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Malaga | Alcazaba and Gibralfaro

This week we have another guest blog post by history buff, tour guide and long-time Seville resident Peter Tatford Seville Concierge. This time, Peter takes us to Malaga.

Malaga has long been one of my favourite Andalucian cities. It’s not just a place to pass through going to and from the airport, or a high-rise resort with so-so beaches. Though there is still an element of that, in recent decades the city has done a lot to change its image, and its heart is now very firmly in the right place, with a pedestrianised historic centre, a thriving food culture, some of the best parks and gardens I know of anywhere, a recently renovated harbour front with shops and restaurants, and loads of cool museums and art (from favourite son Picasso to the Contemporary Arts Centre).

alcazabaat the top of the Alcazaba

For me, though, one of the most important things is that this is a city with history. Founded by the Phoenicians, and occupied by the Romans, its most impressive monuments date from the long Moorish period. From almost anywhere in the city you can see its two fortresses, the lower Alcazaba (from the Arabic al-qasbah, a citadel) and the upper Gibralfaro (gebel-faro, the rock of the lighthouse; Gibraltar, the rock of Tariq, has the same derivation). From below it can be seen to best advantage from alongside the Roman amphitheatre, itself rediscovered by accident in 1951 when the houses on the hillside below the castle were demolished to make way for a planned garden. Although the Alcazaba was also the palace and royal residence of the local kings, its primary role as a fortress is most obvious from here. There is an entrance to the castle here, but there is a second way in (all will be explained later) which avoids the steep climb up from the bottom.

view from gibralfaroview of the port from the Gibralfaro

In the meantime, take a trip up to the top castle, the Gibralfaro. The Phoenicians had a lighthouse and fortified enclosure here, and the current Moorish building dates back to the 10th century, with a substantial rebuilding in the early 14th. Our tip for the Málaga novice is to avoid going up the steep path that connects the two castles, and instead to take a taxi, or a bus up the back of the hill, and walk down the path to the Alcazaba afterwards. One of the main reasons for coming up here, as you will see for yourself when you get there, is the magnificent view right across the city, from the bullring almost immediately below you, past the Alcazaba, Park Malaga and the harbour, to the mountains beyond. Enjoy it from the castle walls, the mirador (lookout) or best of all from the terrace of the Parador Hotel with a drink to go with it. It’s a magic moment.

From there walk all the way down the hillside path to the bottom of the wall of the Alcazaba that faces the sea to find the alternative entrance. This is, in fact, a lift that takes you almost to the top of the centre of the fortress. It’s always my preferred option, particularly in summer, to be carried to the top of things, and only to walk downwards. During the period of the Córdoba Caliphate this hill had a modest fortification to protect the city from pirates. In the more troubled times that followed it, the local ruler built his residence and the double-walled castle enclosure that still exists today. It’s considered to be the best-preserved of all the Spanish alcazabas, and although much smaller than its counterparts in Granada and Seville, the central palace area with its courtyards, pools and gardens, still gives some idea of the high level of civilisation compared to most of the rest of Europe.

alcazaba (2)inside the Alcazaba

Walking along the old battlements it’s easy to see why the siege by the Christian armies leading up to its fall in 1487 was the longest of the entire reconquest period. The castle has endured ever since, surviving abandonment, neglect, and even being occupied as a tenement slum by the city’s poor before being carefully restored during the 1930s and 40s.

I think Malaga is one of those places that always seems to have another side of itself that it only reveals gradually, so it’s well worth renting an apartment and taking a few days to explore what’s on offer.

Seville | Bienal de Flamenco

Flamenco is the traditional song, dance and music artform of Andalucia, which evolved from it’s gypsy and North African roots into something like its present form around the 17th century. If you’re into all things Flamenco, then for sure Seville is the place you want to be during the next five weeks. If you’re not, then come anyway, and you may well become a convert. From September 12 to October 15 the city is hosting the Bienal de Flamenco, the largest festival of flamenco in the world, and the city will be alive with the passions, sounds and rhythms of Spanish guitar and flamenco dance.

bienal flamenco 2014photo courtesy of the Bienal de Flamenco website

The slogan for this, the 18th edition of the festival which began in 1980, is fuente y caudal, source and flow, a reference to a 1973 album by the legendary Paco de Lucia. I have been lucky enough to have seen him play twice at previous bienals, and was looking forward to seeing him again this time around, but sadly it was not to be as he passed away suddenly earlier this year. A number of events have been planned as a homage to his memory, including a “We Play For Paco” event the day before the official opening, which will be held in Plaza San Francisco.

paco de luciaPaco de Lucía – photo courtesy of the Bienal de Flamenco website

Many of the big names in flamenco will be here, performing in the city’s major venues, such as the Espacio Santa Clara, the Alcázar Palace, the San Telmo Palace, and the city’s four main theatres, the Maestranza, Lope de Vega, Alameda and Central, but the Bienal is not just about big name performers. There will be dozens of rising talents and young hopefuls in the smaller theaters and clubs, and because flamenco is a tradition that develops, rather than being fixed and rigid, I’m expecting fringe and fusion styles of flamenco to be well represented.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s festival the official venues for street performances are clustered along the river, and around some of the city’s famous fountains, such as in the Puerta Jerez and Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes, but as in previous years less formal shows may pop up almost anywhere in the city.

