Sunday, April 10, 2011


About 40 minutes from us is a lovely little coastal town called “Nerja”, pronounced "Ner-ha". It is known as the “Balcony of Europe”, a phrase coined by a Spanish king when he came to survey the damage done by the earthquake in 1884. Nerja is beautiful and has beautiful beaches as well but its real claim to fame are its caves.

The Caves of Nerja were discovered in 1959 by five boys. They were exploring. As I walked through the amazing cavernous spaces I marveled at how courageous these boys must have been to come in. The caves go on and on for 5 km! Only a small section is open to the public. It has cement walkways and strategically placed lights in order to reflect the immense size and dramatic stalactites and stalagmites. It has the largest cave form in the world inside, according to Guinness. It is a stalagmite/stalactite combo that is 32 metres in height and larger than an ancient Sequoia in girth.

They’ve found evidence of human occupation from the Neolithic age and research is presently underway. There are paintings, fragments of tools and human remains. It is supposed that the caves were known for thousands of years before they fell out of use. What an incredible find for the boys!

One of the boys is still around. He runs an eatery on the big beach in Nerja. He is something of a local celebrity and has a larger than life personality. He became an athlete for awhile and then started this restaurant which hires “difficult to hire” people. We spent a second day in Nerja to partake of the paella feast he serves up at his beachside restaurant. The food was wonderful and watching them make it was even more fun.

They have a huge round cast iron pan over a roaring fire. They throw in a LOT of uncooked rice, and cooked chicken/seafood bits. They stir this up a bit and then add a large pail of murky looking water. The water must have a lot of spices in it because if not, it was probably not a good idea to have eaten there. The pan bubbles wetly and every so often, various men stir it up with a long stick. After they deem it cooked, two men heave it from the fire to place it on the cooling rack where it sits for ten minutes or so. The chef periodically comes by to spoon a bit near the edge.

Finally, he begins serving it onto plates. He just continues to spoon out generous portions until the whole pan is empty. All the food disappears as fast as he can serve. We figured it must be “all you can eat” because several diners went back for more. I don’t know HOW they could have still been hungry as I couldn’t even finish my first portion. Paella was a dish the poor farmers used to eat. It was first produced in Valencia and spread throughout Spain because it was easy, cheap and filling. I can’t imagine the poor farmers had quite as much meat in their paella, though.

The meal was delicious with lots of chicken, prawns, clams and maybe scallops but they weren’t in the shell so we weren’t completely sure. Most of the seafood chunks were the whole critter which made eating them tricky. One prawn on my plate was so large we weren’t sure if it was a prawn or not!

After lunch, we rolled our bloated selves onto the beach and lounged along with the rest of Northern Europe. It was fun listening to the wide variety of languages spoken around us. The Scandinavian group nearby seemed like fun and I thought it was a shame we didn’t speak their language. Mind you, add a never-ending flow of beer to any group and I suppose they’ll be fun. The water was cold but many people still went swimming because it was hot. Julia joined the ranks and took her first swim of the year. The rest of us chose to wait. We may not have long to wait though, because the weather has definitely taken a turn for the hot. It was 30 degrees on the beach!


We decided to take an overnight trip to Granada. It is only 1.5 hours away but it seemed like an awfully long day trip and there was a lot to do in town. In planning, I realized that you had to make a reservation to get into the Alhambra (the reason so many visit) and that the place was almost fully booked all month because of the Easter celebrations. The only time available was the next day!

So off we went. We spent a day walking through the town and a morning visiting the Alhambra. Granada is famous because it was the last stronghold of the Moors. Ferdinand and Isabel were on a rampage to make Spain a unified shrine to Catholicism. In fact, their zest for Christian domination was such that they would have lit the world if they could.

It all began when Ferdinand, King of Aragon, married Isabel, queen of Castile, thereby uniting two major provinces of the Iberian Peninsula. They shared a passion for Christ and a passion for power. They wanted to unite the whole of the peninsula and set about driving out the Moors. Sadly, this passion for saving souls gave the footing for the Holy Inquisition to gain a stranglehold on Spain, spreading more fear and suspicion than love and eternal life. In the ensuing years, they succeeded in pushing out the Muslims and Jews and creating a Catholic country, albeit a rather subdued Catholic country.

