Hola from Andalucia, land of the faithful
I cut a week from my intended stay in the previously visited country and allotted this time to my travels in Andalucia, 8 provinces that form the southern part of Spain -- one of 17 autonomous regions in the country. This trip has, in a sense, been a search for silver linings. Spending more time in Andalucia is one. After my hellish experiences in the previously visited country, Andalucia proved a respite from the black clouds that have been dogging me.
Many of the tour book publishers who cover Spain issue a separate volume for Andalucia. That's because there's so much to see and do here -- from relaxing on the Mediterranean's Costa del Sol to taking in the cultural history of the grand cities of Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada or visiting the towns and villages off the beaten tourist path. It seems cliched to say so, but Andalucia has something for everybody.
My particular bike trip covered 1500 kms of hard fought olive-groved hills -- Gibraltar to Alcala de los Gazules, Jerez de la Frontera, Sevilla, Lora del Rio, Cordoba, Cabra, Rute via Priego de Cordoba, Antequera, Ronda, Monda Coin, Torre del Mar via Malaga, Motril, Granada, Alcaudete, Jaen, Ubeda, Coto Rios, Villapolicios, and finally to Albacete in the neighborhing region of Castilla La Mancha. This was no direct route -- it more resembles a function one might encounter in a trigonometry class. I certainly did not see everything in Andalucia -- in fact, I didn't see very much. I missed 3 entire provinces and most of the wildlife the area is so noted for. It was a tough 26 days (20 cycling) hampered by a return of the malady bequeathed me by my previously visited country as well as a new pain -- severe late night leg cramps, ameliorated by drinking liters of Isostar to replace minerals and vitamins and a lot, I mean a lot, of lower body stretching at all hours.
The cycling itself gets only mixed marks. A lot of hills planted in olives. Now olive groves are quite stunning. To be surrounded by them a full 360 degrees on untrafficked rural roads, around hills and dales, is breath-taking. But those kms counted for probably only 5% of the travel. Most of the time was spent on busier-than-I-would-have-liked country highways, city-to-city roads, often lined with olive and cereal farms. The mornings started off chilly, 10-15 degrees (50-59F) and then doubled or tripled to reach 90F. A very dry heat, with little shade, 15 factor sunscreen type of weather. One the last day in Andalucia, through the Cazorla National Park, could be described as ideal cycling.
But it is not the cycling that makes Andalucia worth a visit. It is Andalucia itself, a piece of turf occupied over time by so many cultures, from Neanderthal and Neolithic, through the Iberians, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors, the latter who were in charge for almost 800 years and left behind a lot of nice architectural vestiges. In fact, so much physical Islamic culture is here that one has to ask: why go further south to visit Islam when you can see the goods right here in Andalucia without the nastiness you can encounter southward?
What I will remember most about Andalucia are my thoughts on faith. My visit coincided with Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter that is marked in the region's towns and cities with processions of floats that portray the last days in the life of Jesus Christ, his cruxifiction and ressurection. The floats, ornatedly decorated with life sized statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and others, weigh hundreds of kilos and are carried on the shoulders of unseen young men (usually 32 per float) who share the burden and shuffle down the cobble stoned streets. Local residents line the route to bear witness to this the central focal story of Christianity. There is little commercialism. No easter bunnies in these parades. An occasional vender selling heliumized Pokemon, or popcorn or action figures made in China for the US market. This is mostly a religious endeavor. Local bands march and play funeral music and ethesiastical classics. Little children join in with toy drums. Some marching residents attire themselves in churchish robes, masked hoods, with pointed conical hats. Others are decked out like Roman centurians. A throng of older women, dressed in black mourning outfits,wear their laced veils in the traditional head ornament that sticks up over the back of the neck. (I noticed the lace was changed to white for Easter).
Andalucia is famous for these processions. I am not sure the region has a higher level of faith, if such is measurable, than in other parts of Catholic Spain or Europe, or whether this manifested faith can be assessed against what exists in the Protestant, Islamic, Jewish or Buddist (or even Satanic) communities -- the list of faiths is almost endless. But as I witnessed the witnesses, I myself examined the concept of faith. I don't mean to say that I examined my own faith, for I have none. I don't mean that I just lack adherence to formal religion or to the concept of a diety. I mean that I lack belief that would fall under the rubric faith. Faith, it seems to me, involves belief/acceptance in something that cannot be proved per se. Most people have it, faith in god, fellow man, the system, etc. It need not be just religious. The Chinese, as I have learned over the years, are actually endowed with a lot of faith -- faith in the power of the family, in the importance of the culture and preserving it, in Chineseness. Not to make light of the subject, but I genuinely believe that faith (or the potential to have it) is something that you get at birth. It is simply not in my genetic make-up. This is particularly ironic because my mother, who died 30 years to the day I was visiting some of Andalucia's gorgeous Baroque churches, was a woman of seriously held faith, a positive characteristic in her as it is in my friends today for whom faith means so much. So, as I marvel over these processions of the faithful, I envy Andalucians their faith and everyone in the world his or hers. It must be a great gene to have.
Now on to France.
Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain
22 April 2001