Saturday 23 March 2019

Sacred sights and so much Moor

ANNE MARIE SCANLON

My friend Mike cannot pass an old church without going in to admire the architecture. Within minutes, he can tell when the building was erected and point out all later modifications. I quite like old churches myself and, although I don't share Mike's enthusiasm (some would say fanaticism) for ancient ecclesiastical sites, I'm always up for cultural and historical expeditions.

When I went to Andalucia, the region of southern Spain famous for golf and horses, I did not envisage spending much time on the cultural and historical beat. Instead, I imagined myself relaxing in shaded citrus groves, sipping fresh orange juice and admiring the handsome caballeros on their fine Andalucian steeds.

Not that I was disappointed. I did spend rather a lot of time under trees heaving with fresh fruit, eating local olives and watching fit, beautiful men riding fit, beautiful horses and having fantasies worthy of EL James. What I hadn't bargained on was the rich cultural history of the region.

The area is positively swamped with old churches and, even if you are only in the area for the sun, the golf, the horses or the caballeros, you would be doing yourself the biggest disservice if you did not go to see the Real Colegiata de Santa Maria Church in Antequera and the cathedral in Cordoba. Both religious sites are in cities that are often, like the churches themselves, overlooked by tourists – an awful shame as both places are a little bit magical.

The Cordoba cathedral is a must-visit for everyone, not just the Mikes of this world, not least because it lies within the walls of a mosque. In 711, the Moors took control of Cordoba and made it a new province – Al-Andalus – and, in 785, work began on the mosque. The original building was extended three times to cope with the expanding Muslim population of the city and is now one of the biggest in the world (22,400 square metres) and considered one of the most important Muslim monuments in the West.

The mosque alone would be spectacular, with its splendid pillars, Islamic arches and stonework but within its walls lie three full-size chapels – including the cathedral – each from a different era and in a different architectural style.

The entire building is like a time machine showing the various shifts in culture, fashion and religion in the area. Cordoba itself is picture-postcard pretty, with labyrinthine alleyways, citrus trees growing everywhere and gorgeous courtyards bedecked with flowers (geraniums are especially popular as mosquitos allegedly hate them).

In Antequera, the Real Colegiata de Santa Maria Church, located at Plaza de Santa Maria, was the first Renaissance church constructed in Andalucia. Building began in 1514 and ended in 1550. The building is situated high on a hill overlooking the town, and among the gorgeous views is the striking limestone crag known as La Pena de los Enamorados – The Lovers' Leap. The name comes from a local legend about a doomed love affair between a young Christian man and a beautiful Moorish girl who, when they were forbidden to see each other, hurled themselves off the precipice. The really odd thing about The Lovers' Leap is that it looks uncannily like the profile of a Native American and, even more uncanny, there is no legend explaining this.

Within the now deconsecrated church there is a short video which dramatises the history of the building itself and the local area by telling the story of a young apprentice who arrives to work on the structure in 1515. Details about the history of the area and the principles of architecture are shoehorned into the story in a way that makes the presentation pure cheese.

However, I enjoyed it so much I watched it twice and, despite the non-subtle storytelling, I actually learned far more than I would have from a dry rendition of the facts.

Part of the reason why I recommend a visit to this particular church so much is because, apart from the amazing views, the management have shown their awareness that not everyone is a church buff and have incorporated a bit of flair and imagination in presenting history to the casual tourist. Apart from the video, they have an actress presenting a short monologue about the doomed lovers who leapt to their deaths, both in Spanish and in English, which had my companion in tears (she's a love-buff).

If the views from the plaza aren't enough for you, you can climb to the top of the tower or, alternatively, you can fortify yourself in the cafe while looking down upon the recently excavated Roman baths. I can't really explain what it was about Antequera that charmed me so much – perhaps it was the wild horses casually trotting up the steep streets, or just the sheer amount of history crammed into a relatively small space but, despite the whole town being practically vertical, I loved it. It was almost Spain by Disney – almost but, thankfully, not quite.

The bigger, well-known cities of Andalucia are not without their attractions either. In Seville, the capital of the region, the Royal Alcazar (a Unesco World Heritage Site) is a former Moorish fort and the oldest royal palace in Europe still in use (it is the Spanish royal family's official residence in Seville).

In 1995, the Infanta Elena, eldest daughter of King Juan Carlos, held her wedding reception here. You can't blame her – the palace is one of the best remaining examples of Mudejar architecture and is absolutely stunning. The gardens, too, are entrancing and the Alcazar is definitely a sight worth seeing.

When you are finished in the Alcazar, pop across to Seville Cathedral to see the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Well, it might be Chris, or it's possibly his brother, or it could be a cousin – the jury is out, but really, who cares who's buried there as the tomb, just like the cathedral, the Alcazar, and Andalucia itself is well worth seeing.

Getting There

Many airlines operate flights directly from Dublin to Malaga and Seville.

For more information about the region see any of the following websites:

Turismo Andalucia (www.andalucia.org), Turismo Sevilla (www.turismosevilla.org), Turismo de Cordoba (www. cordobaturismo.es) Costa del Sol Tourist Office (www.visitcostadelsol.com), Turismo de Antequera (www.turismo. antequera.es), The Spanish Tourism Office (www.spain.info).

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