A Riveting Paradox - Page 3

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Úbeda parador in Spain
SUNLIT SERENITY: The stairway and plaza of Úbeda  (image courtesy, Tourism España)

While each parador is unique, there are similarities. Central courtyards are the architectural and social heart of many. These gracious, light-filled galleries where past and present seem mutable make for pleasant places to sip Spanish wine and mingle with guests of every nationality. Some paradors have WiFi; occasionally I put my feet up in the courtyards and checked in via laptop on a world that remained blissfully distant.

Córdoba is my favorite Andalusian city but has my least favorite parador. Sure, the views are fabulous from its suburban hilltop location, where temperatures are cooler than in town, and since the building is from the 20th century, the rooms are spacious and it boasts an elevator. But the property itself—built on the ruins of a former palace—lacks the historic charm found in most paradors, and guests can't walk to Córdoba's fantastic historic district. That said, the property's excellent restaurant features regional specialties like gazpacho blanco, a cold almond soup.

While exploring the historical district, I wanted to linger in the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, strolling among the cypresses and orange trees, fountains, and ponds. This is the fortress from which Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus off with happy fanfare to discover an unknown world. More sinister, it was also headquarters of the horrific Spanish Inquisition.

But if one place can encompasses the breadth and depth of Andalusia's cultural influences, it's Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, where a magnificent 8th-century mosque meets with a 16th-century cathedral. The mosque, with its labyrinthine expanse of candy-striped Moorish arches, was built on the ruins of a Visigoth basilica, which was built on the foundation of a Roman temple. It is one of Europe's most spectacular sights.

And the ancient city itself, especially the Jewish Quarter, exudes a timeless Mediterranean ambiance. Geraniums and bougainvillea blaze against whitewashed walls of homes and buildings that wealthy residents have restored. Along Calleja do los Flores (Spanish for "Little Street of Flowers"), I sat for a while on a sunlit well listening to the romantic tunes of a street musician playing classical Spanish guitar. With every note, time slowed.

In Sevilla the Alcázar is a 14th-century palace where Spain's king and queen still stay when in town. The palace gardens may be one of the most beautiful spots in all of Andalusia, but flowers, palms, and fragrant orange trees vie for attention with the Alcázar's lavish interior of Moorish tiles, brightly painted wood, and intricately carved architectural details.

Sevilla also has an impressively opulent cathedral, the largest Gothic building in the world, where the remains of Columbus are said to lie in a tomb held aloft by four statues. And on its grounds is one of the city's most recognizable sights, Giralda Tower, a Muslim minaret retrofitted as a Christian bell tower where tourists climb to the top for spectacular views. Don't show up in T-shirts or shorts; appropriate dress is expected at all places of religious significance, Christian or Muslim. Remember, too, that muggers abound in Sevilla, so be on guard.

I wouldn't have missed Sevilla, but was glad at day's end to return to Carmona's quiet medieval charms and fortress parador. Like many, it's built on a steep hill accessed by a bewildering maze of twisted, narrow streets designed to confuse would-be conquerors, a strategy that successfully confuses tourists, too. In Carmona and Trujillo I ran into several groups walking in circles like I was, searching for the hotel. I considered it less a challenge and more the government's thoughtful way of countering my nightly indulgence of dunking loaves of dense bread in saucers of olive oil and salt.

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