The region in the south of Spain is called Andalucia and it’s famous for three cities – Granada, Córdoba, and Seville. Among serious travelers, Andalucia is also a destination for what’s called its white hill towns, places with such evocative names as Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda, and Grazalema. For those interested in history, it’s an important site for the tiny town on the edge of the Atlantic, Palos de la Frontera, from where Columbus’s ships actually set sail, and for the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, an important research library housing archival materials of the Spanish colonial administration in the Americas and the Philippines. Among northern Europeans, Andalucia is a vacation spot for its Costa del Sol, where beach towns like Marbella and Nerja provide sun, sea, and a party-scene in the summer.
We visited the three famous cities last December, each one famous for an important monument, each one a Unesco World Heritage Site – the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Córdoba, and the Seville Cathedral in Seville. There are other sights in each city – historic barrios with narrow cobblestone streets; riverside walking paths; a plethora of cathedrals, churches, and palaces; tea shops and outdoor markets; parks and plazas.
The three monuments are impressive, as wonderful as they have been written about in books and shown on TV. But what especially enchanted the whole family were the orange trees. There is, in all three sites, a rectangular outdoor area with orange trees in grid formation. Called Patio de los Naranjos or Courtyard of the Oranges, these spaces have a geometric beauty, a plenitude of green. And the orange trees, leafy, slender, and graceful, are all heavy with fruit at this time of year.
And it was not just in the monuments’ courtyards. In the towns, there were orange trees in the sidewalks, in the plazas, in the patios of private homes that you could peek at through wrought-iron gates. There were so many of them and they were all so laden with fruit that they seemed unreal, as if the cities were putting on a show, pretending to an impossible bounty. But they were real – we touched them, furtively but gently – and, occasionally, we would see fallen oranges, squashed on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t just the profusion of the trees and their fruits that seemed unreal. It was also the fact that they were not vandalized, that the fruits were not picked and played with. Even if, according to my guidebook, these particular oranges are hard, bitter, and inedible, they seemed irresistible targets for mischief. New York these days is supposedly a nicer, gentler city, but I still cannot imagine these trees existing in the sidewalks and public parks here – they would immediately be shorn of their fruits.
But this is perhaps unfair. Orange trees have grown and flourished in Andalucia for hundreds of years, perhaps since the time of the Romans, way before New York even became an idea. There’s a culture, bred into the landscape and the people, of valuing these trees, of appreciating their beauty and bounty. Or, and this might be the case as well, the people there are so used to them that they can take them for granted.
We walked a lot in Spain, many times it’s because it’s the simplest way to get from one place to another, the subway or bus routes too complex or necessitate a lot of walking as well. We walked in the Albayzín in Granada, the historic Moorish quarter where the narrow cobblestone paths wind sinuously up a hill, the streets near the Plaza Nueva lined with tea shops and hookah bars. Miraculously, even with an eight-year-old complaining of being tired even before we started and a fifteen-year-old complaining of our visits to the “uninteresting because touristy” places, we reached the Mirador de San Nicolas, a hilltop plaza where residents and tourists flock to get a magnificent view of the Alhambra from afar. The next day, a Sunday, we walked and found a breakfast place with freshly-made churros and encountered a carousel, powered by a young man pedaling a bicycle, in the plaza across the cathedral.
In Córdoba, we walked in the Jewish quarter after visiting the Mezquita. We saw the statues of famous Córdobans – Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher, and Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scientist. We went to a restaurant for dinner, recommended by the guidebook as decent even if somewhat more popular with tourists than residents. As soon as we entered, the waiter asked us where we were from. After a brief, surprised pause, we said New York and he whipped out a menu in English. He asked each group that entered where they were from and he whipped out the appropriate menus for each, some of them on iPads instead of printed ones. Many Japanese groups entered the restaurant as the evening progressed and my daughter commented that the restaurant is probably recommended by a Japanese guidebook.
In Seville, we walked in the Barrio Sta. Cruz where the lanes, because they are so narrow and the houses across so close to each other, are called “kissing lanes.” We walked in the bustling shopping area, in streets called Tetuan and Sierpes. On our way to our rented apartment, we passed a park one night where a Christmas market was set up and a small group of musicians played “Something Stupid” by Frank Sinatra. My husband couldn’t identify the song at the time, but the sweet melody from the clarinetist haunted him for the rest of the trip.
In all these walks, we encountered orange trees, in rows or in clusters, the leaves profuse and dark green, the fruits like glowing orbs in the dusky light. Every day for breakfast, we sought out zumo de naranja, freshly-squeezed orange juice, and enjoyed glasses of it with our tortilla de patata and tostada. And in Seville, my older daughter and I discovered a tiny shop selling essential oils in antique glass jars. The proprietor, a gray-haired woman covered in emerald and ruby shawls, as if she were a sorceress in a medieval story, with whom we communicated in our meager Spanish, showed us her wares – essential oils of various herbs and flowers, as well as imitations of famous fragrances like Chanel No. 5 and Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium. She urged us to smell fragrances she mixed herself, with a special one, called Patio de los Naranjos, a tribute to her city. Bursting with the sweetness of orange blossoms, it was irresistible and I bought a small bottle.
It was also in Seville where, passing by a fruit store one night, it finally occurred to us to buy the fruit that we were seeing so much of. We got clementines, which are also widely available in stores in New York, almost all of them imported from Spain. But here the clementines were local, in season, and so delicious, the orange segments plump, soft, delicately sweet. My younger daughter, who dislikes vegetables but adores fruit, requested that we buy them from then on, demanding a few orbs a day like a daily fix.
If the orange trees were enchanting in December, they are supposed to be heavenly in the spring when trees effloresce with orange blossoms, the tops crowned with tiny white flowers, the air heady with the sweet floral scent. This is also the season for the famous festivals in the area: the Semana Santa and Feria de Abril in Seville, the Fiesta de las Cruces in Granada and Córdoba, the Feria del Caballo in Jerez.
In the meantime, we’re back in wintry New York, where oranges don’t grow. I’ve bought a few bags of oranges after we got back. Some organic juicing oranges from California were not bad. A bag of clementines, imported from Spain, was terrible, a few of them moldy right out of the bag, many of them tough and flavorless.
But my daughter, the taste of the platonic orange still vivid in her mind, continues to request for the fruit. Each orange I get from the market these days, however, feels like a gamble, a roll of the dice. My older daughter, for whom the trip had become a distant memory as soon as our plane landed in New York, complains when my younger daughter and I talk about Spain and how good the food was. But we can’t help it. My younger daughter continues to dream of the oranges that she ate like candy in Spain. I dream of the orange trees in the streets, the dark green leaves, the glowing orbs in the dark.