A Mediterranean Journey
By Jana Soeldner Danger
A visit to southwest Spain is a journey that winds through centuries of religious strife and human accomplishment on a pathway of breathtaking natural beauty and wonder. Photographer and businessman Dan Brooke and his wife Tatiana recently traveled there, visiting the cities of Estepona, Ronda, Malaga and Seville, as well as the British territory of Gibraltar.
“This part of Spain and other coastal areas were trade ports inhabited by the Phoenicians and later the Romans,” said Dan, who remarkably shot the landscape and structure photographs in this layout with his cell phone. “The Muslim Moors conquered it in the 700s and ruled for nearly 600 years until the Christians finally began to take over in the 1300s and 1400s. But the Moorish architecture and influence can still be seen today.”
Travel with the Brookes as we visit some highlights of the region’s rich history and culture.
Perched high on a mountaintop, Ronda is divided by the deep El Tajo gorge. Originally an Iberian settlement, the city was eventually conquered by the Romans. “The ‘Roman Bridge’ and other smaller bridges provide access to either side,” Dan said. “It’s a beautiful town with narrow, winding streets and lots of character.”
Ronda was a summer home for author Ernest Hemingway. Actor/director Orson Welles’ final wishes were to be laid to rest in Ronda. “His ashes and those of his wife Mori are buried in a flower-covered well at the countryside estate of his friend, bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez,” Dan said.
A picturesque walkway, or paseo, is named for each of these famous visitors. The Welles paseo runs behind a modern hotel, while the Hemingway walkway leads to the beautiful Alameda del Tajo garden and it also runs behind the Corrida Goyesca, Spain’s oldest bullring. The origins of bullfighting are lost in antiquity – the activity may have begun with the Visigoths in the 5th century – but Ronda is considered to be the home of the modern version.
“The bullring is open to tour on your own, and it is amazing to see,” Dan said. “The inside stairs are decorated with beautiful tile work. There’s also a Spanish stallion riding school on the grounds, where we watched them practice.”
On a hillside near the bullring is the Merced Carmelite Convent. The first Carmelites were male hermits, former pilgrims and crusaders who dedicated themselves to a life of austerity, poverty and prayer. In 1452, the first order of nuns became part of the convent, much to the chagrin of many of the old monks.
Plaza del Socorro is home to the city’s casino as well as the Artists Society. On many evenings, visitors can enjoy Flamenco shows in this charming corner of town.
The seaside city of Malaga, where quaint shops and cafes line the streets, was another memorable stop. “We hadn’t planned to spend much time there and decided to go later in the day,” Dan said. “But when we got there, we wished we had had more time. In fact, it turned out to be one of our favorite places. The downtown area was very European looking, with old buildings, quaint cafes and shops, and street vendors roasting and selling Malaga almonds, which were different from anything we had tried before, and very tasty.”
Some of Malaga’s early construction was surprisingly sophisticated, especially its sewer system. “Every home had a latrine,” Dan said.
The Alcazaba, a hilltop citadel built by Muslims on the remains of an old Phoenician-Punic fort, once served as protection for the busy commercial port. “It overlooks the city and the Mediterranean, and it dates back to 1057,” Dan said. “And parts of it were built using materials from an old Roman theater.”
That theater, built during the time of Caesar Augustus, was buried for centuries and discovered in 1953 when construction began for new palace gardens.
A passageway connects the Alcazaba to the Gibralfaro Castle, where towers offer a breathtaking, panoramic view of the city. On clear days, it’s possible to see all the way to the coast of North Africa and the Strait of Gibraltar.
The city is rich in other Roman ruins, as well. “During an archaeological dig, the remains of Roman walls lined with red stucco, and small cisterns carved into the rock that were used for making garum, a kind of fish paste, were found,” Dan said. “There’s also a dungeon where Christian slave girls were locked up at night.” Today, a glass pyramid covers the site. “But you can peer down through it to see the cisterns and imagine the people who once used the vibrant port,” Brooke said.
Malaga is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, Dan noted. His former home in the Plaza de la Merced is now a historic monument, and it’s easy to imagine the young artist growing up there. Actor, singer, director and producer Antonio Banderas is also from there.
Dan had a personal reason for wanting to visit Gibraltar (a British territory uniquely positioned on the tip of a peninsula bordered on the top by Spain) where monkeys living on both the rock and in the town are a draw for tourists. “We went there mostly for the memory of my grandfather, who was there during World War II while he was in Cadiz,” Dan said. “The port city of Cadiz is evidently the oldest continuously populated city in Europe, dating back to the Phoenicians.”
Traveling between Spain and Gibraltar turned out to be an adventure in itself. “After going through immigration, we had to cross an active airport runway to get into town,” Dan said. “Going both ways, we needed to wait for commercial airliners to clear before we could cross.”
Their last stop was the city of Seville on the Guadalquivir River, an important harbor during the Spanish conquest of the American continent. Today, it is the capital and largest city in the autonomous community of Andalucia and the province of Seville, as well as the cultural and financial center of southern Spain.
Seville’s rich culture and history date back to the Middle Ages. But Dan was interested in visiting it because of a modern connection: “I wanted to see the city that the Kansas City Country Club Plaza, built by J.C. Nichols, was modeled after,” said Brooke, whose hometown is Kansas City. “A smaller version of the Seville bell tower was built there in 1923.”
Constructed by Muslims in the 12th century, the La Giralda Tower is one of the few structures remaining in the world that was built by Almohads (a Muslim Berber sect and dynasty). In yet another mix of cultures and religions, the tower is connected to Seville’s cathedral.
“It’s the largest Gothic church in the world, and the third largest cathedral in the world,” Dan said. “It’s truly breathtaking. But the main reason I wanted to go there was to see the tomb of Christopher Columbus. It’s very impressive, and his son Ferdinand is also buried in there.”
Next to the cathedral is the Alcazar of Seville. “It’s a large palace built by the Muslims in the 950s next to a surrounding Roman wall,” Dan said. There was some unexpected activity. “They were filming a Game of Thrones during our walking tour, so we missed some parts because we had to get around the film crew,” he said.
Their last stop was the Plaza de Espana. The square, which was constructed to house the Ibero-American exhibition in 1929, features fountains, bridges and baroque arcades, as well as benches representing all of the Spanish provinces. “It’s much newer, being built in 1928, but it’s very beautiful with amazing tile work.” Dan paused as he reminisced, “We can hardly wait to go back and see more of this land of breathtaking history!”