Friday, 24 June 2016

Cork Trees, a Dust Storm and a Town Divided – The Last from Southern Spain

This is a cork oak.  

Did you know there was a tree species that produces cork?  Does it surprise me?  Not really, but I guess I had never thought much about where the cork in my bottle of chardonnay comes from, or the cork bulletin board I have in the kitchen filled with all the leaflets and reminders that come home from school.  I sort of assumed cork was a man-made thing – some type of conglomerate of material adhered together in a factory.  But how very wrong I was and our trip to southern Spain showed me that.  While there are “cork-like” products that are produced in factories, natural cork comes from the bark of the cork oak and is still widely used in bulletin boards, as flooring, in acoustical and thermal insulation, in badminton shuttlecocks, and of course as the stopper in wine bottles. 

We first noticed the forest of cork oak as we were driving towards Grazalema, the little mountain village we lived in for a few days in Spain.  It was hard not to notice these trees as clearly they had been systematically shaved of their bark – a very odd sight indeed.  Eric instantly knew what they were and it didn’t take him long to find a pullover to park the car, grab his camera from the trunk and set off into the forest for some pictures. 

Some fun facts about the cork oak:  Extracting the bark from these trees does not harm it, so collecting the cork is quite a sustainable activity.  Once the tree reaches about 25-30 years of age, the bark can be removed for the first time; however, this first cutting of the cork bark is usually of low quality, also know as “male” cork (sorry, I had to share that - makes me laugh).  This first harvest is good enough for insulation, flooring and other industrial products, but not wine bottles.  After 9 years, the bark from the cork oak will be ready to harvest again, and this time it’s generally a higher quality cork that is acceptable to the wine and champagne industry to be placed in their bottles.   The cork oak can live for up to 300 years, and the cork extraction can continue very 9 years or so.  That is a lot of wine stoppers my friends!

As we drove out of Grazalema on our last day in southern Spain, we passed through the cork forest again, but that wasn’t the only interesting thing about that morning.  We were also driving through a dust storm.  Okay, I don’t know if what we experienced that last day in southern Spain would technically be considered a “dust storm,” but from the moment we woke up that morning, it was clear there was something strange going on outside.  When I looked out the window of our bedroom expecting to see the beautiful view I had enjoyed the other mornings, I was met with this…

A brownish haze that spanned the horizon.  Not even the sun's powerful rays could penetrate it.  We couldn’t see much beyond the village and it was very clear that this haze was different from the misty morning haze we had witnessed a couple of days before.  For starters, it was solid from one side of the horizon to the other.  Fog and mist in the distance is usually patchy, thicker in some places and thinner in others, but this haze was completely even for as far as the eye could see.  Secondly, as I mentioned above, it was brown.  Very odd!  And finally, when Eric came back from making the first trip to the car with our luggage, he reported that the entire car and all the others he had passed on the street were covered with a brown dusty film.  We drove through this dusty, brown haze all the way from Grazalema back to the Mediterranean coastal city of Malaga where we were catching a plane back to England later in the day.   
Back in England the next day, I did a little research on the Internet to see what caused this crazy phenomenon.  Turns out it was a gigantic cloud of dust in the atmosphere from the Sahara desert in Africa!  The dust cloud circulating from Africa all the way up and over parts of Europe could even be clearly seen from the International Space Station that day.  Now, geographically speaking, Africa is pretty close to Spain and Europe in general, and it turns out that if there is sand and dust in the air from the Sahara desert and the wind pattern is just right, it can blow all the way to Spain, which is exactly what happened that day.  I found a graph showing the amount of dust in the air by day for the week we were in Spain, and the levels were low every day, but then on Sunday, February 21, the graph shot up, well over what is normally expected. 

Before heading back to Malaga and the airport that Sunday, there was one more city we wanted to see – the city of Ronda.  The reason we wanted to visit Ronda was this...  

The deep, narrow gorge that divides this beautiful Spanish city in two.  One side of the town is perched high on a plateau that suddenly and quite dramatically plummets hundreds of feet to the valley floor below.    

