Spanish Summer Roadtrip: Alhambra, Tossa de Mar and Barcelona

Alhambra: Journey through a Complicated History

When Andrea and I traveled to Spain last, we made a point to stay in Granada which was the heart of the Moorish Emirate in Spain. Granada is mostly know for the Alhambra, the ancient and beautiful ruling city of the Moors that has miraculously survived the centuries despite occupation by the Catholics and Napoleonic troops. We had not anticipated that we would not get an opportunity to actually tour the Alhambra, as tickets were limited and sold out for the days we were there. While we thoroughly enjoyed our visit of the surrounding city, we had traveled all the way to Spain and Granada and had not seen one of it’s prized jewels.

This time, we were already in Spain and still trying to figure out if we were going to visit the Alhambra. Tickets were scarce and tour guides were expensive, but Matthew really wanted to see it and, from our hotel room in Seville, Andrea managed to figure out how to get us in. It would require leaving Ronda at 6:30 in the morning to make the more than two hour trip to Granada. The effort was worth it.

Alhambra and it’s gardens are amazing. Walking through such meticulously preserved architecture from so many centuries ago had me in awe. The size and detail of it was spectacular. Yet, it was the, for lack of a better word, surprising actions in the past that has completely changed my view of not just Spanish history, but the current world.

The thing that amazed me the most was that Granada was the last Moorish stronghold in Spain…It was Queen Isabella’s prize to be won. It’s fall meant the final reunification of Spain and an end to the more than 700 year reconquista . It could even be argued that it was the moment Spain would become a world power because it could now turn it’s attention to the outside world, rather than internally.

However, there we were, walking down the roads that ancient Moors walked. We walked through iconic Islamic archways and touched our fingers to Arabic words carved into the walls (“There is no victor but Allah”). We got to see the gateway that the last Islamic ruler exited and the city that Isabella entered. My point being, it was still there. In modern and recent history, such symbols would have been erased from the earth. Destroyed and lost and remembered in legendary stories that would leave us wondering if they were true. Yet, there it still is, the great Islamic city, still standing.

It’s not to say that the city is unchanged. There are enormous buildings erected by Isabella’s decedents and some rooms were scrubbed clean of their Muslims styles to make was for throne rooms and chapels. And a medieval castle stands at one end. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother occupied the city at one point and attempted to blow it off the face of the earth before leaving. It was through the miraculous intervention of a monk that managed to save many of the original structures.

Matthew has spent a lot of time reading Spanish history and is fascinated by their past monarchs. As we walked through the buildings of the Alhambra, he hammered our tour guide with one question after another, without pulling any punches. By the end, I almost felt sorry for him.

There was a peaceful transition of power in that city following a long war. The Muslims were allowed to leave under there own power. While the Spanish Inquisition in later years would not be so kind, that moment, to me, is a wonderful bit of history and gives a richness to our past as human beings. Even if it was a fleeting moment, it speaks to what we are capable of.

In one of the amazing courtyards is one of the most well known symbols of the Alhambra…Twelve stone lions standing around a fountain. This was an absolutely prized gift to the Muslims from…the Jewish. On the ceiling of an overhang in another part of the courtyard are Catholic mosaics representing the monarch. The rest of the courtyard had the famous Moorish archways and beautiful Islamic tile work.

So, in this one particular building, you have Jewish, Catholic and Muslim influences existing in the same location. There is a not at all subtle symbol of what is possible. I had asked our guide why Queen Isabella and subsequent Spanish rulers had not destroyed the Muslim and Jewish symbols and his response was (to paraphrase), “They were human just like us. They saw the beauty of this place and wanted to preserve it.”

Now, I must mention that all of this was stuff told to us by Juan, our tour guide who was not only enormously proud to be Spanish, but to also be from Andalusia, this Southern region of Spain. Regardless, the brief time we had in the Alhambra and to be able to stroll through a nearly intact medieval palace changed my perception of the world and it’s history. It was truly a special experience to get to explore this unique piece of history.

Tossa de Mar: New Discoveries

When I search my heart, Tossa de Mar seems to stir something particularly deep inside of me. It is an anomaly as to why she holds a particularly strong place in my heart. Maybe it was the Mediterranean singing the song she has sung to countless generations before me. Maybe it was the unexpected and cool twist on the familiarity of a beach vacation that has been part of my summers for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was the wonderful little breakfasts that we had every morning at the hotel where we were teased by the waiter, talked about the previous day’s adventures and planned out our days. Maybe it was the quiet moments between Andrea and I as we sat on the balcony talking and enjoying our drinks in the late day sun. If you ask Andrea, she might just say the reason Tossa de Mar holds such a special place in my heart was the topless beach…which just might be true.

