Good grief Cordoba.

Regrets? I’ve had a few. I regretted leaving Seville – eight days was enough to see all the things I needed to see in a leisurely manner. However, to experience and see all the things I wanted to see – I would need a life-time. As I pulled away in the taxi for the train station, I looked back at what had been my home for the past eight days and let out a sigh. The taxi whizzed me out of the San Lorenzo district and into the busy streets back out to the train station. I have been pretty pleased with my ability to do every day things, like order in restaurants, buy train tickets and stamps, send parcels back to Australia. As the station assistant handed over my ticket, he explained in slow Spanish that I was to take the train that said ‘Madrid’ on the departures board that left at 11:45. It would stop at Cordoba. I thanked him and made my way to platform 2, where a smart, new, bullet style train waited for me and the other passengers. Cordoba was the first stop and it took only 35 minutes to get there. I barely had time to admire the landscape – and rave on about it – as Nina would have in the slow all-stations trains of 1934.

I always plan the trip a day or two before I leave. I work out if I can walk, catch public transport or if I need to get a cab from the train station to my accommodation. I prefer to walk as it gives me the street level view of the new place I am in. However, dragging the wheely bag over cobblestones makes my arm feel like it is on one of those exercise machines that ‘blast fat’. At least I’ll have one skinny arm.

Cordoba was cold when I arrived. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, there was not a cloud in sight but it was cold. I commented on it to the taxi driver. He assured me if I stood in the sun I would soon be very hot and as it was only just after midday, the day still had a long way to go before it warmed up at about four or five o’clock. After checking in and dropping my bag at the hostal, I went out for my walk and to have lunch. I like to take in the town and leave the real sight-seeing and visiting of monuments, until a day or two after I arrive. I choose a café for lunch on my street and take a seat on the outside. A loud woman walks up to the café, chatting with the staff and orders a beer. She is short but is as tall as she is wide. She yells for a beer and continually yells at people she knows walking by, occasionally having a chat to herself. The staff bring her a tapa to have with her beer. She complains loudly about their choice of tapa and asks for olives and prawns. Once the prawns arrive, she picks one up off her plate. She holds it between two fingers with the prawn head looking at her. She starts talking to the prawn. This continues for a few minutes before she rips off its head, sucks and what is inside and then eats the rest of the prawn. This happens with every prawn. Although it takes her quite some time to finish the plate as she often jumps up and runs after someone on the street. A beggar comes up and asks for money. I shake my head and he moves on to the prawn woman. She swears loudly at him in Spanish – I suspect they know each other. Aware he will not get money from her he asks for a cigarette from her instead. Now, she really loses it, yelling, swearing and gesticulating wildly. I look on in amazement and can barely conceal my mirth. As I leave I say goodbye to her.

Cordoba feels like a big country town. People are relaxed and friendly. The bitter orange trees that line the streets are full of ripe fruit.  Many of the townsfolk say hello and the old men stare and say ‘guapa’ to me.  I walked for just a few minutes after lunch and all of a sudden, I am at I am at the Mezquita, The Mezquita is the old mosque –  now a Cathedral yet it still known as the Mezquita. Nina had appreciated the non-name change, as do I. I notice there is no queue to enter the Mezquita – therefore I break from my usual routine buy a ticket and enter immediately. It is almost empty – this huge forest of arches. I stand still, transfixed by the beauty and the silence. There is certainly no feeling of being in a Catholic church when you stand in the Mezquita. Nina described it as “uncompromisingly savage and beautiful. And the moment you walk in from the white glare of summer, and the Mosque reveals itself in it triumphant paganism, is the most thrilling, I think, in all of Spain”.  Nail. On. Head. Nina! I stood there for several moments before beginning my tour around the edges of this vast, silent space. Around the edges are Catholic chapels to the saints. I play my usual ‘spot the saints siblings are named after’ game. Two, St Therese and St Bernando. Surprisgly, I never make it past two. Three – if I count Mary but she is in every church. All the chapels are like all the chapels in every other Cathedral I have visited. Nooks with paintings and statues to the local saints and the Holy Family. I must be tiring of religious art. I am aghast but understanding that history – and more importantly my old friend, Carlos V, allowed what once must have been perfection, to be scarred by these alters. Although Nina reported “even the Emperor, Charles V, whose protection permitted the Cathedral chapter to carry out the scheme with impunity, stood aghast when he visited the Mezquita for the first time and realized the lovely perfection they had marred but failed to ruin with their banalities”.  I exited the Mezquita by the orange grove and feel the warm sun on my face. In every mosque turned cathedral in Spain, the once ablution area, where Muslims would wash before prayer, have been planted with orange trees. Bitter orange trees so that the fruit cannot even be enjoyed but the picturesque grove can be.

