Notes from Andalucía

The notes, spelling errors and all


In February I went to Spain for the first time, and it was unlike any trip I’ve ever had. For ten days I travelled in Andalucía (the south) with Isabella, a Spanish friend from my time studying in Angers, France in 2012. We toured extensively, but I never felt like a tourist. We were hosted and accompanied by a dizzying array of friends and relatives—all locals. It was an extraordinary experience, but I’ve been debating how to write about it ever since.

This is my dilemma: do I try to fully represent my time there (putting a lot of effort into creating a lengthy, cumbersome, and self-indulgent account), or do I give rich little snapshots (neglecting large portions of the experience)? I’ve decided to try something different altogether.

While travelling in Spain I carried around a little black Moleskine in my pocket, as I do everywhere. I made dozens and dozens of notes about things I saw and things that interested me, both the mundane and profound. It even became a joke among my hosts, every time I pulled out my little notebook to hastily jot something down as I lagged behind the group. I’ve decided to present these little notes; I hope they convey honest and concise insights into my journey in Andalucía (and maybe some insights into my mind). I’ve occasionally included meta-notes in brackets, but I’ll rely on photos to fill in the blanks.

Note: when Americans think about Spain, they normally conjure images of bullfighting, flamenco dancing, and sombreros. That last one is because Americans can’t distinguish Spain from Mexico, but the first two are because foreigners tend to take the stereotypes of southern Spain and apply them to the entire country. As I only visited Andalucía, I’ll try not to generalize; my usages of Spanish or Andalucían to describe people and customs are deliberate.



Lucena: Isabella’s hometown, a humble city, our base of operations. 

-Fran [Isa’s brother] picked me up from the airport and took me to Lucena. He is crazy. And more than a bit sexist. He likes to pull the e-brake and drift through roundabouts.

-Tita Juaquina and tito Enrique [Isa’s aunt and uncle] are the kindest people to ever grace this planet.

-Upon arrival, tito Enrique took me to a giant barrel in the basement and scooped up a glass of homemade white wine. A man after my own heart.

-Apparently people here can go out to bars with their own booze and soft drinks and pay for glasses and ice.

-I don’t enjoy discussing gun policy in the US through broken Spanish and English when I’m exhausted.

-The house where I’m staying is in el campo (the countryside). It a seven-minute drive from the city center, it is not the countryside. The house is freezing at night, it was meant for summer. There is no central heating.

Brasero! The best invention ever conceived: a heater under a table covered in thick blankets, everyone sits around the table and puts their legs under. Heaven of warmth. I’ll popularize it in US and make millions.

-It is good to fall asleep reclined at the brasero.

-Andalucían breakfast is bizarre: toasted bread, olive oil, garlic, fresh tomato paste, ham. But bless tita Juaquina for making it for me every morning.

-Hiked [with tita, tito, and Isa] up the Sierra de Aras, to the Santuario Virgen de Araceli. Andalucían countryside is not unlike Texas hill country: hills, low shrubs, dry air, dry cold in winter, clear sun, loose clouds. Spanish is spoken.

-I learn about the tradition of carrying the images and statues from the sanctuary down to Lucena as part of the Holy Week celebration, or Semana Santa.

-Rows and rows and rows of olive trees. Leaves are dark-but-light-green, pale soil, brown mountains in the distance.

-Olive cultivation is total monoculture. Lines and patterns of green as far as the eye can see. Beautiful and desolate at the same time.

-The church at the top of the mountain: smelled the incense before it was visible, whitewashed exterior, rococo ceiling, dark except for the glass chamber which holds the Virgin statue.

-Why Mary so decked out?

-This church brings out my iconoclastic tendencies.

-We all light prayer candles and add them to a wall. Isa tells me to wish for something. I drop mine [accidentally] and make a scene.

-Why do we make altars in high places? The Croix de Nivolet [in Chambéry], the Altar ridge [Camp Eagle], the Old Testament. Religion as process, journey, and destination. Earning, working for a spiritual experience.

-Paragliders take advantage of the weather. We watch them prepare, take off, and soar.

-I have eaten authentic paella [during a Sunday family gathering]. I have eaten the best orange I can ever remember having. Isa’s grandmother [with dementia] repeats in Spanish: he looks hungry, he is still hungry, he should eat more.