We arrived at Tossa de Mar after 2:00 AM following a nearly 10 hour car ride and even all this time later it feels so surreal. The trip between Granada and Tossa was the longest we took and it felt every bit of it. It started in the warm midday sun and ended in the pitch black. In the end, while we couldn’t see the mountains, the switch backs and the tight turns in the absolute darkness gave them away. Then, after what seemed like and eternity and, all of a sudden, there was the smell of the sea mixed with the familiar tight Spanish roads. All of it combined to make a surreal, Twilight Zone feel to it.

Like Seville, we found ourselves on roads that were less roads and more walking paths and alleyways through the city. And we found ourselves struggling to find our hotel, yet again. Exhaustion and travel fatigue once again took over the primary controls of my mind. My senses were clouded as I couldn’t comprehend where we were. I somehow had expected a quiet beach town like I had learned to love in North Carolina. Instead I found shops, restaurants and cafes packed against each other and meandering roads still alive with people, including children. The air had that sense of sea to it, and the map told us we were a block from the beach, yet I could not hear or see it. In addition to that feel of sea in there air, there was a strong vibe of the club scene that I never fit into and certainly had long outgrown

And, once again, I questioned what we were doing and if we had made the right decision. What had we gotten ourselves into? The nervous, prickly side of me flared up as I started to stew against a city I just arrived in. Through this bout of anxiety, we eventually found ourselves at our hotel with the car temporarily parked in what seemed like yet another plaza, after we gave up on finding parking. Before relocating the car, we popped into the room to let the boys get ready for bed and it was small and warm and thick with humidity and my own disappointment. To heap on to the misery and confusion, the night manager would eventually guide us to the parking garage that was basically a tiny little basement built for Volkswagen Rabbits and Mini-coopers, not the long “sports wagon” we were driving. To squeeze the car around the corners of the sharp ramps and shove it into a parking spot just a bit too small for it would require skills that I didn’t have when I was at my best…I felt nothing but disaster looming.

After some great teamwork between Andrea and I, we got the car tucked away and arrived back at the hotel, ready for sleep. I was beyond weary and outright stressed in those moments before sleep finally grabbed a hold of me. Even being able to see from our balcony the amazing site of a castle running right up to the sea from a rock outcropping could not ease my soul in those moments. Yet, months later, I find myself near tears wishing to be back in that moment for it was yet another curtain ready to open and reveal another amazing adventure.

Later that morning after a little bit of sleep (and reading about an amazing victory by the Mets back home) we ventured over to the beach. It was already late in the morning and the beach was packed with people. The boys were anxious to get in the water and Andrea just wanted to get her feet wet. So we found a spot and dropped our stuff. I decided to watch our things as the three of them made their way to the water. Just as I started to settle into the warmth of the sun, I finally had the chance to really take in my surrounding. It didn’t take more than a couple of glances around before I was reminded we were on a European beach…a TOPLESS European beach!

Worldly as I pretend to be, my prudish American sensibilities suddenly had me feeling panicked, not just for me, but for my barely teen Catholic school boys. I suddenly found myself fighting with being open minded in another culture. I mostly remember, however, being Matt and Ben’s ages and I know that while it can be joked that it was an adolescent boy’s dream, in actuality, it was much more likely a weird mix of hormones, confusion and even anxiety for them. Feelings I know I wouldn’t want to experience while on vacation with my parents.

I knew less what to say to them than I knew where my own eyes should be. After Andrea came back up the beach, we briefly talked about it before I ventured down to the water with the boys. Eventually, I talked to them after a few jokes. I wanted to make sure they had an opportunity to ask questions or talk to me about what was going on. Even as I type that, I feel like I am making more of a big deal about it than I should have, but I tried to downplay it while I talked to them. I wanted to also make sure they knew to be respectful and not stare. I tried to explain that it was natural and nothing anyone should be embarrassed about.

Regardless, they were uncomfortable and wouldn’t talk. Slowly they swam us further away from the beach and people and we found ourselves treading in at least 15 feet of water, the boys with their backs to the beach and starting to get tired. I think Matt had decided he would rather drown in the Mediterranean then go back ashore and face more boobs.

Eventually, this would lead to one of my favorite parts of the trip. I knew Andrea just wanted to melt into the tiny pebbly “sand”. She dreams about beach vacations and those moments were the deal we made to include the far out of the way Barcelona in our trip. So the boys and I decided to let her do that and venture into town on our own.

