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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Tolerance

Our recent trip to Spain’s Andalucía region, with its rich history, prompted thoughts on the ebb and flow of tolerance, and its fleeting presence.

My first insight is that “tolerance” is a much used word; therefore, some of its meaning has blurred over time. For instance, most of us do not understand that you cannot exhibit tolerance without having power over those to whom you extend it. Tolerance is voluntary action by someone who could control things otherwise. By way of example, if the table next to me in a restaurant where I’m not known nor have any influence is loud and annoying, I put up with it; I don’t tolerate it. On the other hand, if it were my restaurant and I had plenty of customers, yet I allowed it to continue, I would be tolerant of the behavior. Tolerance has a conscious forbearance of behavior (read custom or belief) even though one looks upon it with disapproval; and might see it as inferior, harmful or distasteful. You endure it even though you have the power to disallow it.

My second insight is that this virtue is not innate to a culture. For almost 800 years, Islamist Moors controlled most of Spain, from 711 to 1492 and the fall of Granada. This was a period of tolerance; Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their faiths without being tortured or expelled. I’m not trying to make this an idyllic setting, there was ingrained prejudice, and ghettos were numerous. Society wasn’t a serene meritocracy; but those in power had forbearance to those without. And this society flourished intellectually and commercially.

When the Catholic monarchs finally defeated the Moors, the Spanish Inquisition happily started. Moslems and Jews were forced to convert; or be killed or expelled. Even among those that converted, many were tried as heretics. Recent texts downplay the number of sinners burnt at the stake, and the brutal torture techniques; still large populations of non-Catholics fled the area: Jews, Muslims and Protestants alike. This intolerance wasn’t a short term event; it wasn’t officially abolished until 1834 under Isabella II. The region suffered; the Enlightenment was slow to take hold here.

Today we constantly see the West lecturing the Moslem world to become more secular and tolerant. What a difference 500 or so years make. When the magnificent mosque in Córdoba was being constructed, most people in Western Europe were huddled in caves; enough time turns everything on its head.

Absolute values are easy to explain and indoctrinate; just black and white to defend – simple belief. Relative values have a much tougher road; all that gray tone – lacking the fire and brimstone. America has lots of power in the world, so we must have forbearance; tolerance. I fear we are losing some of this. Others without power just have to “put up with it;” but not happily and not without a growing bitterness.

We need to pay more attention to history.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Southern Spain | May 2011 - Part 3

May 13, 2011 (Granada)It was a bit cloudy when we woke for our last day in Granada. Today we explored the Albaicín, the old city on the hillside opposite the Alhambra. The narrow Carrera Del Darro snakes along its namesake’s river. Our first stop was at El Buñuelo, an 11th Century Moorish bathhouse. Its star-shaped openings in its vaults were unique. On Cuesta del Chapiz we caught the bus to Mirador de San Nicholas for sweeping views of the Alhambra; afterward, a meandering, cobblestoned stroll back to Plaza Nueva.
Lunch was again at Restaurante Centro on Place Bib-Rambia near the cathedral; then wobbling back to Palacio de los Patos about three.

In order to be considered for the intrepid travelers’ of the year award, we felt obligated to see one more sight in Granada; choosing Monasterio de la Cartuja, it did not disappoint. Founded in 1516, the church is a Churrigueresgue marvel, topped by it amazing sacristy. We took the #8 bus back to Gran Via, walked home and drank to our good fortune on the patio. It would have been a tragedy to have missed this.

Dinner was again outside at the hotel’s restaurant; we were too tired to go anywhere else.

May 14, 2011 (Granada – Marbella)
We had a wakeup call at seven, packed, had a light breakfast and on were on the road by ten. It was an easy two hour drive to the sea; we arrived to the Marbella Club at noon. It is a large compound, highly recommended by Paul and Jane in London. The weather was wonderful, a sunny 72°F; we walked a bit to get our bearings and had a kier royale at the pool near the beach while our room was being made up. Around 1:00 we were given our key to room #245, a spacious suite; were at the pool by two; a light lunch of grilled tuna, very good.
The complex has two pools, a large salt water by the sea, and a smaller more intimate fresh water further up from the beach; we initially at least, prefer the latter. May’s sun was gentle; and apart from the disruption of a group of ten loud, indiscrete Americans, we had a peaceful afternoon. The staff seems attentive.