-My first siesta was a failure, I slept for three and a half hours.

-I picked an orange from the yard, and sixty seconds later it was in my glass and I drank it.

-Lucena: construction, empty streets on Friday night, bricked up storefronts, 40,000 people, kind of run-down

-[Isa tells me] the bricked up storefronts are to stop squatters.

-It seems underdeveloped in a way… propane tanks delivered instead of gas lines, there are still pump workers at gas stations, roundabouts are bare, internal heating other than fireplaces is uncommon. Some of that is logical because it’s the in the south though.

-Shop hours in Lucena: 8:00 or 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM, then 5:00 PM until 9:00 PM. Even later in the summer, 6:00 PM until 10:00 PM. Rhythms of life slower here.

-I ask Isa about her grandpa’s experience during the Spanish Civil War. She tells stories about rations, bandits, and Nationalist sentiment.

-In churches they pay to change the flowers every day.

-Outside of Lucena is the largest chair in the world, which was pointed out to me multiple times. Apparently it is a hotly contested title.


On top of the Sierra de Aras

The Virgen de Araceli


Panorama from the Sierra de Aras


Patio decoration


Córdoba: architectural intersection, where I discovered tapas, an absolutely charming place.

-The streets are lined with orange trees. Quite charming.

-We [me, Isa, and Chumi—Isa’s boyfriend] wander around small streets, trying to find the city center.

-[After meeting up with Isa’s parents] We tour the Mezquita de Córdoba, a mosque/church. Such a weird mix of architecture… The audio guide tells me Moorish conquerors built several iterations of a mosque on top the site of a Catholic Visigoth church, which in turn was built on the remains of a Roman temple to Janus. After the Reconquista, the Spanish built a giant church right in the middle, but they didn’t destroy the whole complex.

-Mosque section is dark and open, lines of columns, intended for thousands of people praying together.

-Church section is illuminated by bright windows, but assumes hierarchy of power.

-It’s all so obviously political: Islam building on top of Christianity, Christianity building on top of Islam. You, dear Christian, must walk through the shadowy remnants of a false religion in order to reach the enlightened center of truth. 

-My understanding of tapas: institutionalized snacking, moving from bar to bar, getting a little dish and a beer, a social process, an event in and of itself, can replace a meal if you’re poor. Tapas are the antithesis of French cuisine.

-Tapas number one: a slice of Spanish tortilla [like a thick potato and egg omelet], some odd tomato paste, and a glass of beer.

-Walking through the Jewish quarter, Isa’s parents emphasize the tolerance under the Caliphate of Córdoba. Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted. Architecture from all three still remains.

-Tapas number two: olives and almonds.

-These people still build homes like the Romans: internal patios, arches, openness. Fit for the climate.

-In the Museo Julio Romero de Torres, I start to get a picture of this city. How a place views itself and its past is revealing. Reconquista, flamenco, beautiful women, brave men, the drama of attraction.

-Tapas number three: various seafood platters. [I will now stop counting tapas, but I had dozens more]

-There is a Roman bridge in Córdoba. This alone is incredible. It is massive, and it still exists.

-We see the Holy Week carriers of the icons practicing.

-From the top of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos [fortified palace of the Christian monarchs], the lights of Córdoba glow before the sun has fully set.

-Kids are in the street at night socializing, even in the cold. Isa tells me this is because they cannot drink at home.

-[We stop by Carrefour on the way home]. Supermarkets are such a wonderful crystallization of foreign cultures: cheeses, legs of ham, giant olive oil jugs, pets for sale, a different checkout process.

-This is the first time in years that I’ve been in a completely new culture, I’m absorbing everything.


The first thing you notice in Córdoba

The Roman bridge and Mezquita beyond

The minaret of the Mezquita, now a bell tower 

Looking up at the dome of the church section

The mihrab

Practicing for the Semana Santa 

Looking out from the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos 

A lot of olive oil...


Sevilla: a city of great history, a city of great pretense, a mild letdown.

-All of my friends hyped up Sevilla.

-First thing we see: Cathedral of Sevilla, third largest church in world. A truly mighty building. Cavernous and beautiful vaults. Looks like an entire temple complex from the outside.

-La Giralda [the bell tower of the cathedral]. Again, the Reconquista kept the best of Moorish architecture and Christianized it.