Once back at the hostal, I wondered what on earth I would do for the next three days. I had booked four nights here and had seen the main attraction. From the map given to me by the senora on reception, there didn’t appear much more to see – other than 14 churches. I have dinner at the restaurant where the bull-fighters eat. It is empty when I enter at 8:45 by the time I leave an hour later people are starting to arrive. The food is amazing and my theory on eating where the bull-fighters eat, passes the test. I am happy when I walk out into the night. The nights are now cold here – a chill in the air – that will only warm with tomorrow’s sun.

The next morning I woke up – early by Spanish standards at 8:15 to sad news from home. I had lost a friend suddenly. I spent the day remembering and grieving – glad to be in the warm city of Cordoba, that seemed to hold me close and comfort me. I go out for a small cerveza in the afternoon. To raise a parting glass for my friend. As I am sitting at an outdoor table an orange falls from the tree next to me. I let out an exclamation as it frightened me but I was thankful it landed on the road next to me and not on my head. Before I even have time to finish being thankful a speeding taxi passes by running over the orange, which squirts juice and pulp all over me. Through the tears of my grief I get a good belly laugh.

Life moves on so the following day, I set out again, leaving my grief and tears behind. When Nina visited Spain, in the spring and summer of 1934, she travelled through the fiesta season. She was fortunate enough to be in Cordoba on 25 May, which is the opening day of Cordoba’s annual fiesta and the day it holds the biggest bullfight of the year. Nina avoids the bullfight. She says “my curiosity concerning bullfights had been assuaged six years before”. She writes about her “pure repulsion” at the hideous sight and would no rather watch people be seasick. Here, Nina takes the opportunity to take a swipe at Ernest Hemmingway. I am always happy with a swipe at Hemmingway.  Other than visiting the Mezquita and attending the fiesta, Nina writes nothing more about what she did in Cordoba. I am not fortunate enough to be travelling through Spain during fiesta time but am happy that I am not here during the bullfighting season.  I find over the next few days that there is so much to see in this lovely town. The Alcazar has beautiful gardens and old roman baths, there are Roman ruins and an archaeological museum and the fourteen churches marked on the map to look at, sit in and spend intervals of grief which momentarily still lingers at different times. There are even Camino way markers to be found showing the way to Santiago by way of the Mazarabe route. At the end of my first day in Cordoba, I thought I would regret my decision to stay for four nights. I don’t. Unlike Nina I did not have to regret “the foolishness of having accepted somebody else’s estimate that no more than one day was needed for seeing Cordoba”. Indeed, spending a few days here was good for my regrets and my  heart.

Dear Dorothy, a letter from Seville

If you have lost a loved parent, or both, as I have – you will know what the feeling is like. You see something, or hear something, some old memory is jogged and you want to talk to them, tell them things. To tell them what it was you saw, what you heard or what remembered – but you can’t. This has happened a lot to me on my both my trips to Spain. I would love to call my mother or send her postcards and letters to tell her the things I see, the things she would love to see. Today, I have written to her from Seville.

Dearest mother,

I think about you a lot when I am travelling. Small things jog old memories. I always think of you when I walk into a church, which as I travel, is several times a day.

Nina describes this city as “Seville is like a laughing woman in a summer frock come in from raiding the garden with her arms full of flowers”. It is the truth. There is so much beauty in Seville it is difficult to take it all in. Around every bend in the road, around every twist in the passageways and around every corner of the laneways, there is something new to take in. The Cathedral, St Mary of the Sea – how dad would have loved that name – towers above all else. Its bell tower, once an Islamic minaret, stands tall in the old part of town. The buttresses fly high over the gargoyles and the line to visit winds around the streets. When Nina visited she saw the painting of Saint Dorothy by Zurbaran painted “in tafettas the colour of the bloom on purple grapes, with a scarf and panniers of gold striped with brown”. I went into the Cathedral today. I lined up forty minutes before it opened to avoid the queue. Once inside it was difficult to like the place. It is empty save for a chapels off to the side and behind the back main alter. The choir blocks much of the view. Nina complained about this too but again, she was lucky to be there when the organ was playing and the cannons singing at choir. I am luck if I go to a church and choral singing is being piped through the speakers.

I don’t know if they say mass there now but in the late 1800s apparently, 500 masses were said each day. I’m sure they do still celebrate mass for the local Catholics, but the main doors are for tourists to pay nine euro entry to walk around in. It feels a bit like being in an empty – but very grand – warehouse. With all the tourists it simply can not feel like a religious place of worship. Just a large empty shell. The main alter is a sight to behold when sitting in front of it. You really could spend hours looking at it. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is in the cathedral. It is impressive. His tomb is held high by four men representing the kingdoms of Spain during his life. Castille, Aragon, Navara and Leon. Although apparently he was moved around quite a bit after death before ending up here in Seville. Nina was of the opinion Christopher would not have liked something so grand but I think he would have loved it.

