The Medieval Town of La Alberca, Espana

I recently blogged about my adventure when I participated in “Pueblo Ingles.” I reserved my comments in that blog to my observations about the English immersion program and the students. However, there is more to my story about the nearby medieval Spanish town of La Alberca. This blog entry is about my exploration of that tiny Spanish town and my adventure there.

Buildings at Plaza Mayor, La Alberca

Located at an elevation of 1084 meters, the town with a population of around 1100 is rather isolated in La Sierra de Francia mountains close to the northern border with Portugal. The principle product in this region is delicious Iberian Jamon (ham) which is produced in the area from black Iberian pigs that grow fat eating acorns. This diet gives the ham a very special, enjoyable flavor that is savored by Spaniards as well as those from around the world who are fortunate to experience it. Hams are seen in several shops in La Alberca hanging from the ceilings.

During my explorations of Spain I have visited several Spanish communities and blogged about Cordoba, Granada, Ronda, Canary Islands, and Mijas Pueblo. As I walked the narrow cobblestone streets of La Alberca I was taken aback by the distinctive architecture of this community in comparison to the others I mentioned. While Cordoba and Granada are colorful and reflective of an integration of Moorish design and Mijas is a spectacular white, traditional Spanish pueblo, La Alberca, founded in the 1300’s, is dark and has a somewhat French feel. It is one of the best preserved Spanish towns of the period.

Hams hanging from ceiling

The half timbered buildings surrounding the Plaza Mayor and nearby narrow streets and alleyways are different as their materials come from  the quarries and forests of the mountains. The town goes to great lengths to retain its medieval charm.

Knight Templar Symbol

The Knights Templar had a presence in La Alberca. Today there are myths and legends about the “monk soldiers” who participated in the crusades and provided safe passage for pilgrims to the holy land. On the Iberian peninsula they also created a strong trading infrastructure, a banking system, and fought for the Spanish kings in the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims.

A tavern in La Alberca

The town of La Alberca has a tourist interest as it is preserved in its architecture, food, and customs. For those exploring Spain it is a welcome transition into the Middle Ages from the modern communities of Spain and Portugal.

The next stop in my exploration adventure is Romania where I will be searching for Dracula. Stay tuned!

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My Exploration Holiday in Granada, Spain’s Albayzin

The View of old Albayzin from the Alhambra

Situated below the massive, historic Alhambra in Granada rests the compact, densely populated, ancient district of Albayzin. Inhabited initially by Romans, some say that people have been in the area prior to the 7th century BC. I stayed in Albayzin, a World Heritage Site during my recent exploration of Granada and the Alhambra. My blog about the Alhambra is available by clicking here.

I knew I was in a place quite different in Albayzin when the taxi driver dropped me off at the top of a hill and pointed to narrow, cobblestone steps as the route to take to find the place I had booked. Going through the narrow walkways was like being on a scavenger hunt in a maze looking for the street and door number where the GPS and mobile phone didn’t function.

There is much debate about the origin of the name and spelling of “Albayzin.” It is, however, certain to have a Moor context. The guide at the Alhambra said that the inhabitants are often referred to as “the miserables”… not to be confused with other “miserables” of France. His explanation wasn’t exactly adequate that “people are just miserable there.” I never did find out why.

For this community there is a major influence and feeling reminiscent of the Moors. The buildings are hundreds of years old. The narrow cobblestone “streets” are almost always only wide enough for pedestrians. Going up and down the hills requires that one be sure footed, have a sturdy pair of shoes with excellent soles, and remain focused for ever present steps and the time-worn slippery stones.

At night, the walkways take on an eerie feeling even though they have been brightened by modern street lighting. One can imagine ages past when an unfriendly encounter might be waiting just around a dark building corner.

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There are Numerous Flamenco Shows as Shown in the Poster

The Albayzin is small and exists on a hillside leading downward to the Darro River that runs between it and the hill on which the Alhambra sits. It is one of the oldest centers of Muslim culture in Granada and you can sense the cultural influences not only in the architectures but also in the food found in many modern restaurants where a flamenco show often comes with dinner.

Lunch at El Trillo

I ate at wonderful reasonably-priced restaurants in the Albayzin. At one particular meal the taste sensations created through expert use of herbs and spices were delightful as pictured… rice with chicken curry, shrimp, asparagus, greens, and slices of oranges. At another restaurant I ate scrambled eggs with potatoes topped with dried Iberian ham and at yet a third I delighted in eating a “fowl stew with raisins and nuts in a light dough.” I have never experienced foods like these.

The architecture in the Albayzin is distinctive where plain wooden doors in the district disappear and are replaced by works of art typical of many European cities as you leave it. The buildings outside the Albayzin take on a traditional Spanish feel and and statues commemorate famous events that have changed our world (click on the photo for a description).

In the Alhambra there are water features everywhere reflecting the Moor past. There are fountains below the Alhambra but they tend to be massive while those developed by the Moors are much smaller in scale and simpler in design.