We walked back to the beach and the hotel’s pier in the early evening; then had dinner at the Grille.

May 15, 2011 (Marbella)
We had a nice breakfast on the Grille’s terrace; the weather was a bit overcast and windy as we took a morning stroll along the Mediterranean walkway. By eleven we were at the pool, and had a nice lunch, accompanied by a pleasant rosé, a 2010 Rioja from Muga. In late afternoon, the sun returned. In all it was a relaxed day: reading and snoozing. The pool here is not really set up for lap swimming; it’s more for just dipping and a quick cool off.

Dinner was at the Grille again; tonight beef. The highlight was the Ribero Del Duero 2005 Hacienda de la Monasterios Reserva, a combination of tempranillo, malbec and cabernet sauvignon; blackberry, licorice and espresso flavors – fantastic! I have to thank Paul for the recommendation.

May 16, 2011 (Marbella)
The weather is not cooperating; after a ½ hour walk we were to the pool on a cool and cloudy day. We had another nice lunch and did some reading, but the lack of sun certainly took some sparkle out of our time here.
Dinner was in the Grille again tonight; definitely not the “A” team doing the service, slow, inattentive and sloppy describes it. The 2006 Alion from Vega Sicilia was the highlight.

May 17, 2001 (Marbella)
After breakfast we decided to take one more trip. On the road before eleven, we snaked north up the switchbacks of A397 through the rugged Serranía de Ronda; in about and hour and a half we were to Ronda, a picturesque town straddling a precipitous limestone cleft. It was one of the last Moorish bastions, finally falling to the Christians in 1485.
We walked across the Puente Nuevo, an 18th century feat of civil engineering, toured the famous bullring, inaugurated in 1785, and the Santa Maria la Mayor, a church built on the site of a 13th century mosque.

I had read about a restaurant that had gotten rave reviews; we stopped at Restaurante Tragabuches on Calle José Aparicio, near the bullring. The tasting menu turned out to be creative and wonderful; our second course was “cresta de gallo,” which is actually the red fleshy skin of the rooster’s plume, or cockscomb as it’s called. It was served in small stewed pieces in a truffle sauce, with parmesan foam; tasting like plump mushrooms. We actually aren’t as adventurous as it sounds; the maître de told us what we had after we had finished. The only drawback to the whole meal was that we had no wine; I was driving.
Our last trip to Ronda was in the mid-nineties with Chrysler; it was good to return and update our memories. About five we left and retraced our route back to the Costa del Sol and Marbella. It was a nice day; we reminisced about it at the hotel’s bar over a glass of Chardonnay.

Dinner was again at the hotel, the wine from Ribera Del Duero the highlight.

May 18, 2001 (Marbella)
The forecast was for cloud with occasional rain for our last day, and the weatherperson didn’t disappoint. After breakfast we arranged for our rental pickup by Europcar and lazily read our way to lunch; which was at the MC Café. Reading continued accompanied by heavy rain from about three to five o’clock. We resembled the sloth for most of the day.
Dinner was at the Grille again; a good final night ending with nightcaps in the bar.

May 19, 2011 (Marbella – London)
We were up at seven to an overcast day, packed, breakfasted, and we were off to the Malaga Airport. Our British Airways flight was excellent, arriving early; Masood met us and whisked us into London. Everything in the apartment was fine; we were glad to be back.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Southern Spain | May 2011 - Part 2

May 4, 2011 (Seville)
We had a restless sleep, but awoke to a beautiful day and a pleasant breakfast. Our first stop of the day was to Hospital de los Venerables; we had an awful time finding it in the patchwork of lanes, but eventually found it. I’m sure we were yards away several times. It was a home for elder clergy completed around 1700; now a cultural center. The highlight is its church, a Baroque splendor; we spend hours there.
We had lunch at another tapas bar on Gaga, this time the Belmonte; it is known for its beef, decorated in a bullfighting motif.

After lunch, we walked to the river and the Torre Del Oro, part of the 13th century fortifications. Judith then talked me into a “step-on-step-off” bus tour; it was as horrible as expected, baking in the sun on the upper deck while touring what could only be described as the top ten most uninteresting things about Seville. Live and learn; thankfully the audio wasn’t working properly so we didn’t have to listen to the canned presentation, and it only lasted one hour.
Next it was to Hospital de la Caridad, a charity hospital founded in 1674 and still a sanctuary for about 85 elderly gentleman. More Baroque splendor, as well as some well preserved frescos. We briefly visited Seville’s bullring, its season in full swing.