The view is breathtaking, even with the brown, dusty haze that was hanging over it that day.  

And the deep gorge itself, carved out by the Guadalevin River, is the sort that can give you heart palpitations, even when you aren’t afraid of heights.  There is a gorgeous bridge, completed in 1793, spanning the gap, separating the two sides of the city.   

The side we visited first has more of a modern feel, with a pedestrian street lined with every manner of store and business offering the modern day necessities of life.  But on the other side of the bridge, Ronda has a much older feel about it, almost like you are stepping through a time warp, with more of a quintessential historical Spanish type of feel to it.   

And that was our mid February trip to southern Spain.  The weather may not have been as warm as we were hoping, but the people in Spain were plenty warm and welcoming, and we saw sights of a variety that we have not encountered elsewhere in Europe.  Everywhere we went we were surrounded by that feeling that is uniquely Spanish.  It was in the tapas we enjoyed, the beautiful cafes and restaurants we ate in, the palaces we visited, the white-washed village we stayed in, the mesmerizing guitar music we heard playing in the streets, the signs advertising flamenco shows, and even in the souvenirs we took home, such as this…

Our very own flamenco dance!  So here are a few last photos from Ronda and another of our flamenco dancer.  I hope you enjoyed coming along on our trip to southern Spain.  Adios muchachos!

One last thing - apparently wands don't just work in England.  They work in Spain too.   

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A Spanish City Called Sevilla

One of the most wonderful things about traveling is when you arrive at a new place and are blown away by it.  Not that you weren’t expecting to like this new place you are visiting.  After all, there is a reason you planned to go there as a tourist.  There’s something to see.  The travel guide suggested it.  You’ve read about it in a travel magazine, or had a friend tell you they once visited and loved it.  So when we set out from our Grazalema apartment in the mountains heading towards the Spanish city of Sevilla back in February, it wasn’t like I thought I might not like Sevilla.  I knew I would.  It’s just that when we climbed the stairs from the tram station and emerged onto the street in the heart of Sevilla, I immediately did a complete 360 and the only thing I thought was, “WOW!”  What a spectacularly beautiful city.   

We spent a mere five-hours in this stunning city and I was just blown away by it’s beauty and really, just by the feeling I got walking through the streets.   

It’s hard to describe in words what it was that made us not want to leave at the end of the afternoon.  It was more than just the gorgeous buildings.  It was the feel of the city - it felt romantic and alive with energy.  It felt like a place where people come to simply enjoy themselves and the company they are with surrounded by a beautiful setting, and all with that festive Spanish flare.  Words can hardly do it justice, but as always, I’ve got lots of photos to share and as the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

The streets were busy, filled with tourists just like us who had made the trip to this amazing Spanish city.  The architecture, from the buildings to the street lamps, was just incredible.  At first, we were completely disoriented, having no idea which direction to go, but we’ve been doing this traveling thing for awhile now and we knew we wanted to visit the royal palace called Alcazar, which we also knew sits near the great Sevilla Cathedral (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See).  As we looked around we could see the great tower of the Cathedral a few blocks away rising high above the other rooftops, so that is the direction we went.  

The Alcazar is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.  The architecture, originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings, is so different from other palaces and castles we’ve visited, except for one, Alhambra in Granada, which is also of Moorish influence.   

They have a similar feel, but yet very different at the same time.  We wandered from room to room gazing at the floors, the walls...

the ceiling...

the picture framed views through the windows...

trying not to miss a thing, but there is so much going on, so much exquisite detail and craftsmanship, that it’s almost hard to take it all in.  

Is it any wonder that Alcazar is considered one of the best examples of mudejar architecture found in this part of the world, and that in 1987 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

We were there with lots of other tourists, but as we stood in the plaza near the entrance, we noticed a cordoned off area, a set of doors that clearly were only to be entered if you had permission.  As we stood taking in the sight of the plaza, these doors opened and out poured a large gathering of men and women dressed in business attire.   