-I can sense the recession here. Empty carriages are lined up in front of the cathedral, beckoning tourists.

-[We pass through the Alcázar de Sevilla grounds] The Moors made beautiful gardens. It’s all nestled underneath these old fort walls. In every Andalucían city you can feel traces of a Muslim golden age.

-La Torre del Oro. I’m told that it’s called “The Gold Tower” because it was used to store riches brought back from the new world. [I discover later that this is completely false]

-Meeting up with more friends, eating more tapas

-We go a place locals call Las Setas, or “the mushrooms” [the structure’s real name is the Metropol Parasol]. It is certainly an interesting structure, but at the top there’s no distinctive or powerful view. You look around Sevilla, huge and scattered. The view reflects the reality of walking: everything interesting is far away from other interesting things. I’ve never experienced such a decentralized city.

-We walk along the Guadalquivir River. There are some cities that turn their back on their waterways—this is not one of them. You feel like you’re supposed to be near it. 

-Most of the churches I’ve seen [save some of the big famous ones] in Andalucía are rather bare. The emphasis is on the statues, paintings, etc. In France it seems that the emphasis is on the building itself.

-We see the image Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza in the neighborhood of Triana. This whole place deals in images. They are expensive, laden with gold, millions and millions of dollars. I still think they’re ugly. They are locked by key blocked by glass, separated from direct contact with the faithful. Evidently the people are pious, but realistic.

-I am told that during the Semana Santa, when they march the images around, the chief carrier pays 10,000 € for the honor—as well expenses of everyone else in the group [meals, celebrations, practice, meetings]. I’m starting to realize how important this image moving is to the Andalucíans.

-We walk around the ceramic production district in Triana. No one finds this fascinating but me.

-[As time goes on I think] Sevilla is unimpressive. Too big, ugly buildings, lots of high rises, an absence of architectural unity as a whole. It lacks the charm I’ve seen elsewhere. Feels like it goes against the ethos of Andalucía. It is a big modern city that has succeeded in becoming an international city, but at the cost of its spirit. Yet it still peddles a version of its former self as the romantic and enchanting regional capital.

-We meet up with another one of Isa’s friends, Gloria, who works as a model in Sevilla. I am encouraged by how human she is. 

-We go to the Plaza de España at dusk. It is incredible! Powerful and impressive. Architecture is a perfect execution of whatever architectural style it is [Renaissance Revivalism and Art Deco]. Such a vast and expansive structure! I feel so small. If I lived in Sevilla, I would take walks here every day. I want to see it in every condition. I want to see it illuminated by summer sun. I want to see it in a downpour. I want to see it surging with people in some sort of celebration. I want to see it completely empty.


Catedral de Santa María de la Sede de Sevilla

La Giralda 

La Torre del Oro

Metropol Parasol

Looking across the river at the Calle Betis 

Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza 

Plaza de España 

Gloria, Isabella, and Chumi


Granada: ancient capital, cultural junction, fiesta epicenter

-Hosted by Isa’s cousin Maria on the outskirts of the city, in the brick high rises of the Camino de Ronda [the longest and straightest street I’ve seen in Spain].

-I’ve never relied on others’ hospitality for such an extended period. It’s touching.

-We go over to a friend’s house to watch the Tuna de Ciencias de Granada [one of Granada’s famous groups of young guitar-playing gentlemen] practice. The same kind of atmosphere as all-male college a cappella groups in the US—a musical fraternity.

-Every dwelling I’ve seen in Granada contains hookah.

-I accompany Isa on her driving lesson [because most people here in their early twenties don’t know how to drive]. I fear for my life.

-I saw what must be the most hideous dog to ever exist [please see photo]. Its disposition matched its hideous under bite.

-In the Capilla Real de Granada [Royal Chapel] it is not permitted to take photos, even without flash. I’ve seen this a lot in Spain, and it is extremely frustrating. The only possible reason would be so they could have a monopoly on image distribution, and this really irks me. If I pay, I should be allowed to document. I wanted to document specifically some beautiful gothic arches and a sculpture of a decapitated man: you could see all of the detail on the neck: spine, esophagus, blood…

-The Granada Cathedral is a mammoth Renaissance beast. Stalwart white columns. Again, no photos allowed inside.