We crawled home exhausted, had some wine poolside and had another dinner at Palacio de Villapanés; sleep came after midnight (again).

May 5, 2011 (Seville)
It was another wonderful sunny morning. Today we were off early to Parque María Lucía, donated by its namesake in 1893 in preparation for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. It is well maintained and picturesque; although Disney may have gotten some inspiration here; something a bit unnaturally natural. We left the park via Avenue de Maria Luisa and visited the imposing façade of Palacio de San Telmo, built in 1682 with an exuberant Churrigueresgue portal. We had a quick break and drink at the Hotel Alfonso XIII’s patio.

Lunch was on Calle Rodrigo Caro at Restaurant La Cueva, in the heart of the old Barrio Santa Cruz. The chicken was terrible, but the entertainment uplifting. This is the time for the Spring Fairs, or la feria; where ladies dress in the traditional and flamboyant flamingo costumes. These fairs date back to the gypsies and the 19th century. We bumped into a frolicking party of geriatrics, seventy something’s as limber, energetic and fun loving as a group of twenty year olds. They weren’t beautiful like their younger lithe counterparts flaunting themselves around the city, but their fluid movements were amazing to watch; we all have hope!

It was then on to Casa de Pilates, a palacio inspired by the High Renaissance and the Holy Land; built in the 1500s by the Marquis of Tarifa to resemble Pontius Pilate’s residence in Jerusalem. There were more wonderful examples of mudéjar architecture throughout.

We were back to the Hotel Grand Alfonso XIII for drinks and dinner, very pleasant; the property will be closing in about a month for a ten month renovation. A taxi home had us to bed late again. The custom of late dinners at ten or after is starting to wear on our tired, old bodies.

May 6, 2011 (Seville)
Most of the city’s sights had been seen by us; today was a “clean-up” day; weather remained wonderful. Our first visit was to Iglesia de la Magdalena in el Arenal; its special Madonna and Child. It is an immense Baroque church completed in 1709. Then it was on to Museo de Bellas Artes; a breathtakingly converted convent dating to 1612, the Seville School well represented. Next was Casa Palacio Lebrija, with a wonderful Baroque chapel. Finally, the grand Baroque Iglesia Del Salvatore.

We had a leisurely lunch at Robles Laredo on Plaza de San Francisco. We finished our tour of Seville with Archivo de Indias, a museum dedicated to Spain’s exploration of the New World. Ironically, the temporary exhibit was about piracy; I couldn’t help but draw the strange parallel between the British and French terrorism in the Caribbean during the 17th century with that of the scourge of their Somali counterparts of today in the Persian Gulf. Not much changes.

We had a light and quiet dinner at the Palacio de Villapanés, and then crashed to sleep.

May 7, 2011 (Seville – Córdoba)
We were up early to a cloudy day, had breakfast and packed for our drive to Cordoba, less than two hours to the north and east. We left Seville without fanfare; however, our entrance to Córdoba was tough. The navigation was technically correct in guiding us to the destination in the shortest time, unfortunately trying to take us through several pedestrian zones. To complicate matters, this Saturday was the height of First Communion services at many churches; I tried desperately not to run over pretty little girls in their white dresses. After a few failed attempts, I noticed a taxi driver able to lower a mechanical bollard by speaking into a pedestal near the barrier. I drove up right after him, begged in poor Spanish for entry; miraculously the bollard lowered and we made it through. After a few more turns, we arrived at our hotel, Palacio Del Bailío.
We didn’t unpack much; the hotel will switch us to a suite tomorrow. This done, we headed off to Córdoba’s main sight, the Mezqutia; an 8th century marvel. This structure showcased the power of Islam in southern Europe, built between 785 and 787. With the fall of the Moors at the hands of the Catholic monarchs in the 1400s; a part of the mosque was destroyed to accommodate a cathedral. What a sweep of history is contained within its 850 arches, vestiges of Islam and Christianity coexist. The mihrab prayer niche nestled next to the Christian Churrigueresgue cathedral choir. We wandered around for hours; there is no way to capture this immense structure in a picture; in much the same way as you cannot capture the Vatican’s proportion. Deeply moved and satisfied, we meandered our way back to the hotel.

