birthday weekend in Sevilla and Córdoba, two unique, amazing cities in Andalusia.
Sevilla is a wonderful, traditional city, full of tall palm trees flowering oranges and dates, wide, splendid boulevards, many parks and an array of impressive structures ranging from the Cathedral and Alcazar, or Muslim Palaces to new age buildings and bridges constructed for the world expo in 1992. The city is centered around the Guadalquivir, “grand river” in Arabic, the same port from which Columbus and Magellan departed on their voyages across the Atlantic. Spanish culture is strong and vibrant, with the origins of both flamenco and bullfighting found in Sevilla. The streets are lined with beautiful architecture, the food scene is incredible, and it is a pleasant, very enjoyable city.
Cordoba is similarly traditional, although the old town has a decidedly smaller, more compact feel. The streets feel older, and remnants of a thriving Jewish community, one of the strongest in the world prior to the Inquisition, combine with narrow, cobbled streets, Roman ruins, and whitewashed walls to create a historical vibe.
The religious structures visited this weekend were all absolutely incredible mixtures and illustrations of Muslim and Christian art and architecture, and the transfer of power into the hands of Spanish monarchs leaves both cultures clearly represented in the buildings.
The Cathedral of Sevilla is the third largest covered religious dome in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome and Notre Dame and ahead of the Hagia Sophia. It is enormous and very decadent, is reserved for royal weddings, and contains the remains of Christopher Columbus, obviously one of the most important figures in Western history. A climb to the top of the Giralda, the only remaining portion of the Muslim mosque, yielded great views of the city.
The Alcazar, a complex containing the gardens and palaces of the sultan, offered a third example of Islamic royalty to the Alhambra and Topkapi Palace, and while interestingly different from the other two, certainly did not disappoint. The ornate stucco walls, practical architecture, and lavish and impressive construction was a picture of beautiful simplicity and calmness. Thankfully left largely intact by the Spanish after the conquest of the city, the Islamic styles containing geometric, patterned, natural designs are without comparison and represent an image and evoke emotions and reflections I have come to treasure.
In Córdoba we wandered the old Jewish quarter prior to our touristic visit. A statue of Maimonides commemorates the birthplace of the philosopher, theologian, medic, and scholar, a man who played an important role in transforming Cordoba into a learned center of Jewish culture during the early Middle Ages. The synagogue that exists is one of three remaining in Spain, and was refreshingly simple and relaxing.
Lastly, the Mezquita in Córdoba, a mosque turned cathedral, was similarly an incredible mesh of architectural styles and cultural influences. Red and white limestone arches and brilliant mosaics combined with a jaw dropping facade and organ to compose, to me, an unprecedented combination of images and visions. The structure is easily one of my favorites of my travels so far.
Tours aside, the Sevilla food scene is a vibrant representation of traditional recipes made with local, fresh ingredients. The hotel breakfast spread was perfect for a large yogurt special, but the tapas we had in the city were the best I’ve had in Spain. The wine is great, the food is stupidly cheap for the quality, and the experience unmatched. For my birthday dinner we went to La Azotea, a bit of a nicer place, and shared grilled squid with oranges in goat cheese, cod in pesto with a soft-boiled egg, tuna, and grilled veggies topped with the incredible Spanish goat cheese. I had a glass of Rioja for my first legal drink, so classy. After a free dessert of homemade vanilla ice cream and chocolate cake we had some birthday churros and chocolate with more wine (surprisingly a really good mix).
My other two meals in Sevilla were at more traditional, low key Spanish joints bustling with locals where the tapas were eaten standing up (which I have come to love). We ordered based on recommendations from both waiters and customers at neighboring tables, and the food was incredible. For lunch we shared migas with chorizo, tortilla with whiskey, cod with tomato and goat cheese sauces, and corvina (a local fish) in the house sauce, a tomatoey mix. Dinner was a feast of salmorejo, jamon, cod and potato tortilla, cod in a “widow” tomato sauce, spinach and garbanzos, eggplant and jamon grilled cheese, and grilled squid. The ambiance is unmatched, and the kindness and passion of locals with regards to food is an invaluable part of the experience.
All in all, it really was a great birthday weekend. A visit to the Archive of the Indies, a free exhibition of Spanish exploration and expansion in a historical center of great importance during the Age of Discovery only piqued my interest in pursuing further academic studies on Latin America. We toured the Plaza de Toros, the Yankee Stadium of bullfighting, and saw a clean track and an awesome museum of art and history related to the sport. After attending a flamenco show at the university I am struck by how these two national specialties evoke and exhibit such passion and emotion. Staying at a nice hotel with my program was a nice change from the backpacking style of travel I normally employ, and although I am certainly ready to get back on the road, it was an easy, pleasant, very fun weekend. I took a great sunrise run down through the old town of Sevilla, circling around the Cathedral, and Plaza de España, built for the expo, returning along the lazy Guadalquivir. As I gaze out across the olive-rich fields at a muted sunset, I am pleasingly content following a weekend of new friends, great food, amazing sites, a continuation of the active holiday, reflection upon the incredibly turbulent, fun, and fortunate last year of my life, with nothing but enthusiasm and excitement for the one that has just begun.
Until next time,