A meeting of minds and Moorish magnificence by moonlight

Palacio Carlos V - a recent construction by the Alhambra's standards.

Palacio Carlos V – one of the more recent constructions by the Alhambra’s standards.

The circular interior of Charles V's palace. He was the first Holy Roman emperor and liked to make a statement.

The circular interior of Charles V’s palace – he was the first Holy Roman Emperor.

When you work from home, as I do, Social Media isn’t just for watching hilarious viral videos of animals falling off bicycles, comparing notes about X Factor, and poring over photos of your friends’ kids.

It’s a lifeline to other, like-minded people with the same interests, in the same field of work, often in broadly the same region. Anyone who sits alone in their house, shuttered away in an office/cubbyhole/sitting room/garden shed in front of a computer for a large part of the day, will know what it feels like to operate in a vacuum. Noone else to bounce ideas off, commiserate, celebrate, or just ruminate with.

So, when you’re largely isolated, and you live abroad too, an online forum of people who live in the same country as you, speak the same language as you, and have an enormous collective knowledge base to which you contribute and which you benefit from, is a godsend.

I’m lucky enough to be a member of one such Facebook group. Who’d have thought that Zuckerberg’s beast, great for selling unwanted furniture and stalking ex-boyfriends (plus engaging with customers, as any SM consultant will tell you), would be a launch pad for such a dynamic collaborative meeting of minds. Entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, bloggers, and creative types who live in Spain, and are passionate about the country. The name is WABAS: Writers and Bloggers about Spain.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

Last year I attended the group’s second national annual get-together, in Malaga, which was hugely enjoyable, interesting and constructive. This year the WABAS venue was Granada. Friends, wine, expertise and the Alhambra. Meeting online friends in person (do they look like their photo? Are they what I expected?). It’s a winning combination.

We learned about topics relevant to media-savvy expats in business. We talked. We listened. We agreed. We disagreed. We ate. We drank. We drank some more.

these niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

These tiled and decorated niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

And we visited the Alhambra. At night. It was only my second time in this wondrous complex of Moorish and Renaissance palaces, the first having been nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. As an occasional tour leader in Seville, I was delighted that we were taken around the Alhambra by an excellent guide, Maria Angustia from Cicerone Tours. As this native granadina informed us, Maria Angustia is the patron saint of Granada.

She also told us that the Alhambra, which dates from the 13th century when this part of Spain was ruled by the Moors – cultured Islamic rulers from north Africa – was self-sufficient; its own independent mini-city. With no natural water source, usually an essential factor in establishing a settlement, the hill above Granada wasn’t an obvious location to build a palace; a river fed by the Sierra Nevada had to be diverted to provide water for the sultan’s new palace. But the Nasrid ruler Muhammed I obviously had a vision in mind. Titbits like these, about how the monument was initially planned, bring history to life.

We started our tour at the Palace of Carlos V, King of Spain and the first Holy Roman Emperor, for whom the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was coined. He also built the Casa Consistorial (original Town Hall) in Seville and held his wedding to Isabel of Portugal in the Alcazar of Seville. This 16th century palace, a few centuries more recent than the Nasrid Palaces which are the main draw of the Alhambra, is unusual in that it was the first building to be square on the outside, and round inside. The Palacio Carlos V is used for concerts and exhibitions.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles in the Mexuar Palace.


Arabesque detail of an archway in the Comares Palace.

Arabesque detail on an archway in the Comares Palace.

Painted decoration on a ceiling of mocarabe, modelled after stalactites in a cave where Mohoma took refuge.

Painted mocarabe decoration on a ceiling, modelled after stalactites in a cave where the prophet Mohammed took refuge.


Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Entering the first section of the Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar Palace, we saw examples of the extraordinarily complex, multi-layered decoration for which the Alhambra is famous as the most perfect example of a Moorish palace in the world. A combination of geometric alicatado tiles, with designs made from tiny pieces of ceramic; the intricate white relief sections, often with plant motifs and Arabic calligraphy inscriptions, called arabesque; the coffered artesonado wood ceilings, with their gold details; and coloured mocarabe decoration (see photo above), and you have a dazzling array of never-ending abstract art, 360 degrees, on every surface. Maria called it “an explosion of imagination”.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

We visited the rooms occupied by Washington Irving when he lived in the Alhambra as the US Consul. Most well-known outside Spain as the writer of books such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra brought the then-largely abandoned, but mercifully still intact, palace to the attention of a worldwide audience, drawing visitors to a then-unknown part of Spain for many years to come. This American author and hispanophile – he wrote several books about the country – is revered in Andalucia, and you can even follow a Washington Irving route across the region.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Courtyard of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard by heaving with other visitors.