Dinner was at the hotel’s restaurant. We met Jimmy, an affable transplant from New York working for the hotel, now living in Spain since 1984. But he hasn’t lost his accent or Big Apple flare – six degrees of separation proved once again.

May 8, 2011 (Córdoba)
The weather remained perfect. Our morning took us to Córdoba’s 14th century Sinagoga and the Capilla de San Bartolomé, a small church built in a Gothic-Mudéjar style. It was then on to Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos; wonderful gardens built in the 14th century, very expansive and exquisite.

In the afternoon we went back to Palacio Del Bailío, had lunch and transferred to our new suite, the Gran Captain, #109 – very special. After the move, we had a leisurely lunch on the patio. We met a nice couple, Conrad and Lorraine, from Los Angeles. Both were Spanish-American, growing up poor; an American success story, both professionals. We discussed life, politics and current events until after nine.

Saying our goodbye to them, Judith and I went to a late dinner at the hotel, and after a frustrating late night with Internet issues, we crashed to bed.

May 9, 2011 (Córdoba)
We awoke to another nice day; most sights were closed on Monday so we had a lazy day. We were at the pool for an hour or so; then had a relaxed lunch at Taberna Los Berengueles.
It was more wine on the terrace, eventually leading to a light tapas dinner and then off to bed at a more reasonable hour, eleven o’clock.

May 10, 2011 (Córdoba – Granada)
Up early, we had breakfast, packed and left for Granada, about two hours south and east of Córdoba. The drive out of the city was easy, and A45 took us south in the direction of Malaga, then A92, east. As we approached Granada, we could see snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains; this when our car registered an outside temperature of 77°F; such a contrast. The navigation this time smartly guided us to Palacio de los Patos, our hotel. We checked into a room that was odd in an unpleasant way; very modern and quirky, housed in an 18th century palacio masterpiece. Some architect must have thought he or she was just fabulous with the concept; poor him, or her (and us).

By three we were unpacked and out, walking up Calle Recogidas toward the historic district. We stopped at Restaurant Oliver on Plaza de la Pescadería for a quick bite; not too bad. We visited Capilla Real, the royal chapel, built in 1506, now the internment for Fernando and Isabel. The reja, or grille, by Bartolomé de Jaén was magnificent. It was then to the adjacent Granada Cathedral, a massive structure, at first a Gothic conception, it was transformed into its current Spanish Renaissance brilliance by Diego de Siloé in the 16th century. Its circular capilla mayor in place of the usual semi-circular apse was breathtaking. We took another short walk to visit Casa de los Tiros, a 15th century mudéjar palace. We then dragged ourselves back to the hotel, and had a drink on the terrace; a poetry reading was being hosted there, in Spanish unfortunately.

Dinner was at the hotel; adequate, not wonderful. We flopped into bed near midnight.

May 11, 2011 (Granada)
Today was our day to explore the Alhambra, “the red fortress.” Were up to an early breakfast and off to the #32 bus on Gran Via de Colón to take us to this “city within a city.” I took the luxury of hiring a private guide; we met Lourdes Ayllón at the Alhambra Map, as arranged.
This was the scene of the Moor’s last stand in Spain, the Nasrid dynasty moved its court here in 1232; construction of the palace complex took over 100 years. In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs defeated Boabdil, and Granada and the Alhambra were forever reclaimed by Christianity. This outcrop of rock was witness to changes over centuries, from the Romans to the 16th century Palace of Charles V. Our visit lasted hours, and ended at the summer residence of Generalife, or “garden of lofty paradise.” The Arabic script repeats a line many times on the walls throughout the complex, roughly translated as: “In the end the only winner is God.” Perhaps there is some truth to this; look at the suffering this place and the world have witnessed.

After exiting, we walked to the Alhambra Palace Hotel and had lunch on their marvelous terrace looking out to the cathedral and the Sierra Nevada range. There was a threat of rain, but it did not materialize. A #23 bus took us back to Gran Via, and then we walked back to the hotel; stopping for a better pair of walking shoes for Judith.

We were back out for a half hearted attempt at more sightseeing, but the rain eventually came and sent us scurrying back to our room. A late and light dinner was at the hotel.

