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By Emma Hodson
I was going to Spain, and on the plane ride envisioned myself lisping to waiters to bring me more paella. While I never picked up the famous Spanish lisp, I did have my fill of paella, flamenco and my personal favorite —architecture left over from Islamic Spain. I spent a year in Granada, a major city in the southern province of Andalusia. There, I attended University of Granada, where my classes were conducted entirely in rapid-fire Andalusian Spanish. While Granada was my home base, and Monday through Thursday were generally spent haphazardly navigating the Spanish education system, I took weekends as opportunity for travel. It would be impossible to document every memory of every corner of Spain I was able to visit, but the following pictures will have to suffice.
Granada is the capital city of the province of Granada within the southernmost autonomous community of Andalusia. Like many other cities in southern Spain, Granada is known for its architectural and cultural remnants of the Muslim rulers who controlled the Iberian Peninsula from the year 711 until the conquest of the Catholic monarchs in 1492.
Granada’s most famous landmark is the Alhambra, a palace built during the Nasrid Dynasty in the 1300’s. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Alhambra is one of the most visited sites in Spain. I personally visited the Alhambra two times, and its beauty certainly did not diminish. The exact geometric patterns of its architecture, its arched doorway, and the carvings of Arabic calligraphy are breathtaking.
As a student of the Arabic language, I was particularly amazed by the Alhambra. Unfortunately, as much as I tried, I could not decipher the Arabic inscriptions on the wall. Regardless, long portions of my visits to the Alhambra consisted of me staring adamantly at all the ornately carved walls.
The Alhambra consists of a few different parts, including the Generalife gardens. The Generalife was the summer palace of the Nasrid kings, and visitors of the Generalife will have no doubts as to why. The lush garden walls are draped with flowers and fountains run throughout. I was struck by the use of water as an architectural element in the Islamic architecture in Spain. In the summer months, with temperatures rising over the 100 degree mark, the water provides a cooling and calming atmosphere to the gardens.
Carre Supermercado, Granada, Spain
While Spanish food is often raved about in the US, it seems to me that the emphasis is unfairly placed on paella. In reality, ham, or in Spanish jamón, is truly the dish that epitomizes Spanish cuisine. Served in everything from tapas, to breakfast foods, Iberian ham is abundant, and can often be found hanging in restaurants, cafés, grocery stores, gas stations, Chinese restaurants—or really, anywhere. In Spain, no time is a bad time for ham.
The Mediterranean Sea is only a few hours away from Granada, duly named the Costa del Sol, or the Sunny Coast. Its sparkling blue water, white sandy beaches, and its usually sunny weather have been a huge attraction not only for Spaniards, but for ex-patriots from the UK, looking for sunnier skies. Especially in Nerja, one of the most popular beach destinations, Irish pubs and English taverns are never too far from sight.
One of my favorite places other than Granada in Andalusia was the city of Córdoba. Its streets are lined with orange trees, and the old Jewish quarter recalls again the days of the Islamic empires, where Jews, Christians and Muslims cohabited the cities while maintaining their separate niches. This coexistence of course was not maintained, and this fact is most visible in Cordoba’s most famous landmark, the mezquita-catedral, or the Mosque-Cathedral. Once a large Islamic mosque, it was converted into a Catholic cathedral during the Reconquista. Massive in size, the Mosque-Cathedral maintains its Islamic architecture while still having ornate catholic paintings, statues, pews and chapel features.
Besalú, Catalunya, Spain
Barcelona is famous for obvious reasons, but less-renowned cities in Catalunya are definitely worth a visit. I particularly enjoyed visiting the medieval city of Besalú, a few hours outside Barcelona. It was there that it was truly apparent that Catalunya had a distinct culture from much of Spain. Our tour guide unmistakably spoke Spanish as a second language as she explained to us the long history of Besalú and the various groups that had occupied it throughout the ages. Though it had been occupied by the French as well as the Islamic empire, today the Catalan flag flies high on the stone gateways to the city.
Since the Spanish University seemed to be fond of excuses for a holiday, I was able to have a second Spring Break of sorts, which I spent in Mallorca. One of the Balearic Islands, Mallorca, along with Ibiza, Minorca, Formentera, and a few other islands, compose an off-shore component of the Spanish nation. Mallorca is home to the famous tennis player Rafael Nadal, and is often thought of as a party destination, but I experienced it as a place of incredible natural beauty, with rocky cliffs, crystal blue water and sprawling hills.
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
The last place I visited in Spain was Bilbao, another large city in Basque Country. Mostly an industrial city, Bilbao draws most of its tourism because of its famous Guggenheim Museum, which resembles a massive ship as it flanks the river. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the museum is a strange albeit beautiful landmark, and it houses a large variety of modern art. Though the museum is the main attraction, I enjoyed Bilbao by strolling along the river by day and eating Basque tapas, called pintxos, by night.
My year in Spain was beyond doubt the most incredible year of my life. Spain’s history, culturally varied autonomous communities, its art and architecture, and its natural beauty are only umbrella terms for the experiences and memories that I will have for my entire life.