Palace of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard was heaving with other visitors.

One of the most celebrated monuments within this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fountain of the Lions, recently restored. Each of the 12 carved marble animals is different, but the fountain wasn’t lit up at night when we there, so it was difficult to see their faces, with individually modelled eyes and mouths. Maria explained that the water has to be to very carefully controlled to ensure that it flows out of the lions’ mouths at precisely the same speed. As always with such fabled beasts, theories abound as to why there are 12 – signs of the zodiac is one possibility.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace - water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace – water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer heat.

The Alhambra was very busy on the night we visited, too much so for my liking, and Maria told us that 50 visitors enter the complex every five minutes – that’s 600 an hour – and that the palaces are open for 14 hours a day. Three million visits per year.

Afterwards, we went out for tapas, as you do, and I exchanged guiding notes with Maria, and reacquainted myself with fellow WABASers, as well as converting virtual online friendships into real ones, over a few bottles of good Spanish white wine from Rueda. Networking in real life and online is a necessity for today’s freelancers, and if you can do it with the surroundings of such a legendary city like Granada, all the better.

For practical information on visiting the Alhambra, see this useful post by fellow WABAS member and resident Granada expert, Molly Sears Piccavey.


Game of Thrones Series 5: Twelve things you didn’t know about the Alcazar of Seville

Alzacar, Seville, Games of Thrones

Exquisite arcades of the Patio de las Doncellas, one of the Alcazar’s most famous areas.



Gallery of kings in the Ambassadors´Hall.

Gallery of kings in the Ambassadors´Hall.

The façade of the Palace of King Pedro, with a mix of architectural styles which inspired the Comares palace of the Alhambra.

The magnificent façade of King Pedro’s Palace, with a mix of architectural styles which is said to have inspired the Comares palace of the Alhambra, built by Mohammed V shortly afterwards.

Seville is abuzz with excitement about the news that series 5 of Game of Thrones will be filmed here in the city – at the Alcazar. The hugely successful HBO fantasy drama, which is inspired by European history and set in a magical medieval-era world, has a massive international fan base and has received widespread critical acclaim. Using the Alcazar as a location will bring Seville’s exquisite royal palace-fortress to global attention. (Personal confession: *whispers* I’ve never watched GOT myself, but will be remedying that situation by ordering some box sets shortly to bring myself up to speed.)

The royal palace – one of my own personal favourite monuments in Seville – has a long and fascinating history starting in Moorish times, passing through Gothic and Mudejar to Renaissance. In case you don’t know the Alcazares Reales, as they’re correctly named, here are some interesting facts about this beautiful complex of buildings. Plus some photos of its wonderful interiors and gardens, of course.

1) The Alcazar (as we’ll refer to it here) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; part of a complex along with the Cathedral and Archive of the Indies, across the same plaza from the palace. The complex won World Heritage status in 1987.

This triple stone arch is one of the Alcazars only remaining Moorish features.

This triple stone arch is one of the Alcazar’s few remaining Moorish features.


2) Contrary to popular belief, it is (mostly) not a Moorish palace – the Alcazar has one courtyard which dates from Moorish times, the Patio de los Yesos; three arches at the entrance of the Patio de Monteria; plus the exterior walls were built by the Almohads, who also built the Giralda and Torre del Oro. The rest of the Moorish-looking areas are, in fact, mudejar - made by Moorish craftsmen under Christian rule, adapting their art forms and skills to Christian styles. The mudejar part was finished in 1364.

Peacock in the Carlos Throne Room - animals couldn't be depicted in Arabic art; this is mudejar: by Moorish artesans, for a Christian king.

Peacock in the Phillip II Ceiling Room – animals couldn’t be depicted in Arabic art; this is mudejar: by Moorish artesans, for a Christian king.

