Come, spend a night in the country with me,
my friend (you whom the stars above would gladly call their friend),
for winter's finally over. Listen
to the chatter of the doves and swallows!
We'll lounge beneath the pomegranates,
palm trees, apple trees,
under every lovely, leafy thing,
and walk among the vines,
enjoy the splendid faces we will see,
in a lofty palace built of noble stones.

Resting solidly on thick foundations,
its walls like towers fortified,
set upon a flat place, plains all around it
splendid to look at from within its courts.

Chambers constructed, adorned with carvings,
open-work and closed-work,
paving of alabaster, paving of marble,
gates so many that I can't even count them!
Chamber doors paneled with ivory like palace doors,
reddened with panels of cedar, like the Temple.
Wide windows over them,
and within those windows, the sun and moon and stars!

It has a dome, too, like Solomon's palanquin,
suspended like a jewel-room,
turning, changing,
pearl-colored; crystal and marble
in day-time; but in the evening seeming
just like the night sky, all set with stars.
It cheers the heart of the poor and the weary;
perishing, bitter men forget their want.
I saw it once and I forgot my troubles,
my heart took comfort from distress,
my body seemed to fly for joy,
as if on wings of eagles."

Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021/2 - ca. 1055),
from “The palace and the garden”
Translated from the Hebrew by Raymond P. Scheindlin.
Excerpted from Maria Rosa Menocal,
“Visions of al-Andalus,” in Menocal et al., eds.,
The literature of al-Andalus (Cambridge, 2000).

No words could better describe what I saw and experienced and how I felt about my visit to Andalucia.  My only regret was that I did not have time to stop and smell the proverbial roses.  I like to think of the trip as a taste and I certainly have plans to return and savour everything again when time is not of the essence.

The Long and Winding Road to Spain

My day started like this:  Sydney to Hong Kong (9 hours) - there was a 90 minute layover before boarding the flight for Heathrow.  Hong Kong to London was about 13 hours.  There was another 6 hr layout in which I had to get myself over to Gatwick.  Gatwick to Malaga was 2.5 hrs and Malaga to Mollina was about 45 minutes by car.  What a marathon….thank God for lie flat beds on Virgin Atlantic and my two hours in Gatwick's Yotel where I had a shower, some food and an internet fix.  That gave me the energy to walk through the Malaga old town with my host, Gary Montagu, who picked me up from Malaga Airport.  As far as I could tell, Malaga has better flight connections than anywhere else in Andalucia. 

Gary owns Tour Andalucia and the program he offered was perfect for a solo traveler like moi who did not want to drive or deal with the hassles of public transport.  I had a really nice ensuite at the villa owned by Gary and his lovely wife, Tag, their 3 children and two dogs.  The villa is located in the small village of Mollina, about a 45 minute drive from Malaga and about 15 minutes to nearby Antequera.  The room rate included continental breakfast and day trips to Seville, Granada, Ronda, Malaga, Cordoba as well as all airport/train/bus transfers.  It was incredible value - I was especially attracted to the small group experience (never more than 8) ! 

While we waited for the other guests to show up Gary bought me a vino blanco at the small café in the shadow of a gorgeous bougainvillea.  When the other guests turned up we all went off through the old town, stopping off at a few providores to check out the jamon and wines.  We strolled past the Picasso Museum to the building where Picasso was born.  Picasso was apparently born to a wealthy family as the block of flats where he grew up was large even by today's standards.  The building is now owned by the Picasso Foundation.  

We got to Mollina around 7pm.  By 8pm I was feeling no pain.  Another guest and I ventured out to the Chavos Bar and Restaurant in the village.  It was a friendly family run place operated by a husband and wife.  The menu was basic…..seafood and meat.  The seafood comprised different kinds of prawns and the meat was chicken, pork and beef.  We ordered a media-racion (half plate) of iberico jamon bellota - when it came it was hand sliced but we didn’t think it was the 90 euro/kg. stuff that we saw in Malaga!  My main was prawns in a cazuela.  The prawns were a bit chewy but the oil was infused with the flavours of garlic and herbs.  By the time we got back to Gary’s Villa it was 11pm.  It'd been a long 40 hours - I was ready to crash.

In addition to the day trips mentioned above I had made arrangements to stay overnight in Seville and Granada.  The arrangement with Gary was that I would return by bus to Antequera the following day and he woud meet me at the station.  It worked out really well and I was quite overwhelmed that Gary did not charge me for the nights I was not at the villa!!  Because I spent an extra day in Granada I missed the group visit to Malaga but I think the extra time I had in Granada was well worth it!

Our final day trip was to Cordoba.  I left the group and chilled out for 2 nights before heading to Jerez.  On my second day in Cordoba I did a side trip to the ruins of Madinet Al-Zahra.  I was pretty much on my own from Jerez onwards.  I had not travelled solo for quite some time and I missed the security of being with Gary's group with whom I had bonded!  On my second day in Jerez, however, I rediscovered my mojo and from then on I was once again every bit the "intrepid" traveller. I used Jerez as a base and did day trips to Puerto Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda (thus completing the 3 legs of the "sherry triangle" comprising Jerez, Puerto SM and Sanlucar DB).  I also visited the slightly run-down port of Cadiz and the hill town of Arcos de la Frontera (one of a number of pueblo blancos or "white villages", similar to Ronda).

From Jerez I travelled by high speed AVE rail to Madrid.  The transition from Andalucia to the big smoke was immediately evident.  It was a rude awakening with traffic snarls; rowdy "futball fans" and of course, everything was 5 times more expensive! From Madrid I did a day trip to Segovia, which was, among things, the home of the roast suckling pig with its own denomination of origin as it were (I don't think the piggies were too impressed)!  Naturally, I had to make the pilgrimage and it was soooo worth it!

As I look back on my travels throughout Andalucia - these words sang to me again:

I saw it once and I forgot my troubles,
my heart took comfort from distress,
my body seemed to fly for joy,
as if on wings of eagles.



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