Alhambra: One of two Andalucian sights included in a recent poll of the world's ten greatest tourist destinations
As Gibbon might have said: I breakfasted in the Alhambra, among the ruins of Moorish palaces and reflected. But whereas Gibbon, you will recall, reflected in similar circumstances upon the decline of the Roman Empire, I was reflecting, more selfishly and immediately, on the deal. The price of our room in the parador in the heart of the Alhambra in Granada was listed as 415 euros, reflecting its status as a tourist location. But we were paying less than double that for seven nights in various paradors, including dinner. The paradors are state-owned hotels in or near Spanish historical buildings and monuments. They were invented in the 1920s, in the time of Alfonso XIII and the dictator Primo Da Rivera and were intended to offer accomodation to Spain's upper classes (servants' quarters were usually provided) at the same time as preserving ancient buildings. There are currently around ninety of them throughout Spain and a few years ago, with recession setting in, they were operating at about 30% capacity. Then somebody explained to them about special offers, packaging, marginal cost pricing and all that so there are now deals to be had. Ours is called Andalucia II and one of its consequences is that in an obscure, though charming, hill town in one of the poorest provinces in Europe on a Monday night during the worst recession in decades the fairly expensive restaurant is full. The predominant language is English because the British middle-class pensioner is to a good deal as a buzzard is to a rabbit. I offer this first reflection, Unknown Reader, because you may find it the most interesting thing I have to say.
For much of its history Andalucia was a prosperous and important part of the known world. In Roman times Cordoba alone produced Lucan and Seneca and in the Moorish period there were Averroes and Maimonides, all authors who are still studied today. But as the Spanish monarchy and empire declined the province declined at a multiplied rate; like Crete and Sicily it became backward and peripheral, a frontier which attracted writers simply because it was so different. The anglophone writers about Andalucia since the 1830s include George Borrow, Richard Ford, Washinton Irving, Gerald Brenan, Laurie Lee and Alastair Boyd. They all more or less paint the same picture, of a province backward, illiterate and wild. Their stories are of rotten roads, barely edible food, incompetent blacksmiths and drunken postillions and of rumours of disputes over a single olive tree which end in death. Thus Boyd, writing in the 1960s, by which time the diseased and burned out coastline had been re-branded as the Costa del Sol, was able to report that his rides in the interior, described in The Road from Ronda (1969) were in a landscape and among a people not much different from those described by Borrow and Ford in the 1840s. For centuries Andalucia was the unchanging back of beyond, the wilderness attracting only the adventurer. Part of the attraction was always a certain nobility, a refusal to modernise or to sell oneslf to commerce which the Andalucian was thought to possess. Their qualities were, as Boyd put it in his foreward to the 2004 reprint of his book: "simplicity, directness, stoicism, hardiness, hard work and an almost obsessive honesty". (p. xix) Judith Keene, in her account of the British, Irish, French, Australians, Americans and others who volunteered to fight for Franco (Fighting for Franco, 2001) reports that few of her subjects knew anything worth knowing about the Spanish political situation, but they all saw Franco's cause as a peculiarly Spanish opportunity to fight against the vices of modernity.
But I claim no adventure or hardship points now for having travelled round Andalucia. Not counting a day trip to Cordoba, we were last there 40 years ago (yes, same companion) when Franco was still in power and the world of Boyd and Brenan was still entirely recognisable. Andalucia now has superb roads, railways and airports. It is a literate and friendly place, tolerant of my poor Spanish and with many people who speak excellent English; many of its restaurants are superb - English cuisine is not the only one which has been re-invented. The landscape is unusually neat, consisting mostly of symmetrical plantations of olives and almonds patrolled by king-sized tractors, though the mountains, always somewhere in the background and variously forested, rocky or snowy, still suggest wildness. A recent poll suggested that two of the world's ten greatest tourist sites are in Andalucia, the Mezquita in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada. There are new buildings everywhere: houses, apartments, commercial and industrial parks. All of this is the product not only of 30 years of capitalism and democracy, but also of the "solidarity", "cohesion" and "regional funding" of what is now the European Union. Even in the high Sierras the new way markings on long-distance footpaths have the badge of the EU on them.
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