When Boabdil, King of Granada left, Ferdinand and Isabel moved in. They set up shop right in his beloved Nasrid Palace. Then they brought down the town mosque and built one heck of a huge cathedral right over top. We like to call it the “Ha Ha” Cathedral. It dominates the landscape. You can see in the picture above how big it is compared to the rest of the buildings around it. Inside it is big enough to contain a forest and it has its own weather, I think. The temperature is several degrees colder in the cathedral than on the street. The focus of the cathedral is on Mary as the newly converted Muslims who stayed had an easier time praying to her because she is in the Koran (Muslim bible). Inside the cathedral they still have a huge pictorial work displaying Saint James swinging his sword atop a horse while a Moor writhes beneath the horse’s hooves. That had to chafe at the new converts.

Ferdinand and Isabel then decreed that everyone should eat pork because Muslims and Jews can’t eat pig meat. To show you were following the correct faith, you ate pork. Even today you can find more pork dishes than anything else. The grocery store has a whole aisle devoted to ham hocks. This move helped to prevent Muslims and Jews from returning to Spain as well. There are some 700,000 Muslims living in Spain today and 5 million living in France. I guess it worked.

One other interesting tidbit about the Alhambra is that this is where Ferdinand and Isabel received Christopher Columbus and agreed to his terms for sailing west to discover the east. We saw the room where this happened; a perfect cube of a room, perhaps appropriate for a sailor about to prove the earth was a sphere. I thought it was interesting also that Rick Steves said that most people didn’t believe the earth was flat at this point but simply thought it was far bigger than Columbus had calculated.

Beside the huge cathedral is the final resting place for Ferdinand and Isabel. They may have gone about things in a frightening manner but they are credited with uniting Spain. Their bodies lay entombed in a chapel next to their grandson and his wife. I wonder how they feel about that. Philip the Fair died before his wife, Juana the Mad. Juana was so overcome with grief that she had his body set out in her bedroom and kissed him goodnight each evening for TWO YEARS. I believe this may have been when “the Mad” was attached to her name. I wonder if this is why the bodies of Spanish royalty now have to “ripen” for 90 days before they can be entombed in the El Escorial pantheon.

We also spent some time wandering around the streets. We saw an old caravanserai, the last of the original fourteen camel watering holes. When travelers would come to Granada, they’d stop at these places to sleep, sell their wares and swap stories. This place was completely hidden by more modern buildings surrounding it. Not far from the caravanserai was the Alcaiceria (muslim market in the style of souks). The streets were very narrow and the multiple shops sold mostly the same tourist junk but it was fun winding our way through it. Way back when, it was created as a silk market and had armed guards. Silk was a very important product controlled by the sultan. We didn’t see any silk but we did see the Roma ladies who push rosemary at you in the hopes they’ll con you out of a few coins by telling your fortune. We didn’t fall for it. It was tame compared to the Egyptian souks and the poor gypsies didn’t stand a chance.

We explored Sacromonte, an area of Granada that has mostly Roma people. This is one of the only places in Spain whree the Roma have a neighbourhood they live in rather than being integrated into the city. The people of Granada think the Roma isolate themselves. At the entrance to the district there is a statue of Chorrohumo, a famous Roma man who used to give tours. The word "chorro" is a slang term for "thief" so it is kind of a play on words in Spanish. Not sure how the Roma feel about that one. There were also lots of Flamenco bars but we had already decided to go to a show in Sevilla, capital of Flamenco.

Now, Granada and the Alhambra was an interesting place but perhaps the MOST interesting was when we had lunch on the street. We sat eating our sandwiches when a woman strolled past with her pubic hair flowing over the top of her low-rise pants. Well, it was either that or some small, dark animal was fighting its way out. Rhys and I were the only two privileged enough for THAT eye-full and we both looked at each other in “was that what I think it was” horror before bursting into gales of laughter. You'll be pleased to know we didn't get a picture of THAT one for you. Just when you think you’ve seen it all.