For example, Islamic art cannot feature representations of people or animals, only geometric and naturalistic shapes and patterns. Mudejar art, on the other hand, has people, animals and fantastical creatures – for example, look out for the peacocks in the Phillip II Ceiling Room, above the triple arch, and the tiny heads on pillars in the Patio de las Muñecas. The legend goes that if you manage to spot them all, you’re either very lucky, or pregnant!

Seville, alcazar, Game of Thrones

An Arabic philosopher in the Patio del Yeso, the oldest part of the Alcazar – part of a dramatized night-time visit.

3) The oldest part of the Alcazar, the Patio del Yeso, dates from 1170-90. It was built by the Almohads, the last Moorish dynasty to rule Seville.

4) Archaeological excavations in the Patio de Banderas, the plaza you walk through when you leave the Alcazar, revealed Moorish, Roman and prehistoric remains – the earliest was a kitchen from the 8th century BC. Plans to preserve these historic gems for public view have been put on hold. If funds are the issue, then presumably the revenue from filming should remedy that problem, .

5) The Alcazar is the one of the oldest continuously inhabited royal palaces in Europe. The Royal Family stays in the Upper Palace apartments when they’re in Seville. This part of the palace was expanded by the Catholic Monarchs – they lived there in winter, as it was more protected from the cold and damp of the ground.

The Baths of Maria Padilla, a secret hideaway under the palace.

The Baths of Maria Padilla, a secret hideaway under the palace.

6) The Baths of Maria Padilla, with a hidden entrance in the Dance Garden, are so-called because this was the preferred place of King Pedro’s mistress Maria, who was declared Queen when she died.

Mudejar architecture: Islamic-Christian co-existence. Arabic characters spell out the phrase "Nobody is victorious but Allah", surrounded by Castillian Spanish "... conquering Don Pedro...".

Mudejar architecture: an example of Islamic-Christian co-existence. Arabic characters spell out the phrase “Nobody is victorious but Allah”, surrounded by Castillian Spanish “…conquering Don Pedro by the grace of God…”.

7) There is a bilingual/bi-religious dedication on the façade of King Pedro’s Palace – in Arabic and Castillian Spanish – as well as many other dedications around the palace which mix cultures, such as “Glory to our Sultan Peter!”

Artesonado door made by mudejar craftsmen.

Detail of artesonado door made by mudejar craftsmen.

8) The finest mudejar craftsmen worked on the Alcazar, as sent by Mohammed V of Granada who was repaying a favour which the Moorish king owed to King Pedro for lending him troops to quash a rebellion.

seville, alcazar, game of thrones

The Admiral’s Quarters, where the House of Trade was located.

9) Christopher Columbus met his royal patron Queen Isabella – of the Catholic Kings – here, to discuss the details of second voyage, in 1496. Part of the palace was used as the Casa de Comercio (House of Trade).



Alcazar, Seville, Game of Thrones

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was filmed in the Alcazar.


10) A number of movies have been filmed in the Alcazar, including Lawrence of Arabia, Reds, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (including scenes of Columbus and Queen Isabella), and Kingdom of Heaven. The most popular part of the palace for shooting is the Patio de las Doncellas.

King Pedro and Maria de Padilla in the Patio de las Doncellas.

King Pedro and Maria de Padilla in the Patio de las Doncellas, in a dramatized night-time visit to the Alcazar.

11) You can visit the Alcazar at night: as part of the theatrical visits, where actors play roles of important people in the palace’s history (Columbus, Queen Isabella); and to hear a concert, as part of the summer concert season June-September.

Alcazar, Seville, Games of Thrones

Sunken garden with orange trees in the Patio de Doncellas; it was only uncovered ten years ago, having been paved over for four centuries.

12) The Patio de las Doncellas (Maidens) was restored to its original form in 2005, with orange trees planted in a lower patio by those clever Moors (who knew a trick or two about both gardening and irrigation) so the fruit could be picked easily from ground level, without having to reach up.


It is believed that the Alcazar will represent the kingdom of Dorne in Game of Thrones season 5, not yet featured in the series, while Osuna, a town in Seville province 90km east of the capital, will be Westeros and Essos. The TV series is based on the series of books A Kingdom of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin.

Game of Thrones series 5 will start filming in Belfast later this month – the production is based in Northern Ireland – with shooting in Andalucia expected to begin after the summer. The latest series, which was the fourth, finished airing in June. Average gross audience was 18.4 million, according to HBO’s figures.