There will also be exhibitions of photographs and flamenco memorabilia, forums and other activities, including a special symposium on the life and work of Paco de Lucia.

Bienal de Flamenco 2014
September 12 – October 15
Official Programme

Seville | A Day Trip to Sanlucar de Barrameda

Sanlúcar de Barrameda is the small seaside town at the mouth of the River Guadalquivir – directly across from the Doñana National Park (you can cross on a small ferry) – just over an hour’s drive or bus ride from Seville. This makes it ideal for day trips or long weekends away from Seville, especially in summer, when the sea breezes keep it cooler than its bigger neighbour.

sanlucar (1)Plaza Cabildo

It’s history goes back at least to Moorish times, the Barrameda part of the name deriving from the Arabic for “water well of the plateau”, but it fell to the Christians in 1264. Its heyday was during the great age of exploration in the 16th century, and both Columbus and Magellan set sail from here. In the mid 17th century it went into decline, although its fortunes were somewhat revived by its role in sherry production.

sanlucar (3)Bodegas Barbadillo

Nowadays Sanlúcar is best known for prawns and manzanilla sherry, and it was these, among other things, that brought us there, but more of that later. We arrived mid-morning at the little bus station in the modern seaside resort part of town. From here many people will head straight for the beach, but we had a different objective. The beach could wait. First stop was actually a late breakfast, a simple but tasty Serrano on toast and coffee at any of the bars in the Plaza Cabildo, the pretty little central square in the Barrio Bajo, the lower town. Sitting in the morning sunshine in one of these quintessential Spanish squares, with its little fountain, statue of famous local person, and a couple of palm trees, with a coffee or a beer ready to hand, is one of life’s great simple pleasures. Another is visiting local food markets, and this was our next stop. The Sanlucar market is just off the central square, immediately beneath the steep hill up to the Barrio Alto, the upper town. As well as the main hall, stalls and small shops spill out into the adjoining streets, and the whole area has a pleasantly busy vibe. Highlights were the street seller selling live camarones, the little shrimps used in the tortillitas, and a brace of model clowns outside one of the small shops.

sanlucar (4)the famous Sanlucar prawns

From the market a short walk takes you up to the Barrio Alto and, for us, the main purpose of our trip – manzanilla sherry. More specifically a visit to one of Sanlúcar’s famous sherry bodegas. Bodegas Barbadillo has a number of locations around the city, but the visitor centre and museum is next door to the impressive 15th century Santiago Castle overlooking the lower town. Although it wasn’t my first visit to a bodega, the experience is always enjoyable. The atmosphere inside these high ceilinged rooms with their ranks of sherry casks is always special, and there’s always something new to learn about the arts of sherry making. And sherry drinking too, as the tour finishes with a tasting of some of the bodega’s sherries and young wines.

After the tasting it was time for lunch. We started with a quick snack of the famous Sanlúcar speciality tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters) at the equally famous Casa Balbino on the main square before moving on to the Puerta de la Victoria just up the street.

sanlucar (2)sunset on the beach

No visit to a seaside town is complete without a trip to the beach, and in Sanlúcar to the Bajo de Guia (Pilot’s Wharf), where in days of old ships going up river would pick up a local pilot to guide them through the tricky channels to Seville. Every August the beach here plays host to what are claimed to be the oldest horse races in Spain. We missed those on this occasion, but still got to sip our sherry cocktails at Cafe Azul looking across the river and watching the fishing boats heading back to the unloading quay a little further up the river. Sanlúcar, and especially the bars along the Bajo, is famous for its prawns, so after cocktails we headed to Casa Bigote for a sample.

I could happily have spent the rest of the waning afternoon sitting around looking at the peaceful view, but it was time to head back to the bus, and home to Seville.

Recipes | Traditional Spanish Cold Soups

Summer is the time when Spanish cooking is all about food that is light and refreshing, and this is when the traditional Spanish cold soups come into their own. The best known of these is gazpacho, which is one of a family of tomato based soups that includes salmorejo and porra, as well as other local variations, but although nowadays tomatoes are often perceived as the most important ingredient, this isn’t really true. The origins of the dish go back to before the discovery of America, and consequently of tomatoes and peppers, both products of the New World. This would leave us with something closer to ajoblanco (cold garlic and almond soup), the other common Spanish cold soup, but without the almonds.

gazpachogazpacho

 We can then see that we start in early medieval times with a soup of water, dry bread, olive oil, garlic and vinegar (this indicates a possible Roman origin, as vinegar was important in their cuisine, but not in the Moorish cuisine that followed it), to which were added any leftover vegetables, or less commonly, meat or fish. The basic preparation method was to soak the bread, and to mash it up with the garlic and other vegetables while adding the oil and vinegar to make a paste.

