An Interview with our Spanish Country Coordinator and Senior Tour Leader about our bicycle tour in Andalucia:
Joan you’ve been leading and coordinating tours for us in Spain since 2006 and we’d love to learn more about Andalucía and the riding that the area offers. Can you tell us about your five favorite cultural things about the Andalucía trip?
Only five? well…
The first would have to be the unique character of Andalucía. The history of southern Spain is unique, the Andalucía region was the heart of the “golden times” of the Arab cultural explosion for over 700 years from the 8th to the 13th century. Most of the area was “re” conquered in the 13th century by Ferdinand III, but the heritage left behind has a distinct Arab influence that is ingrained in the architecture and history of many of the important Andalucian cities. This exciting cultural mix has resulted in gorgeous white-washed villages, a laid back way of living including a tapas culture, vibrant street life with lots of time spent on bar terraces… all of this combines to make for a fabulous and enjoyable modern day experience!
Second on my list is Seville, the city. It was one of the capitals of Al-Andalus (the name of the Arab kingdom) and had the largest Arabic old town of any city in Europe. After 500 years of Arab rule it was conquered by one of the Christian kings – Ferdinand III – when it continued to be an important city after it became part of the Kingdom of Castille. The “old town” was refurbished under Ferdinand III and the façades of many of the houses took on an opulent XII/XIII century look. Today you’ll still see the interesting contrast between the original narrow Arabic roads bounded by what appears to be palatial homes.
But perhaps even more compelling is that Seville is simply a gem of a city! The small streets of the ancient quarter beckon you forward with the smell of spiced rosemary. Treasures await including one of the largest Cathedrals in Spain (that has one of Christopher Columbus’s tombs), the Alcazar Real, which was converted from the Arab royal house and the beautiful Plaza de Espana, built for the 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition is one of the most beautiful plazas in Andalucia.
Third is Cordoba, which offers a stark contrast to Seville. Its downtown features an ancient Jewish, not Arab quarter. You’ll still find a maze of narrow streets and white washed buildings but this city has a distinct feel that begins when you enter town via an ancient Roman bridge. The jewel of this city is the mosque of Cordoba, originally built on the foundation of an ancient Catholic church, and was later shared by Catholics and Muslim’s until its reconstruction in the late 8th Century as one of the largest Mosque’s in Al Andalus. It was later retaken by the Catholic Church. The changes of power created a “nesting doll” monument that has layers and layers of history in every wall. The famous “forest of marble columns” from the Mosque actually hide a baroque Catholic alter! This is not your average Cathedral!
Our pottery visit at Alfareria Tito is something I think is extraordinary. The family members that run this pottery studio are more than your usual local artisans, they are true artists. On our visit they explain the history of pottery in terms of styles, colors and how pottery designs have changed throughout history. It’s a wonderful and surprising gift to learn history through pottery.
Another Andalucian treasure, Granada was the last kingdom to surrender to the Christian kings (in 1492). Home to the largest and best-preserved Arab palace anywhere in continental Europe, it’s unimaginably beautiful. This striking town is divided by a small stream that flows from the nearby Sierra Nevada range. On one side you have an ancient Arab quarter that contrast the palace on the opposite side. Viewing the town from above it’s easy to imagine that you are looking upon old neighborhoods from the historic center of towns in Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria – just amazing. Granada is also a university town which gives it a lively feel. You’ll encounter students from all over the globe. It’s a stunning place to stay at least three more days after the tour!
What makes the riding exceptional, interesting, or scenic?
Great challenging rides, longer mileages and gorgeous descents! Quiet back roads, lead to lakes, over mountain passes with great views, and through olive groves. A perfect cycling getaway in early May or October … the sun warming your skin, riding through such beauty there really are no words…
A favorite accommodation and why?
I love them all, but the Parador de Jaen, is an ancient Arab castle set atop a hill right next to Jaen. The setting is something spectacular with views that I would pay to have from my place!
An exceptional dinner, or visit?
Other than the pottery visit (mentioned above!). The visit to the “sinagoga del agua” (the water synagogue) in Ubeda, is a very interesting one, because the place has a “kind of magic” with a “micveh” (the pool for the ritual washing ceremonies) which is crystalline and its level never varies though the mosque is at the top of a hill. All of this was discovered less than 5 years ago, and the story of how this synagogue “was hidden” inside of a house to save it from destruction makes it that much more fascinating.
I also have to mention the home style dinner provided by our hosts (a Belgian family who run the place) in Constantina, is amazing, they put so much love on it, you can feel it at every bite, but this tour is full of great meals.
Joan Escosura was born in Barcelona and lives in Spain’s Pyrenees Mountains. His passion for all things Spanish are obvious from the moment you meet him. Though we aren’t sure if Joan will be leading the tours in Andalucia in 2016 there is still space for you on either the May or October departures!