Previous shooting locations for GOT have included Iceland, Croatia, Malta and Morocco. Tourism organizations in such filming locations have reported considerable increases in bookings after their locations appeared in Game of Thrones – one website saw increases of 13% in Iceland and 28% in Dubrovnik (Croatia). In 2013, bookings increased by 100% in Ouarzazate, Morocco, where season 3 scenes were filmed. It is estimated that filming in Andalucia will bring in around 80 million euros. Hopefully plenty of that will go into families’ mouths, rather than politicians’ pockets.

Exploring the Sierra de Grazalema from a home-from-home in Benamahoma

Cadiz, sierra, Sierra de Grazalema

You can see for miles from Puerta de las Palomas (1,639m), in the Sierra de Grazalema.


The pool at Calle Real 66 – always the top attraction for children. Not a bad view, either.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara, from the snaking Grazalema road.

pretty wildflower

Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.

You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.

The walk up to Punta de la Paloma viewing point.

The walk up to Punta de las Palomas viewing point, with baby pinsapo firs.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

Craggy outcrop - dramatic scenery of the sierra.

Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.

The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.

I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, in the Sierra de Grazalema, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its natural spring water.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its pure natural spring water.

One of Benamahoma's restaurants with terrace.

One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.

As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.

Each floor has its own balcony-terrace - this was the top floors, outside our bedroom.

Each floor has its own spacious balcony-terrace – this was the top floor one, outside our bedroom.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen and view to garden.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen, and door to balcony with view of garden.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible to my son.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible for my kids.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.

Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of bougainvillea.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of vibrant pink bougainvillea.

You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely - we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely – we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies take full advantage of the view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies to take full advantage of the view.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

Pool with sunloungers.

Pool with sunloungers – it’s the perfect size for children, and to cool off from the Andalucian sun.

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.


The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zajhara.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.

The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese made from payoyo goats' milk.

Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.

Street in Grazalema.

Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.

Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.

Christians' shield.

Christians’ shield, as used in the Moros y Cristianos festival in Benamahoma in August.

Moors' shield

and the Moors’ shield.

Moor's gun with beautiful inlaid handle.

Moor’s gun with beautiful inlaid handle, made in Morocco around 100 years ago – decorative only.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.

Spring in the village, which is known as "El Nacimiento" (the birth).

Spring in the village, which is known as “El Nacimiento” (the birth).

Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.

Christian-Moorish lock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol - uniting the two religions.

Christian-Moorish clock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol – uniting the two faiths.

Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.

This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.

This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.

Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.

Calle Real 66 in Benamahoma is available to rent by the week.

For more on the Moros y Cristianos festival, visit their website.


A trip to Tangiers: first impressions

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: a public fountain in the Kasbah with Islamic tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof .

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: not a palace, or a mosque, but a public fountain in the Kasbah with colourful tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof.

Tangiers, port, Morocco

First stormy view of Tangiers from the ferry – terminal with red flag for the king’s visit, medina, and on the skyline two towers: a minaret (right) and the bell tower of St Andrew’s church.


A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.

Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.

This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.

Morocco, Tarifa, ferry, Tangiers

Between two continents: crossing the Straits of Gibraltar – Africa (Morocco) to the right, Europe (Spain) to the left.

The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.

But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar – like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.

Hotel La Maison Blanche, Tangiers, Kasbah,, Morocco

The hotel’s patio with the glow from its welcoming fireplace – a cosy spot on a cold day.

hotel, La Maison Blanche, Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

The fountain, with its hand-laid mosaic tiles, is the centrepiece of the hotel’s patio. Fresh flower petals add a pretty, romantic touch.

La Maison blanche, Tangiers, Morocco, Kasbah

Our red room at the hotel, with handpainted walls and moody lighting.

Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.

tangiers, kasbah

Tangiers is full of stunning multi-layered doorways like this one in the Kasbah.

Kasbah, tile, tiles,

Craftsman working on a tile – the glaze is chipped away to make the design.

kasbah, tangiers, museum

The museum, housed in a former sultan’s palace – for another visit.

When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.

We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbak to the sea.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbah to the sea.

Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

A detail of that fountain. Islamic art is astonishing.

As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.

Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.

My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.