After leaving Madrid, we headed down on the train to the south of Spain, a province called Andalusia. I had wanted to see Seville, due to its primacy in the period of American exploration, but because of transport annoyances, we went with two cities more inclined towards their Islamic history than their Christian – Cordoba, at one point the world’s largest city, and Granada, the last stronghold of the Islamic empires in Western Europe. For those who don’t know, almost from the moment it began to take off in the 7th century, Islam became an unstoppable force of conquest, sweeping across first the Middle East and North Africa, then east into India, north into Turkey and Eastern Europe, and west into Spain. Islamic kingdoms ruled Granada from the early 8th century through to 1492, when it fell to the conquest of Ferdinand and Isabella, Los Reyes Christianos. Unlike some of the less tolerant religion-focused regimes of today, the early Islamic kingdoms in Spain encouraged science and learning, and welcomed travellers and settlers from all faiths. The kingdoms competed less for land and more for wealth, which for them came about by being known as great centres of learning where students could come and sit at the feet of great teachers. Of course, there are two sides to every story. Those who believe in an Islamic golden age emphasise the barbarism of the Spanish Inquisition (which only killed about 600 people) while conveniently forgetting that Jews like the philosophical titan Maimonides were chased out of Cordoba 150 years before it was taken over by Christians. It is wrong to imagine that any regime was entirely enlightened. However, we can see that Islamic Spain was very wealthy and very technologically skilled. They knew what they were doing and they did it well.
Rather than jump straight in to listing what I did every day, I might start by comparing the two cities I went to. Both were at one point important cities in Islamic Al-Andalus; both have a large, World Heritage Old Town; and both have a decent-sized university. Perhaps the differences for me arose because of exactly where I chose to stay, but even getting around the other areas of the city made it clear that my impressions were still broadly correct.
In a lot of ways, Granada reminded me of Edinburgh. A city around half-a-million people, second-largest in its province, distant from the national capital and fiercely proud of its distinct heritage. Built on hills, with a medieval old town on the UNESCO World Heritage List (liberally populated by shops flogging the ’traditional culture’); a great fortress overlooking the city (Edinburgh Castle and the Alhambra) right by a thriving commercial district focused along one main shopping street; and an ancient university (University of Edinburgh 1583 and Universidad de Granada 1531) with a huge student population (40,000 at UoE plus about the same again from all the others, and 80,000 at UoG). Since I’ve been living in Edinburgh for five months and been away for several weeks, it was nice to be in a place that felt familiar, even though I’d never actually been there before. I reckon Granada would be a good place to study abroad or live in (assuming you spoke Spanish) – from where I stood it was easy to access history and modern amenities, handicrafts and all-night kebab shops. Plus, the weather is a lot nicer than Edinburgh!
In contrast, Cordoba felt like a town unable to escape its past. There was no apparent CBD; the whole town seemed to focus on the old centre, which, though extremely beautiful, was a nightmare to navigate and impossible to live in easily. The nearest supermarket was several kilometres distant and the little convenience stores opened at completely erratic times of day; buses and cars didn’t penetrate the centre so it was hard to get around, and I saw no students around at all. From being the world’s largest city in the 12th century, Cordoba underwent a slow decline in its population (1,000,000 then to under 400,000 now) and in its primacy (abandoned as the capital with the 13th century Christian conquest and ignored after the discovery of America compared to other cities like Seville and Granada).
Now, to be fair to both of them, Granada was a lot more commercialised in the Old Town – if you want to see unspoiled windy streets and little plazas and 13th-century churches, you’ll be far better off getting yourself into Cordoba. Cordoba also seemed to have a lot more decent historical stuff to do – rather than just focusing on its Islamic heritage, though it was only 200 years shorter than Granada’s, it talked about Iberians, Romans, Visigoths and Christians, as well as making a big deal of its significant Jewish population. This meant that we could have way too many sights to fill our time with in Cordoba but be kind of lost in Granada. Also, according to our tour guide on the second day, things aren’t as easy as they were for me for many people living halfway up the Granada Old Town instead of on the bottom corner. There are only two roads you can drive on, and the hospital closes on weekends; you can’t develop businesses or renovate your house because it’s World Heritage, but this also gives the state the right to evict you from your house if you can’t afford to maintain it in its historical condition, which means half the houses are mouldering waiting to be restored, or they’re squats, or they’re being rented out to students who can’t afford to go anywhere else. Right up on the peak of the Old Town though is extremely prosperous – lots of commercial activity, huge old villas, and they maintain the 1000-year old Islamic underground canals to get free water all year round. Go a bit farther up and the electricity and water get cut off, and people literally live in caves. So Granada isn’t as modern or shiny as it seems. But even from the worst parts of the Old Town, you can still walk down to the Louis Vuitton in 15 minutes.
I think it’s absolutely worth visiting both these cities, and Seville as well. I could live in Granada, but not in Cordoba. You’ll have to decide for yourself what you think!
Now, from here on, what I’ll do will be whack out some photos from each day, and tell you about my experiences through that. Hope you enjoy it!
There was more in the Alhambra complex – a palace built for Emperor Charles V and I that was totally composed of smaller rocks mixed with cement, carved into shape; ancient mosque baths; a whole residential street; official and unofficial gift shops all over the place; and possibly the best bit of all, an old convent with an unspeakably beautiful garden, filled with informative signs in English as well as Spanish, that is open to the public but also contains a world top-300 hotel of great luxuriousness. But my phone died. So you’ll just have to visit yourself! It’s well worth a trip.
Another blog post has now been completed. Join me again in a few days for some fun times in Barcelona 🙂