-In a few different squares, there are street musicians who play the most heavenly instrument I’ve ever heard [called the hang, I find out later]. The soft melodies reverberate off the ancient walls and fill the whole area with numinous music.

-Everywhere there are outdoor markets of teas and spices and cloth.

-The view from Plaza de San Nicolas is stunning. It stares across at Alhambra, the famous Moorish palace and fort, and the mountains beyond it.

-On the bus [up to Alhambra the next day], we’re sitting next to two American girls. French is the common language of our group, so that’s all we’re speaking. The two girls are talking about the respective penis sizes of their mutual acquaintances. They pause for a second and wonder if anyone can understand them. Of course not, they conclude, and continue on. Why does America export the most basic, privileged, contemptible tourists?

-The sun crashes against the walls of Alhambra.

-We enter the Carlos V palace first [same king who put the church in the Mezquita of Córdoba]. Interesting layout, the courtyard looks Greek or something. It’s another building-turned-political statement, new Christian palace in the old Muslim fort.

-Inside the Royal Complex, I’m immediately impressed with detail of the plasterwork… I just love Arabic calligraphy. The intricate arches and wooden ceilings are stunning. 

-It also feels very human, like human-sized. In general, not grand ceilings and doorways everywhere. Not particularly luxurious compared to later Christian palaces, or earlier Roman palaces. The pillars are low, and sometimes slanted. 

-Beautiful patios and fountains throughout, especially the Patio de los Leones [Court of the Lions]. Water was critical to the Moors, and it showed in their perceptions of luxury: gardens, fountains, irrigation, etc.

-The whole things is significantly restored [the abandoned gardens caused a lot of water damage] Oh how I wish I could have seen it in its original splendor! 

-I love the ceilings that are like caves, with carved fractal patterns. 

-All of these gardens must be wonderful in summer.

-We save the fortified section [the Alcazaba] for last. The oldest part, it has interesting building foundations in the courtyard.

-We climb up the highest tower and there is a spectacular view. You can see everything: Alhambra, mountains, city, the plains in the distance. For a moment I sense everything drifting up to Alhambra. I can see every monument in the city. I see people taking pictures from the Plaza de San Nicolas. I can clearly hear a singular guitar, and I eventually spot the man playing it far below me. There is one dog barking. One car honking. I smell a brush fire. It is so close. I experience everything, the entire city, in a moment.

-The group sees me writing this. It’s what I’m known for. They think it’s hilarious, but they’re very curious.

-I am told that no trip to Granada would be complete without going out.

-“Toca Toca.” My favorite song I heard in Spain, and the one that I associate most with the trip.

-As the only American in our entourage, I need to prove something. I will drink and dance more than all of them combined.

-We took a cab to the club [which I have never done before]. There was more than one room in the place, but our group stayed in the reggaeton section all night. To me this type of music just sounds like the same song over and over again, but I sure did dance anyway [until seven in the morning].



Tuna de Ciencias de Granada 

The ugliest dog alive

Catedral de Granada

A street musician playing the hang/handpan 

Alhambra from the Plaza de San Nicolas 

Carlos V Palace

Inside the Moorish palace 

Patio de los Leones 

Inside the Alcazaba

Looking out on all of Granada


Málaga: idyllic Mediterranean city, tourist magnet, my last stop

-[I have a day to spend on my own in Málaga before my return flight] 

-On the bus from Lucena, I cross the mountains to the south. After exiting a mountain pass, the clouds immediately disappear and I know I am near the sea.

-The streets are sunny, breezy, and wide. I feel free and empowered.

-Palm trees remind me where I am.

-Málaga is touristy [I overhear more English and German in one day than in the rest of my entire trip].

-The roads are littered with the leftovers of Carnaval.

-The Málaga Cathedral is very large, with a picturesque bell tower. I walked around the building and witnessed some frustrated nuns complaining about construction. A man was telling a beggar "if you worked..." She was holding a picture of her children. 

-Very impressive interior. Renaissance? Baroque? The altar is impressive and open. Inspiring columns and high vaults. Effect slightly diminished by weird nets attached to the ceiling, one of which held a dead bird.

-Roman theatre was closed because it was Monday, but that was better because I could take unobstructed photos.