A Former Mosque Converted to be a Church

Just like in the Alhambra, each of Albayzin mosques that existed prior to the Christian monarchs’ “Reconquest of Spain” have been converted to Catholic churches like the one pictured. Note the bell tower was erected atop the mosque’s minaret.

On exiting the Albayzin area there are many tourist shops, coffee shops and places where young people hang out. These are mostly nonexistent in the Albayzin.

Overall, Granada with the spectacular Alhambra, Generalife, and Albayzin provide a rich Moorish past that is ever present even after 500 years following the Reconquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. In the city there is a complimentary blending of the Moor and Spanish cultures which makes Granada really special for me and very enjoyable for every visitor!

Alhambra – My Exploration in Granada, Espana

Towering over the city of Granada sits the spectacular Alhambra, a once great, self contained, red-walled city with palaces, mosques, and homes. With construction by the Moors beginning in the 9th century, the Alhambra (derived from Arabic meaning the “Red One”) overlooks the Albayzin, a World Heritage Site and the oldest part of Granada. The Alhambra has evolved through the centuries from its original Acazaba fortress (the right side of my photo) to be a seat of Iberian ruling power and authority for Muslim sultans and emirs and Spanish Christian kings and queens.

The Alhambra at Dusk

Today the Alhambra is Granada’s jewel with an average of 10,000 visitors every day. This World Heritage Site has seen numerous notables come and go as well as physical changes over the centuries. In many cases, we can only imagine the Moor’s mosques, schools, houses, baths, gardens, and government buildings. Many structures have disappeared from neglect, war, vandalism, or, as in the case of the mosque, replaced by other buildings such as the Catholic church and another Palace built by Carlos V.

Generalife Column
Column Inscription at Generalife Palace

Following the conclusion of the “Reconquest of Spain” from the Moors in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand set up a residence at the Alhambra. In the same year Columbus came to the Alhambra to seek financial support for his adventures which was eventually granted as we all know. Napoleon had soldiers quartered within the Alhambra city walls during the Spanish War of Independence. As the troops withdrew in 1812 they blew up several structures thus destroying an important part of the world’s heritage.

Water Flows Naturally Through Man-made Fountains and Pools in Alhambra and Generalife

The rich Alhambra architecture combines Moorish and Renaissance Spanish with numerous water features and gardens that have been preserved and meticulously restored. The emirs even had their summer palace and rural getaway estate and gardens called “Generalife” which means “Architect’s Garden.” Generalife is adjacent to and outside the Alhambra city walls. It also is a World Heritage Site with its picturesque small park with trees, gardens and several man-made water features on the grounds of a simple-looking palace with many ornate interior wall decorations.

While walking through the grounds I could see how their construction met its objective for providing a calming place for the rulers to relax and unwind from their responsibilities. The park has several very old trees as well as newer plantings which was intended so the park would forever evolve. In the summer vegetables are grown in the Generalife.

Reflective Pool
The Throne Room is at the Far End of this Reflective Pool Inside the Alhambra Palace

In addition to Generalife, the nature themes of plants, water features, and gardens are inside the Alhambra also. All of the water flows naturally through a system of small aqueducts that bring fresh water from the nearby mountains. Water features are everywhere and are important to the Muslims. The plants and trees inside the Alhambra are meticulously maintained. Water is always in the center of each building in courtyards except for those built by the Christians.

In 1492 when the Moors surrendered following a siege of the Alhambra, Ferdinand and Isabella moved into the Alhambra as a residence. Where the sultan once held court, the Spanish monarchs then did in the same room.

The Palace Residence Entrance is Stunning

The entrance into the residential area of the palace is very ornate. The sultan’s palace rooms are jaw-dropping beautiful as are his “first wife’s” rooms. The sultan’s “first wife” is not numerically determined by marriage date but rather the first with whom he has a male heir. A courtyard with an interesting fountain is between the sultan’s suite and the first wife’s suite. The fountain was given to the sultan 700 years ago by a local Jew and represents the tribes of Israel. The tour guide said that in past ages the relationships between Jews and Muslims were much different than today.

Queens Room
A “First Wife” Room and View

Views of nature are present from each room in the palace. There are numerous walkways through gardens and water features are everywhere. The existing grounds are quite special today and one can imagine what they were like when the Alhambra was a bustling city.

My exploration of the Alhambra was exceptional and there is so much more to see here. Things we learned in school are only a very small part of the exciting (and often sad) history of Spain and the influence that past has for us today. In my blog about the Albayzin district (click here) I describe my exploration of Granada outside of the Alhambra walls where history there also impacts our American way of life.

Here are a few additional photos that I hope you enjoy. The photos are the church built over the Muslim mosque, the ceiling in the sutan’s residence, a walkway through the Generalife retreat, the fountain given to the sultan representing the Tribes of Israel, and the entrance to the Alcazaba fortress.