 This proto-soup becomes ajoblanco with the addition of peeled, blanched and crushed almonds, which results in a thick, creamy white soup that makes a refreshing change from the tomato varieties. Almonds came to Spain with the Moors, and ajoblanco is generally held to have originated in Malaga and Granada, their last strongholds.

ajoblancoajoblanco

 The arrival of tomatoes from the Americas in the early 16th century gave impetus to the evolution of the cold tomato soups that we are familiar with today. Since Sevilla was the port of entry, and the valley of the River Guadalquivir proved perfect for their cultivation (the tomatoes of Los Palacios are renowned for their size and taste, and figure prominently in the displays of the local markets), it’s not surprising that these soups are closely connected with this region of Andalucia, and were, in fact, little known outside this region until the 19th century.

salmorejosalmorejo

The differences between the varieties are mostly about the thickness of the soup, and its additional ingredients, and the localities they are associated with. Gazpacho, traditionally associated with Seville ,uses less bread and olive oil, resulting in a thinner mix, and adds more vegetable ingredients, particularly cucumber, but also peppers and onions. Croutons and chopped cucumber and pepper are often added as a garnish.

Salmorejo is thicker and creamier than gazpacho, and is often used as a sauce (one of my favourite tapas is a carpaccio of salt cod topped with salmorejo). A wide range of extra ingredients, such as beetroot, melon and avocados, may be added, and bars specialising in varieties of salmorejo, such as Umami in Cordoba (the official hometown of salmorejo), have started to appear. In Úbeda I even came across a variety for the gluten intolerant that replaced bread with green apples – and very tasty it was too. Usually comes with a garnish of quartered hard-boiled eggs and chopped ham.

porraporra

Porra (the word literally means a club, and may refer to the mortar and pestle used to grind up the ingredients) is the thickest of all, with extra breadcrumbs and red or green peppers. Tuna is a popular garnish.

Below are some sample recipes from About.com.
Read more

Seville | How to Tapear in Seville

Considering how interested most of us are in food, and in particular good food at reasonable prices, and considering how often we’ve mentioned the subject in passing, or to direct visitors to suitable eating establishments, it came as something of a surprise to discover that we have no blogpost on the noble art of the tapeo.

What is it?

tapaTapa literally means a lid or cover. In this case a small dish of food, or even just a piece of bread that you could put over your glass of wine to keep out the dust and flies, which would then be topped with a piece of jamón or cheese. To tapear (verb) is to go from bar to bar having tapas. Tapeo (noun) is the journey that results – a kind of civilised pub-crawl, with food. Both the cuisine and the custom are thought to have developed in the taverns of Seville and other parts of Andalucia in the 18th and 19th centuries. In recent years the concept of the tapa has been spreading abroad, and the cuisine gaining increasing international recognition.

Why do it?

Well, firstly, because you’re in Seville, the home of the tapa, and there are few better ways of getting to know about another culture than through its food and eating customs. Secondly, because it’s fun. It’s a social event with family or a group of friends, sharing food, taking your time, talking, meeting people. It’s informal, often noisy, and often done standing up at the bar. The best bars are usually crowded and busy, and to the uninitiated can seem chaotic and intimidating, but don’t let that put you off – the natives are friendly.

Some tips

tapasIt’s a good idea to have a list of recommended places, so that you don’t end up wandering aimlessly around, wondering which bars to go into. There are said to be around 3,000 in the city, and though many are very good, there are also plenty that are mediocre. You should also have a few things that you know you want to try, but be flexible.

In some bars you can only get tapas at the bar – at the tables or on the terrace you may have to buy raciones (big plates), but there’s no set rule. If in doubt ask (“hay tapas en las mesas/la terraza?” “Are there tapas at the tables/on the terrace?”) There’s usually waiter service outside, and often at tables, but watch what other people are doing. You may have to go to the bar to order.

Don’t order everything at once. There won’t be room on the table, the food will go cold, and you may find you’ve ordered more than you want (the size of a tapa can vary). As a rule of thumb order one tapas per person per round. If you’re still hungry order more. There’s no rush. If you see something you like go past, you can add it to your order. When you’ve had enough, stop. The bill is La Cuenta. There’s no rule for tipping, but I generally leave around 10%.

veo

The Cuisine

For practical reasons most of the dishes have a short “final preparation” time, so lots of fried or lightly grilled fish and seafood and lean meat cuts, and marinated or cured meat and fish. Must sample tapas include the famous Jamon Iberico de Bellota (cured free range ham from the black foot pig), carrillera (slow-cooked stewed pork cheeks), and marinated anchovies. What you won’t find is much in the way of spicy food. Patatas bravas is about as hot as it gets.

Sleeping it off

You are, of course, going to need somewhere to sleep it off afterwards. Veoapartment has a great range of holiday apartments in Seville where you can get your head down, ready to do it again the next day, or even the evening following a serious lunchtime tapeo.