It is difficult to see and appreciate the paintings in this cathedral. Everything is behind wrought iron fencing and gates with bad lighting – perhaps to protect the paintings – but all are difficult to see. I searched for St Dorothy but could not find her. I asked one of the attendants, who was no help at all. So I left – via the souvenir shop where I stopped I asked the senorita if they had a holy card of St Dorothy I could buy. They didn’t but I could purchase a recipe books for tapas.

I walked the streets looking at buildings being wowed by the different architecture until I stopped looking up and looked down. It was then the shops caught my eyes. Oh mother, how you would love them. There are shops with the most gorgeous fabrics. Plenty for you to choose from for your next dress. There are shops solely to sell priests garments and adornment. In another I spotted a bull fighter’s jacket along with some very flash handbags and remembered how you loved the dancing – and Paul Mecurio – in Strictly Ballroom.  Many shops sell the traditional dress of Seville. High Spanish combs worn under the mantilla are proudly on display. Some are very expensive, more that 150 euro each – but these are made from tortoise shell and mother of pearl. You can buy cheaper ones in plastic in the souvenir shops I remember when I was very young, in the late 1960s, how you would wear a mantilla (the lace scarf) over your head to church. Maybe that was just for special occasions but I do remember you wearing one. I could spend hours describing the beautiful jewellery and flamenco costumes but there are so many as soon as I have admired something, a new bauble has caught my eye.

I wonder into a grand old Spanish house owned by a noble Sevillian family owned by an old lady. It is built in the Arabic style with not one – but two court yards. The second has a mosaic tile Roman floor from the second century. We were taken into the family’s summer dining room. There are twelve chairs around the table, one for each of the lady’s sons. That many children – of course I had to say I was one of thirteen. I can imagine your face thinking of twelve sons and you of course, would have said you had thirteen. On my way back home I deliberately lost myself walking the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter. If a pathway or a laneway looked interesting I would walk into it – without a care of where I would end up. I went up one that turned out to be a dead end. It ended in the front of the door to a house. I turned and walked back. About half way down I saw a way marker for the Camino – I laughed. You wouldn’t want to follow that one.

Yesterday I visited the Basilica of Jesus del Gran Poder. It is a circular church of mixed ages in both architecture and art. I like it. I spent some time looking at the paintings representing the Stations of the Cross. It is unusual to see Stations of the Cross in Spanish churches. They were relatively modern paintings, simple but good. There was also a picture of Jesus. It was huge and made up of a montage of people’s passport photos. It was great to look at from afar and then to get up close and look at all the people’s photos. I walked and looked at the alter and noticed two doors either side. One said ‘entrader’ entry the other ‘salida’ exit. Of course I wanted to see what the entry door led to. It went behind the alter and up a short flight of stairs. I thought I was going to have to hug-a-saint again, as I did in the Cathedral in Santiago. There was an elderly Spanish couple and their middle aged daughter in front of me. We were directly behind the alter where there is a sculpture of Jesus carrying the cross. This sculpture is a feature in the Santa Semana, Easter Week, celebrations in Seville – which are known as the best in Spain. People  believe miracles have occurred after touching the sculpture. The old Spanish woman in front of me was at Jesus first. He was all behind glass except for the heel of his right foot which protruded out. She was a small lady and she tried in vain to tippy-toe up as far as she could to kiss the heel. I looked on in shock. Surely they weren’t all kissing the foot? Again, she tried to stretch up. Again, she couldn’t reach. I tried not to laugh at her huge buck teeth sticking out from the kissing lips. Once more she tried, once more I tried not to laugh. She gave up. Kissed her fingers and put them on the heel of Jesus. Her husband, taller, bent down and kissed the heel. The daughter, kissed her hand and made the sign of the cross on the heel of Jesus. They turned to look at me. I stood there. What else could I do? There was no way I was going to kiss or touch that heel – not without hand sanitizer in my day day-pack.

I think, if I could talk to you, you would ask me “Don’t you get lonely, travelling by yourself?”. I don’t. Sometimes I feel alone but I never feel lonely. Last night I sat in a bar, having tapas and drinking a vino tinto. Suddenly it went from me being alone in the bar to being packed with Spanish people. I have a feeling Mass finished at the church across the road. All around me was a buzz of Spanish people talking – loudly – at and to each other. I could hear snippits of various conversations as I tried to work out words I recognised – “venga”, “escucha”, “diga” “espera” – come, listen, speak. wait. I feel that is what Seville says to me and, if I could mother, I would wait here in Seville for the rest of my days. It is such a place. It is such a place.

Much love,