Welcome to part two of my trip! I’m going to wrap up with Fes, Granada, Cordoba, more Seville, and little bit of Madrid. I should have balanced the posts a bit better, but hey, if the thoughts are long and contemplative, that’s what you’re gonna get!
Fatima al-Fihri founded the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, a central institution of not just Fes, but Morocco as a whole. Al-Qarawiyyin is the longest running university in the world and it contains the oldest library in the world too. Al-Fihri was a woman who leveraged her wealth for the benefit of her community and encouraged both worldly and spiritual education. The university is connected to a mosque in which classes and study groups take place. Its distinctive emerald green shingled roof and central fountains and courtyard and vast library with texts thousands of years old countered everything I knew about the rush of Western education. The university wasn’t stress-inducing—it was a reminder of how much more there is to learn about the world, that education can’t be confined to the illusions of prestige and power that we have come to know.
The other definitive aspect of Fes lies in the medina in which the University is located. There is no way to access this old, walled neighborhood with motor vehicles. Small shops pepper the serpentine alleys but you can also find larger souks within. We walked the labyrinth of a medina multiple times, tasting fresh nougat from street shops, exploring the hidden tanneries and swerving to avoid getting hit by bicyclists or donkey carts. It felt like being transported to another era. Everything, it seemed, was left in its original place no matter how many people were there (and there a lot of people). The crowds weren’t overbearing because you could spill into the next lane and discover something new.
There’s two-parter within our trip to Granada too—one day for the Alhambra Palace and another for a snowy jaunt in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’ll start with the former; the sense of calm and serenity that envelopes Alhambra is like no other. Being able to walk the within the walls of the palace of generations of Muslim sultans, absorb the history of each calligraphic carving, flowering tree and filigree, was awe-inspiring. Of course, we did see the parts of the palace and gardens that we overtaken by the renaissance in later decades, but it just didn’t feel the same. There was a sense of spirituality in the Palacio de Generalife, where the iconic reflecting pools and gardens lay. Arabic calligraphy adorned the walls and the symmetry in every aspect of its architecture—the ceilings, courtyards, the fountains—it was as if the palace itself was praying.
Our other day in Granada was a trip to the crisp, white Sierra Nevada. This was my first winter with snow! I thought I was prepared to tube and sled down the small banks with my coat and boots, but many slips and tailbone bruises later, I realized that even if I was dressed for the part, the snow would always get its way. There were snowballs thrown and bodies flung out of hard-leaning sleds, but in the end, we warmed up with tea and churros con chocolate. Perfect.
As the capital of the Umayyad dynasty’s Iberian Emirate, Córdoba has no shortage of historical wonders. Muslims ruled the Al-Andalus region from here between 711 and 1492, a feat that brought the world discoveries in surgery, agriculture, algebra, philosophy and more. We first visited the Caliphal Baths, in which we found traditional hammams and aqueduct systems. We then stumbled upon a tour guide who was beyond enthusiastic to walk through the historical city center with a family of Islamic history buffs. We stopped for fresh churros (of course) and were on our way.
Passing streets named after Muslim and Jewish scholars, navigating the alleys with blue flowerpots dotting the white walls, finding tiny mosques and churches tucked into walkways, our tour guide showed us the ins and outs of the old city. One of my favorite stories he told was of Umayyad princess Wallada and poet Ibn Zaydun. Their relationship blossomed through poetry but political circumstances kept them apart. Wallada was married to a nobleman who exiled Ibn Zaydun and the lovers had a tenuous relationship that resulted in estrangement. But their poetry lived on.
Of course, the iconic Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba was our final destination. The famous red-and-white arches were no less stunning than the pictures I’d seen for years. However, I felt increasingly heavy as I wandered in between the stone columns and took photos of the intricately detailed prayer niche. The history of conquest and subjugation dominated the building. From the Qur’anic verses filed and scraped off the external walls to the statues and gilded chapels covering any hint of a previous mosque, the history of Cordoba as a multi-cultural, pluralistic, intellectual city was almost erased by the Christian Reconquista. The fact that the manifestations of two very different ideologies are still present, though, is a testament to the power of both peoples.
And back to Sevilla we went! With more time to explore the city, it became even easier to imagine living there. We witnessed a breathtaking, blood-stirring flamenco performance at the Museo de Baile Flamenco Seville. We took a horse-carriage ride (yes, another one) through the Parque de María Luisa and then proceeded to bike through it again. We roamed the Plaza de España, stopping to look at the tiled maps of Spain that adorned the walls. We ate roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, lamb chops at a Moroccan restaurant and Taco Bell, just for the hell of it. We a took a cruise down the Guadalquivir River (it runs through Córdoba too) and took short naps in the winter sun as we passed the grand Torre del Oro and skyscraper Torre Sevilla. We tried a Seville orange from the trees that lined just about every street, and proceeded to never eat one of those bitter things again. There are too many more things to list and so many things we missed too. I’m raring to go back as soon as possible.
After a day of driving from Seville, we made it to Madrid. We spent less than six hours in this capital city. We had dinner at a North Indian restaurant, a luxury after only eating Arab food as one of the few halal options in Spain. After a tasty meal of naan and kababs and chicken tikka masala, we took a night stroll down Gran Vía, Madrid’s main artery. Although the street known for its wide variety of stores and restaurants, everything was shut down for the night and there wasn’t much to do. The bustle of the metropolis was more than enough for me, though. The days spent in the quiet of small cities and towns was met with an apt conclusion—the realization that there is still so much of Spain left to explore. We walked around in the night lights of the city for an hour or so and then drove to the airport.
| past |
gone by in time and no longer existing
• [attributive] belonging to a former time
1 (usually the past) the time or a period of time before the moment of speaking or writing
• the history of a person, country, or institution
2 Grammar a past tense or form of a verb
And so, the winter trip came to an end. It was truly a remarkable memory and like I said before, I’m already planning to go back. I have so many more pictures and notes, so if you’re interested in reading a city-by-city series or something else, let me know! I’d love to create a kind of itinerary/suggestions list.