May 12, 2011 (Granada)
We were up early for a planned day trip to Baeza, about two hours north in Jaén province. This town dates to the Romans. It was won back from the Moors by Fernando III in 1226 and its splendor climaxed in the 16th century. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003. The Antigua University was formed in 1542 and is still bustling with energetic students, still hotly debating current events. The cathedral and cloister were beautifully maintained; I climbed up the narrow winding stairs to the bell tower, Judith was wiser and stayed behind.
We had lunch at a quaint spot, Taberna El Pajaro on the main square Paseo de la Constitución. It was more tapas for us, including interesting avocado frites called alcachofas. On the drive back, the canyon vistas, with the back drop of the snow capped Sierra Nevada, made the journey seem short.

We got back to the hotel around four; had some wine on the terrace and rested and got some work done in the room. Dinner was at the hotel’s patio, relaxed and pleasant.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Southern Spain | May 2011 - Part 1


May 2, 2011 (London – Seville)
We were up to a nice day; Masood picked us up at ten for our drive to Gatwick, about a half hour further from us than Heathrow. It was our first flight from this airport. Check in went smoothly, but the plane was delayed about an hour because of “dirt on the wing tip,” one might say a seemingly shoddy excuse “on its surface.” The time in the air was fine; we landed in Malaga an hour late at about 6:15.

I couldn’t get a car from Hertz, so rented with Europcar; a nice Mercedes, with navigation provided separately by TomTom. The agent set the language to English for me. I had trouble mounting the unit; I stupidly tried to seal it to the dash rather than the windshield. It was flopping around but we left the garage anyway; I set the destination to our hotel in Seville.

We entered the road, immediately hit a bump, the unit flopped in between our seats; I heard a muffled male voice speaking German directing me. The agent set the screen to English, apparently not the audio; I pulled into a gas station swearing profusely. Eventually I was able to set the audio to a sweet and soothing British female, and overcame my stupidity and realized I needed the smooth surface of glass to have the suction mount hold firm; absolute idiot!

We drove north away from the Mediterranean to A92 and headed west; it was about a 2 ½ hour drive in some quite heavy rain and wind. We had some trouble interpreting the final navigation commands and made one or two aborted attempts, but finally arrived to Las Casas Del Rey de Baeza, our hotel in Seville. It is part of the Hospes chain; our first choice was Hotel Alphonse XIII, but it was fully booked. Our little suite was okay, but far from great. The property is a converted palacio in the rustic style.

We hurriedly unpacked, had a quick dinner and crashed to bed about midnight.

May 3, 2011 (Seville)
We were up early to a sunny seventy degrees and a nice breakfast. The hotel is on the northern outer fringe of the old city; it was a half hour walk through a labyrinth of winding streets; in some spots less than ten feet wall to wall. Cars flew by at excess speed; pedestrians the least of their concern.

The old city has two parts: Arenal along the Guadalquivir River; and east of Arenal; Santa Cruz. Our sightseeing started in Santa Cruz with the Real Alcázar, a royal residence established by the African Moorish Almohad and a brilliant example of mudéjar architecture; rebuild in 1364 by Pedro I. Later monarchs added their touches; Isabel I dispatching navigators to explore the New World from her Casa de la Contratación. The massive and ornate complex of buildings and lush gardens were magnificent to take in.

Our next stop was Seville Cathedral and its bell tower, La Giralda. The tower was built as a minaret in 1198 under the Moorish occupation; after several transformations, the current belfry dates to 1568, with its bronze weathervane, or giralda, in Spanish. This gothic cathedral, the largest in Europe, still has a Moorish legacy throughout.

A very late lunch was at nearby Bar Giralda on Mateos Gago; a well known tapas spot. The food and wait staff were a bit worn; burnt out by the tourists I suppose. Still the interior, a converted Moorish bathhouse had a certain charm.

We weaved our way back to the hotel through the maze of small streets; there wasn’t a straight stretch of more than ten yards, the sidewalk sometimes shrank to a mere six inches. Las Casas Del Rey de Baeza has a small and cozy rooftop pool; we took a snooze in the shade, each with a glass of wine precariously balanced in our hand (mine never seems to last too long).

We cleaned up but were too tired to explore for dinner; we just stepped across the street to Palacio de Villapanés. They have a nice patio; we had some tapas, then a lovely dinner in the restaurant. Again, we weren’t to bed until after midnight.