They stood around in small groups for a while mingling.  Maybe it was a conference of some sort, maybe an awards ceremony, we didn’t know, but for a few moments it was fun to stand and observe some of real life taking place inside these palace walls.  I love these moments when traveling.  It reminds me that these great places we visit aren’t just for tourists to enjoy, but that real people live and work here experiencing the same struggles and triumphs that we all go through in everyday life.  But can you blame me for being just a smidge jealous that they get to experience it in such spectacular surroundings.

While the rooms inside of the palace are magnificent, what I personally loved the most about Alcazar were the gardens.  When we first emerged from inside the palace onto a terrace with a stairway leading down into the completely walled gardens, I was astounded that this enormous yet tranquil, tree-filled park could be sitting in the heart of a bustling city, but you would hardly have known it.   

We walked and walked and walked around the grounds, soaking it the calming atmosphere with towering palm trees overhead and completely oblivious to the honking cars and delivery trucks that were whizzing past outside the walls.   

We stumbled upon this beautiful underground pond which was identified as an underground garden.  It was breathtaking.  I’ve never seen anything like it.   

And the orange trees, row upon row of perfectly shaped trees bursting with round orange fruit.  We were actually walking through the orange grove for awhile before we noticed the birds... 

Bright green parakeets whose color matched the leaves in the trees were swooping from branch to branch eating through the peels to get to the sweet, juicy flesh of the fruit inside.  I can’t blame them.  I wanted so badly to pluck one from a tree myself. 

We spent a few hours at the palace.  We could have stayed longer, but we had a good two-hour car ride back to Grazalema that day, and while we didn’t have time to visit anymore tourist destinations, we did want to spend a little time just walking the streets.   

Sevilla is filled with shops, many selling souvenirs, but what it is also full of are the most gorgeous little restaurants and cafes that we have seen yet in Europe.  There are streets just lined with places to eat or grab a drink, many having boards posted outside their doors displaying the long list of tapas they offer.  

Charming isn’t really the right word to describe these places.  While they are all very welcoming, they are just a stunning feast for the eyes, much less the stomach, small but beautifully decorated, each with their own style.  

It almost felt like a museum if you will of café and restaurants as we walked the streets.   

At first we had planned to make the trip back to our little apartment in Grazalema and have dinner there, but after roaming the streets and passing one alluring restaurant after another, we changed our minds and grabbed a table outside of one of these little places.   

The weather was perfect for sitting outside, something we hadn’t had much of during this trip, and the menu was perfect as well.  The list of tapas was so long it was overwhelming, but after ordering drinks, we waded through it finding a variety of dishes that would offer something for everyone in the family to enjoy and we ended up with this feast. 

Beautiful, isn’t it.  And we ate every last bite, while being entertained by the groups of people sitting on either side of us.  To one side sat a large table of older couples, locals who all went their separate ways when they finally departed, but that was only after much singing, some as a group and some solos, and a few rounds of drinks. The singing and chatter was all in Spanish and we had no idea what they were constantly laughing about, but they were clearly have a great time and it was catchy, making us giggle as we watched and listened to them.   

And on the other side of us sat a group of men, obviously visiting for some sporting event as they were all adorned in matching blue jackets, and obviously they had been sitting outside this little restaurant for quite awhile that afternoon enjoying some libations.  They sang too, and almost fell over a few times, and at one point during our meal the two groups started serenading each other.  So much fun – it makes me smile just remembering it now.  Are you starting to see why Sevilla blew me away?

And if this all wasn’t enough to take in during our short five-hour visit, Sevilla had one last surprise for us that day.  The girls asked for some ice cream and you can’t blame them as it was a beautiful day, the warmest we had experienced so far on that trip, and there were gelato shops everywhere.  As we walked back in the direction of the tram station where would catch a train to take us back to our car, we stopped at one of these shops to let them indulge in a little treat, and my what a treat it was.  

Cinnamon gelato, absolutely delicious, artfully crafted into the shape of a delicate flower on the end of a cone, almost too beautiful to eat.  And that is the magic of Sevilla, a city that simply blew me away in such a short period of time.  I would go back in a heartbeat for more.  Maybe someday, but in the meantime, I leave you with a few more photos from this wonderful city.  Enjoy!