-La Alcazaba [the fortified palace] is interesting, but it felt more like a walled park, not a whole lot of content inside. Wonderful views of the city, the ocean, and the countryside. The Alcazaba as it stands today helps the imagination, but compared to Alhambra it's a little silly/fake. It’s almost completely reconstructed. Very few original stones… Some of it is off-limits to the public, which is tantalizing. There’s a small ceramics exhibit in the palace [which probably no one finds interesting but me].

-The Alcazaba was originally connected to the Castillo de Gibralfaro [the castle above it] via a fortified corridor. Unfortunately you can’t walk up that way.

-Hiking up to Gibralfaro… it was hot!

-I love it when museums are called interpretation centers.

-I wish there were more buildings inside the castle grounds, it’s a little sparse. Again a little park-like. There is, however, a forty-meter deep cistern. It’s an endless abyss!

-The walls are the main attraction. The views are astounding. I see the whole city, an industrial port, a ring of mountains, two wisps of clouds, a single freighter anchored in the distance, a divide between shallow water and dark water.

-Scholars think the Gibralfaro hill was originally the sight of a lighthouse in the original Phoenician settlement. I look down: the Roman theatre, the Moorish fortifications, the modern arena—descendent of the Roman coliseum.

-I’m ending my trip in Andalucía on top of the world, on the edge of the world. The only things above me are three flags. The only things in front of me are ocean and more ocean. If I didn’t know Africa was somewhere in the distance, I would think myself at the end of the earth. How can humans fathom such enormous distance? How could ancient man conceive of it?

-As the sun dips in the afternoon, the ocean to the west is not so much blue as silver, or gold, or just a flat sheet of pure light.

-How could humans comprehend something so flat, so vast. It’s inhuman and unnatural.

-I grab my last glass of Cruzcampo from a stand outside the castle, and after a fifteen-minute walk I’m at the beach.

-Walking along the pier and smelling the ocean brought me back to Florida Sea Base and fourteen-year-old Boy Scout me. I want to experience more ocean!

-At the beach I take a few photos. I look out. I touch the water. I pause. Then I turn around and head for the airport.


Catedral de Málaga

The altar 

Plaza de la Merced

The Roman theatre, with the Alcazaba above it

Inside the Alcazaba 

Looking down at the Plaza de toros de La Malagueta 

The Mediterranean 


-After ten days in Spain, I have a much deeper appreciation for my command of French. I understand and can communicate almost anything.

-Spanish is a good language for rap, it’s rhythmic.

-When Spanish people laugh they say jajaja.

-For a while it’s interesting to listen to conversations in Spanish and work to piece it together through cognates and body language and tone, but after a while it gets old. It’s fatiguing, then isolating. You have the desire to truly communicate with someone.

-In Andalucía you don’t use the theta and often you don’t pronounce the final consonant. Thus what’s pronounced muchas grathias in the north sounds like mucha grasia in the south.

-Things I learned: caña, copa, tapas, el twerking, mezquita, virgen, entender, comer, cocinera, naranja, naranjo, aceituna, oliva, olivar, brasero, pan, yo también, polla, coche, campo.


Mason signatures in the Mezquita de Córdoba

I've never visited a place that loves salad as much as Spain



-Spanish people get lost all of the time. As time went on, I realized that they actually just leave without knowing how to get where they want to go, and then they rely on asking for directions along the way. [This was kind of frustrating as an outsider, but in retrospect I can see that it’s flexible and communal]

-The sidewalks of Andalucía, like France, are plagued with dog poop. Except in Andalucía the poop was smaller [smaller dogs?].

-Young people often send each other voice messages instead of texting or calling.

-Spanish people stir things for a long time [like when putting sugar in coffee]


-In Andalucía many houses are decorated with Catholic iconography.

-Cat-calling seemed more common.

-60% of Spanish guys my age look the exact same: dark-curly-unkempt hair, kind of skinny and kind of short, hipster beards.

-It takes forever to leave a gathering of people.

-It seems common for people to start eating before everyone gets their food.

-Nail salons are operated by Asians in Spain as well.

-I will still never, ever, use a bidet.

-Some stereotypes of Andalucía proved true in my experience: I saw how much emphasis is placed on family, I noticed connectedness of Andalucían society [my companions couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone they knew], and I was welcomed with overwhelming hospitality everywhere. 


Saying goodbye