There was such a sense of freedom to be away from our Spanish speaking life vest and explore on our own. At one end of the beach was the aforementioned medieval castle sitting on top of a cliff over the water, so we ventured up there to explore it. On the other side of the castle was a lighthouse standing far about another beach set into a cove surrounded by cliffs that could have been the setting for a movie about paradise. We explored the tiny castle and stared down into the picturesque ocean-scape and then ventured into town to explore the shops, get lunch and ice cream and talk.

I don’t know if that last bit of stress for Matthew being on the beach and then the relief of getting away from it dislodged something for him, but he just started talking and talking. It seemed like a near weeks worth of thoughts and observations suddenly emerged. It made it fun exploring with him and discovering the city and finally hearing all the thoughts that had been running through his head up to that moment. He had so much to say and it was so nice to hear him talk about this trip. Up to that point, it was easy to think we had overwhelmed him with this trip and he would not enjoy it. He is like his father and is difficult to read. In those precious moments, I discovered just how much he was loving this trip and it melted my heart as much as the Spanish sun had melted my wife into the sand.

While wandering around town, we stopped in one shop to see if we could get a pair or nail clippers. Using a mix of Spanish and English words, I asked the woman running the store if she had them. She looked at me strangely until I gestured what I needed. She made a strange exclamation and pulled out a couple of pairs from behind the counter. She then, in broken English, asked me to repeat the word for them and I repeated “Nailclippers” to which she made a intentionally humorous, distraught exclamation and then laughed. She then grabbed a piece of paper and asked me to write it down for her. The whole exchange of two strangers trying to work through the language barrier still makes me smile.

Also, in Tossa de Mar, things finally settled down enough that Andrea and I felt that we could leave the boys on their own and her and I could have some time alone. We walked around a bit and talked about our trip up to that point and later we would find ourselves enjoying a couple of drinks overlooking the sea. It was a nice moment that reminded me of our first trip to Spain, yet also spoke to me about how much we had grown. We were practically children on that first trip and now we were parents to two wonderful boys and I could feel that passage of time between us and I could feel the weight of all those years. However, it wasn’t a weight like a cold, hard rock, but more like the weight of a heavy blanket on a cold winters night. We had grown not just in age and maturity but in closeness, as well and I sensed that as we hung out together.

One of my other favorite moments was in our hotel room, which had a balcony with a view of the sea. One evening, while waiting for the customary late dinner, we poured some wine and hung out in the cool late day breeze of the Mediterranean. The boys played on their tablets in the room, occasionally coming out to joke around with us, as Andrea and I got to enjoy each others company more. It felt like a scene from a movie and thinking about it just makes me long for those days again. It felt so natural and comfortable, as if we were hanging out at home…if our home had a perfect sea breeze blowing through it and a medieval castle sitting on the sea in its view.

Barcelona: That is a Crazy Building

Sagrada Familia, the famous unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, had been a bucket list item for both Matthew and I. It was the sole reason we had traveled up to that region of Spain, yet, somehow it became a footnote to that leg of the trip.

Matthew and I were undecided about whether we wanted to go inside. It was the outside we wanted to see, but once we were there, we realized we needed to see more than just the outside. Unfortunately, they sold out of entrance tickets for the day and we were left only examining the exterior. It would become this trip’s Alhambra from Andrea and I’s first trip to Spain…A minor missed opportunity that might lure us back some day.

However, from the outside, the cathedral is one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen. The more we looked at the facades, the more details and symbols we found. I had read about the symbolism that cloaks the building, but nothing could have prepared us for the sheer amount. Everywhere we looked, we saw more and more meaning emerge from the building. The intricate carvings were beautiful, haunting and even joyful, all at the same time. We walked around the building, excitedly pointing out one sculpture after another to each other.

We did not get to see much more of Barcelona. I was fascinated by the layout of the city and how the blocks of building were laid out. There were some other building we thought we might want to see. However, the four of us just kind of seemed weary from a week of exploring and travelling and I think we just wanted to get back to the hotel and chill a bit more in Tossa de Mar. Plus, many places were closed in the city on Sunday. There was so much more to see, but in the end, we knew it was time to relax a bit. We were perfectly content to grab a table at a cafe with a view of the cathedral, and enjoy a nice relaxed lunch. Now, almost five months later, I still don’t regret seeing more of Barcelona while we were there, but I look forward to getting back there soon to see more.

If our trip through Spain had ended their, it would have been all I could have hoped for and to ask for it to get any better from there would have been selfish and just asking for too much. Yet, the best part of the journey was eight hours to the North-West in the region of Asturias…

1 reply

  1. The whole family have read the blog about Alhambra in Granada, Tossa de Mar and Barcelona and we’ve enjoyed It very much.
    The writter is AMAZING, very funny and we’re very excited looking forward the next part of the trip.
    Please, Tom, keep writting!!!

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